Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 15, 2009

War and Peace (1869), by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky

War and PeaceThis isn’t going to be a review – what would be the point?  This wonderful book has been analysed by countless scholars and students, and all of them would know more about it than me.   These are just my miscellaneous thoughts, jotted down as I read it…


300px-napoleons_retreat_from_moscow This was my third attempt to read War and Peace, and now I don’t understand why I found it difficult before.  Apart from its intimidating length, it’s very easy to read, although it does help to use the internet to bring scenes to life.  I haven’t been to Russia yet, so I found it useful for visualising the landscape and architecture of the cities. I got very confused by the early battle scenes because my knowledge of Russian geography is limited, so I also used the Google Earth maps from A Homage to War and Peace to get a mental picture of events. These maps are brilliant for showing the sheer scale and distance involved in the battle campaigns and the trips across Russia that the characters make. No wonder that characters in St Petersburg had no idea what was going on in Moscow! Well after the retreat Pierre’s wife Anna Pavlovna was still giving pseudo-patriotic soirees to celebrate out-of-date news that all was going well (p939-40). When the Emperor did finally learn the truth there was much fine talk about how he’d rather live as a peasant than sign and surrender (p942-3) but Tolstoy is under no illusions. Those who were in a position to reflect on the fate of Moscow were useless, while those who were actually doing something (such as Rostov in the army) were oblivious to the bigger picture (p944). Tolstoy is always conscious that historians are wise after the event while the participants don’t/can’t know what’s really going on.

Some of the sites I used show  Peterhof, Moscow and more (be selective, there’s a lot of silly tourist photos on this site, but some are beautiful (and relevant) and you can click on them to see them full size); and also these sites showing the Moscow Kremlin, St Petersburg and Smolensk.

As the title suggests, the story covers the broad sweep of the Napoleonic campaign in Russia, told mainly through the stories of five families:  the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys, with the main focus on the flawed hero, Pierre.  He enters the story as the impoverished illegitimate son of Count Bezukhov, but after some comic efforts by others to thwart it, he inherits the title and estates . However, he’s no handsome eligible bachelor, he’s a hopeless ditherer and he imprudently makes a disastrous marriage.

Poor old Pierre!  Nothing goes right for him.   Helena humiliates him with numerous affairs, and makes a fool of him with her penchant for pseudo-intellectual entertaining. His indecisiveness makes his grand ambitions falter.  He flirts with Masonry, and makes an abortive attempt to improve the lives of his peasants, but achieves nothing. Whereas his friend Prince Andrei Bolkonsky revives a straggling unit at the battle of Austerlitz, leads an heroic charge against the enemy, and is wounded, Pierre dithers over whether to join the army and finally stumbles into an engagement as an observer, getting underfoot and wasting everybody’s time.  By belatedly joining in, however, he does at least come to understand the horror and futility of war.  (In the Hollywood film of this scene Henry Fonda is dressed like a dandy and makes a real fool of himself, running right in front of a charge).

Almost by chance Pierre  is able to prevent Helena’s nasty plan to have Anatole seduce the naive Natasha, but fruitlessly falls in love with her himself.  He loves Natasha (p912) but is convinced he cannot have her, and in a strange way enjoys the suffering he feels because it is ennobling.

Pierre suffers from what Tolstoy calls the exclusively Russian disdain for good, believing that he is not worthy of it at any time.  Left behind in occupied Moscow because he couldn’t get his act together to leave in time to avoid the French, he has vague plans to assassinate Napoleon and suffer a glorious punishment for it, but when actually confronted by French soldiers he ends up saving Ramballe’s life instead and spends the night drinking with him.  (p899-909).   He sleeps in, with a hangover, and then wanders off with a rusty dagger, not knowing that Napoleon has already reached the Kremlin.  He rescues a child from a burning building only to find that her family have abandoned the situation and he is stuck with a snivelling child that he has to palm off on someone else.  (p924) His would-be heroism in trying to prevent looting is rewarded by arrest for arson and he spends time in prison, where he meets the contented peasant Platon Karatev (p972) and learns to value the simple things in life, becoming adaptable, energetic and developing ‘moral fitness’ (p1-14) (not to mention losing some of his unattractive weight.)   Since he is an aristocrat, he is pardoned but is forced to watch the execution of his fellow-prisoners, (p966-8) and then taken in convoy with other officers and soldiers when the French abandon Moscow.  He is devastated by the destruction he witnesses (p1017), and suffers horribly on the march until he is rescued by Russian raiders and finally makes his way back to Moscow to repair his estates.

Poor Sonya too.  Her love for Nikolai Rostov is doomed because she has no money.  Taken in as an orphan by the Bolkonsky family, she owes a duty to them, and this includes setting Rostov free from their adolescent engagement so that he can marry wealthy Princess Marya and save his family from bankruptcy. (p956) Her selflessness and sacrifice brings her no joy at all.  Rostov, cheerfully flirting with another man’s wife in the provincial town of Voronezh, doesn’t take much convincing (p950) that he’d be better off with a rich wife.  He knows that Princess Marya now has a romantic perception of him as  hero after he rescued her from a peasant rebellion after her father died, and she, with too few suitors due to her irascible father, is prepared to overlook ‘family problems’ i.e. his sister Natasha’s flighty behaviour when she was engaged to Marya’s brother, Prince Andrei, which broke his heart.  The matchmaker’s machinations to achieve a suitable marriage for Rostov and Princess Marya are as inevitable as Sonya’s fate as an old maid. Nobody really has any choice…

Princess Natasha, on the other hand, is absolved for her youthful flirtation and reconciled with Prince Andrei on his deathbed.  In his delirium he ponders the nature of love, and how love for the enemy can only be a divine love.  He acknowledges that he had felt hatred for Natasha because of her betrayal but now understands her suffering, shame and repentance.  (p915)  Fortunately for Pierre, Helena dies too, (p1102) making a suitably happy Hollywood ending out of this because they are both now free to marry.  Pierre has returned from his odyssey with inner peace and external freedom, not to mention a new-found faith in God. (There’s a fair bit of religious fervour in this story). Even his sister (still a bit disappointed over being dependent on him because he got the inheritance, not her) overcomes her resentment to nurse him in his recovery at Orel, and she comes to love him too.   The love scenes at the end are a bit awkward, given all that has gone before, and Marya is a little bit scandalised that Natasha recovers so quickly from her grief over Andrei’s death, but the sense of weariness about misery and a wish for happiness overcomes these scruples.  I can understand that: living through such momentous times must lead to a yearning for emotional recovery, and marriage  is a way of starting a normal life again.

I liked the ironies.  Kutuzov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian forces is addressed as ‘His Serenity’ (p738) yet he presides over appalling numbers of the dead (p817) and is only too well aware that in the chaos of war it is the under-officers who make the real decisions because everything is in flux and a commander is handicapped by having only wrong or out-of-date information or rumours to guide him. (p800).   Tolstoy lionises Kutuzov a bit, and says he is the real hero of this war (p1085) but Russians treated him with contempt because he ‘failed’ to ‘defeat’ Napoleon – and yet he did exactly what the Russian people wanted him to do, that is, evict the invader with minimal loss of life.

Tolstoy is adamant that much of what happens in war is due to circumstances which can’t be predicted.  Writing 60 years after these  events, he dismisses history’s claim that the flanking movement of the Russian army was a decision of military genius because really it was a combination of luck and a simple choice to go where there were provisions.  Kutuzov consistently refused any surrender or peace talks but used these negotiations as a delaying tactic while he regrouped this army and the French fell into disarray.  Pressured by the Emperor in faraway St Petersburg he finally had to engage the enemy but there were countless stuff-ups and all his powers counted for nothing against the inevitable incompetence.  When it was all over he was decorated by Alexander but relieved of his command, ostensibly on the grounds of his health and old age, but really because his rivals were critical of his policy that all that was required was to see Napoleon off out of Russia, not pursue him through the rest of Europe.  Kututov died soon afterwards, contented that he had done his best to minimise the loss of life. (p1102).  His greatness lay in his simplicity and wisdom, directing his powers to avoid killing people when he could.  (p1087)  The tragedy of the Napoleonic retreat was that the Russians – pursuing only to ensure that the French did leave – also died in great numbers.  Only 5000 were killed at the Battle of Tarutin, but 50,000 died on the road between Tarutin and Krasnoe in the harsh winter conditions. The only difference between the two armies was that the Russians moved voluntarily and the French had no choice, but it made no difference to the breath-taking numbers that died.  (p1082)

Tolstoy also asserts that some heroes are ignored by history.  Dokhturov who was in command whenever things were difficult – at Austerlitz, at Augesd, at Smolensk, at Borodino and finally at Fominskoe, was the one who actually began the destruction of the French army (p1021).  He’d been sent to attack a French detachment but in fact stumbled upon the whole force.  The hotheads were all for immediate confrontation, but he prudently sought orders from Kutuzov – who realised it was Napoleon in retreat, and from then on his entire efforts went towards restraining the Russian troops, letting Napoleon retreat by retreating himself.  The French troops were utterly demoralised when Napoleon himself, riding in the middle of his army, was nearly captured by Cossacks, and it’s only that they were more interested in booty that he was able to escape.   In the Hollywood film these events are near incomprehensible, but Tolstoy is master of his material and events are easy to follow.

Even when writing of military matters, Tolstoy’s imagery is brilliant.  He likens Moscow after the Russian retreat to a deserted bee hive (p874), and writes of the French soldiers being absorbed into the city like water into sand (p896).  Moscow is every Russian’s mother (p871), and its occupation by an enemy army is like a girl who has lost her honour (p871).   On page 886 he talks of administrators who feel as if they’re in charge at the prow of a ship when things go well, but when the waters are no longer calm they realise that they were never really in control and are rapidly disillusioned.

Graphic though Tolstoy’s descriptions are, film is better at conveying the noise and confusion of war.  Here’s the Battle of Hollabron

and Borodino

There’s no doubt that Tolstoy rejects the idea that Napoleon was a military genius.  On p683 he gives the reasons for the French defeat: they marched on Moscow without making preparation for the Russian winter, and they did not understand how hatred of the French led to the firing of towns such as Smolensk en route.  Both sides’ histories claim that the Russians ‘lured’ the French on and that Napoleon foresaw the danger, but this is being wise after the event.  Tolstoy is insistent that war is more messy and chaotic than strategists and historians credit, and that those in the field sometimes have more understanding of real events, but even then events are episodic.  Rostov, for example,  is decorated for his initiative in the field but it’s quite clear that it was based on impulsive bravery, not any considered strategy.

Tolstoy records the dispersal of the French army into the empty houses of the wealthy Muscovites as a failure of command which sapped the integrity of the French army.  (p896) They fired the city through carelessness because they did not belong there (p897).  When they left the city in a panic, they had ceased to be an army and all they cared about was keeping their loot.  Rather than confront his men about this, Napoleon let them keep it, which hampered their withdrawal and made them more vulnerable to successful attack by the Russian partisans.  Not only that, instead of taking a route which offered the prospect of provisions, he took the route back through Smolensk which had already been laid waste.

800px-moscow2c_st__basil27s_as_seen_from_the_westp1032-3 History claims that battles decide the fate of nations and that defeat equals conquest, but Tolstoy says that did not happen with Napoleon’s defeat of Moscow because the Russians didn’t play by the ‘rules’.  He says that a partisan force can defeat a larger force if it has the spirit to do so.  I’m not sure that this is true in World War II, but it was certainly true in Vietnam.  There’s a long and complicated analysis on Wikipedia, but Tolstoy’s argument is simple:  Napoleon was acclaimed as a military genius in Egypt (for which, he says, we have only the French account of events) and by the vanquished in Europe who prefer to ascribe their defeat to his genius than to their own shortcomings.  Russians, however, have ‘no reason to recognise his genius to cover up their shame’  (p1001) Napoleon’s failure to act intelligently in Moscow led to disaster.  He did not provision his troops, he allowed morale and discipline to lapse, and he did not pursue the retreating Russian army when they were at their lowest ebb.  He made brilliant plans, gave numerous orders and issued proclamations to impress the locals, but these did not accord with reality and were never carried out because his troops were busy looting the city.  (He even ordered that ‘La Mosquee’ be razed to the ground and it is due only to his incompetence that St Basil’s church still stands).   When he retreated he was attacked by small bands of partisans determined to rid their country of the invader, and Tolstoy mocks him mercilessly, likening him to a child imagining that he is driving a carriage when all he is doing is holding reins controlled by others out of his sight. (p1008)  (I bet War and Peace is not popular with the French!)  Mind you, I could have done without the Epilogue.  It goes on a little too long.

War and Peace Now that I have finished reading this great work, I’m now going to enjoy watching the BBC series starring Anthony Hopkins.  I was glad to have seen the Hollywood film starring Audrey Hepburn beforehand because I enjoyed visualising the characters as I read, but all that a film can do is depict behaviour, and so sometimes events and actions seemed incomprehensible.  It seems to me that much of what makes War and Peace powerful is its analysis of historical and political events, and the portrayal of the impact of war on the characters’ sensibilities.  The greater length of a 20 part series means that much more of the content can be preserved, and I am hopeful that more of the inner life of the characters will be portrayed too.

The translation I used was the new Vintage one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and it includes helpful notes, and brief chapter summaries which I used a lot because  – apart from the summer holidays when I read 25-50 pages a day – I was reading this at weekends (with something lighter for bedtime reading during the week).  There’s also an historical index but that had rather more detail than I needed, though I think it would be a very useful resource for anyone studying Russian history.  The translation leaves the French dialogues intact (with a footnote translating it on the same page)  and I enjoyed trying to translate these myself using my rather rusty school French.  There are very occasional clunky bits in the translation but overall it’s very good.  The hardback edition that I had also has a reasonable size font, which is important for comfortable reading.

Highly recommended!  And as you’d expect, it’s included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Update 1.1.10 Janine has written a terrific post about W&P over at Resident Judge. Do check it out.

Fishpond: Book – War and Peace and the DVD – War and Peace


  1. Congratulations on finishing War and Peace. It’s long been on my TBR list, and having enjoyed Anna Karenina and been inspired by your example, I hope to read it this year.


  2. I think I should re-read Anna Karenina. I read it – oh, ages ago! – and I’m sure I would get a lot more out of it now. I think that Pevear and Volokhonsky have done a translation of that too.


  3. Hi Lisa
    I’ve just finished reading War and Peace for the first time as well, and like you, I was amazed at how easy it was to read once I gave up trying to keep track of the names. I didn’t realize just how much history and philosophy there was in it. I wonder, though, why he closed the book this way, although I guess it was a way of moving away and distancing himself (and us) from the intense, very psychological approach to his characters.
    I wonder what I’ll read next- everything else feels a bit overshadowed.


  4. Hi Janine, great to hear from you!
    I know what you mean about the next book seeming a bit ‘lame’ – if you haven’t already read it, how about Doctor Zhivago? It’s another one covering a broad sweep of history through the lives of the characters, only it’s dealing with the Russian Revolution and its aftermath.
    PS Love your moniker – how’s the research going?


  5. […] La Grand Armee was forced to return the way it came, over the same landscape it had picked clean. Tolstoy denied that Napoleon had been defeated by the strategic generalship of his opponents; he was simply beaten by harsh arithmetic of nature and of negative sums and by […]


  6. I had the, War And Peace Is Not As Intimidating As It Looks conversation with someone last night.

    Me: Anyone who can handle Lord of the Rings can handle War and Peace.

    Other person: But there are no dragons in it.

    M: No, well, they didn’t have dragons in Russia.

    OP: If there are no dragons it puts people off.

    M: So what if Pierre, that’s one of the characters, turned into a wizard?

    OP: Then people would read it.

    M: Napoleon could be Sauron.

    On the subject of a Next Book after War and Peace, how about Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate? Grossman modelled his book on Tolstoy’s (the __ and __ title is not a coincidence), but the War in question is now World War II, and the Peace is the peace of Stalinist Russia, which is not a comfortable peace. The cast is huge, the sweep is panoramic, and the language is, like Tolstoy’s very simple. The psychology is not quite so delicately done, but you can’t have everything.


  7. An interesting recommendation, Deane – another one to add to the TBR!


  8. […] font that’s tiring on the eyes.  I also liked the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace so much, I wanted to see how they did Anna Karenina.   We read one part each week, and chatted […]


  9. Every year on September 7, historical military reenactors meet at Borodino Field to replay the Battle of Borodino (1812) for spectators. I believe that there is a coin toss or something similar between the Moscow & St. Petersburg reenactors’ clubs to see who “gets” to be the Russian Army and who “has” to be Napoleon’s Grand Armee! My husband and I attended in 2001, and we were delighted by the cavalry charge – which observed all Russian safety standards, if you take my meaning….

    It’s worth noting that while the actual battle was a sort of draw – only some days later did Napoleon begin to withdraw from Russia – the Russian Army prevails in grand style in every reenactment.

    Plans are underway for the 200th anniversary reenactment (2012). Russians do jubilee celebrations very well; I imagine that next year’s reenactment of Borodino will be spectacular indeed.


    • Wow, I might just be in Russia at that time!


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