Tolstoy As Villain: Tolstoy, Tolstory, Tall Story
Russia’s defeat of Napoleon is one of the most dramatic stories in European history. The war has been immortalized by Tolstoy in his epic, War & Peace. There is no great puzzle as to why Russia fought Napoleon. How it fought him and why it won are much bigger and more interesting questions. To answer these questions requires one to demolish well-established myths.
It is not surprising that myths dominate Western thinking about Russia’s role in Napoleon’s defeat. What happened in 1812–14 is usually distorted in British, French and American books. Popular works on the Napoleonic era necessarily follow a rather set pattern.
Fascination with Napoleon, with the timeless lessons to be learned from military genius, along with the fame of Clausewitz, generally seen as the greatest of all thinkers on modern war, has meant that the Russian side of the story paled in comparison. And got short shrift. The result is that the Russian side of the story is ignored or misinterpreted, with historians largely seeing Russia through the prism of French- or German-language sources.
The European Myths
The distortions manifest first as sort of colonial racism. Napoleon himself set the tone by finding few words of praise for any Russian troops other than Cossacks – ascribing to them the cause of his own retreat. Blaming defeat on the Cossacks or the weather was useful. Since the French army had no Cossacks and the weather was an ‘unfair’ act of God, no French officer need fear that by invoking these sources of disaster he was questioning his own superior virility or professional skill.
Thus, studies of the 1812 campaign in English mostly concentrate on Napoleon’s mistakes, on the problems created for the French by Russia’s geography and climate. The year 1813 traditionally belongs to German authors celebrating the resurgence of Prussia and the triumph of German patriotism.
The Russian Distortion
Thus the rest of Europe had a complete version of how events transpired. But, what of Russia itself?
In Russia, the later Decembrist revolt and its suppression was the beginning of the exceptionally bitter split between right and left in Russia which eventually ended in the revolution of 1917. The violent hatred between the two camps helped to poison and distort memories of 1812–14.
When it took over the 1812 myth and made it an integral part of Soviet patriotism, the Communist regime to a great extent set such ideas in stone. The historical reality of Russia’s war effort had to be startlingly distorted to suit official ideology in the Stalinist era. Nobles and the Royalty had to be vilified; a folk hero in the form of Kutuzov had to be elevated; and the significance of mass resistance to Napoleon had to be exaggerated.
The Loudest Voice: Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy was by far the most important nineteenth-century mythmaker as regards his impact on Russian (and foreign) understanding of Russia’s role in the Napoleonic era. Tolstoy depicts elemental Russian patriotism as uniting in defense of national soil.
War and Peace has had more influence on popular perceptions of Napoleon’s defeat by Russia than all the history books ever written. By denying any rational direction of events in 1812 by human actors and implying that military professionalism was a German disease Tolstoy feeds rather easily into Western interpretations of 1812 which blame the snow or chance for French defeat.
And, perhaps most important in the context of this work, Tolstoy, by ending his novel War and Peace in December 1812 with the war only half over and the greatest challenges still to come, he also contributes greatly to the fact that both Russians and foreigners largely forget the huge Russian achievement in 1813–14 even in getting their army across Europe to Paris, let alone defeating Napoleon en route. Thus, the long, bitter but ultimately triumphant road that led from Vilna in December 1812 to Paris in March 1814 plays no part in his work, just as it was entirely marginalized in the Soviet patriotic canon and in contemporary Russian folk memory.
So instead of being a voice for Russia, this popular or ‘Tolstoyan’ Russian interpretation of the war fits rather well with foreign accounts that play down the role of Russia’s army and government in the victory over Napoleon.
Napoleon himself was much inclined to blame geography, the climate and chance; this absolved him from responsibility for the catastrophe. Historians usually add Napoleon’s miscalculations and blunders to the equation but many of them are happy to go along with Tolstoy’s implied conclusion that the Russian leadership had little control over events and that Russian ‘strategy’ was a combination of improvisation and accident.
Inevitably too, Russian lack of interest in 1813–14 left the field free for historians of other nations who were happy to tell the story of these years with Russia’s role marginalized.
The above is a summation of the basic premise of the book. The author goes on to demonstrate that these ‘stories’ are myths and tries to give a detailed analysis of how Russia really defeated Napoleon. He gives details of every campaign, including logistics, troop recruitment, weather patterns, foreign policy manipulations, chance events, etc. It is fascinating yet quite tedious.
For now, I can provide no comments on the author’s thesis and can only form an opinion after further exploration of the events through other histories. To me, the premise of the book was more interesting and perhaps more important than the actual content itself, which is passably good but never intriguing.
I can comment on whether this really is essential reading or not for explorers of Tolstoy (and students of Russia, by default) only after finishing War & Peace, but for now it does seem to be.
- Best infographic ever. (sourcererblog.wordpress.com)
- How Napoleon Fell from Power and It’s Effects (jaw77710.wordpress.com)
- War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (theneovictorian.wordpress.com)
- Napoleon Bonaparte (qanitadhanani.wordpress.com)
- 1813-1814 : Napoleon blowing bubbles (retronaut.com)
- The Bloodless War Between Britain and Sweden sets the Stage for One of the Bloodiest Battles of the Napoleonic Era (crackedhistory.com)