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The Great Moscow Fire

The Great Moscow Fire

Saturday, June 21, 2014

by Nina Shevchuk-Murray
June 21, 1547 is remembered as the day of the Great Moscow Fire. At the time, the city was mostly wooden, densely populated and lacked an organized fire service. Fires broke out regularly, but in June of 1547 storm-force winds drove a blaze from the Arbat street to the Kremlin, Kitai-gorod and Bolshoi Posad. 
 
Here's Karamzin's description, in The History of the Russian State:
 
The entirety of Moscow appeared as a single enormous blaze, under clouds of thick smoke. Wooden building simply disappeared; stone ones cracked and fell apart; iron parts and implements glowed red with heat, copper turned liquid. The roar of the storm, the crackle of the fire and the screams of people trapped in the blaze were repeatedly drowned out by the explosions of gunpowder that was stored in the Kremlin and other parts of the city. One ran for one's life; all possessions, whether earned virtuously or through vice, perished: the tsar's rooms, the treasury, icons, ancient scrolls, precious swords, even the remains of saints were turned to ash. The Metropolitan remained in the Cathedral of the Dormition, praying, even though he was almost unable to breathe because of the smoke. Someone forced him to leave and people wanted to lower him from a secret passage to the river bank on a rope – but he fell, was severely injured, and was taken to Novospassky Monastery, barely alive...
 
By night, the storm let up, and by about three in the morning the fire went out, but the ruins were hot and smoking for several days... People with their hair burned off, their faces blackened by the soot, wandered like shadows among the horrors of the vast decimated desert: they went looking for their children, parents, whatever was left of their home--and howled like animals when they found nothing.
Up to 2,500 people lost their lives in the fire, up to 80,000 were displaced, and fully one-third of Moscow's buildings were lost. Immediately after the fire, Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible) issued a law that required Moscow residents to maintain barrels of water in their yards and on the roofs of their house and mandated that large cooking stoves be placed on empty lots far from residential buildings. However, it would not be until 1649 that Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich would lay the foundations of the regular fire service in Moscow. Eighteen years earlier, in 1631, Boston's governor John Winthrop launched the American fire-fighting history when he outlawed wooden chimneys and thatched roofs.
 
Later, may would see the fire as an omen portending the horror's of Ivan the Terrible's reign.

Image: Иван IV и протопоп Сильвестр во время большого московского пожара 24 июня 1547 года (Павел Плешанов, 1856 год) ~ Ivan IV and the Archpriest Silvester during the Great Moscow fire in 1547 (Painting by Pavel Pleshanov, 1856)

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