Military Wiki

The Moscow fire depicted by an unknown German artist

For similar disasters, see Fire of Moscow

The 1812 Fire of Moscow broke out on September 14, 1812 in Moscow on the day when Russian troops and most residents abandoned the city and Napoleon's vanguard troops entered the city following the Battle of Borodino. The fire raged until September 18, destroying an estimated three-quarters of Moscow.


Napoleon watching the fire of Moscow

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 conflagration 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 blames 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) Coulaincourt 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'.

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

La Grande Armée, that set its position in the manner of a military camp and was looting the city, also had its share of responsibility; many buildings caught fire from bonfires they made for cooking.[citation needed] The catastrophe started as many small fires, which promptly grew out of control and formed a massive blaze. Napoleon's police measures and executions of "arsonists" were put into effect after much of the city was already ablaze.[citation needed] 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]

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 Fire Department, these house fires will spread to become neighborhood fires, and ultimately a city-wide conflagration.

Timeline of events[]

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

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

  • September 8 - Russian army began retreating east from Borodino.
  • September 12 - Russian army, followed by Joachim Murat's vanguard, set camp at Fili; Russian vanguard lodged in Dorogomilovo. Peak of civilian flight from Moscow. Next day, Russian military council at Fili agreed to abandon Moscow without fighting.
  • September 14 - Russian army marched through Moscow into an eastbound road to Ryazan, followed by masses of civilians (Tarle). French army crossed Moskva River in three columns in Fili, Dorogomilovo and Luzhniki, converging on the city center. Main body of La Grande Armée counted less than 90,000 men; Murat with some 25,000 troops was dispatched east to follow Russian retreat. His corps was the first to ride through the city, taking the Kremlin in the afternoon. Russian sources report first fires in abandoned city; French sources date first reports to Napoleon at dawn of the next day (Tarle). These early fires were localized at Kitai-gorod, Solyanka Street and Taganka (Katayev) and did not slow down the French invasion of the city.
  • September 15 - Massive fire in Kitai-gorod. Napoleon arrived at Kremlin.
  • September 16 - Firestorm threatens Kremlin. Napoleon relocated to suburban Petrovsky Palace, breaking through the burning Arbat Street to Moskva river, then taking a safe route north-west by the river bank.
  • September 17–18 - Fire destroyed most of the city and settled down; Napoleon returned to Kremlin, expecting plea for peace from tsar Alexander I of Russia.
  • September 24 - French court-martial executed 10 first "saboteurs" (Tarle).
  • October 18–19 - French army left Moscow.

Extent of the disaster[]

1817 map, destroyed area shaded dark

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

  • 6,496 of 9,151 private houses (this total included 6,584 wooden and 2,567 brick buildings)
  • 8,251 retail shops and warehouses (including most of Kitai-gorod and Zamoskvorechye business districts)
  • 122 of 329 churches (counting total losses only)

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.[3] 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 de 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.[4]

Some 18th century buildings were rebuilt to original plans

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.

See also[]


  • Carl von Clausewitz, "Russian campaign of 1812", part 1 (citing Russian 1937 edition [5])
  • Memoirs of General Baron de Marbot, published by The World Wide School, 2001 chapter 58
  • Yevgeny Tarle, "Napoleon's Invasion of Russia", citing Russian edition of: Тарле, Е.В., "Нашествие Наполеона на Россию", гл.VI "Пожар Москвы" at [6]
  • V. Fillipov, "Dynamics of ethnic and confessional identity of Moscow population", citing Russian edition of: На пути к переписи / Под редакцией Валерия Тишкова — М.: "Авиаиздат", 2003 с. 277–313 [7]
  • I.M. Katayeva, "Fire of Moscow", citing Russian edition of "Отечественная война и русское общество", в 7тт, т.4, М, издание т-ва И.Д.Сытина, 1911 [8]
  • P.V. Sytin, "History of Moscow Streets", citing original Russia edition: Сытин, П.В., "Из истории московских улиц", М, 1948.


Further reading[]

  • Olivier, Daria, The Burning of Moscow 1812, London. George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1966 (JSTOR - The Scholarly Journal Archive review)
  • Albert J. Schmidt, The Restoration of Moscow after 1812 , Slavic Review, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Spring, 1981), pp. 37–48, JSTOR
  • Tatiana Ruchinskaya, The Scottish architectural traditions in the plan for the reconstruction of Moscow after the fire of 1812: A rare account of the influence of Scottish architect William Hastie on town planning in Moscow, Building Research & Information, Volume 22, Issue 4 July 1994, pages 228 - 233
  • Полосин И.И., Кутузов и пожар Москвы 1812 г., «Исторические записки», 1950, т. 34.
  • Холодковский В.М., Наполеон ли поджёг Москву?, «Вопросы истории», 1966, № 4.
  • Тартаковский А.Г., Обманутый Герострат. Ростопчин и пожар Москвы, «Родина», 1992, № 6—7.

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).