War and Peace in 2024



A radio host interviewing an expert on authoritarianism asked her for a reading list. The woman named a couple of heavy-sounding titles. Then she said, “and there’s always War and Peace.” Huh? Would Tolstoy’s 1869 masterwork shed light on contemporary experience? I hadn’t read the novel despite many years of formal education, so I thought I would make up for lost time. The internet helped me select which translation to order, and when the 1,256-page volume (not counting epilogue and appendices) arrived, I got busy.


            Over the course of four weeks, I immersed myself in a Tolstoy bubble, gleefully anticipating the afternoon hours when I could dip back into the story. I read every word of the 361 (short) chapters, as well as the 100-page epilogue and all the appendices. I also watched 20 hours of TV: a documentary about Count Tolstoy’s life, the six-hour BBC version of the book, and the seven-and-a-half-hour Soviet version (not as faithful to the novel as the BBC’s). I even watched Helen Mirren portray Tolstoy’s wife in a minor movie because I didn’t want to step out of the world Tolstoy had created. Being in the bubble reminded me of the time I drove nonstop across the country with three other twenty-somethings. We took turns at the wheel, stopping only to gas up, use the bathroom, and eat burgers and fries. I was a little sad when the spacecraft landed and we had to debark.


            What was so captivating in all those pages? As one commentator said, you don’t read the book, you live it. No other novelist provides the level of realistic detail Tolstoy does. You, the reader, are present at the battle of Borodino, seeing Russian soldiers defend their battery against Napoleon’s forces, thinking along with the Russian field marshal, puzzling over what it all means with the hussars making camp at night. The “peace” scenes are just as immediate and gripping: a patriarch bullies his obedient daughter, and you are plunged into her gyrating feelings. The glitter and greed of 1805 St. Petersburg society are laid out before you, as well as  its willful ignorance as the 1812 invasion begins. Behind all this realism lies Tolstoy’s unique theory of history, articulated in 26 didactic chapters and the epilogue. It is key to the narrative, and, as I discovered, it bears on today.


            To summarize, Tolstoy decried historians who held “the great man theory” of social change. He believed it was a mistake to think that the king’s or the general’s actions made a difference, or that any single event could set the wheels of society in motion. The great men, he said, are just as much the victim of circumstance as the ordinary soldier or the peasant farmer. Events are caused by “an incalculable multiplicity”* of factors, none of which is under an individual’s control. In War and Peace, none of the battles works out the way General Kutusov plans—reinforcements don’t arrive, troops go to the wrong place, rival officers defy each other, supplies are lost—yet the Russians manage to hold out against the French onslaught. Tolstoy implied that love of country let Russia prevail: love expressed in the gestures of citizens who, evacuating Moscow, burned their property rather than leave it for the French to exploit, or in the  spontaneous guerilla tactics with which ragged soldiers pursued the retreating French. Defeat did not result from Napoleon’s hubris in the depth of the Russian winter, as is commonly stated, but from the actions of the multitudes without a conscious plan.


            It seems Tolstoy anticipated what today we call “the butterfly effect”: that in an interconnected world, a small insect flapping its wings in one location can influence the course of a typhoon far away. He took the idea of overdetermination—that an event can have multiple causes, each of which is sufficient—much further than other thinkers. He wrote, “History—the amorphous, unconscious, life within the swarm of humanity—exploits every minute in the lives of kings as an instrument for the attainment of its own ends.” History is fate, Tolstoy asserted, the sum of all life forces, which only the vainglorious would deny.


            Enter Napoleon Bonaparte, who lives in the novel’s pages as a spoiled and vicious individual. “It was clear that Napoleon had convinced himself . . . that he was incapable of error and that everything he did was good, not because it conformed with any general concept of right or wrong, but simply because he was the one who did it.” Conquering Vilna, as Tolstoy wrote, Napoleon is cheered by Polish ladies waving their handkerchiefs. When he overtakes Vienna, the city fathers hustle to cooperate with him. He fully expects Moscow to fall into submission. But “history” gets the better of him. (Fact: when Napoleon invaded Russia at the Polish border in June of 1812, his army exceeded 450,000 soldiers; by the time he left Russian soil in 1813, his army had been reduced to some 10,000 regulars plus 110,000 auxiliaries.) The Russian aristocrats strutting their stuff in the novel don’t escape the grip of “history” either.


            Tolstoy set out to write War and Peace in the 1850s but felt compelled to go back to 1812 and then to 1805 to find the roots of Russia’s mid-century confusion. If a person with Tolstoian sensibilities wanted to understand today’s confusion, he or she would be compelled to look back to 2008, when Obama’s election lit the fuse of the culture wars, and then trace its sequelae to the outbreak of January 6, 2021. It would be a mistake, our Tolstoian would say, to think any one individual will control events going forward given today’s “multiplicity” of causes: increased concentration of wealth, hyperglobalization, environmental crisis—you name it. Better to ignore conventional wisdom and keep your eyes open.


            War and Peace is not an “authoritarianism for dummies.” It provides insights about how one particular authoritarian challenge played out for one particular cast of characters. But I recommend it to you because it’s great literature. The protagonists struggle to live worthy lives, and you participate. After hundreds and hundreds of pages teeming with conflict, War and Peace ends happily. I’m told that’s not the case in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s other famed novel. I plan to read it next.      




* Quotations from the translation by Anthony Briggs, Volume III, Part 1, Chapter 7.



Additional essays may be found here.