War and Conflict

Russian Revolution

Why did the Russians burn Moscow?

The September 14, 1812, torching of their own city was directed by Tsar Alexander I (1777–1825), who wished to prevent Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) and his invading armies from reaping the benefits of anything Russian. Through a series of wars, Napoleon had dominated most of Europe by 1805. The authority of Alexander was certainly threatened by the French emperor. In 1805 and 1807 Russia suffered major losses in battles with Napoleon’s armies. In the face of these defeats, what Alexander did next was a stroke of genius, though he had many detractors at the time: Napoleon’s forces, though victorious, were weary from fighting and were unable to pursue the Russian armies further. So, Alexander made peace with the emperor in the Treaty of Tilsit (1807). The Russian ruler vowed support of Napoleon, and for his part, Napoleon believed Alexander had extended him a hand of friendship. Instead, the cunning Russian ruler had bought himself and his country the time they needed to gird themselves against powerful Napoleon.

By 1812 Russia, its economy dependent on exports, resumed trade with Great Britain, Napoleon’s archenemy. This prompted the return of Napoleon’s troops to Russia: Later that year the French emperor marched into Russia with a force of as many as 600,000 men, but the Russians still delivered Napoleon a crushing defeat. The Russian army had relied on guerrilla warfare tactics, including burning their own countryside. Napoleon returned to Paris in defeat by the end of the year.


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