Putin invokes the defeat of Napoleon in a patriotic call for Russian unity

President Vladimir Putin made a rousing call for unity among Russia’s diverse ethnic and religious groups yesterday as he led commemorations of a battle 200 years ago that led to the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Standing by a monument at the scene of the 1812 Battle of Borodino, 75 miles west of Moscow, Mr Putin delivered a speech extolling the virtues of patriotism that enabled Russia to repel the French army in 1812.

Back as president since May, Mr Putin faces more open opposition in big cities than at any time since he first rose to power in 2000, and a persistent Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus. For the second time in five days he called for unity.

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“Only when Russia’s nations were united, were together, they achieved the best results in the development of their fatherland,” Mr Putin told Russian and foreign dignitaries, including former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing.

The Battle of Borodino on 7 September, 1812, remembered by Russians as an epic victory, is commemorated in Lev Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace.

Neither side won a decisive victory in the battle and tens of thousands of soldiers were killed on both sides before the Russians withdrew and abandoned Moscow to the French. The Russian troops regrouped and the French, after occupying Moscow, were forced by badly stretched supply lines, the cold winter and lack of reinforcements, to withdraw from Russia, constantly harassed by Russian forces.

Tens of thousands of Russians and foreigners gathered at the scene of the battle yesterday to watch the colourful re-enactment by more than 3,000 military enthusiasts.