One of the great things about reading War and Peace is the way it draws the reader into situations that are a part of history. I believe I mentioned this in a previous blog when I was talking about the scenes that focus on Napoleon and how real he seems in the book. This picture also applies to the big events as well as to the individuals who populate those events.
Prior to reading War and Peace I knew very little about the burning of Moscow in 1812. Apparently the Russians were being invaded by a French army that was stronger than their own. Since they were convinced that they couldn't defeat the French they abandoned the city. Here's where things get a little vague. Tolstoy writes that the fires were accidentally set by the French occupiers who were careless in homes that did not belong to them.
However tempting it might be for the French to blame Rostopchin's ferocity and for Russians to blame the scoundrel Bonaparte, or later on to place an heroic torch in the hands of their own people, it is impossible not to see that there could be no such direct cause of the fire, for Moscow had to burn as every village, factory, or house must burn which is left by its owners and in which strangers are allowed to live and cook their porridge.
When I did a quick web search on the burning of Moscow I found that other historians (I think it is fair to call Tolstoy an historian) had different theories, some believing the city was burned by the Russians to keep its treasures out of the hands of the French and others believing that the French intentionally set the fires as a part of the anger and hatred that always accompanies war. It would be nice to know the truth, but it is the way the French reacted that is the most interesting result of the fire.
At first I thought it was simply the lack of supplies that wrecked havoc on the French, but it was more complex than that. The burning affected the French soldiers psychologically. Napoleon issued proclamations offering the Russians peaceful reentry into their city and declaring severe punishment for French soldiers found looting, but this did no good. He had crossed all of Europe to take over a city that had no people! A month later the French left Moscow and did so in a way that left them vulnerable to Russian attacks.