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This Week in History: The Great Moscow Fire of 1812

16. September 2010 by Christy 0 Comments

The great fire of Moscow started on September 14, 1812, the same day Napoleon and his troops marched into the city after a decisive victory at the Battle of Borodino. Nearly all of Moscow’s 270,000 residents had abandoned the town, and when a series of fires broke out soon after Napoleon’s arrival there was no one around to extinguish the flames. Before long, the majority of Moscow was engulfed by fire and Napoleon and his troops were forced to flee the city's blazing streets.

Though there are a few theories, no one is quite sure how the initial fires began. Some believe Russians set the city aflame at the direction of Moscow Governor-General Feodor Rostopchin. However, Rostopchin denied the charge. Others believe the French army started the blaze. In his epic novel, War and Peace, Tolstoy argued that neither party purposely set the blaze but that a handful of cooking and heating fires quickly grew out of control. After all, the city was abandoned, there was no functioning fire department, and most of the Moscow’s buildings were made of wood.

When the flames finally died down on September 18, four days after the initial blaze, 3/4 of the city was completely destroyed. 2,000 wounded Russian soldiers died in the blaze and thousands of private homes, businesses, and churches burned to the ground. Many of Moscow treasures were also destroyed, including the original of The Tale of Igor's Campaign.

Thankfully, officials were able to reconstruct the city, though a lack of funds delayed the effort by 5 years.