The conflagration of Moscow in 1812 and the fall of the French empire are two facts which cannot be separated, but to the name of Moscow is attached another name, that of Rostopchine. Count Fedor Wassiljavitch Rostopchine is connected with one of the greatest events in universal history. He caused a crisis which decided the fate of Russia and arrested the march of ascending France by giving the death blow to Napoleon. The latter, in admitting that Rostopchine was the author of his ruin, meant him when he said, "one man less, and I would have been master of the world."
Until the year 1876 there existed a mystery around this man and his deed, a mystery which was deepened by Rostopchine himself when he published in 1823 a pamphlet entitled "The Truth about the Conflagration of Moscow," which did not give the truth but was a mystification.
Alexander Popof, a Russian Counselor of State, who made a special study of the history of the Russian campaign of Napoleon, has explored the archives of St. Petersburg, and his researches, the result of which he published in Russian in the year 1876, have brought to light all diplomacy had concealed about the events which led to the destruction of the Russian capital.
What document, one might ask, could be more precious than the memoirs of Rostopchine, the governor of Moscow in 1812? What good fortune for the historian! In 1872 Count Anatole de Segur, grandson of Rostopchine, the author of a biography of the latter, wrote, concerning these memoirs, that they were seized, together with all the papers of his grand-father, by order of the Emperor Nicholas, immediately after Rostopchine's death in the year 1826, and were locked up in the archives of the Imperial Chancellor where they would remain, perhaps forever. Fortunately, one of the daughters of Count Rostopchine had taken a copy of some passages of this precious manuscript. These passages were published in 1864 by a son of Rostopchine, Count Alexis R., in a book entitled "Materiaux en grande partie inedits, pour la biographie future du Comte Rostopchine," which is of a rare bibliographic value, for only twelve copies were printed. These same fragments, three in number, were reproduced by Count Anatole de Segur in the biography of his ancestor, of which we have spoken. Aside from these extracts nothing was known of Rostopchine's memoirs until Popof had made his researches. To verify the memoirs Popof quotes long passages which he compares carefully with other documents of that epoch. This book on the whole is a continuous commentary upon the memoirs of Rostopchine.
Rostopchine, having been made governor of Moscow in March, 1812, wrote to the Tzar: "Your empire has two strongholds, its immensity and its climate. It has these 16,000,000 men who profess the same creed, speak the same language, and whose chin has never been touched by a razor. The long beards are the power of Russia, and the blood of your soldiers will be a seed of heroes. If unfortunate circumstances should force you to retreat before the invader, the Russian emperor will always be terrible in Moscow, formidable in Kazan, invincible at Tobolsk." This letter was dated June 11/23, 1812.
At that time Rostopchine was 47 years of age, in perfect health and had developed a most extraordinary activity, something which was not known of his predecessors; the governors of Moscow before his time had been old and decrepit. He understood the character of the Russian people and made himself popular at once, and adored, because he made himself accessible to everybody. He himself describes how he went to work: "I announced that every day from 11 to noon everybody had access to me, and those who had something important to communicate would be received at any hour during the day. On the day of my taking charge I had prayers said and candles lighted before such miraculous pictures as enjoyed the highest popular veneration. I studied to show an extraordinary politeness to all who had dealings with me; I courted the old women, the babblers and the pious, especially the latter. I resorted to all means to make myself agreeable; I had the coffins raised which served as signs to the undertakers and the inscriptions pasted on the church doors. It took me two days to pull the wool over their eyes (pour jeter la poudre aux yeux) and to persuade the greater part of the inhabitants that I was indefatigable and that I was everywhere. I succeeded in giving this idea by appearing on the same morning at different places, far apart from each other, leaving traces everywhere of my justice and severity; thus on the first day I had arrested an officer of the military hospital whose duty it was to oversee the distribution of the soup, but who had not been present when it was time for dinner. I rendered justice to a peasant who had bought 30 pounds of salt but received only 25; I gave the order to imprison an employee who had not done his duty; I went everywhere, spoke to everyone and learned many things which afterward were useful to me. After having tired to death two pairs of horses I came home at 8 o'clock, changed my civilian costume for the military uniform and made myself ready to commence my official work." Thus Rostopchine took the Moscovitians by their foibles, played the role of Haroun-al-Raschid, played comedy; he even employed agents to carry the news of the town to him, to canvass war news and to excite enthusiasm in the cafes and in all kinds of resorts of the common people.