A Russian author of novels, short stories, plays, and philosophical essays, Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was born into an aristocratic family and is best known for the epic books War and Peace and Anna Karenina, regarded as two of the greatest works of Russian literature. After serving in the Crimean War, Tolstoy retired to his estate and devoted himself to writing, farming, and raising his large family. His novels and outspoken social polemics brought him world-wide fame.
Date of Birth:September 9, 1828
Place of Birth:Tula Province, Russia
Education:Privately educated by French and German tutors; attended the University of Kazan, 1844-47
From Joseph Frank’s Introduction to War and Peace
Tolstoy’s masterly portrayal of military life, already evident in his earlier work, reaches new heights in War and Peace on a much larger scale. No other novel can compete with Tolstoy’s in the superb panoply he offers of regimental displays and parades, and of battle scenes seen both from a distance and in close combat. Also, as Marie Eugène Melchior, vicomte de Vogüé, noted in Le Roman russe (1886), his pioneering book on the Russian novel, which brought writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to the attention of the European public, no one could compete with Tolstoy in his portrayal of the life of the court and the upper reaches of society. The Vicomte himself, who had frequented the Russian court, remarks that when writers attempt to portray such closed social circles of the highest society they rarely succeed in winning the confidence of their readers; but Tolstoy had no such difficulty because here he was “in his native element.” He was in his native element as well, after his years in the Caucasus and in Sevastopol, in the many scenes in which the rank-and-file Russian soldiers banter with each other around their bivouacs or while marching to and from their battles.
Nothing fascinated Tolstoy more, at least in this period of his career, than the mysterious force that, as he put it, moved millions of men to march from west to east and then back again, all the while “perpetrat[ing] against one another so great a mass of crime—fraud, swindling, robbery . . . plunder, incendiarism, and murder—that the annals of all the criminal courts of the world could not muster such a sum of wickedness in whole centuries.” How could an event of this kind have taken place, “opposed to human reason and all human nature,” while at the same time “the men who committed those deeds did not at that time look on them as crimes.”
The problem of war and warfare more and more preoccupies Tolstoy as the book moves on, and it evolves into a theory of history whose ideas are scattered throughout these later chapters and argued theoretically in the second epilogue. Sir Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox views Tolstoy as a fox, unremittingly occupied with the minutiae of particulars while longing for the unitary vision of the hedgehog “who knows one big thing.” His brilliant and stimulating pages have given Tolstoy’s views on history a new prominence, but this is not the place to plunge into their philosophical complexities. As a great novelist, Tolstoy dramatizes the pith of his doctrines with illuminating clarity, and we can grasp their essential point by citing a few scenes from the book.
One such point is the impossibility of those presumably in command to anticipate what will happen on the battlefield, and thus the uselessness of all elaborate plans prepared in advance. The Austrian general Weyrother presents such a plan before the battle of Austerlitz and is certain that it will bring victory; but the combined Austrian-Russian forces are badly beaten. An even more elaborate plan is proposed before the battle of Borodino and proves equally useless. The reason for such failure is illustrated by the account of the minor battle of Schöngraben, where Prince Andrey watches the behavior of the Russian commander Prince Bagration as the fighting proceeds.
All sorts of contradictory reports came in, but “Prince Bagration confined himself to trying to appear as though everything that was being done of necessity, by chance, or at the will of individual officers, was all done, if not by his order, at least in accordance with his intentions.” As a result, officers who were “distraught regained their composure” and morale was strengthened. For Tolstoy, it was morale that ultimately decided the course of combat—the morale of the soldiers and the behavior of individuals like the unprepossessing Captain Tushin, who pays no attention to orders, responds to the immediate situation, and, as only Prince Andrey realizes, is really responsible for the Russsian success at Schöngraben . Tolstoy thus rejects the “great man” theory of history, particularly thinking of Napoleon, which attributes military success to the superior capacities of a leader capable of dominating in advance the uncertainties and vicissitudes of what transpires on the battlefield.
Prince Andrey learns another Tolstoyan lesson when, sent to report on a minor victory, he is ushered into the presence of Emperor Francis of Austria and discovers that those presumably in command had little or no interest in what really occurred to those fighting and dying on their behalf. The questions he is asked by the Emperor are completely trivial; no opening is provided him “to give an accurate description, just as he had it ready in his head,” and he realizes that the “sole aim” of the Emperor was to put a certain number of questions. “The answers to these questions, as was only too evident, could have no interest for him.” Much the same point is made about those supposedly in command, like Alexander I and Napoleon, who are so far removed from the reality of battle that they have no control over the result. Tolstoy is particularly concerned to undermine the reputation of Napoleon and does so in numerous scenes that display him as an ordinary mortal, extremely self-confident and erroneously convinced that he had complete mastery of the situation. Nothing astonishes him more than the Russian refusal to reply to his overtures for peace after capturing Moscow.