Books: How Tolstoy rewrote Russian history
A new television adaptation of 'War and Peace' reminds us of the undiminished power of this classic.
As one of the longest novels ever written, vast in scope and intellectually challenging, War and Peace is an intimidating prospect. But it is also a great story, as becomes clear during our first encounter on the page with Pierre and Natasha, two of the most engaging literary characters ever to have been created.
At the beginning of the novel, Leo Tolstoy's alter-ego Pierre Bezukhov, an absent-minded bear of a man, bumbles his way into a Petersburg high-society salon, says all the wrong things, picks up someone else's hat on the way out, and then goes on to behave with even greater impropriety at a wild officers' party.
Meanwhile, the irrepressible Natasha is all of 13 years old when we first meet her at home in Moscow a few chapters later. So anxious is she to grow up that she bestows a disarming kiss on the lips of the young officer Boris Drubetskoy, believing their lives will be forever intertwined
The most emotionally open and spontaneous of all his fictional creations, Pierre and Natasha are central to the sprawling narrative canvas Tolstoy unfolds before us, which tells of Napoleon's war with Russia in 1805 and its recurrence in 1812, when the French army invaded and briefly occupied Moscow.
They are also key figures in Andrew Davies's new adaptation of the novel for BBC1 (episode two broadcasts tomorrow night at 9pm), which whittles down myriad convoluted plot lines into six succinct episodes starring Lily James, Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson and Greta Scacchi.
Tolstoy was 35, recently married, and the father of a newborn baby when he began War and Peace in 1863. He was already a well-known writer, but he had come to prominence writing short works of fiction, as well as some celebrated pieces of reportage from Sevastopol, where he had fought as an artillery officer in the Crimean War against the British and French.
No one, not least the author himself, could have predicted that he would spend the next six years working on one of the longest novels ever written. By 1869, when he finally completed War and Peace, he and his wife Sofya, who had dutifully made multiple copies of his manuscripts, had three more children to bring up in their idyllic rural retreat at Yasnaya Polyana.
It had all begun with Tolstoy's interest in Russian history, and in particular the fate of the Decembrists, former noble officers and veterans of the Napoleonic Wars who staged an abortive uprising in 1825, three years before the writer was born. They had hoped to bring about political reform of the tsarist autocracy, but instead were punished with either execution or lifelong exile in Siberia.
In 1856, as part of his liberalisation of Russian society after the disastrous defeat in the Crimean War, the new tsar Alexander II gave an amnesty to the surviving Decembrists. Among them was Tolstoy's distant relative Prince Sergey Volkonsky, who first gave the author the idea of writing a novel about an ageing Decembrist returning to Moscow in the 1850s. As a member of Russia's titled aristocracy himself - he was born Count Tolstoy - the author was also determined to celebrate the values of his class in the face of their erosion by the radical new plebeian intelligentsia.
War and Peace followed other novels which dealt with the Napoleonic Wars - such as Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma, Thackeray's Vanity Fair, and Hugo's Les Misérables - but it was the first to chronicle the French invasion of Russia, and Tolstoy undertook exhaustive research in order to provide a realistic backdrop to his depiction of historical events.
His sources ranged from patriotic Russian and French official histories, to the memoirs of serving officers and foreign ambassadors, while elderly friends and relatives shared their personal memories, and helped track down the unpublished correspondence of people who had lived in Moscow in 1812.
Tolstoy also did some primary research of his own. The Battle of Borodino was the decisive day of confrontation between Napoleon's Grand Army and the Russian forces led by General Kutuzov. It's also a pivotal moment in War and Peace, coming roughly halfway through. In order to get the details of the battle right, Tolstoy spent two days wandering around the village and surrounding fields where it had taken place. By sketching out a plan of the battlefield, and establishing the movements of the 250,000 soldiers who had taken part, he was able to work out such vital details as exactly in whose eyes the sun had shone when it came up on that fateful day.
The 20 chapters Tolstoy eventually devoted to the Battle of Borodino combine the lofty perspectives of historical figures with the ground-level viewpoint of his fictional characters, such as his other alter-ego, Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, who is in charge of a regiment, and Pierre, a civilian caught up in the maelstrom. There is also discursive commentary from the author himself through the mouthpiece of his narrator.
The death-toll at Borodino was enormous; in a single day, the Russian army lost 44,000 men, and the French 58,000. Technically the victory was Napoleon's, as he was able to march on to Moscow after Kutuzov withdrew, but his forces were fatally weakened.
"The direct consequence of the Battle of Borodino," writes Tolstoy's narrator, "was Napoleon's groundless flight from Moscow, his retreat along the old Smolensk road, the defeat of the 500,000-strong invasion, and the defeat of Napoleonic France, on which had been laid for the first time the hand of an opponent whose spirit was stronger."
It is a spectacularly subjective view of history, but such has been the great novelist's myth-making power that his version of events was generally accepted by readers for at least a century. Modern-day historians like Dominic Lieven perform an important service by reminding us that Tolstoy got parts of the history wrong, and was also extremely selective about what he depicted: the messy final stages of the war in 1813 and 1814, which would be considered crucial by historians, are simply missed out. In 1879, when the first French translation of the novel appeared, Turgenev went out of his way to make a case for his younger contemporary, a generous gesture from a novelist whose relations with Tolstoy had mostly been fractious.
In the passionate appeal he published in a Paris newspaper, Turgenev urged French readers to not be "put off by certain longueurs and the oddity of certain judgments". War and Peace, he declared, would provide them with "a more direct and faithful representation of the character and temperament of the Russian people, and about Russian life generally, than they would have obtained if they had read hundreds of works of ethnography and history". Turgenev's assessment still stands.
Rosamund Bartlett is the author of Tolstoy: A Russian Life. Her translation of Anna Karenina will be published by Oxford World's Classics in April