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At about four in the afternoon, French troops under general Murat starting pouring into Moscow. Murat himself drives into the city, and his people stop to ask an old porter how to get to the Kremlin. Their interpreter speaks Russian with a Polish accent and totally confuses the old man. Someone else shows them the way.
The Kremlin’s churches are ringing their bells. The French mistake this for some kind of alarm or call to arms.
They get ready to fight.
Suddenly there are shots from the gate. The French respond with cannon fire, prepared for some kind of major battle. But when they open the gate, they see three dead guys on the ground.
Murat settles into the Kremlin.
Others spread through the city, moving into houses.
Slowly they change from an army into a bunch of looters and stragglers trying to find a way to live in a weird new place. All order and army discipline is lost. It’s kind of an awesomely insightful passage – as soon as the veneer of army life is removed, these guys morph back into regular people.
There is order after order forbidding looting, but it’s like trying to herd cats, especially when there are so many fancy expensive goods left behind.
And so, eventually, the city is burned.
Afterward, French historians will say that Russian patriots did it. Russian historians will first blame barbaric French soldiers, but then also accept the Russian patriot explanation. But for Tolstoy, it’s neither. It's more like, what else do you expect to happen to a wooden city when no one is left to protect their houses or worry about fireplaces going out of control?