Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace


Author: Andrew G. White IV, Ph.D. student in Multi-Sector Communications program

About the Author

            Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 in the Tula province of Russia and moved to Kazan after the deaths of his parents and subsequent guardians. After learning under French and German tutors, he attended Law school at Kazan University but was unsuccessful and after failing at becoming a farmer, was convinced to join the Army in the Caucasus Mountains. He fought in the Crimean War of 1854 and after submitting successful stories to the popular journal, The Contemporary, Tolstoy returned to Russia and found himself a respected and in demand author. 

            He would then leave and return to Russia after having declared himself an anarchist, all the while, still publishing in various journals and becoming a married man, despite his fear that because of his age and appearance, he would not be found acceptable by a woman. In 1865, Tolstoy published the first portion of War and Peace in the Russian Messengerand titled it The Year 1805. He completed the work four years later. 

            In his two great works War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy created a biographical fiction by taking real events and blending them with additional narratives. This type of writing is also known as realistic fiction. Both of his novels described Russian society and dealt with the major themes of love, death, and marriage. Despite his success, however, over the course of his life, he suffered a spiritual crisis and experienced great depression. This led him to pursue an understanding to the meaning of life, to disavow his relationship with the Orthodox church, and to take a position that was in opposition to the State, as it was his belief that violence was not the way to solve problems and that people should refuse to fight in wars.

            Tolstoy died on November 7th, 1910 in Astapovo, Russia, after venturing out on a journey to escape the criticisms of his wife and attention of the press. Over the course of his life and spiritual journey, Tolstoy published My Religion in which he discussed the principle of non-resistance. This concept influenced his doctrine of Truth Force and was later developed by Mohandas Gandhi in his Satyagraha philosophy and then by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his concept of Soul-Force.

Key Characters

Pytór (Pierre) Bezúkhov 

His unexpected inheritance of a large fortune makes him socially desirable but he is frustrated and becomes reclusive due to the betrayal of lady Hélène Kurágin. After a lengthy spiritual odyssey and bouts of madness, Pierre eventually marries Natásha Róstov; the woman who always understood and accepted him. 

Andréi (André) Bolkónski 

The intelligent, disciplined, and ambitious son of the retired military commander Prince Bolkonski. André is coldly analytical and tends not to express great emotion. Lonely after the death of his wife, Líza, he falls in love with Natásha, but is unable to forgive her momentary passion for Anatole.

Natálya (Natásha) Rostóv

The charming daughter of the Róstov family, Natásha falls in love with a series of men and then becomes seriously committed to André, though she ruins the relationship. Eventually, Natásha marries Pierre, bears his children and loses the spark of life that was her youth. 

Nikolái (Nicolas) Róstov                                                                                                                   Eldest son of the Róstov family, Nicolas spends much of the novel in battle. Nicolas accumulates gambling debts that become burdensome for his family but is able to pay them off after marrying. 

About the Book

            War and Peace begins in the Russian city of St. Petersburg in 1805, during Napoleon’s conquest of Europe. At this point in time, the Russian and Austrian forces are resisting Napoleon’s advances and two of the main characters, André and Nicolas, go to the front where André is injured but not killed. Another main Character, Count Kiríll Vladímirovich, Pierre’s father, dies and leaves him his fortune which empowers him to marry into misery. The relationships between various characters in the novel eb and flow between high and low points while the war continues and, for a time, Napoleon and Tzar Alexander establish peace. 

In 1812, Napoleon invades Russia, and Tzar Alexander reluctantly declares war. At the same time, André returns to active military service and Pierre comes to the feverish yet short-lived notion that he has a mission to assassinate Napoleon. The Russians and French fight a decisive battle at Borodino, where the smaller Russian army claims a surprising victory that ends the war. After the defeat at Borodino, the French leave Moscow and the Russians head home. Despite many losses along the way, destroyed homes are rebuilt, broken relationships are rekindled, and peaceful life continues. 

Of the noteworthy relationships that finds its way back from the war is that of Pierre and Natásha who broaden from the birth of four children. At the same time, Nicolas, having suffered under the strain of gambling debts and calls to renounce his inheritance, found a wife and paid them off. He would then become a farmer and develop a passion for it and for the muzhik (peasants) who aided him in working the land. 

In the Appendix to War and Peace, Tolstoy expresses some thoughts that deserve language here. 

To begin with, in response to the question of what type of work it is, he replies that it is neither a novel, nor an epic poem, nor a historical chronicle. This is due to his perspective that ‘there is not a single example of artistic prose in the modern period of Russian literature…that would fit perfectly into the form of the novel, the epic, or the story’ (p. 1217).

He then responds to the expression by some readers that the character of the time is insufficiently defined in his work. In doing so, he states, essentially, that it does not take great amounts of research to recognize the horrors carried out by human beings over time. According to Tolstoy, the error in judgments pertaining to the inaccuracy of his documentation of historical events is that we only tend to take note of the most brazen instances of violence and brutality that take place through the ages.

Tolstoy also explains how similar the human condition remains from generation to generation by pointing out that people loved, envied, sought truth and virtue, were carried away by passions, and that there was a complexity of mental and moral life that, in fact, may have been more refined in the past than in modern times. 

Finally, he acknowledges that exact historical accounts of battles cannot and should not be attempted by an artist and that there is no way to fully understand how and why historical events play out as they do. To that end, his perspective is that in all events, regardless of how much control humans think they have, our activity is an illustration of the law of predetermination, which governs history, and of psychological law, which makes man’s actions appear autonomous.


The subject of history is the life of the peoples and of mankind. To grasp directly and embrace in words—to describe—the life not only of mankind, but of one people, appears impossible. All the ancient historians used one and the same method to describe and grasp the seemingly ungraspable—the life of a people. They described the activity of individual men who ruled the people; and this activity expressed for them the activity of the whole people. To the question of how individual men made peoples act according to their will, and what governed the will of these men themselves, the ancients answered the first question by recognizing the will of the divinity who subjected peoples to the will of one chosen man, and the second by recognizing that the same divinity guided the will of the chosen men towards a predestined goal. For the ancients, these questions were decided by faith in the direct participation of a divinity in the affairs of mankind (Tolstoy, 1869, p. 1179). 

Throughout history, likely until its end, and regardless of one’s station, ‘what is the meaning of life?’ is a question that occupies the human mind at various points throughout a person’s existence. In an effort to arrive at some semblance of an appropriate response, quite often,  individuals are inclined to review history when this question arises. The reason for this is that history is regularly presented as a tool that can be employed to both teach us how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and to answer questions about how civilizations have arrived at their present circumstances.

To demarcate historical points of interest, and to effort towards the development of an understanding of life’s meaning across various contexts, several approaches might be taken. For example, one could review: noteworthy inventions, actions taken by individuals of great importance, the onset or offset of major industrial and economic revolutions, or the great battles that define and redefine epochs. Coincidentally, many of the initially identified approaches are directly connected and tend to both result from and initiate the last. 

Indeed, in the context of War and Peace, and during his entire campaign, Napoleon Bonaparte believed that he was ordained by God and destined for absolute rule. It was this belief that led him on his quest to conquer Europe and to pursue Russia, despite the massive loss of life sustained by his forces. The influence of that belief and of his essence can be felt in the streets and across the bridges of Paris that still bear his seal today. To that extent, his name will always be synonymous with the history of France and, therefore, with its people. It seems, however, that Tolstoy wanted to tell a different tale and, before making it official, may have already been on the path to expressing a disdain for war and the military establishment as a whole; a primary focus of his later work, e.g., My Religion (1884).

Despite the pain of war that is felt during its presence and long after its departure, more of the moral of the story of War and Peace is that life persists, love endures, and individuals find their way back to some semblance of peace until the next flames of war flare. This statement is true of the major characters in Tolstoy’s novel and is evidenced by life’s events taking priority over the war, itself. 

For example, even though the character André was at war, it was the death of his wife during childbirth that would impact him most severely and not the wound he suffered during battle. And while Natásha would fall in love several times during the novel, André’s participation in the war would not be the focal point of her character’s arc. Instead, it would be the consistency of her relationship with Pierre and his genuine love for her that was not blemished, despite the tracheary of a previous untrue love. In this way, it is highly probable that Tolstoy was speaking to his contentment with the fact that in his own life, despite his trepidation, he, himself had found love. 

If Tolstoy did, in fact, mean to focus on war, then it would most certainly be in two ways: first, the war that rages between human beings as they move in and out of relationships with other human beings, and second, the war that rages between individuals and themselves. These are perhaps the most taxing and impactful wars of all.

Rationale for Pericope Selection:

            Those who spend time with me learn quickly that I am a fan of film and tend to remember the details and scripts of the films I enjoy. In remembering those details, I apply many of their lessons to my life and, where appropriate, allow them to influence my academic and professional work. It was while introducing a childhood favorite to my daughter that I heard one character pose a question to which the other character replied, ‘War and Peace’. 

In light of the fact that the question was presented as a ‘Russian’ novel of great importance and of our professor’s request that our selection for this task be relevant in cultural, historical, and political contexts, the idea of selecting this novel came to me. It seemed highly appropriate, given Russia’s current battle with the Ukraine and its resemblance to Tolstoy’s Plot. 

            Not unlike Napoleon, Vladimir Putin appears to believe that he is meant to expand and, in this case, re-establish his country’s empire. First, he took over Crimea, now he pursues the Ukraine, and perhaps, depending on where his bombs land, he will be at war with Poland and Finland, as well. 

Naturally, the news is covering the war and tells the world of the events that are taking place on the battle front. Despite that fact, however, just like the ‘life’ stories that were the focus of Tolstoy’s work, it is the stories of human relationships and displays of raw emotion that seem to take more of a centerpiece role in today’s media narrative. It is these stories that stir the sentiments of external viewers and of those with the power to come to the aid of those who suffer needlessly. Similarly and regardless of whether Mr. Putin believes that he is on a mission from God to restore the Russian empire, what is most important is to maintain the belief that life and love will endure and proper judgement will be dealt to those who violate the laws of humanity and of God; but we cannot make the decision for him. 

            Often times, when in the midst of humanitarian challenges, we tend to question the role and logic of God as we search for an understanding as to why he would allow power mongers and corrupt actors to behave as they do. Further still, we ask what God’s plan is for those who hold true to his word, despite all the pain and suffering they may endure while doing so. 

According to Tolstoy, in ancient times, such questions were satisfied by a simple answer, ‘faith’. Today, such a response is less widely accepted but the question still remains as it always has: ‘If God’s intent is for the current events that are taking place to proceed as the have been, what is the bigger picture and how will it all play out?’. Tolstoy’s apparent answer is that history and the history of culture will answer that question and it seems that today, in that response is where we must place our faith.

            In the context of the battle between Russia and the Ukraine, one can only hope that the arc of history will tell a tale that rightly presents the horrendous acts of war being taken by Mr. Putin’s army. They will certainly be presented as devastating but in time, the hope is that that devastation will be comparably diminished when measured against the value of the far-reaching peace that lies just beyond the horizon of his loss. Nevertheless, just it has for those who have been lost during other attempts at global domination, history will undoubtedly honor, remember, and find a way to appropriately memorialize those who do not seek to attain power over others but, instead, who only aspire to live and love and for their descendants to do the same. 

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