In a shabby pot-house, drunken factory workers sing off-key. When a fight breaks out between their landlord and some neighboring blacksmiths, everyone rushes out to the porch. When one of the blacksmiths claims the landlord has killed a man, a whole crowd of workers marches off in search of the police (the landlord himself sneaks back to the pot-house, unnoticed). Along the way, they argue about the rumored abandonment of Moscow.
Tolstoy considers the abandonment of Moscow from the perspective not just of soldiers or nobility, but of ordinary workers going about their lives.
The crowd stops and gathers around a man who’s reading an ukase, or government edict. The statement claims that the enemy will be eradicated by the following day. The crowd doesn’t find the proclamation convincing, and when they see a police droshky heading rapidly out of the city, they chase it. They know the city has been abandoned by the gentry and merchants and they’ve been left behind. In the crowd, people are heard to demand, “What, are we dogs or something?”
Tolstoy portrays the workers as cynical about their rulers’ and social superiors’ intentions. They know very well that those with the means to escape the city are unlikely to help those who don’t, or even to think of them.
On the evening of September 1st, Count Rastopchin is upset. He wasn’t invited to the war council, and Kutuzov ignored his suggestions about defending the capital. Demoralized, he returns to Moscow. Just as he’s falling asleep that night, he receives a note requesting that he provide police escorts to the troops evacuating the city. Even though he knew that Moscow was going to be abandoned, he feels astonished that it’s happening.
Count Rastopchin, governor-general of Moscow, had hoped to defend the city to the last. In later years, he admitted to ordering the burning of Moscow’s major public buildings in the early days of the French occupation.
Later, in his notes, Rastopchin wrote that he had two goals during this time: keeping peace in Moscow and getting inhabitants to leave. If this is true, then in retrospect, Rastopchin’s actions appear correct. Even the deception of citizens—in order to maintain calm—seems defensible. Indeed, one could say that even the Reign of Terror was justifiable for the sake of “public tranquility.”
In 1823, Rastopchin published a work titled “The Truth About the Burning of Moscow” which explained his actions in 1812. During the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror (1793–1794), thousands were sent to the guillotine for execution. Tolstoy is being sarcastic here, criticizing the justifications rulers give for maintaining peace.
By nine o’clock the following morning, nobody asks Rastopchin for orders anymore. Everyone who intends to evacuate Moscow has left already; everyone else is figuring out what to do on their own. This leads Rastopchin to the realization every administrator dreads: that he is no longer necessary. The police chief comes and informs Rastopchin that a large crowd wishes to see him. He looks out at the restless mob and angrily blames the whole situation on the French. He decides that the crowd must be appeased by a victim. This idea occurs to him because he feels the same way.
Having failed in his charge to defend Moscow, Rastopchin feels useless and wishes there were somebody else to blame—a natural human response that can be deadly in such a volatile situation.
Rastopchin steps onto the balcony and assures the mob that they will punish the “villain who has brought ruin to Moscow.” Rastopchin reappears on the front porch with the political prisoner Vereshchagin whom he’s ordered brought to him. He tells the crowd that this man, having gone over to Bonaparte, is responsible for Moscow’s fall. The ragged young man smiles sadly at the silent crowd. Rastopchin shrilly declares that he puts this man in the mob’s hands. The crowd does nothing.
Rastopchin decides to blame the fall of Moscow on a convenient scapegoat—an allegedly pro-French political prisoner. He projects his own guilt and helplessness onto the man, hoping that the mob will expend their anger on this victim instead of blaming him.
Finally, one of the soldiers standing on the porch strikes Vereshchagin over the head with the flat of his sword. When Vereshchagin utters a cry of pain, the suspenseful silence breaks. The crowd’s sympathetic murmurs turn into a wrathful roar, and people surround the prisoner, tearing at him and beating him. There’s a sense that the people have to finish what they started, but Vereshchagin proves difficult to kill. Eventually, the man’s bruised, bloodied remains are dragged away by a pair of soldiers. The people shrink back, horrified at what they’ve done.
Though the people resist briefly, it doesn’t take much for the mob to take out their anger at the French on the political prisoner. This horrifying scene is a prime example of Tolstoy’s argument that war dehumanizes people, leading them to commit senseless acts. It doesn’t just happen on the battlefield; ordinary citizens do it, too.
Shaking, Count Rastopchin gets into his carriage and orders that he be driven to his country house. As his journey gets underway, he tells himself that the rabble had to be appeased. If it had been up to him as a private individual, he might have made a different choice, but as the commander in chief, acting on the tsar’s behalf, he did what was necessary for the public good. Throughout history, people who’ve committed similar crimes have placated themselves with the same justification. Besides, Rastopchin tells himself, Vereshchagin was a traitor (though the Senate had sentenced him to hard labor, not death).
Count Rastopchin justifies his actions to himself, obviously feeling guilty and rationalizing that handing over Vereshchagin somehow benefited the people as a whole. Tolstoy makes it clear that he disagrees.
By the time he reaches Sokolniki, Rastopchin has forgotten the events in Moscow and is planning how he’s going to yell at Kutuzov for abandoning the capital. Suddenly a robed madman, released from the madhouse, starts running after the carriage. He tells Rastopchin that he has been killed three times and rose from the dead three times. Rastopchin turns pale and orders his driver to go faster. He realizes he’ll be haunted by Vereshchagin’s bloody face for the rest of his life.
The inhabitants of the madhouse would have been released in advance of the French invasion, adding to the apocalyptic feel of the evacuation. Rastopchin briefly suppresses his guilt, but the madman’s words remind him of Vereshchagin come to life again and suggest that he’ll never be entirely free of what he’s done.
Rastopchin’s carriage gallops up to Kutuzov at the Yauzsky bridge. Rastopchin accuses Kutuzov of betrayal; he’d told Rastopchin that he would never give up Moscow without offering battle. Kutuzov gazes thoughtfully at Rastopchin’s expression and agrees with him—no, he wouldn’t give up Moscow without a battle. It’s not clear if he’s not thinking about what he’s saying, or if he’s aware that his words are meaningless. In a rage, Count Rastopchin takes a whip and starts dispersing the carts that are crowding the bridge.
Unable to accept blame himself, Rastopchin blames General Kutuzov for putting him in this position. Kutuzov’s response is inscrutable, though Tolstoy later offers a defense of his words, suggesting that Kutuzov simply doesn’t think much about what he says, knowing that only actions are meaningful in war.
By late afternoon, Murat’s troops enter Moscow. They ask some gathered citizens for directions to the Kremlin. At the Kremlin gates, French troops exchange fire with Russians within. The corpses of the Russian defenders, whose names are forgotten (they’d broken into the arsenal for guns), are moved aside. The French begin setting up camp in the Kremlin.
The French occupation of Russia’s spiritual and cultural heart would be felt as a deep offense, all the more because a landmark like the Kremlin isn’t even meaningful to the invaders.
French soldiers disperse into various quarters and, when they leave weeks later, they’ve turned into looters. Though commanders issue orders forbidding this activity, all such measures prove fruitless. Soldiers squabble over houses and collect any valuables they can find. The city seems to absorb the French as sand absorbs water.
The French despoil Moscow with impunity, and the city is helpless to resist.
The French attribute the burning of Moscow to Rastopchin’s “fierce patriotism” and the Russians to French savagery. However, the burning can’t be attributed to any single person. The city burned as any wooden city would burn, especially when foreign troops are billeted there. If Russians hadn’t abandoned their town, it might have been a different story.
Tolstoy’s point is one he often makes about history—that no event as big as the burning of Moscow can be reduced to a single cause. There might well have been both French and Russian culpability, but given the circumstances, it would have been more surprising if Moscow didn’t burn.