Leo Tolstoy left his home 100 years ago. “War and Peace” and history

When I started reading “War and Peace” one month ago, I didn't even remember about the upcoming hundredth anniversary of Tolstoy's death. Today, I finished reading it and it happens that this is the day when one hundred years ago (28 October Old Style, 10 November New Style), Leo Tolstoy left his home together with his personal doctor Makovitsky. Tolstoy planned to escape from the annoying life in the comfortable mansion and to spend his last years in poverty and honesty. The doctor didn't quite understand Tolstoy, he thought they are going to visit some family members and didn't take enough money. Tolstoy kissed his daughter, took the suitcase and they left. They took third class railway tickets and departed to Kozelsk. A lot of people smoked in the car and Tolstoy had to go outside for fresh air. He spent about 45 minutes outside and these three quarters of an hour were crucial. Ten days later Tolstoy died of pneumonia on the railway station Astapovo. So smoking killed one of the most famous Russian writers.

Well, the story of his life and death is more or less well known and you can read his biography in almost any language. I would like to talk today about his novel “War and Peace”. Tolstoy wrote later that the novel is fiction and that it may distort history to comply with the author's intentions. Indeed, there is a large number of inconsistencies, contradictions and anachronisms in the book. Let's have a look at some of them.

Do you know how the Russian text begins? Here's the first paragraph:

— Eh bien, mon prince. Gênes et Lueques ne sont plus que des apanages, des поместья, de la famille Buonaparte. Non, je vous préviens que si vous ne me dites pas que nous avons la guerre, si vous vous permettez encore de pallier toutes les infamies, toutes les atrocités de cet Antichrist (ma parole, j'y crois) — je ne vous connais plus, vous n'êtes plus mon ami, vous n'êtes plus мой верный раб, comme vous dites

This is the original Russian text, and I mean it :) Later in the novel, Tolstoy also mentions some noble whose patriotic feelings made him learn speaking Russian. Of course, Russian aristocrats of the 19th century usually spoke very good French, but Tolstoy is wrong here. In the first decade of the century, foreign-speaking aristocrats were rare. Those who lived in Russia, had to talk to their servants (and sometimes they spoke in a folksy manner for this reason). Only those who were born in abroad, spoke some foreign language sufficiently well. And this language was hardly ever French, because after the revolution of 1789 very few Russian aristocrats visited the lawless and rebellious France, they preferred Germany. Strange enough, but French became popular in the aristocratic salons after the Napoleonic wars, when children grew up who were raised in 1790s-1800s by French tutors, who fled from the revolution to Russia.

The family of Kuragins is painted by Tolstoy in a rather strange manner. Tolstoy dislikes them and his feelings are seen even in the names of the family members. So, the name Hippolyte is outstandingly unaristocratic. This name was typical for bourgeoisie, especially Polish. The title “prince Hippolyte” must have sounded absurd in 1805. His sister's name is Helene. Her name looks French, but it wasn't used among French nobility because of its foreign, Anglo-German sound. In Russia of the early 19th century, the name associated with Russified Germans. Just as often the name may be found in the form “Länchen”, purely German (the name of the wife of Faddey Bulgarin). The brother of Hippolyte and Helene has the name Anatole. The name is neutral, but extremely rare in all countries of that time.

The novel begins in the aristocratic salon of Anna Scherer, maid of honor of the Empress. Another one of Tolstoy's errors. You see, maid of honour was not just a title. She was a maid, she could not be married. And maids absolutely could not invite guests, except for close relatives, and only during the day. So, a salon of a maid would be a flagrant violation of the public norms.

Besides, in July 1805 the guests of Anna Scherer would be out of the city, all of them. The royal family with all the courtiers would leave St. Petersburg to the summer residence. Army officers (including, for example, Dolokhov) would be in the summer camps.

Anatole Kuragin asks princess Mary for her hand in marriage, but he was only twenty years old. It was too early for him to marry. Later, he tries to run away with Natasha Rostova, even though he knows he cannot marry her (he had been married by that time). He should have known that Natasha was not a plebeian gal, she was a lady and ladies were not that defenceless. Firstly, Natasha's brothers would have demanded satisfaction. Secondly, Rostovs were a noble family and could have complained to the emperor himself, and his rage would have been quick and merciless. So, prince S. Trubetskoy was deprived of his title and property and sent to the army as a mere soldier when he tried to run away with a married lady.

Helene Kuragin wanted to divorce Pierre Bezukhov so much that she converted to catholicism, writes Tolstoy. Well, actually, she didn't have to. She could have divorced without much problems, because of the long time they lived separately. It was a legitimate reason for divorce. On the other hand, in 1812 the number of conversions to catholicism, always very small, dropped to zero. The problem was that the order of Jesuits was disbanded by the Pope in 1773 and restored only in 1814. In the meanwhile, the Jesuits found a shelter in Russia and their situation was so unstable that they would not risk losing the favor of the emperor by proselytizing.

Tolstoy writes about Prince Andrew: “After the Austerlitz campaign Prince Andrew had firmly resolved not to continue his military service, and when the war recommenced and everybody had to serve, he took a post under his father in the recruitment so as to avoid active service.” It was hardly probably, since nobody could make a Russian aristocrat to serve unless he wanted to. This freedom was granted by the 1762 Manifesto of Peter III.

When Natasha Rostova visited her uncle, she danced in typical Russian manner, says Tolstoy: “Where, how, and when had this young countess, educated by an emigree French governess, imbibed from the Russian air she breathed that spirit and obtained that manner which the pas de chale would, one would have supposed, long ago have effaced? But the spirit and the movements were those inimitable and unteachable Russian ones... She did the right thing with such precision, such complete precision, that Anisya Fedorovna, who had at once handed her the handkerchief she needed for the dance, had tears in her eyes, though she laughed as she watched this slim, graceful countess, reared in silks and velvets and so different from herself, who yet was able to understand all that was in Anisya and in Anisya's father and mother and aunt, and in every Russian man and woman.”

But Natasha spent a large part of her life in village and she had to have seen the village girls dancing and, of course, she knew the folk style of dancing.

Now, Pierre Bezukhov. When he first appeared in the book, “Anna Pavlovna greeted him with the nod she accorded to the lowest hierarchy in her drawing room”, because he was a bastard, but the bastards were not treated this way even in the highest society. So, another bastard, N. Novosiltsev, the base son of the sister of the Count Stroganov, was one of the “young friends” of the emperor Alexander.

In the age of ten, Pierre left Russia and spent another ten years abroad, and yet, unlike Hippolyte Kuragin, he speaks Russian very well.

Pierre's ties with the freemasons do not look very trustworthy. By that time the old-fashioned rituals of freemasons were already looked upon sarcastically, their Golden Age was in mid-18th century.

The funny thing with all these (and many other) anachronisms is that even when you are aware of them, the novel remains a masterpiece. You understand the characters better, the storyline becomes straight and clear. After all, Tolstoy is still a great writer, even though his Russian style looks so awkward that many Russian readers turn to hatred. So, one of very good science fiction writers, Svyatoslav Loginov, agnrily criticizes “War and Peace” for the last fifty pages, where Tolstoy explain his philosophy of history. I agree, these final pages are unbearable (and I never read them to the end). And yet, the book is great. The battle scenes are overwhelming, the plot is absorbing, the characters are vivid and the language is unmistakably Tolstoyesque: awkward but precise.

If you ask me, the best character in the book is Kutuzov, the master of zen war, who defeated Napoleon by escaping him. Oh, and the best reason to love “War and Peace” is not in the book. She is in the movie, and you know her name: Audrey Hepburn :).

This post is heavily based on the information borrowed from the article “Historical Context in Fiction: Aristocratic Society in the Novel ‘War and Peace’” by Ye. Tsimbayeva, published in the magazine «Вопросы литературы» 2004, №5. The full text is available here: “Исторический контекст в художественном образе (Дворянское общество в романе «Война и мир»)”


Seesaw said...

"War and Peace" the best novel ever written! (And I studied English and German literature in my youth!:)))

Dmitri Minaev said...

Well, I wouldn't call this novel the best ever, but I strongly disagree with those who call Tolstoy a graphomaniac (like Svyatoslav Loginov, a good SF writer, does: О графах и графоманах или Почему я не люблю Льва Толстого).

Ree said...

Hello :) I've just found your blog, and I think it's really good. I'm also blogging about russian culture (but i'm from Poland, so it's in polish). I just want you to show you video footage of Leo Tolstoy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XjN4DCNt6E (well, maybe you have seen it before). Anywa, greetings from Poland :)

Dmitri Minaev said...

Cześcz, Ree! Thank you for that video. No, I haven't seen it before and I enjoyed it. Oooh, how I love these old movies! Like this one, which I posted more than a year ago:
1908 video: Winter in Moscow .

Greg said...

"…the best character in the book is Kutuzov, the master of zen war, who defeated Napoleon by escaping him"

The description of Kutuzov a the positive force in the war against Napoleon and Barclay as his negative opponent is probably the biggest "error” in this book.

Pushkin had a better understanding of this war than Tolstoy, who as you rightly say, uses the topic to develop his theories against this backdrop.