Book 11 Chapter 5

MEANWHILE, in an event of even greater importance than the retreat of the army without a battle, in the abandonment and burning of Moscow, Count Rastoptchin, whom we conceive as taking the lead in that event, was acting in a very different manner from Kutuzov.

This event—the abandonment and burning of Moscow—was, after the battle of Borodino, as inevitable as the retreat of the army without fighting.

Every Russian could have foretold what happened, not as a result of any train of intellectual deductions, but from the feeling that lies at the bottom of our hearts, and lay at the bottom of our fathers'!

In every town and village on Russian soil, from Smolensk onwards, without the assistance of Count Rastoptchin and his placards, the same thing took place as happened in Moscow. The people awaited the coming of the enemy without disturbance; did not display excitement; tore nobody to pieces, but calmly awaited their fate, feeling in themselves the power to find what they must do in the moment of difficulty.

And as soon as the enemy came near, the wealthier elements of the population went away, leaving their property behind; the poorer remained, and burnt and destroyed all that was left.

The sense that this would be so, and always would be so, lay, and lies at the bottom of every Russian's heart. And a sense of this, and more, a foreboding that Moscow would be taken by the enemy, lay in the Russian society of Moscow in 1812. Those who had begun leaving Moscow in July and the beginning of August had shown that they expected it. Those who left the city with what they could carry away, abandoning their houses and half their property, did so in consequence of that latent patriotism, which finds expression, not in phrases, not in giving one's children to death for the sake of the fatherland, and such unnatural exploits, but expresses itself imperceptibly in the most simple, organic way, and so always produces the most powerful results.

“It's a disgrace to fly from danger; only the cowards are flying from Moscow,” they were told. Rastoptchin, in his placards, urged upon them that it was base to leave Moscow. They were ashamed at hearing themselves called cowards; they were ashamed of going away; but still they went away, knowing that it must be so. Why did they go away? It cannot be supposed that Rastoptchin had scared them with tales of the atrocities perpetrated by Napoleon in the countries he conquered. The first to leave were the wealthy, educated people, who knew very well that Vienna and Berlin remained uninjured, and that the inhabitants of those cities, when Napoleon was in occupation of them, had spent their time gaily with the fascinating Frenchmen, of whom all Russians, and especially the ladies, had at that period been so fond.

They went away because to Russians the question whether they would be comfortable or not under the government of the French in Moscow could never occur. To be under the government of the French was out of the question; it was worse than anything. They were going away even before Borodino, and still more rapidly after Borodino; regardless of the calls to defend the city, regardless of the proclamations of the governor of Moscow; of his intention of going with the Iversky Virgin into battle, and of the air-balloons which were to demolish the French, and all the nonsense with which Rastoptchin filled his placards. They knew that it was for the army to fight, and if the army could not, it would be of no use to rush out with young ladies and house-serfs to fight Napoleon on the Three Hills, and so they must make haste and get away, sorry as they were to leave their possessions to destruction. They drove away without a thought of the vast consequences of this immense wealthy city being abandoned by its inhabitants, and being inevitably thereby consigned to the flames. To abstain from destroying and burning empty houses would never occur to the Russian peasantry. They drove away, each on his own account, and yet it was only in consequence of their action that the grand event came to pass that is the highest glory of the Russian people. The lady who in June set off with her Negroes and her buffoons from Moscow for her Saratov estates, with a vague feeling that she was not going to be a servant of Bonaparte's, and a vague dread that she might be hindered from going by Rastoptchin's orders, was simply and genuinely doing the great deed that saved Russia.

Count Rastoptchin at one time cried shame on those who were going, then removed all the public offices, then served out useless weapons to the drunken rabble, then brought out the holy images, and prevented Father Augustin from removing the holy relics and images, then got hold of all the private conveyances that were in Moscow, then in one hundred and thirty-six carts carried out the air-balloon made by Leppich, at one time hinted that he should set fire to Moscow, at one time described how he had burnt his own house, and wrote a proclamation to the French in which he solemnly reproached them for destroying the home of his childhood. He claimed the credit of having set fire to Moscow, then disavowed it; he commanded the people to capture all spies, and bring them to him, then blamed the people for doing so; he sent all the French residents out of Moscow, and then let Madame Aubert-Chalmey, who formed the centre of French society in Moscow, remain. For no particular reason he ordered the respected old postmaster, Klucharov, to be seized and banished. He got the people together on the Three Hills to fight the French, and then, to get rid of them, handed a man over to them to murder, and escaped himself by the back door. He vowed he would never survive the disaster of Moscow, and later on wrote French verses in albums on his share in the affair.

This man had no inkling of the import of what was happening. All he wanted was to do something himself, to astonish people, to perform some heroic feat of patriotism, and, like a child, he frolicked about the grand and inevitable event of the abandonment and burning of Moscow, trying with his puny hand first to urge on, and then to hold back, the tide of the vast popular current that was bearing him along with it.