September 14, 2012

Moscow's Last Great Fire

Moscow's Last Great Fire

Moscow is known as a city of white stone (“Москва белокаменная”), thanks to its early Kremlin walls constructed from local limestone. But for the rest of its history, Russia’s predominantly wooden capital was shaped by fire, suffering dozens of large blazes: the “Great Fire” of 1547 that killed several thousand people; one set by the invading Crimean Tatars in 1571 that killed tens of thousands; and a 1737 fire that severely damaged the Kremlin.

This month marks the 200th anniversary of Moscow’s last great fire, which swept through the city during the occupation of the city by Napoleon’s Grande Armée in September 1812. The conflagration destroyed three-fourths of the city’s buildings, according to some estimates, and killed thousands of residents and wounded soldiers. The fire had a lasting effect on the city’s appearance, as city planners later rebuilt whole neighborhoods, creating new squares and limiting wooden construction.

Yet the causes of the fire are still a topic of debate, and its effects are often misconstrued. Some historians have reported that Governor Feodor Rostopchin ordered the city burned, others blame campfires set by Russian or French troops.

And while the damage was certainly extensive, experts point out that many structures in Moscow were already built out of stone and survived the fire, defying the stubborn view that Moscow burned to the ground and was rebuilt from scratch.

“The myth … that it was rebuilt anew after 1812 distorts people's understanding of history and makes the preservation of the city difficult,” said Rustam Rakhmatullin, coordinator of historical architecture watchdog group Arkhnadzor.

“A Fiery Rain”

From the start of the French invasion of Russia in June 1812, Russian forces had contiunually retreated, which fueled discontent with the top commander of the Russian army, Mikhail Andreas Barclay de Tolly, and forced Tsar Alexander I to replace him with Prince Mikhail Kutuzov after the Battle of Smolensk in August. At the Battle of Borodino outside Moscow on September 7, Napoleon won the field but suffered heavy casualties and allowed the Russian army to withdraw intact.

Yet the Russians had also lost nearly half their troop strength at the epic battle, and Kutuzov decided to abandon Moscow without a fight, to the disappointment of the Russian masses and to many of his own officers. On September 14, the Russian army marched through Moscow and left via the Kolomenskaya and Ryazanskaya roads.

French forces arrived in Moscow later that day. By the night of the 14th, the first fires began.

Most inhabitants had left just hours before. Armand Augustin Louis de Caulaincourt, a French general who had served as ambassador to St. Petersburg and accompanied Napoleon during the Russian campaign, wrote in his memoirs that Moscow Governor Fyodor Rostopchin held back the news of Borodino and abandonment of the city until the last minute. Moscow was evacuated only on the 14th, and several thousand members of the lower class remained behind, because they didn't know what was going on or where to go. French tutors and some foreign merchants also remained in Moscow.

When the French entered Moscow, they found a city suddenly drained of life, “resembling a desert,” de Caulaincourt remembered. “In the Kremlin, just like in most private mansions, everything was in its place: Clocks were even still ticking, as if their owners were still home,” he wrote.

Russian soldiers and militiamen hid in some homes and were gradually arrested by the arriving French.
Around 11 p.m. the French high command received word that Moscow's shopping arcade was on fire. The two officers sent to contain the situation were unable to stop the flames, because the French forces had no firefighting equipment and could not find water pumps. Soldiers and residents took the opportunity to loot some of the booths.

That night, two other small fires started in far-flung corners of the city. French commanders attributed the blazes to bivouacking soldiers’ carelessness.

The next day, Napoleon moved into the Kremlin (most of his army was camped on the outskirts of the city). A “gloomy silence” covered the city as the emperor's entourage moved through it, de Caulaincourt remembered. They didn't encounter a single resident.

Another fire began at 8 p.m., but the French officers dismissed it as a campfire gone out of control. Napoleon and his officers went to bed early, but de Caulaincourt was awakened at 10:30 p.m. by his servant, who said that the city had been on fire for 45 minutes.

“As soon as I opened my eyes, I couldn't doubt this, since the glow of the fire gave off such a light that it would have been possible to read in the depths of the room without lighting a candle,” de Caulaincourt wrote.

As the fire was located far from the Kremlin, the officers elected to let Napoleon sleep a bit longer while bringing the Imperial Guard to battle readiness. A strong northerly wind blew two fires toward the center and gave them a special ferocity. Shortly after midnight there appeared a third fire, and then a fourth. By 4 a.m. it had spread throughout the city, and the officers woke Napoleon.

Muscovites still in the capital ran from their homes and gathered in the city's churches, moaning. The French discovered that the Russian forces had removed some of the city’s fire pumps, and rendered those that remained unusable.

The fire quickly spread from the outskirts of the city to the center, reaching houses close to the Kremlin by the following morning. The wind, which had turned a bit to the west, carried huge embers more than 200 meters through the air to fall “like a fiery rain” and set new houses ablaze, de Caulaincourt recalled. The air glowed with heat.

Observing the cataclysm, Napoleon reportedly exclaimed, “What a terrible sight! They're burning it themselves… What resolution! What people! These are Scythians!”

People with brooms and buckets of water climbed on top of the Kremlin kitchens to brush off embers and soak the roof, saving the building. Guardsmen managed to put out a fire in the Kremlin's arsenal as Napoleon looked on.

De Caulaincourt and a crew of horse trainers and grooms saved the imperial stables and the Golitsyn palace in the same way. The air all around was “scorching.”

“People were breathing in fire, and this later had an effect even on those with the most healthy lungs,” he wrote.
“It was impossible to stay in one place for more than a minute; the grenadiers' fur hats smoldered on their heads.”

All of the north and much of the west side of Moscow was destroyed that morning. Around 4 p.m., with the fire still blazing, Napoleon ordered everyone out of the city and headed for the Petrovsky Palace northwest of the center (the festive neogothoic red palace still stands on Leningradsky prospekt). His cavalcade wove its way through debris, ash and fire to reach the palace late that night, and his stay there, far from the glorious conquest he had hoped for, inspired several lines in Alexander Pushkin’s famous Eugene Onegin:

From henсe engrossed in thought profound,
He on the conflagration frowned

The flames were visible for a great distance from Moscow.

Ivan Lazechnikov, a Russian student who had left the city shortly before the fire, recounted:
“To the north of our village [near Kolomna] a crimson glow crept across the sky: The first capital was burning 80 versts (85 kilometers) from us, and it seemed to all of us that our hearth and home was burning.”

“For several days in a row, each night, Moscow unfurled for us this flaming banner,” he wrote.

According to French officer Baron Antoine Baudoin Gisbert Dedem, the blaze was visible 200 versts (215 kilometers) from the city. “Riding up to Moscow, I saw an entire sea of fire, and since the wind was strong, the flames churned like an angry sea,” he wrote in a memoir.

“The burning city reminded me of the fires that destroyed parts of Constantinople and Smyrna before my eyes, but this time, the sight was more striking: It was the most appalling sight I have ever seen,” Dedem wrote.

The inferno continued to rage on September 17th, finally dying down on the evening of the 18th, when the wind subsided and it started to rain. Fires continued on a smaller scale, but the main blaze had run its course.
After Napoleon returned to the Kremlin on the 18th, disorder broke out. Looters burglarized those houses that had been saved from the fire, residents were beaten, stores were ransacked and drunken soldiers roamed the city. Although the looters found large stashes of wine and vodka, the most welcome discovery was likely warehouses along the waterways full of grain, flour and hay, which soldiers quickly appropriated for their undernourished horses.

Several French chroniclers maintained that, despite the fire, enough supplies remained to sustain the army and its horses for some time; Dedem wrote that they could have survived comfortably for another three months had proper discipline been enforced.

All Was Black

The fire caused extensive damage. In a letter held back by Napoleon's censors, one French soldier estimated that five-sixths of the city was destroyed, although the most widely held view now is that about three-fourths of the city was burnt. A map issued in 1813 shows that much of the city within the Garden Ring, besides the Kremlin and a swath of area just to the north of it within the boulevard ring, was affected, as were areas outside of it.

[See this map. The dark areas are “burned”, the white areas “intact.”] 

According to Rakhmatullin of Archnadzor, areas on the western outskirts of the city, including Khamovniki, Devichye pole, Presnya and Kudrino survived the fire in fair condition, as did some central neighborhoods, such as Patriarch's Ponds.

Russian officer Avraam Norov vividly described the carnage in southern Moscow following the fire: “All that was visible before us, as much as the eye could embrace, was black; high chimneys stuck up from piles of debris of houses licked by fire; tall churches seemed to be under a cape, covered in soot from top to bottom, and the faces of saints painted on their walls looked out with their golden haloes from behind a black swath of smoke; a few corpses of people and horses were scattered to the side.”

Some historians have argued otherwise, maintaining that the inferno was the natural result of numerous campfires lit among wooden buildings in windy weather. However, the evidence noted by French officers, many of whom at first thought the fires had started due to carelessness, strongly indicates otherwise. The absence of or vandalism of water pumps, explosions witnessed by officers and the testimony of captured Russians soon convinced Napoleon and the French that the Russians had burned the city under the orders of Rostopchin.
Dedem recorded that he heard the explosion of a powder magazine near the Kaluga Gates on the night of September 14, followed by several rocket explosions, after which fires appeared in several neighborhoods of the city.

The French captured many Russian arsonists who admitted under questioning that they had started fires with prepared materials on the orders of Governor Rostopchin, In later years, Rostopchin himself alternately celebrated his participation in the burning of Moscow and denied any involvement. Perhaps the most damning evidence came when de Caulaincourt and others found fuses in public and private buildings and even in the sleeping quarters of the Kremlin.

According to Rakhmatullin, the fires were likely started deliberately. At this time, Moscow was already a city built in large part of stone, which creates less fruitful conditions for an inferno, he said. “In peacetime conditions, the city would not have burned in 1812,” he said.

Napoleon remained in Moscow for a month after the fire, seeking to make peace with Alexander and preparing for the possibility of staying in Moscow for a longer period. On October 19, he moved out of the city in an attempt to engage Kutuzov. However, the next day he decided to retreat to the west, summoning Edouard Mortier and his garrison from Moscow to join him. Before he left, Mortier was to blow up the Kremlin, but the marshal did not have enough time to complete this task and only managed a small explosion.

Lazechnikov described the destruction he found when he entered Moscow shortly after the French retreat: Almost all buildings were burned out, some were still smoking and moldering, chimneys towered above nonexistent roofs, and torn-off iron sheeting groaned.

“We rode through the entire city to the Kaluga gate without meeting a single living soul,” he wrote. “We only saw two or three corpses of French soldiers lying on the bank of the Yauza. 'A magnificent tomb!,' I said to the ruins of Moscow. 'In you are laid to rest the grandeur and might of an unprecedented military genius!'”

Slow Process of Rebuilding

In the days following the city's recapture, people started to return to Moscow, building booths and wooden kiosks around Gostiny Dvor and in various marketplaces. “Piles of manure lay smoking in the streets, set on fire to protect against infection from dead bodies,” Lazhechnikov wrote.

The process of rebuilding after the fire was gradual, lasting well over a decade. Although the reconstruction certainly altered the face of the city, Moscow's “skeletal structure” was unchanged. Nonetheless, one of the lasting myths about the fire of 1812 is that it drastically altered the city’s layout, Rakhmatullin said, with the city being rebuilt with new roads and neighborhoods. “After the fire, the look of the city changed, but the structure of the city did not,” he said.

Three-fourths of the city may have been burned, but that doesn't mean that all that area was wiped from the face of the earth, Rakhmatullin pointed out. Most stone and brick buildings survived the fire. Wooden parts such as roofs were burnt, but the walls of stone construction can withstand all but the hottest infernos.

Furthermore, older stone buildings, especially those of vaulted construction, can better withstand fire. For this reason, many churches survived the blaze. Rakhmatullin estimated that over half of Moscow's buildings were built of stone at the time of the fire, with a greater concentration of them located in the fire-ravaged city center.

Thousands of stone and even wooden buildings dating to before the fire survive today. These structures are found in various states: some are well-restored and in use, others are under threat of demolition, and still others are slowly falling apart. Since they are not classified as part of a group of buildings from an historic era, the preservation of each building is a separate battle.

Petrovsky Palace, the royal residence where Napoleon stayed during the fire that is now become a hotel for guests of the Moscow city government, has recently undergone additions and reconstruction, to the dismay of preservationists. Elevators have been installed inside, and the palace grounds have been altered by an underground restaurant and other new facilities.

Meanwhile, Gostiny Dvor, where merchants returned to soon after the fire, has been expanded and covered by a new roof.

Part of the battle to save historic buildings depends on countering the misconception that the city was destroyed by the fire of 1812, and therefore that no historic architecture exists to be preserved. Most Muscovites believe nothing was left after the fire, Rakhmatullin said.

“The biggest myth in the minds of modern Muscovites is that Moscow burned to the ground, that it was built anew after 1812,” he said. “This is a very big, very harmful myth.”



De Caulaincourt, Armand A. Memuary: Pokhod Napoleona v Rossiiu. Smolensk: Izdatel'stvo Smiadyn, 1991.

Dedem, Antoine B. “Iz zapisok barona Dedema.” Russkaia Starina 103 (1900): 113-138.

Lazhechnikov, Ivan I. “Novobranets 1812 goda.” Russkii vestnik 7 (1857): 40.

Norov, Avraam S. “Vospominaniya.” In Rossii dvinulis' syny. Zapiski o voine 1812 goda ee uchastnikov i ochevidtsev, Moscow: Sovremennik, 1988.

Tarle, Evgenii V. Nashestvie Napoleona na Rossiiu, 1812 god. Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe sotsial'no-ekonomicheskoe izdatel'stvo, 1938.

Vydershki iz pisem, pisannykh v 1812 g. iz velikoi armii Napoleona, is Rossii vo Frantsiiu, I ne doshedshikh po naznacheniiu, kak zadershanye chernym kabinetom napoleona ili pochtoi v Gamburge. Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, Denis Roche. Translation by N. Tr.


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