200th Anniversary of French invasion of Russia

June 24, 1812. Russians call it “The Patriotic War.”

There is so much that could be written on that war of 1812 and we feel badly that we’ve not given it proper treatment on the 200th anniversary. Our apologies.

If you’ve been inside the Kremlin walls, one of the interesting displays are of the cannon lining the southern and eastern walls of the Arsenal. The Arsenal was a live Armoury built in 1701 on the orders of  Peter the Great. It stands on the spot where the Kremlin horse barns once were situated. As you follow the red arrow, just over the walls of the Kremlin (west, left of Arsenal) are the great Corner Arsenal Tower, the famous Aleksandr Gardens, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier lies along the outside wall, and the monuments to “Hero Cities” from the Great Patriotic War against the German invasion of 1941.

To the immediate right of the arrow along the upper edge of this photo (due north) and moving left to right is the historic Nicholas Tower and just over the Kremlin walls is the tall red State Historical Museum building and the rectangular shape of “Beautiful Plaza” which we Westerners mispronounce as “Red Square” although unseen from this angle.

Trivia: “Red Square” is neither red, nor square, nor named Red Square. The paving stones making up “Beautiful Plaza” are dark grey in colour and the walls of the Kremlin are of white limestone and up until just a hundred years ago or so, were not painted red. In fact, from the period of 1368 when the white-stone walls and towers of the Kremlin were erected, Moscow was called “white-stone” for many years.

In 1812 as the French army retreated from Moscow they left behind more than a hundred cannon in the Kremlin. By 1819, another 875 guns abandoned by the Napoleon’s army at the fields of battle were transferred here to the Kremlin and formed an exhibition of the Museum for the Patriotic War of 1812. Because of damage to the Kremlin interior the cannons were placed on a special base along the front of the Arsenal building.


In 1830 the collection of Russian artillery cannons was placed in front of the Armoury Chamber. Cannon bases were specially made. However, the building was dismantled in 1860 and the cannons were transferred back to the Arsenal.

Today along the Arsenal building there are 25 old Russian cannons from the XVI-XVII centuries, 15 foreign cannons of the same time period and 830 cannons, mortars and howitzers captured from the French during the Patriotic War 1812. Those guns captured from the French Armee are from a collection of European countries such as France, Austria, Prussia, Italy, Spain, and Holland.

Kremlin Arsenal cannon, photo from Brian Morrow collection.

When Napoleon retreated from Moscow, he ordered the whole Kremlin to be blown up and the Arsenal building, several portions of the Kremlin Wall and several wall towers were destroyed by explosions. Fires set by Napoleon’s troops damaged the Faceted Chamber and several of the Kremlin churches.

Napoleon wanted his engineers to dismantle St. Basil’s Cathedral for his war spoils. Saint Basil’s (not it’s real name either) is a complex work of engineering and it could not be easily or quickly dismantled. Legend says that Napoleon then ordered it dynamited but the fuses lit by his men were supposedly snuffed by a sudden rain downpour.

Trivia: The real name of Saint Basil’s Cathedral? Often called Saint Basil’s because it is the burial place for its most famous priest, Basil the Fool for Christ, the real name of this magnificent church is the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Virgin on the Moat. The original name was “Trinity Church” and the design is shaped as a flame of a bonfire rising into the sky. Saint Basil’s is not just one church, there are 8 independent chapels wrapped around a small central church in the centre, thus 9 chapels in one building.

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