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Tolstoy’s war

  • 03 March 2022
One of the most memorable scenes in Russian literature relates the thoughts of a man lying on the ground staring at the sky in the middle of a major European battle. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky is wounded. He is placed in a situation where, instead of running, fighting, and thinking every moment might be his last, he is suddenly met with silence, grandeur, tranquillity. Instead of everything being horror, deception, and emptiness, he sees only peace and infinity, and for this he is grateful. His desire for life is affirmed.

Nor does he forget his experience when caught in a place of extreme vulnerability on a battlefield. Later, when Prince Andrei as it happens encounters the architect of Austerlitz in person, he finds Napoleon wanting, ‘so petty did his hero with his paltry vanity and delight in victory appear, compared to that lofty, righteous and kindly sky which he had seen and comprehended.’

Count Leo Tolstoy’s wondrous contrast invites us to see beyond the insidious demand for attention generated by war. It is also a leitmotif for Tolstoy’s whole life. His view of war changes through time, becoming more critical and pacifist, but it is already forming in the novel where he contrasts the worlds of war and peace, their contradictory values, and distressingly different prospects. By the time he adopts the life of a Christian social activist and agrarian, his language on this subject has grown polemical and ferocious.    

‘That nations should not be oppressed, and that there should be none of these useless wars, and that men may be indignant with those who seem to cause these evils, and may not kill them — it seems that only a very small thing is necessary.’ This is Aylmer Maude’s translation of words in Tolstoy’s pamphlet ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ (1900), an article prohibited in Russia, while its German version was seized and all copies destroyed as ‘insulting to the German Kaiser.’ What is necessary? ‘It is necessary that men should understand things as they are, should call them by their right names, and should know that an army is an instrument for killing, and that the enrolment and management of an army — the very things which kings, emperors and presidents occupy themselves with so self-confidently — is a preparation for murder.’

'Tolstoy argues that people go along with their leaders because they are hypnotized by what is going on, the pomp, the