That Time Moscow Burned To The Ground
When The Great Fire of 1547 burned Moscow, killing thousands of Russian citizens, the people of Moscow had no idea how many huge fires would follow this first big one. It was like they only rebuilt so they could burn it down, a theory Russians validated in 1812 when the French attacked.
It was June 21, 1547, when the first great fire started in Moscow. When it was over, some 2,500-plus Russians would perish, not including children because who counts children in 1547?
When the 1547 fire broke out, Russia had only recently crowned her first Tsar, Ivan IV (A.K.A. Ivan the Terrible). The fire would stick Ivan with the task of rebuilding the city but also of discovering the culprit of the fire amidst accusations of witchcraft pointing at his own family.
City on Fire
For a city, Moscow has suffered many fires they call “The Great Fire.” The most famous one was the fire of 1812, when Count Fyodor Vasilyevich Rostopchin evacuated the city and ordered it burned. Napoleon was invading, and the Count wasn’t about to hand him Moscow.
Lest you thought of that famous story, this isn’t that fire. That one didn’t kill too many Russians because they’d left the city by the time it was blazing.
The 1812 was pretty bad though. Count Rostopchin even let the prisoners out, another little surprise for Napoleon. All that was left in the city were some lower class citizens and the French immigrants still hanging about.
Another fire in 1737 damaged the Kremlin so badly it warranted a redesign, but it was hardly a “great” fire. It was more of a pain; the pain in the rear fire of 1737.
Once before those two, in 1571, another group of invaders, the Crimean Tatars set a fire that killed tens of thousands in Moscow. That one was the worst, but it wasn’t the first.
The first fire was a matter of terrible timing and vicious rumors.
The First Fire
The fire that beat them all to the chase was the great fire of 1547. It was June 21. We will never know how it began, but the end result left the Kremlin damaged and the capital as bad.
Of those it did not kill, the fire left tens of thousands of Moscow’s citizens without homes. Our best estimates are that 80,000 people were homeless in the wake of the fire. It was massive.
The Russian historian Nikolay Karamzin once described the fire in a book titled The History of the Russian State:
“The entirety of Moscow appeared as a single enormous blaze, under clouds of thick smoke. Wooden buildings simply disappeared; stone ones cracked and fell apart; iron parts and implements glowed red with heat, copper turned liquid. The roar of the storm, the crackle of the fire and the screams of people trapped in the blaze were repeatedly drowned out by the explosions of gunpowder that was stored in the Kremlin and other parts of the city.”
Karamzin’s account reads like a horror novel. Later accounts would regard the blaze as the first sign of darker times to come. Ivan would later earn the title of Horrible for his leadership. The fire was an omen.
Adding a dash of spookiness to history, the people of Moscow decided the fire began as an act of Witchcraft. Russians of the time notoriously held a fascination with the occult, a proclivity they would carry into modern times.
The citizenry turned their attention to the Glinski family, a royal family who’d had a part in raising Ivan. The people believed Anna Jaksic Glinskaya, Ivan’s grandmother, had cursed the city.
The rumor spread fast, and the people looking for someone to blame began to protest the Glinskis. In one case, they dragged his uncle into the street where they stoned him to death.
They also turned up at the palace where Ivan had holed up during the fire. They were demanding he turn over the Glinskis he was hiding inside, but he insisted there were none.
Once the fanatical response to the fire calmed down, Tsar Ivan set about rebuilding the city. To make sure this never happened again or that they did everything they could to prevent it, Ivan made it law that the citizenry keep barrels of water on their properties. They were to put one in the yard and one on the roofs of their houses.
Part of the new mandates were that they build ovens and fireplaces away from the house. He forbade them from using ovens during the summer months.
From that time, Moscow rolled out their first water pumps for fighting fires. In the long run, none of it would be enough. The fire would return again and again.
For Ivan, the long-term effect of the fire would mean a more empowered regard for his leadership. He would go on to earn his title as terrible, but that is a story for another blog.