Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Great Fire of Moscow

On this day over two hundred years ago, the terrible fire that swept through Moscow for days finally calmed, leaving behind vast swathes of utterly destroyed city. The true cause of the blaze remains unknown but the fact that the blaze coincided with the departure of Russian forces and the arrival of French led a lot of people to suspect that those retreating soldiers had set the fires themselves, leaving a warm welcome for the new arrivals.

On 14th September 1812, the Governor General of Moscow, Count Feodor Rostopchin prepared to lead his troops out of Moscow and apparently gave orders that all major public buildings should be burned or otherwise destroyed, whilst he ensured that the fire services had been relieved of any firefighting equipment that might vex his plans. At the same time, several smaller and unexplained fires began to spring up around the city as they had for several days leading up to the Russian retreat. However, the fires set on Rostopchin's orders were not helped by further, smaller blazes started by the Grande Armée as they set up camp in Moscow.

French in Moscow, 1812
The French in Moscow, 1812 

The French built campfires all over the city and as these began to burn out of control, the city was soon on fire.  Although the majority of citizens had already left the city ahead of the French arrival, thousands had no choice but to stay behind and as these people fled their homes, looting broke out and seen the streets were in chaos. Napoleon watched the city burn from the Kremlin until, with concerns for his safety growing, he left Moscow to take refuge outside the city.

More than 6000 homes, 800 shops and 100 churches burned, whilst 12,000 people died in the conflagration, with many precious buildings and treasures also consumed by the fire that Rostopchin was adamant he had not ordered. The process of rebuilding was slow and expensive and for years thereafter, the city and its people continued to count the cost.


  1. It was a very successful defensive tactic for something which Rostopchin had not ordered....

  2. It was certainly an irony. the French had marched so long and so far to find nothing but devastation. Then came the infamous retreat from Moscow which wiped out a considerable portion of the French army.