Fire of Moscow (1812)

Last updated
Fire of Moscow
Part of Napoleon's invasion of Russia
Napoleon Moscow Fire.JPG
The Moscow fire depicted by an unknown German artist
Date14 September 1812
Result Most of Moscow destroyed by fire
Flag of France (1794-1815).svg  First French Empire Flag of The Russian Empire 1883.svg  Russian Empire
Commanders and leaders
Flag of France (1794-1815).svg Napoleon

The 1812 Fire of Moscow broke out on 14 September 1812, when Russian troops and most of the remaining residents abandoned the city of Moscow just ahead of French Emperor Napoleon's vanguard troops entering the city after the Battle of Borodino. The fire all but destroyed the city, which had been mostly abandoned by its residents the previous month.



Napoleon watching the fire of Moscow from the walls of the Kremlin Napoleon watching the fire of Moscow 01.jpg
Napoleon watching the fire of Moscow from the walls of the Kremlin

Before leaving Moscow Count Rostopchin gave orders to have the Kremlin and major public buildings (including churches and monasteries) either blown up or set on fire. But this was not the foremost cause of the fire that destroyed the city. As the bulk of the French army moved into the city, there were some fires. Their cause has never been determined and both neglect as well as Rostopchin's orders may be among possible reasons. Today, the majority of historians blame the initial fires on Russian sabotage. [1]

This version of events is confirmed by General Armand de Caulaincourt. [2] He states that they had been in Moscow for three days. That evening a small fire had broken out but was extinguished and 'attributed to the carelessness of the troops'. Later that evening (10h 30min) Caulaincourt was woken by his valet with the news that 'for three quarters of an hour the city has been in flames'. Fires continued to break out in multiple separate points. Incendiarists were arrested and interrogated and declared that their commanding officer had ordered them to burn everything. 'Houses had been designated to this end.' Later on in the same chapter he asserts 'The existence of inflammable fuses, all made in the same fashion and placed in different public and private buildings, is a fact of which I, as many others, had personal evidence. I saw the fuses on the spot and many were taken to the Emperor.' He goes on to write 'The examination of the police rank-and-file... all proved that the fire had been prepared and executed by order of Count Rostopchin'. Furthermore, a Moscow police officer was captured trying to set the Kremlin on fire where Napoleon was staying at the time; brought before Napoleon, the officer admitted he and others had been ordered to set the city on fire after which he was bayonetted by guardsmen on the spot on the orders of a furious Napoleon. [3]

A 19th-century caricature (lubok) of Napoleon meeting Satan after the Fire of Moscow, by Ivan Alekseevich Ivanov Napoleon with Satan after burning Moscow (19th century).png
A 19th-century caricature ( lubok ) of Napoleon meeting Satan after the Fire of Moscow, by Ivan Alekseevich Ivanov

The catastrophe started as many small fires, which promptly grew out of control and formed a massive blaze. The fires spread quickly since most buildings in Moscow were made of wood. And although Moscow had a fire brigade, their equipment had previously either been removed or destroyed on Rostopchin's orders. When Napoleon retreated to a castle outside the city, his troops finally lost their discipline and began to loot and pillage all across Moscow. Even hard punishments could not prevent the plundering, beating or raping of Moscow's citizens by French soldiers during the fire. [1] The flames spread into the Kremlin's arsenal, but the fire was put out by French Guardsmen. The burning of Moscow is reported to have been visible up to 215 km away. [4]

Tolstoy, in his novel War and Peace , suggests that the fire was not deliberately set, either by the Russians or the French, but was the natural result of placing a deserted and mostly wooden city in the hands of invading troops, when fires start nearly every day even with the owners present and a fully functioning police department, and that the soldiers will start fires–from smoking their pipes, cooking their food twice a day, and burning enemy's possessions in the streets. Some of those fires will inevitably get out of control. Without an efficient firefighting action, these individual building fires will spread to become neighborhood fires, and ultimately a citywide conflagration.

Timeline of events

Commemorative Bandanna : Burning of Moscow (1812) Printed in England - "Conflagration of Moscow Seen from the Kremlin, on the entrance of the French Army, the 14th of Sept 1812" Burning of Moscow 1812 - Bandana 01.jpg
Commemorative Bandanna : Burning of Moscow (1812) Printed in England - "Conflagration of Moscow Seen from the Kremlin, on the entrance of the French Army, the 14th of Sept 1812"
Liturgy in the St Evpla church of Moscow in presence of French soldiers, September 15 of 1812 (Gregorian : Sept. 27). Moscou 1812.jpg
Liturgy in the St Evpla church of Moscow in presence of French soldiers, September 15 of 1812 (Gregorian : Sept. 27).
Napoleon retreating from the burning Moscow Fireofmoscow.jpg
Napoleon retreating from the burning Moscow

Dates in Gregorian calendar (new style) and numbers referenced to Clausewitz and Tarle

Extent of the disaster

1817 map, destroyed area shaded dark Fire of moscow 1812 1000px.jpg
1817 map, destroyed area shaded dark

Ivan Katayev (1911) summarized losses as 3/4 of all properties in the city:

Some 12,000 bodies were recovered [1] of which an estimated 2,000 were wounded Russian soldiers perished in the fire. Moscow State University, Buturlin's library, Petrovsky and Arbatsky theaters were completely destroyed; many pieces of art, notably the source manuscript of epic poem The Tale of Igor's Campaign, were lost forever. The Moscow Orphanage near Kitai-gorod, converted to a hospital, was saved by local police. The population of Moscow in 1811 is estimated at 270,000; after the war, when residents returned to the city, it decreased to 215,000; by 1840, it had increased to 349,000. [5]

Maps compiled by Russian authorities after the war (notably the 1817 military map reprinted for the public in the 1831 guide book) show that the majority of Moscow territory had succumbed to the fire. Notable exceptions are Moscow Kremlin, the Orphanage, northern segment of Bely Gorod from Tverskaya Street to Pokrovka Street, Patriarshy Ponds in the west, as well as suburban settlements.

The map probably exaggerates the damage, showing some surviving blocks as if they were destroyed. For instance, Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street west from Boulevard Ring retained many of its mansions: troops defended their own lodgings and the French theatre, as well as the French colony in Kuznetsky Most. On the other hand, French patronage did not help the Batashov Palace (present-day Yauzskaya Hospital), occupied by Murat's headquarters: after two days of firefighting, it was consumed by fire that razed Taganka. Still, the remaining buildings had enough space for the French army. As General Marcellin Marbot reasoned:

"It is often claimed that the fire of Moscow... was the principal cause of the failure of the 1812 campaign. This assertion seems to me to be contestable. To begin with, the destruction of Moscow was not so complete that there did not remain enough houses, palaces, churches and barracks to accommodate the entire army [for a whole month]."

However, many units were stationed not in the city, but in remote suburbs like Ostankino (light cavalry) or Khimki (Italian corps); others were dispatched south to screen Russian movements.

Reconstruction of the city

A shortage of funds, state and private, delayed reconstruction of Moscow by at least five years. In those years, many properties were sold by ruined owners, and whole neighborhoods changed their social status; for example, all properties on once-diverse Maroseika Street were bought out by the merchant class. [6]

Some 18th-century buildings were rebuilt to original plans Wiki chernigovsky.jpg
Some 18th-century buildings were rebuilt to original plans
Vasily Pushkin house, a typical example of 1810s cheap wooden architecture with neoclassical trim Wiki Staraya Basmannaya 36, Vasily Pushkin House, Moscow, Russia.jpg
Vasily Pushkin house, a typical example of 1810s cheap wooden architecture with neoclassical trim

The disaster allowed the authorities a unique opportunity to plan the city from scratch. [1] In February, 1813, Alexander I of Russia set up the Commission of Building in Moscow, with the instruction to produce a viable master plan for the city. The 1813 plan by William Hastie was deemed inadequate for the task, thus the Commission hired numerous local architects and topographers who produced the final, 1817, master plan (incorporating Hastie's ideas of clearing the Central Squares of Moscow). In 1816–30, city planners set up the Garden Ring, a circular highway in place of an old fortification rampart, and widened many other streets.

Later in 1817, the city held groundbreaking ceremony for Alexander Witberg's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a monument to the 1812 War in Sparrow Hills. This project was later canceled and the current Cathedral emerged in the center of Moscow.

Reconstruction of Red Square and Kitai-gorod was handled by Joseph Bove, who designed the neoclassical Upper Trade Rows as a mirror of Matvey Kazakov's Kremlin Senate. In February 1818, Ivan Martos completed the Monument to Minin and Pozharsky, the first public monument in Moscow, placed in the center of Red Square. Bove also designed the symmetrical Theatre Square and completed Bolshoi and Maly theaters by 1825. Moscow University and other public buildings were rebuilt by Domenico Giliardi and Afanasy Grigoriev.

Bove also handled the "façade department", authorizing façade designs for all new buildings. A severe shortage of brick, stone and cement forced many developers to build in wood; the city had to agree with the inevitable, on condition that the houses follow the neoclassical standards. Local craftsmen responded with mass-produced wooden imitations of classical ornaments. Most of these houses were eventually destroyed. Extant examples include a recently restored house on the corner of Glazovsky and Denezhny Lanes in Arbat District, and Vasily Pushkin house in Staraya Basmannaya Street.

In culture

Leo Tolstoy uses the fire as part of the plot in his War and Peace . [7] :523 These scenes were adapted into the 1965–67 Soviet film War and Peace ; the film crew planned out the scenes for 10 months and shot the fires with six ground cameras while also filming from helicopters. [8]

See also

Related Research Articles

Red Square Square in Moscow, Russia

Red Square is a city square in Moscow, Russia. It separates the Kremlin, the former royal citadel and now the official residence of the President of Russia, from a historic merchant quarter known as Kitai-gorod. Red Square is often considered to be the central square of Moscow since the city's major streets, which connect to Russia's major highways, originate in the square.

Saint Basils Cathedral Cathedral in Moscow, Russia

The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, commonly known as Saint Basil's Cathedral, is a Christian church in Red Square in Moscow, Russia and is regarded as a cultural symbol of the country. The building, now a museum, is officially known as the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat or Pokrovsky Cathedral. It was built from 1555 to 1561 on orders from Ivan the Terrible and commemorates the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. It was the city's tallest building until the completion of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in 1600.

Fyodor Rostopchin foreign minister of the Russian Empire and governor of Moscow

Count Fyodor Vasilyevich Rostopchin was a Russian statesman and General of the Infantry who served as the Governor-General of Moscow during the French invasion of Russia. He was also known as a satirical writer who ridiculed Francophiles.

Vasily Bazhenov Russian neoclassical architect

Vasily Ivanovich Bazhenov was a Russian neoclassical architect, graphic artist, architectural theorist and educator. Bazhenov and his associates Matvey Kazakov and Ivan Starov were the leading local architects of the Russian Enlightenment, a period dominated by foreign architects. According to Dmitry Shvidkovsky, in the 1770s Bazhenov became the first Russian architect to create a national architectural language since the 17th century tradition interrupted by Peter I of Russia.

Kuznetsky Most street in the center of Moscow

Kuznetsky Most is a street in central Moscow, that runs from Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street to Lubyanka Street. The name, literally Blacksmith's Bridge, refers to the 18th-century bridge over Neglinnaya River, now running in a tunnel, and a nearby foundry and the settlement of its workers. Since the middle of the 18th century, Kuznetsky Most was the street of fashion and expensive shopping.

Tverskoy District human settlement in Central Administrative Okrug, Moscow, Russia

Tverskoy District is a district of Central Administrative Okrug of the federal city of Moscow, Russia. Population: 75,378 (2010 Census); 75,955 (2002 Census).

Island (Zamoskvorechye) unnamed island on the Moscow river at the centre of the city of Moscow

Island is an area in Moscow. It is made up of an artificial island and is located right across from the Kremlin between the Moskva River and its old riverbed, which was turned into the Vodootvodny Canal in 1786. It does not have any historical, official or established name. In the relevant sources it is referred to simply as the Island.

Zaryadye human settlement in Russia

Zaryadye is a historical district in Moscow established in 12th or 13th century within Kitai-gorod, between Varvarka Street and Moskva River. The name means "the place behind the rows", i.e., behind the market rows adjacent to the Red Square.

Moskvoretskaya Embankment street in Tverskoy District, Russia

Moskvoretskaya Embankment is a major street, located in the Kitay-Gorod administrative district in central Moscow, running along the Moskva River.

Battle of Vyazma battle

The Battle of Vyazma occurred at the beginning of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. In this encounter, the rear guard of the Grande Armée was defeated by the Russians commanded by General Mikhail Andreyevich Miloradovich. Although the French repelled Miloradovich's attempt to encircle and destroy the corps of Louis Nicolas Davout, they withdrew in a partial state of disorder after suffering heavy casualties from continued Russian attacks.

Matvey Kazakov Russian architect

Matvey Fyodorovich Kazakov was a Russian Neoclassical architect. Kazakov was one of the most influential Muscovite architects during the reign of Catherine II, completing numerous private residences, two royal palaces, two hospitals, Moscow University, and the Kremlin Senate. Most of his works were destroyed by the Fire of 1812; they were later rebuilt with various degrees of alteration.

Dorogomilovo District District in Moscow, Russia

Dorogomilovo District is a district of Western Administrative Okrug of the federal city of Moscow, Russia. The area of the district is 7.93 square kilometres (3.06 sq mi). Population: 67,720 (2010 Census); 59,732 (2002 Census). Postal codes: 113000 to 119000.

Staraya Square

Staraya Square, literally Old Square, connects Ilyinka Street with Varvarka Gates Square in central Kitai-gorod area of Moscow, Russia. It is not a square in a true sense, but a street, normally closed to regular city traffic. The historical building located at 4 Staraya Square, was the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, thus Staraya Square became a symbol for the Party apparatus. Now the building is the headquarters of Presidential Administration of Russia, retaining its symbolic value. It is one of the Central Squares of Moscow forming an arc around Moscow Kremlin and Kitai-gorod.

The Central Squares of Moscow consists of a chain of squares around the historical Moscow Kremlin and Kitai-gorod areas of central Moscow, Russia, following the historical and now mostly razed down Kitai-gorod wall. These squares and avenues connecting them form the innermost ring road in Moscow open to regular traffic. The names of central squares changed frequently for political reasons and as a result of urban redevelopment; some of these squares are actually city streets ; other locations are shaped like squares, but have no names of their own.

Basmanny District Administrative division in the city of Moscow, Russia

Basmanny District is a district of Central Administrative Okrug of the federal city of Moscow, Russia. Population: 108,204 (2010 Census); 100,899 (2002 Census).

Meshchansky District human settlement in Russia

Meshchansky District is a district of Central Administrative Okrug of the federal city of Moscow, Russia. Population: 58,002 (2010 Census); 56,077 (2002 Census).

Ivan Rerberg Russian architect

Ivan Ivanovich Rerberg was a Russian civil engineer, architect and educator active in Moscow in 1897–1932. Rerberg's input to present-day Moscow include Kiyevsky Rail Terminal, Central Telegraph building and the Administration building of Moscow Kremlin. Rerberg, a fourth member in a dynasty of engineers, was credited with innovative approach to structural frames and despised the title of an architect, always signing his drafts Engineer Rerberg.

Beklemishevskaya Tower is a tower at the Eastern edge of Moscow Kremlin Wall. It was named after a boyar Ivan Bersen-Beklemishev, whose house had been adjacent to the tower from the Kremlin side. It was earlier known as Russian: Москворецкая tower based its position on the near Moskva River. It is similar to the other two towers standing at the other corners of the Kremlin triangle, Vodovzvodnaya and Uglovaya Arsenalnaya rowers. While these towers are cylindrical, all other towers of the Kremlin’s Wall have been built on a square plan base.

French occupation of Moscow

The Occupation of Moscow by the Great Army under the command of the Emperor Napoleon lasted a little more than a month, from September 14 to October 20, 1812, and became a turning point in the Patriotic War of 1812. During the occupation, the city was looted and devastated by fire, the causes of which are controversial among historians. The last time before this, Moscow was occupied by foreign troops exactly 200 years before.

Council at Fili

The Council at Fili was a military council, which, in accordance with the Military Charter, was convened on September 13, 1812 during the Patriotic War of 1812 by Commander-in-Chief Mikhail Kutuzov in the village of Fili, west of Moscow.



  1. 1 2 3 4 Hecker, Hans (2012). "Schaurig-grandioses Schauspiel" [A horrific and terrific spectacle]. Damals (in German). Vol. 44 no. 9. pp. 72–77.
  2. 'With Napoleon in Russia', William Morrow, New York 1935.
  3. Ludwig, Emil (1927). "Chapter 5: The Sea". Napoleon (7th ed.). London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. pp. 408–409.
  4. Luhn, Alec. "Moscow's Last Great Fire - Russian Life". Retrieved 2016-09-26.
  5. Fillipov
  6. Sytin, p. 105.
  7. Tolstoy, Leo (1949). War and Peace. Garden City: International Collectors Library.
  8. Taylor, Ella. "War and Peace: Saint Petersburg Fiddles, Moscow Burns". The Criterion Collection . Retrieved 10 November 2019.
  9. "йЮПК ТНМ йКЮСГЕБХЖ. ╚1812 ЦНД╩". Retrieved 2013-09-28.
  10. "Е.Б. Рюпке ╚Мюьеярбхе Мюонкенмю Мю Пняяхч╩". Retrieved 2013-09-28.
  11. "Как менялся этнический состав москвичей". Retrieved 2013-09-28.
  12. "╚Нревеярбеммюъ Бнимю Х Псяяйне Наыеярбн╩. Рнл Iv. Лняйбю Опх Тпюмжсгюу. Онфюп Лняйбш". Retrieved 2013-09-28.

Further reading

Coordinates: 55°45′N37°38′E / 55.75°N 37.63°E / 55.75; 37.63