Book 15 Chapter 14

JUST AS IT IS DIFFICULT to explain why the ants hurry back to a scattered ant-hill, some dragging away from it bits of refuse, eggs, and corpses, while others run back again, and what is their object in crowding together, overtaking one another, fighting with each other, so it would be hard to give the reasons that induced the Russians, after the departure of the French, to flock back to the place which had been known as Moscow. But just as looking at the ants hurrying about a ruined ant-heap, one can see by the tenacity, the energy, and the multitude of the busy insects that though all else is utterly destroyed, there is left something indestructible and immaterial that was the whole strength of the colony, so too Moscow in the month of October, though without its governing authorities, without its churches, without its holy things, without its wealth and its houses, was still the same Moscow as it had been in August. Everything was shattered except something immaterial, but mighty and indestructible.

The motives of the people, who rushed from all parts to Moscow after it was evacuated by the enemy, were of the most varied and personal kind, and at first mostly savage and brutal impulses. Only one impulse was common to all—the attraction to the place which had been called Moscow in order to set their energies to work there.

Within a week there were fifteen thousand persons in Moscow, within a fortnight twenty-five thousand; and so it went on. The number went on mounting and mounting till by the autumn of 1813 it had reached a figure exceeding the population of the city in 1812.

The first Russians to enter Moscow were the Cossacks of Wintzengerode's detachment, the peasants from the nearest villages and the residents who had fled from Moscow and concealed themselves in the environs. On entering the ruined city, and finding it pillaged, the Russians fell to pillaging it too. They continued the work begun by the French. Trains of peasants' waggons drove into Moscow to carry away to the villages all that had been abandoned in the ruined Moscow houses and streets. The Cossacks carried off what they could to their tents; the householders collected all they could out of other houses, and removed it to their own under the pretence that it was their property.

But the first pillaging parties were followed by others; and every day as the numbers pillaging increased, the work of plunder became more difficult and assumed more definite forms.

The French had found Moscow deserted but with all the forms of an organically normal town life still existent, with various branches of trades and crafts, of luxury, and political government and religion. These forms were lifeless but they still existed. There were markets, shops, stores, corn-exchanges, and bazaars—most of them stocked with goods. There were factories and trading establishments. There were palaces and wealthy houses filled with articles of luxury. There were hospitals, prisons, courts, churches, and cathedrals. The longer the French remained, the more these forms of town life perished, and at the end all was lost in one indistinguishable, lifeless scene of pillage.

The longer the pillaging of the French lasted, the more complete was the destruction of the wealth of Moscow and of the forces of the pillagers. The longer the pillaging lasted that was carried on by the Russians on their first return to the capital, and the more there were taking part in it, the more rapidly was the wealth of Moscow and the normal life of the town re-established.

Apart from those who came for plunder, people of all sorts, drawn thither, some by curiosity, some by the duties of office, some by self-interests—householders, priests, officials, high and low, traders, artisans, and peasants—flowed back to Moscow from all sides, as the blood flows to the heart.

Within a week the peasants who had come with empty carts to carry off goods were detained by the authorities, and compelled to carry dead bodies out of the town. Other peasants, who had heard of their companions' discomfiture, drove into the town with wheat, and oats, and hay, knocking down each others' prices to a figure lower than it had been in former days. Gangs of carpenters, hoping for high wages, were arriving in Moscow every day; and on all sides there were new houses being built, or old half-burnt ones being repaired. Tradesmen carried on their business in booths. Cook-shops and taverns were opened in fire-blackened houses. The clergy held services in many churches that had escaped the fire. Church goods that had been plundered were restored as offerings. Government clerks set up their baize-covered tables and pigeon-holes of papers in little rooms. The higher authorities and the police organised a distribution of the goods left by the French. The owners of houses in which a great many of the goods plundered from other houses had been left complained of the injustice of all goods being taken to the Polygonal Palace. Others maintained that the French had collected all the things from different houses to one spot, and that it was therefore unfair to restore to the master of the house the things found in it. The police were abused and were bribed; estimates for government buildings that had been burnt were reckoned at ten times their value; and appeals for help were made. Count Rastoptchin wrote his posters again.