“Moscow! Moscow!, our soldiers shouted and started to applaud”

On this day in history, Napoleon and his army entered the city of Moscow: Sept. 14, 1812. Only to find that the Russian people had set their own city on fire.

From Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Imperium:

The sight of Moscow enraptured Chateaubriand. The author of Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb accompanied Bonaparte on the expedition to Moscow. On September 6, 1812, the French army reached the great city:

Napoleon appeared on horseback near the advance guard. One more rise had to be crossed; it bordered Moscow the way Montmartre borders Paris and was called the Hill of Homage, for Russians prayed here at the sight of the holy city like pilgrims at the sight of Jerusalem. Moscow of the golden domes, as Slavic poets say, blazed in the sun: two hundred and ninety-five churches, one thousand five hundred palaces, houses out of decoratively sculpted wood, yellow, green, pink, all that was lacking was cypresses and the Bosphorus. The Kremlin, covered in burnished or painted sheets of iron, was a part of this ensemble. Among the exquisite villas made of brick and marble flowed the River Moscow, surrounded by parks of pines — the palms of this sky. Venice in the days of its glory on the waters of the Adriatic was not more splendid … Moscow! Moscow!, our soldiers shouted and started to applaud.

” … for Russians prayed here at the sight of the holy city like pilgrims at the sight of Jerusalem”.

Yes, because Moscow was for them a holy city, the capital of the world — a Third Rome. This last notion was put forth in the sixteenth century by the Pskov sage and visionary, the monk Philotheus. “Two Romes have already fallen (Peter’s and Byzantium),” he writes in a letter to the contemporary Muscovite prince Vasily III. “The Third Rome (Moscow) stands. There will not be a fourth,” he categorically assures the prince. Moscow: it is the end of history, the end of mankind’s earthly wanderings, the open gateway to the heavens.

Russians were capable of believing in such things profoundly, with conviction, fanatically.

The Moscow Napoleon saw on that sunny September afternoon of 1812 no longer exists. The Russians burned it down the next day so as to force the French to turn around. Later, Moscow burned several more times. “Our cities,” Turgenev writes somewhere, “burn every five years.” It is understandable: Russia’s building material was timber. Timber was cheap; there were forests everywhere. One could raise a building out of timber quickly, and, moreover, a wooden wall retains heat well. But then if a fire breaks out, everything burns, the whole city. Thousands upon thousands of Russian townspeople went to their death in flames.

Of course, Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow is well known.

I am reminded of Eddie Izzard’s re-enactment of it during his genius show Dress to Kill:

Eddie charges across the stage (in his platform shoes), chanting: “We’re gonna invade, we’re gonna invade, we’re gonna invade, we’re gonna invade …” He abruptly retreats, charging back across the stage, saying, “Oh, it’s a bit cold, it’s a bit cold, it’s a bit cold …”

One of my favorite novels is The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson. One of the main characters is a young man who is recruited into Napoleon’s army, and eventually becomes Napoleon’s personal chef. The young man goes through a transformation over the course of the book. Napoleon inspires him, lights him up, fills him with an evangelical fervor … but eventually, the disillusionment comes. It’s a wonderful book – I love it.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt from the chapter in the book entitled “The Zero Winter”:

“We march on Moscow”, he said when the Czar betrayed him. It was not his intention, he wanted a speedy campaign. A blow to Russia for daring to set herself against him again. He thought he could always win battles the way he had always won battles. Like a circus dog he thought every audience would marvel at his tricks, but the audience was getting used to him. The Russians didn’t even bother to fight the Grande Armee in any serious way, they kept on marching, burning villages behind them, leaving nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep. They marched into winter and we followed them. Into the Russian winter in our summer overcoats. Into the snow in our glued-together boots. When our horses died of the cold we slit their bellies and slept with our feet inside the guts. One man’s horse froze around him; in the morning when he tried to take his feet out they were stuck, entombed in the brittle entrails. We couldn’t free him, we had to leave him. He wouldn’t stop screaming.

Bonaparte travelled by sledge, sending desperate orders down the lines, trying to make us outmaneuver the Russians in just one place. We couldn’t outmaneuver them. We could hardly walk.

The consequences of burning the villages were not only our consequences; they were those of the people who lived there. Peasants whose lives ran with the sun and the moon. Like my mother and father, they accepted each season and looked forward to the harvest. They worked hard in the hours of daylight and comforted themselves with stories from the Bible and stories of the forest. Their forests were full of spirits, some good some not, but every family had a happy story to tell; how their child was saved or their only cow brought back to life by the agency of a spirit.

They called the Czar ‘the Little Father’, and they worshipped him as they worshipped God. In their simplicity I saw a mirror of my own longing and understood for the first time my own need for a little father that had led me this far. They are a hearth people, content to bolt the door at night and eat thick soup and black bread. They sing songs to ward the night away and, like us, they take their animals into the kitchen in winter. In winter the cold is too much to endure and the ground is harder than a soldier’s blade. They can only light the lamps and live on the food in the cellar and dream of the spring.

When the army burned their villages, the people helped to set fire to their own homes, to their years of work and common sense. They did it for the little father. They turned themselves out into the zero winter and went to their deaths in ones and twos or in families. They walked to the woods and sat by the frozen rivers, not for long, the blood soon chills, but long enough for some of them to be still singing songs as we passed by. Their voices were caught in the fierce air and carried through the stubble of their houses to us.

We had killed them all without firing a shot. I prayed for the snow to fall and bury them for ever. When the snow falls you can almost believe the world is clean again.

Is every snowflake different? No one knows…

Our sustaining hope as the temperatures dropped and we gave up speech was to reach Moscow. A great city where there would be food and fire and friends. Bonaparte was confident of peace once we had dealt a decisive blow. He was already writing surrender notices, filling the space with humiliation and leaving just enough room at the bottom for the Czar to sign. He seemed to think we were winning when all we were doing was running behind. But he had furs to keep his blood optimistic.

Moscow is a city of domes, built to be beautiful, a city of squares and worship. I did see it, briefly. The gold domes lit yellow and orange and the people gone.

They set fire to it. Even when Bonaparte arrived, days ahead of the rest of the army, it was blazing and it went on blazing. It was a difficult city to burn.

We camped away from the flames, and I served him that night on a scrawny chicken surrounded by parsley the cook cherishes in a dead man’s helmet. I think it was that night that I knew I couldn’t stay any longer. I think it was that night that I started to hate him.

I didn’t know what hate felt like, not the hate that comes after love. It’s huge and desperate and it longs to be proved wrong. And every day it’s proved right it grows a little more monstrous. If the love was passion, the hate will be obsession. A need to see the once-loved weak and cowed and beneath pity. Disgust is close and dignity is far away. The hate is not only for the ones loved, it’s for yourself, too; how could you ever have loved this?

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7 Responses to “Moscow! Moscow!, our soldiers shouted and started to applaud”

  1. Bill McCabe says:

    And the Grand Armee starving on the way home to France…oh, happy day.

  2. Patrick says:

    Sheila, you might enjoy these color photgraphs of old Russia. Yes, color.


  3. red says:

    Patrick – I seem to recall having seen those incredible images before, but I can’t remember where. Simply beautiful!

  4. Dave J says:

    Patrick, thank you for posting that link. I expect to (hopefully) be in DC sometime this month, and now I simply MUST go to the LOC and see those up close in person.

  5. JFH says:

    Okay, am I the only one whistling Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” right now?

  6. Rick says:

    “They walked to the woods and sat by the frozen rivers, not for long, the blood soon chills, but long enough for some of them to be still singing songs as we passed by. Their voices were caught in the fierce air and carried through the stubble of their houses to us.”

    This is a haunting experience just to imagine. A moment that would shake me from the madness of the situation.. and then the thought that seems to be born from that awakening:

    “Is every snowflake different? No one knows…”


  7. red says:

    rick – it’s a wonderfully written book. I highly recommend it. It’s filled with images I can’t forget.

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