When Napoleon decided to invade Russia in 1812, why did he target Moscow instead of Saint Petersburg?

At the time, Saint Petersburg was the Capital of Russia, not Moscow (although Moscow may have had a higher population). If Napoleon moved on this capital, it may have forced the Russians to stand and fight instead of continuously retreating deeper into Russia.

Also, I think Napoleon's army might not have froze so much either on the way in or out, because they could stay close to the Baltic coast (the ocean has a mitigating effect on extreme temperatures; an example is Saint Petersburg which is warmer than Moscow throughout the year despite being farther north).

So why go to Moscow? Was he maybe planning on Moscow first and Saint Petersburg second? That seems like quite a lot to do in just half a year. I don't understand why target Moscow. The distance from Central Europe to Moscow seems about the same as the distance from Central Europe to Saint Petersburg.

  • 1
    IIRC most of the Russian forces were already on the other side of his army. He sent a detachment to take St Petersburg while he himself attempted to engage the main army and they failed.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 6:37
  • 5
    Related but not exactly relevant: Charles XII of Sweden also chose to march on Moscow instead of capturing Saint Petersburg during his invasion of Russia.
    – NSNoob
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 7:38
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    At Charles time, Moscow was the capital, and Saint Petersburg was a construction site on occupied land.
    – andejons
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 9:37
  • 1
    @user907860 Charles had a secret ally in Ukraine, and it was an autumn already. So he had no other option, actually.
    – Matt
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 18:23
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    Napoleon sent the II and X Corps. They would've numbered about 60k strong combined, but were defeated by the Russian I Corp under Peter Wittgenstein and driven back before they could link up. This is how Wittgenstein earned the name Saviour of St. Petersburg, by the way.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Feb 20, 2016 at 6:05

2 Answers 2


Napoleon's initial objective was defeating Russian army in a border battle. Immediately after that he was planning to start negotiations and, among other things, to restore the alliance with Russia. Neither Moscow, nor St.Petersburg were of any use for him.

On the other hand, Alexander I considered the possibility of losing both St.Petersburg and Moscow from the very beginning. And the plan would remain absolutely same.

Still being in Smolensk Napoleon tried to start peace talks, but had no success. Then he must have realized that the things didn't go as planned, and Russia was ready for a long war of attrition. And even capturing, say, St.Petersburg would change nothing. So he took his chance in pursuing Russian army and forcing it into battle.

Napoleon expected that public opinion wouldn't let Russian army to retreat forever. But, as we know, the battle of Borodino gave him nothing except abandoned city of Moscow. He tried to start peace talks several times, but had no answer at all.

Thus going to St.Petersburg instead of Moscow in the beginning of the war would let Napoleon to retreat from Russia easily, that's true. But he sought for a chance to win, and capturing St.Petersburg was totally useless from this point of view.

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    No. The history of the 1812 war starts by the Napoleon's citation: "If I would take S.P., I would hold Russia by the head. If I take Kiev, I will hold Russia by legs. If I take Moscow, I will reach right into its heart!" The Moscow was the target. It is also mentioned in Stendal's diaries.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 21:34
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    Any source for the sentence "Alexander I considered the possibility of losing both St.Petersburg and Moscow from the very beginning".? I VERY strongly doubt this.
    – Alex
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 22:50
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    @Gangnus That's just a popular spoof. In reality Napoleon both said and planned absolutely different things.
    – Matt
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 8:22
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    They did not completely avoid battles, and it seems clear that there was no plan to abandon Moscow in the BEGINNING. The decision was made by Kutuzov (after a large BATTLE) and it was highly controversial in the Russian command.
    – Alex
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 13:51
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    Marching on St Petersburg is also turning his back on the Main Russian Army which could easily cut across hi supply lines. Even if St Petersburg was the Main target the covering Force facing the Main Russian Army would be much large than the Actual force marching on St Petersburg. The March to St Petersburg is through country that had worse roads and lower populations and less available forage.
    – pugsville
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 1:38
  1. Moscow was a capital in XIX cent. It was "old capital", "second capital", but capital it was. Without any doubt it was the main religious center.
  2. Moscow was a main road hub. Taking it and controlling the nearest surroundings, Napoleon controlled all main roads. At least, he thought so. The problem was, that being the best tactic, he was weak as a strategist. And against him Kutuzov stood, maybe the best strategist at all. He was famous for winning wars without battles. This time Napoleon had the hub, Kutuzov sat nearly and it was Kutuzov who blocked Napoleon, not vice versa.
  3. Yes, taking St.Petersburg was much easier. So, Napoleon thought that Ponyatovsky would be enough. The same as he thought that Schwarzenberg will take the Kiev.
  4. None of his strategic plans in Russia were successful. By the way, Napoleon never thought about the retreat until it happened and never thought about famine until Kutuzov MADE him to return the same road.
  5. If 640000 ( Or even 320000 that went in this direction) army would go all along the same road to the ST.Petersburg, they would start to die of hunger much earlier than on the BACK route.

Conclusion: There were reasons to choose Moscow for a target, but it could be only a preliminary target. And it was. Taking it did not help to make Russia to capitulate. So, the decision to go for Moscow was voluntary, purely personal and erroneous. But choosing the St-P would be even worse error. Napoleon simply could not solve the task - what intermediate tasks could win the war in Russia.

Napoleon wanted a decisive win. History teaches that it is impossible to win over Russia without it having the inner conflict. In 40 years the half of Europe, having the technological edge had managed to get only one important port from Russia.

Overtaking the rich western regions of Russia would be much more effective and easy. And really possible. Or Napoleon could initiate and support the civil war in Russia, claiming the freedom and ground for farmers. And Russia would become his willing and eager ally.

But Napoleon wanted to prove his geniality of a tactician once more. So, he had set the impossible task of total and pure military win over Russia. An impossible and/or foolish task is an often reason of fail for dictatorships. Maybe the main one.

  • 2
    640,000 didnt take the road the Moscow. That includes all forces operating in Russia, Austrian and Prussian,and the number may have been less as units were understrength. The Road to St Petersburg in harder in some ways.
    – pugsville
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 1:32
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    No, it is the number of all forces, French and allies, that entered the Russian Empire. And I never said they all went for Moscow. It was the questioner who said they all should go in one place (ST-P) and asked why Napoleon didn't order that.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 0:16
  • @pugsville BTW, Schwarzenberg, that general, who lead to Kijev the Napoleon forces in 1812, was an Austrian general. Austria and even Prussia were on the Napoleon's side this year. The whole continental Europe, except Spain united under Napoleon this year against Russia. And Napoleon's forces altogether were 1200000 men. And Austria had not French garrisons. Really, you should more read before writing such erroneous comments
    – Gangnus
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 17:04
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    Prussia and Austria were somewhat reluctant Allies. Prussia very much so, the on going occupation of Prussia and extractions by the French (in contravention of the treaty of Tilset as Prussia had paid off the requirements of the treaty) Both would turn on Napoleon given a good chance. I would query the word "United", Napoleon was able to force their participation in his campaign but they were hardly keen.
    – pugsville
    Commented Jan 15, 2018 at 2:14
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    @pugsville The commander of all southern wing, Schwarzenberg, was an Austrian marshal. Austrian princess was a Napoleon's wife. This ally has its own grudge on Napoleon, but against Russia it was an eager ally. Prussia, yes, was not SO eager, but anyway, it sent its army, too. Read the first line here: (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Paris_(1812)).
    – Gangnus
    Commented Jan 15, 2018 at 12:56

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