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A fragment of the  French in Moscow painting by unknown artist, 1820s A fragment of the French in Moscow painting by unknown artist, 1820s

2 September

On September 2, 1812 the Grande Armee of Napoleon Bonaparte entered Moscow to find the population evacuated and the Russian army retreated.

Although capturing Moscow was the aim of the invasion, the deserted city held no tsarist officials available for negotiations and no substantial stores of food to replenish the French supplies after the exhausting march. Added to all mishaps of the French were the fires, apparently set by the Russian partisans all across the city the following night, leaving Napoleon's troops with no means of living on the eve of the harsh Russian winter.

The war between France and Russia was a logical outcome of the international tension in Europe in the 19th century. The reason for the rivalry was the confrontation between France and Great Britain, which was an obstacle to Napoleon's plans of creating his European empire. Napoleon intended to isolate Britain economically by unilaterally imposing a trade blockade on it, and to do so he needed Russian support. The Tilsit Treaty of 1807 with France provided that Russia should suspend its trade with England, Russia's largest trade partner, which was ruinous and unhealthy for the Russian economy. For that reason Emperor Alexander I, reluctant to succumb, systematically violated the treaty, which eventually led to Napoleon sending his troops to Russia.

Napoleon's massive army featured more than 500,000 soldiers and staff, recruited from France and other countries in its empire. Accustomed to quick, easy victories, in Russia Napoleon was stuck in perpetual pursuit of the defeated Russian army, which had adopted a so-called "scorched earth" strategy of seizing or burning any supplies the French might take advantage of.

The climax of the strategy was the deliberate abandonment of Moscow, a decision made by the talented general Mikhail Kutuzov, the supreme commander of Russia's forces. Aware that Russian resources were too scarce to openly confront the French, the legendary military counsel in the village of Fili ruled on September 1 to leave Moscow to the enemy, destroying all the ammunition and food supplies.

When the French entered a deserted Moscow on September 2, all but a few people were gone. Based in a house on the outskirts of the city for the night, at 2 in the morning Napoleon was informed that a fire had broken out. Reports came in that the Russians themselves had started the fire.

The Russian soldier who had allegedly set the Kremlin on fire was caught and immediately executed. As the fire progressed Napoleon and his troops were forced out of the center by the smoke and fumes. By the time the fire died down three days later, it had destroyed over 70% of the city.

After waiting a month for a surrender that never came, on October 7 Napoleon was forced to lead his starving army out of the burnt-down and abandoned Moscow. Suffering from unusually low temperatures and persistent attacks from peasant partisan units, the famished and depleted French troops reached the Berezina River late in November, and hoped to proceed to French-occupied Lithuania. However, taking advantage of an unexpected thaw and having destroyed all bridges across the river, the Russians defeated the remains of the French Army. That victory, followed by the Emperor Alexander's decree, officially ended the war.

The German philosopher Walter Schubart, an expert on the Russian history, once wrote: “No other capital of the world which surrendered to Napoleon before offered him such a reception. Germans were standing in lines and bowing as Napoleon entered the city. Russians, however, preferred to cast apocalypse both on themselves and their enemies. Despite all that, no other capital means so much to its people as Moscow does for Russians. For a Russian, Moscow means a lot more than Paris for a Frenchman. It is a sacred city. And nevertheless!... The victory was achieved by that absolute freedom which Russians have, and Europeans don't, and have no desire of acquiring.”