History : Jun-Jul 2015
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC HISTORY 15 MILESTONES wonders, one thing came as a particular surprise: the city was almost deserted. Its entire population of 270,000 people seemed to have vanished. “Not a Musco- vite was to be seen,” wrote the Comte de Ségur, one of Napoleon’s generals. “Not the least smoke rose from a single chim- ney; not the slightest noise issued from this immense and populous city.” Entering Moscow that afternoon, Na- poleon himself was troubled that nobody was there to receive him. It was an accepted custom for a high-ranking official to formally surren- der the city and negotiate terms that would guarantee the safety of its citizens. Despite the absence of this diplomatic courtesy, Napoleon issued or- ders to prevent looting and the destruc- tion of property. The next day he installed himself in the Kremlin: “At last, then, I am in Moscow,” Napoleon enthused, “in the ancient palace of the Tsars.” The day passed all too quietly. That night his men woke up in alarm. The Comte de Ségur wrote: “They were awakened by an ex- traordinary light. They looked and be- held palaces filled with flames, which at first merely illuminated, but presently consumed these elegant and noble struc- tures.” There was little anyone could do but watch as the sea of flames engulfed the city. At four in the morning a nervous entourage woke Napoleon. The Kremlin held stores of gunpowder that could blow the building sky-high, so the emperor withdrew to a palace on the outskirts of the city. By then, the fiery spectacle was as terrifying as it was majestic: the heat could be felt from miles away and you could read a newspaper by its light. There has been much speculation about how the fire started. Patriotic Russian historians pointed the finger firmly at the French. In Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace the fire is considered to be an accident. In fact one man alone was actually respon- sible for the blaze: Count Fyodor Rostop- chin, the military governor of Moscow. A Tough Decision Rostopchin, like many Russians, felt betrayed that after the defeat at Borodino there was no attempt at a spirited defense of Moscow. Instead, Russia’s NAPOLEON BONAPARTE, AFTER A MODEL BY ANTOINE-DENIS CHAUDET, 1811 “At last, then, I am in Moscow, in the ancient palace of the Tsars, in the Kremlin!” INSTITUTCARTOGRÀFICDECATALUNYA AN EXAGGERATED DISASTER? THE ACTUAL EXTENT of the Great Moscow Fire is much debated. Russian maps seem to overstate how much of the city was actually affected, marking as destroyed many buildings and even entire blocks that we actually know to have been spared. Some historians also question whether the fire was necessary to achieve its strategic goal. They argue that the evacuation of the city had already greatly hampered the French army’s ability to supply itself. MAP OF MOSCOW, AS THE CITY APPEARED DURING THE NAPOLEONIC WARS. AKG/ALBUM ERICHLESSING/ALBUM Area of the city destroyed by the Great Fire of 1812.