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War and Peace: a user’s guide

BBC/Robert Viglasky

War and Peace: a user’s guide

BBC/Robert Viglasky

War and Peace is more than a novel. It’s a reflection of Leo Tolstoy’s strongly held beliefs – a philosophical tract, not just about politics, war, love, marriage and property, but about history itself and the way the affairs of society are reported.

Central to the book is his antipathy towards the way in which historians of his time presented events as entirely influenced by powerful people: monarchs, politicians and generals. Tolstoy felt that human history was an infinite chain of small, insignificant moments in which all individuals, mighty or humble, were involved. War and Peace reflects this view through the characters and their interactions. To drive home his point, Tolstoy also inserts explanatory essays at various stages in the text.

Tolstoy knew whereof he wrote

In his first major novel, Tolstoy chose familiar territory. He was born an aristocrat – Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy – inheriting a number of country estates and the peasant serfs who lived on them. His background was one of comfort and privilege and he understood well the conventions and practices of gentry society.

In order to generate a familiar and authentic atmosphere for his readers, Tolstoy used names of existing aristocratic families, but changed letters here and there, for example “Bolkonsky” comes from his mother’s family name “Volkonsky”.

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy in 1848 aged 20. Pavel Biryukov

Some of the fictional characters have sources in real life. When creating the character of Pierre Bezukhov, Tolstoy drew on his own experience as an earnest but socially clumsy young man, easily tempted into excesses of alcohol, womanising and gambling. His wife’s vivacious little sister Tatiana provided a perfect model for the heroine Natasha.

The young Tolstoy chose a post as artillery officer and served at the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. He was distinguished for outstanding bravery during his military service – but his experiences taught him not only the exhilaration of battle but also its terrors and moral minefields. He brought this first-hand knowledge to life in stories such as the Sevastopol Sketches and War and Peace.

Love and marriage

War and Peace broadly reflects Tolstoy’s own happily married state at the time – the book gives us a positive picture of marriage. The main characters eventually learn how to distinguish superficial physical attraction from a deeper, more meaningful attachment. But his recognition that many marriages were economic and political arrangements is reflected in the mercenary matching of Hélène Kuragin with Pierre Bezukhov and in the loveless relationship between Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky and his sweet, well-meaning wife Lise.

Leo Tolstoy and Sofia Tolstaya in Crimea in 1902.

As his own relationship deteriorated over the years, Tolstoy grew more cynical about marriage, even going to far as to advocate celibacy within marriage in the novella The Kreutzer Sonata.

Storm in a teacup

Judged against a culture in which works of literature were heavily censored, parts of War and Peace were pretty risque. But the furore about the incestuous relationship between Anatole and Hélène Kuragin is a storm in a teacup – the relationship is remarked on twice in the book and all the television adaptation has done is to make it more explicit.

Affair: Anatole and Hélène Kuragin. BBC/Mitch Jenkins

Tolstoy was no monk himself – he lost his virginity to a prostitute at the age of 14 and experienced several bouts of STIs during his life. Tolstoy’s obsession with sex is woven into many of his works, and War and Peace is no exception.

He was not a man to be unduly coy in his work – indeed he kept diaries of his sexual experiences and insisted his wife Sofia read them at the outset of their relationship.

The death penalty

Alongside Tolstoy’s ideas on sex and love, other deeply held views find their expression in War and Peace – for example, his aversion to the death penalty. He had witnessed a guillotining in Paris in 1857 which left a profound impression on him. Some years later, he defended a soldier faced with the death penalty at a court-martial and lost the case. In War and Peace, his revulsion towards the death penalty was expressed through the eyes of Pierre Bezukhov who reports on the horror expressed by French soldiers forced to execute Russian prisoners of war.

Tolstoy and Gandhi

The battle sequences of War and Peace are thrilling and have served to make Tolstoy’s novel a byword for patriotic love for the motherland in Russian culture. But Tolstoy detested the idea of ordinary men being forced to kill each other at the behest of a country’s rulers. He used a radical interpretation of the Gospels to develop the concept of non-violent resistance to evil, in his essay The Kingdom of God is Within You.

This text was a major influence on the young Gandhi, who called Tolstoy “the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced” and corresponded with him until Tolstoy’s death in 1910.

Tolstoy the rebel

Part of the appeal of War and Peace is its lavish setting and the rich depictions of the Russian nobility in St Petersburg and Moscow.

Tolstoy in peasant costume by Ilya Repin (1901).

But, as is reflected in the novel through Pierre’s gradual growth to maturity, Tolstoy found a greater simplicity and authenticity in rural life. As he grew older, he distanced himself from his privileged status more and more, giving up alcohol, tobacco and meat, dressing in traditional peasant clothes and making his own shoes. He even renounced the copyright to his works.

He became a vocal critic of the establishment on matters such as the hypocrisy of organised religion, militarism and the penal system. After a biting satire of the corruption of Russian Orthodox Church officials in his last novel, Resurrection, the Church excommunicated him in 1901.

Tolstoy famously also held an unconventional view about Shakespeare, denouncing him as a mediocre talent and inferior to Christopher Marlowe who he rated as a far better dramatist: “I read and re-read the dramas, the comedies, the historical plays, and invariably, each time I experienced the same thing: disgust, boredom, astonishment.”

Why is it so long?

Tolstoy wrote War and Peace at one of the happiest times in his life – he was recently married and enjoying the honeymoon stage of his relationship. His finances were secure, and his reputation as a writer was burgeoning. He felt that an artist had a responsibility to make people “love life in all its innumerable, inexhaustible phenomena” (as he wrote in a letter of 1865) and, to capture this enormous concept, he needed to cover a vast canvas with vivid detail.

He took great pains to polish and redraft his manuscript, relying on his wife Sofia who read, corrected and re-copied his work at least seven times, and some passages up to 21 times.

Tolstoy’s readers at the time would not have felt the length of the novel so keenly, as it was first published in monthly instalments in the literary journal The Russian Herald between 1865 and 1867. It was so successful that when the whole book was subsequently published as a single edition, it went into a second print run almost immediately. Several more editions were published during Tolstoy’s lifetime.