Bicentennials can serve as a tonic to historical memory and a source of patriotism. Visiting Canada last November, I came upon a group of Canadian high school students performing military drills under the eyes of a red-coated sergeant and preparing to repel the American invaders coming from the American side of Niagara Falls, 200 years after the War of 1812 when the scene actually might have occurred.
Russia, too, is celebrating a Bicentennial of the patriotic war against Napoleon and has just reenacted the set piece battle of Borodino where Napoleon won the field at a prohibitive price for the French army.
President Vladimir Putin, who mentioned the battle of Borodino in his election campaign, was the star attraction. Russia has now sent 24 Cossacks on horseback to retrace the path of the victorious Imperial Russian Army as they rode from Moscow to Paris. The Bicentennial in Russia is being promoted as something far bigger than the lighthearted events in Canada.
The current Russian government is determined to change a situation where half of Russian schoolchildren don't know which countries fought in the war of 1812, because for them, the Russian victory is important to this very day. The first deputy head of the Moscow Archive Department, Mikhail Gorinov, told a conference on the war that "the unconquerable Russian spirit, the Orthodox Christian faith, which consolidated Russians around the emperor, won a victory in the 1812 war. Russia proved that the country is invincible."
The attempt to create a consensus behind the ruler and the church, together with a belief in Russia's destiny, epitomizes the country under Vladimir Putin. The victory over Napoleon, for Putin, symbolizes Russian determination that "We will not allow anyone to impose their will on us. We have our own will and this has always helped us be victorious."
An article in the Russian Communist Party organ Pravda, the main official opposition to Putin, took the opportunity to remind people that it was Joseph Stalin who had restored the czarist military heroes to a place of honor in the Soviet pantheon. "The heroes were kindly mentioned in the media, including representatives of the noble class such as Bagration, Rajewski, Barclay de Tolly. The morale of the Soviet troops was stronger because of it."
This month, Russia is also commemorating the victory over Japan in the 2nd world war in Manchuria. One account gives the impression that it was the Soviet victory rather than the atomic bombs that compelled Japan to surrender.
While many speakers hailed the victory as one of national salvation, there were others who claimed that Russia, by defeating Napoleon, had helped save Europe. The French representative at the conference, cultural attaché Igor Sokologorsky (yes he is French), did not want to be a party-pooper but he did manage to insert a slight dig.
"The military campaign in France also exerted influence on Russian soldiers and officers," he said. For many Russian officers, the campaign in Western Europe was an eye-opener, as it exposed the backwardness of their country in comparison with Western Europe.
This helped precipitate the abortive Decembrist revolution in 1821, launched by members of the officer class. That tie-in with the Napoleonic Wars is unlikely to feature in this year's commemoration.