Two hundred and one years ago today, on September 18, 1812, the Great Fire of Moscow, which had raged for three and a half days, burned itself out. The conflagration destroyed about 75% of the city, which was built mostly of wood, and killed 12,000 people. This disaster was much greater in scope and severity even than the Great Fire of London in 1666, and it changed the course of history: it was the beginning of Napoleon’s long retreat from Russia, which eventually precipitated the fall of his empire.
There is an important thing we don’t know about the Fire of Moscow: how it started. Moscow, while certainly not deserted by any means, had been largely abandoned as a military, political and economic stronghold by the Russian armies, who, upon Napoleon’s invasion of their country, elected to retreat and leave the French nothing, while planning a counterattack on terms–and ground–favorable to the Russians. That counterattack occurred in early September, resulting in the Battle of Borodino, where the French were defeated. They fell back to Moscow which Napoleon had expected Tsar Alexander I to fight for. He didn’t. While Napoleon kept his headquarters at the Kremlin and French troops camped in abandoned buildings, reports of small fires began to come in late on September 14. By the next day Moscow was in flames.
An 1813 map of Moscow shows the extent of the destruction (burned areas are shaded dark). Click for larger image/more detail.
The conventional wisdom is that Russian partisans set the fires, hoping to burn the French out, set the fires. Indeed the Russian commander, Count Rostopchin, ordered before retreating from Moscow that major public buildings be set on fire or blown up. This order wasn’t carried out, but did some Russian troops left behind try to do their best to follow this order after he’d left? Rostopchin did order the disbanding of Moscow’s fire brigades and destruction of any firefighting equipment. So it’s quite possible that the sabotage of Moscow was indeed the idea of the Russians.
Some French who were there, however, believe the fires began accidentally. Leo Tolstoy, in his novel War and Peace, famously argued this position. He said that in a mostly wooden city occupied by foreign troops during cold weather–it was cold in Moscow in September 1812–it’s almost inevitable for normal cook and campfires to get out of control and burn down the city. We saw in London in 1666 that a colossal city fire can begin with a single stray spark. But if this cycle is as inevitable as Tolstoy suggests, why weren’t city fires more commonly associated with military occupations? New York burned in 1776, but that fire was deliberately started by the British; Atlanta burned in 1864, but that fire was also deliberate sabotage.
Personally, I don’t have an opinion on the matter. I think both theories, Russian sabotage and accidental origin, have much to commend them. Likely we will never know. This is one of those fascinating mysteries of history that will probably never be solved.