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A brief history of War and Peace

As a major BBC adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel is about to air, Sarah Hudspith answers some burning questions about the book and its connections to 19th-century Russia...

A portrait of the author Leo Tolstoy on his 80th birthday. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Published: January 29, 2016 at 6:44 pm
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In context: War and Peace


Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) was one of the most prominent and successful Russian writers of the 19th century and is widely held to be one of the world’s leading authors. He was a count who owned a number of country estates and peasant serfs or ‘souls’, and he enjoyed a lifestyle of comfort and privilege.

The 19th century was a time when well-educated people in Russia began to question Russia’s place in the world and the state of Russian society, in response to events such as the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, and the urgency of solving the problem of serfdom. War and Peace offers some of Tolstoy’s views on these subjects.

First published in its entirety in 1869, War and Peace tells of the intertwining lives of several aristocratic families during the Napoleonic Wars between 1805 and 1812. We follow the warm, impulsive Natasha Rostov, the novel’s heroine, as she blossoms from a cheeky child into a loving young woman, and we see her brother Nikolai treading the difficult path between personal ambition and family responsibilities. In the Bolkonsky family we meet the bored, cynical Andrei – who sees military glory as a respite from his unhappy marriage – and the shy, selfless Maria, both ruled by their tyrannical father.

Linking the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys is Pierre Bezukhov, the socially awkward but wealthy bachelor, who is Andrei’s best friend and Natasha’s confidant. Against a backdrop of conflict which turns the social order upside down, the characters encounter love, loss, trauma, despair and hope.

Why is War and Peace so long?

It was normal practice in 19th‑century Russia for novels to be published in serial form, and War and Peace was no exception: it was serialised in the literary magazine The Russian Herald between 1865 and 1867, before the whole novel was published in book form in 1869. The total length would not have had such an impact on its first readers, who would have waited for the next instalment as eagerly as we wait today for TV serials or for the next book in the Game of Thrones series.

Tolstoy had big ideas for the novel, wanting to understand the many factors that had shaped his country and his social class, and he believed that the role of an artist was to make people “love life in all its innumerable, inexhaustible phenomena” (as he wrote in a letter of 1865). The vast sweep of War and Peace gave him the space to capture as many of those “innumerable, inexhaustible phenomena” as he could.

Tolstoy was also a perfectionist. His financial security gave him the luxury to take his time over his writing, and to draft and redraft until he was satisfied. His long-suffering wife, Sofia, copied out at least seven drafts of the novel, and after his death all the manuscripts she had preserved relating to War and Peace filled 12 wooden crates.

Why did Tolstoy choose to base War and Peace on the Napoleonic Wars?

Actually, Tolstoy began intending to write about a later period: the Decembrist Uprising of 1825. The Decembrists were noblemen who led a revolt during a short interregnum following the death of Tsar Alexander I in December 1825. In order to understand what would prompt a nobleman to join such a movement, Tolstoy felt compelled to go further back in time. Looking at the events between 1805 and 1812, he experienced a curious reaction: “I felt ashamed to tell the story of our victories over Napoleon and his armies without mentioning also our own disasters, our own disgraces,” he wrote later.

The defeat of Napoleon, which had incurred the temporary sacrifice of Moscow, had been a formative moment in the emerging Russian national identity. Dubbed the ‘Patriotic War’, it inspired numerous interpretations in art and literature which helped to define it in the nation’s psyche.

Tolstoy had seen active service in the Crimean War and was interested in what courage means for different people, how people express their love for their country and the moral implications of warfare. Thus began his project to explore the period from a human perspective.

What were the main differences between the time Tolstoy was writing in and the period he was writing about?

In terms of everyday life for the educated classes, there were no major differences. The social life of balls and salons depicted in the novel were still typical of high society in Tolstoy’s time. The men had similar career opportunities, and conditions for women were largely the same. However, hope for reform under Alexander I at the beginning of the 19th century had been stifled under his repressive successor, Nicholas I, and Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War had led to an intense debate over the country’s future.

A watershed in Russian history was Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Though in practice it did little to alleviate the living conditions of the peasantry, it required a huge shift in attitudes towards seeing peasants as individual members of society. War and Peace shows the role played by the common people and the lessons the nobility could learn from them.

What sources did Tolstoy draw on when writing War and Peace?

The sons of gentry families in Russia typically found careers in the military or the civil service. Tolstoy toyed with the latter before following his elder brother to the Caucasus to join the artillery, which suited his youthful preoccupations with gambling and womanising. He distinguished himself in campaigns in the Caucasus, was promoted, and transferred to the defence of Sevastopol in 1854. Here he experienced first-hand the violence of battle; the conflicting emotions of terror, lust for glory, and valour; the empty categories of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’; as well as the disconnect between those supposedly in command and those on the front line. All of these find their way into War and Peace.

Tolstoy also read numerous historical accounts of the Napoleonic Wars, both French and Russian, and visited the battlefield of Borodino where Russia dealt a heavy blow to Napoleon in September 1812. Similarly, Tolstoy drew on personal experience for the lives of the families in the novel. Having lost both his parents at a young age, he was fascinated by the intricacies of family life and took cues from the families of his acquaintances. In particular, his wife’s bubbly younger sister Tatiana provided the role model for Natasha Rostov.

How historically accurate is the novel?

War and Peace is broadly accurate in terms of the historical events and figures involved in them. But while true to the facts, Tolstoy put a spin on them to serve various purposes in the novel. For instance, his interest in the military campaign ends in 1812 – though Russia went on to greater success against Napoleon in western Europe in 1813–14 – because it was the battle at Borodino that generated the most patriotic fervour.

Likewise, he is dismissive of Russian commanders of foreign extraction, such as Barclay de Tolly, while portraying Field-Marshal Kutuzov as an instinctive leader inspiring in his men intuitive reactions in battle that could not have been planned by the military strategists. He created an interpretation of the period in which it was the spirit of the Russian people that repelled Napoleon.

Why does the novel contain historical essays?

The historical essays woven into War and Peace – in which Tolstoy digresses from the fictional story to discuss the meaning of history – are the most challenging aspect of the novel, which otherwise is an engrossing and enjoyable read. As Tolstoy worked on his factual sources and contrasted them with how he wanted to demonstrate the impact of war on everyone’s lives, he began to question the discipline of history itself. He took issue with the practice of attributing the course of events to decisions taken by the tiny minority of those in positions of power.

Tolstoy also realised that it is human nature to misrepresent events in the retelling of them. We see this when Nikolai Rostov unwittingly finds himself exaggerating his role in a battle when telling it to his ambitious cousin Boris. So War and Peace became a work about the very nature of history, which at times required sections where Tolstoy could express himself more philosophically. He was aware that these chapters stretched the conventional boundaries for a novel, but, ever confident in his own abilities, he claimed: “Either I am crazy or I have discovered a new truth. I believe I have discovered a new truth.”

How was the novel received in Tolstoy’s time?

Readers had a great appetite for War and Peace as it came out in serial form, not losing interest when Tolstoy extended it to a fifth, and then a sixth, volume. In 1869, the six-volume book form entered a second print run almost as soon as it came out.

However, critical reactions were mixed, mainly due to Tolstoy’s interpretation of historical events and due to the historical essays, which drew from the French writer Flaubert the complaint that “He repeats himself! He philosophises!” In the third edition of the book, the essays were moved to an appendix. However, by the fifth edition, edited by Tolstoy’s wife, Sofia, they were restored to their original place.

What has been the significance of the novel over time?

War and Peace is more than a classic of Russian literature; it is a phenomenon that is closely bound to Russians’ perceptions of themselves, and others’ views of Russia.

Though its analysis of patriotism is sophisticated and many-faceted, this did not stop Stalin from recognising the book’s potential to serve as propaganda during the Second World War (known as the ‘Great Patriotic War’ in Russia). He had the 1812 sections of the novel mass produced and even posted on billboards around Moscow.

War and Peace has also done more than any other work of literature or art to shape the Russian view of the Napoleonic Wars and is sometimes given as much weight as a historical account. Extracts of the novel remain on the Russian school curriculum, and it was chosen to represent all of 19th‑century Russian culture in the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

The novel’s cautionary reflections on the role of ‘great men’ in determining the course of history has resonances the world over, causing political commentators to invoke it in analyses of 21st‑century conflicts, including the Iraq War and most recently Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It is consistently included in lists ranking the world’s greatest novels, a status that it truly deserves.

Dr Sarah Hudspith is associate professor in Russian at the University of Leeds. BBC One’s six-part dramatisation of War and Peace airs this month.


This article was first published in the January 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 


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