By Chet Yarbrough
Translation by Anthony Briggs
Borodino is a small town outside of Moscow. In Tolstoy’s book, it is a site of spiritual triumph for the Russian army over Napoleon’s war machine. It was interpreted by some as a Russian military victory while history’s truth was less clear because of mutual military losses. (Ironically, this is the beginning of the end for one of Tolstoy’s main characters who is wounded in Borodino’s defense.)
In winter, Napoleon’s army moves on to occupy Moscow but the French abandon Russia without victory and return to France. Russian leadership wisely ordered its army to cosset itself in the countryside while Napoleon entered the unguarded capital. Destruction of the Russian’ army was the only way to win the war. A strategy of capturing cities only offered an image of victory.
(This lesson, along with the severity of Russian’ winter, repeated itself with the ignominious retreat of Hitler’s army in WWII.)
There are many characters and themes in “War and Peace”. The three characters that stand out most memorably are Andrew Bolkonski, Natasha Rostova, and Pierre Bezukhov. Bolkonski is the elegant aristocrat with consummate personal honor, intelligence, and sophistication that fails to understand what is important in life until he is at death’s door (after his wounding at Borodino). Rostova is a young ingénue, beautiful and ignorant of life that grows to understand meaning in life with Bolkonski’s death. Bezukhov is a bumbling naif that inherits wealth, fumbles through a foolish marriage and divorce, and grows into a life of contentment and ease when he marries Rostova.
Among many themes in “War and Peace” is the denial of the “great man” theory of history. Tolstoy writes of human circumstance, conditions of an era and generalized human spirit that make individuals great. Tolstoy is not denying superiority of some over others but his story emphasizes man’s mortality, common fragility, and ephemeral existence. To Tolstoy, greatness dwells in all mankind with individual extra-ordinariness born of circumstance; not innate ability.
There is a large element of preordination in Tolstoy’s characters, as though every person is destined to live their lives according to a Master’s plan. Innate human frailties, and man’s fall from grace are determinants of man’s path in life. Happiness comes from an acceptance of fate, exemplified by the marriage of Bezuhov and Rostova after many tragedies and triumphs in their lives.
At the end of “War and Peace”, one gets some sense of what it means to be Russian. The exuberance of living life, working through hardship, believing in something greater than your self are all evident traits in Tolstoy’s characters. These human qualities reflect Russian tolerance for inept leadership and endurance when faced with the unendurable.