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Tolstoy’s war



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 power, the false motives. Men are stupefied into becoming ‘instruments for murder’.' 


Tolstoy argues that people go along with their leaders because they are hypnotized by what is going on, the pomp, the power, the false motives. Men are stupefied into becoming ‘instruments for murder’. It’s not one particular person who causes oppression and wars. The misery of nations is caused ‘by the particular order of society under which the people are so tied up together that they find themselves all in the power of a few men, or more often in the power of one single man: a man so perverted by his unnatural position as arbiter of the fate and lives of millions, that he is always in an unhealthy state, and always suffers more or less from a mania of self-aggrandizement, which only his exceptional position conceals from general notice.’

Tolstoy concludes by saying ‘we may help to prevent people killing either kings or one another, not by killing — murder only increases hypnotism — but by arousing people from their hypnotic state.’

Between these two publications, Tolstoy wrote a tale that James Joyce said in a letter to his daughter is ‘the greatest story that the literature of the world knows.’ In ‘How much land does a man need?’ (1886) a peasant woman says to her sister, ‘All may be well one day, the next the Devil comes along and tempts your husband with cards, women and drink. And then you’re ruined. It does happen, doesn’t it?’ The husband hears this and complains that his only grievance is that ‘I don’t have enough land. Give me enough of that and I’d fear no one — not even the Devil himself!’

But the Devil has been listening the whole time and decides to play ‘a little game’ with the man. The husband finds more and better and larger deals for acquiring land, sowing crops, building impressive homesteads, and all the time the land deals get more outrageous, and further away from his home in distant provinces. The more land he gets the more land he wants, to the point where he exclaims ‘If I stopped now, after coming all this way — well, they’d call me an idiot!’ Eventually he is tempted by a land claim so exorbitant that it brings about his own demise. Without spelling out the moral, Tolstoy’s concluding sentence records the husband’s workman digging his grave, ‘six feet from head to heel, which was exactly the right length — and buried him.’


Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is the poetry editor of Eureka Street. He maintains a word study site, a poetry readings site and a workplace blogspot.

Main image: Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828 - 1910). (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, Tolstoy, War and Peace, Literature



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Tolstoy became an extreme pacifist and a pseudo-prophet towards the end of his life. He was regarded with some suspicion by the Russian Orthodox Church. I would suggest self-defence and the desire to keep your country free from foreign occupation are both good and decent manifestations of the human spirit. Having a military can be a temptation to use it in situations it should not be used. Hence British suppression of Indians peacefully demonstrating for Indepence, as with the notorious Amritsar Massacre. I was edified when General Sir Michael Rose pressed for Tony Blair to be prosecuted for the Invasion of Iraq. That showed not all military men are mindless automatons. Morality in real life is a difficult thing. It is harder to achieve than in literature.

Edward Fido | 04 March 2022  
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The idea that literature and morality are separate areas of human enterprise is mistaken. Late period Tolstoy is a difficult and yet fascinating figure, not least because he was a very famous person, inside and outside Russia. To call him a pseudo-prophet is to diminish what he must have seen as necessary action, where he could play a role. The Orthodox Church was more than just suspicious. Tolstoy was in open dispute with the leaders, arguing you didn’t need a church to follow Christ. I believe he sent similar attacks in the direction of Rome. His 1900 pamphlet is certainly prophetic of 1914 and it’s no wonder they wanted such a famous person to shut up. The building of armaments and sabre-rattling going on in all the imperial countries of Europe was leading in only one direction, and it wasn’t self-defence.

Philip Harvey | 07 March 2022  

' ‘It is necessary that men should understand things as they are, should call them by their right names''

Tolstoy the reductionist.

roy chen yee | 04 March 2022  
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Far from reductionism, Tolstoy is calling out both denialism, i.e. pretending that warmongering is something other than warmongering, and propaganda, i.e. all of this preparation for war is not only good for you, it is about national pride. A common English word in this context is jingoism.

Philip Harvey | 07 March 2022  

It could be argued that to be reductionist is to look for the basic operating cause. Whose warmongering? Russia’s, or is the problem simply Putin? Is there ‘denialism’ or ‘jingoism’? If the problem is only Putin, perhaps there’s none of that except an interest in not being seen to be a little brother to Xi. Perhaps he’s only putting Trump’s ‘unpredictability’ into practice so that if Xi does see him as a little brother, it’s with the same wariness that Xi sees Kim Jong Un as a little brother.

Anyway, if this war is to teach anybody something, it’s to teach Pakistan to hang on to a military nuclear capability, Iran to make some, France to feel justified in having an independent military nuclear capability, and people in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan to start thinking about the issue. And to make ‘unpredictability’, rather than Chamberlain spinelessness, a governing virtue.

Now we all know what could happen to a country without nuclear weapons which borders a country with.

roy chen yee | 08 March 2022  

A very apt analogy in the current political crisis as Putin's Russia owns more land and natural resources than any nation on earth. Of course also being the richest man on earth, a mere $200 bn, rules of course were made to be broken.
Anyone for a cup of tea?

Francis Armstrong | 04 March 2022  
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It is interesting in this context to remember that Tolstoy, the aristocrat and landowner, rebelled against his own class. His identification with peasants and the working people of Russia is a growing and changing theme in all his writing, fiction and non-fiction, because he is putting out there his own thinking about these social divides and their injustices. He is not a workers revolutionary out to topple the czar. He knows the czar, literally. Tolstoy is coming from inside the power structure of 19th c. Russia, from the centre of wealth and influence. He has seen it all first-hand.

Philip Harvey | 07 March 2022  

I wonder if one (and there are several of them) of the great Russian novelists/playwrights whose panorama was wide and brilliant were put in charge of the government of their vast land. Maybe the bear would become a bit more cuddly. Or at least more reflective.

Pam | 05 March 2022  

Perhaps the greatest of all novelists, Tolstoy had a gigantic ego: “I have not yet met a single man who was morally as good as I.” His diaries were written with an eye to future publication and a defense against critics. His wife Sonya wrote: “How much of what he says about me…is unjust, cruel, untrue, distorted and fabricated.”
Tolstoy wrote that he wanted to create a new faith, based on Christ, but “promising not a future bliss but giving bliss on earth.” He wrote of “the fabrication of the resurrection” and Dostoevsky realised: “where Tolstoyan thought would lead—to Christianity without Christ.”
He desired social and political reforms, but like other intellectuals, he appeared to love humanity, but not humans. Sonya wrote of his, “lack of love for a person by professing some love or other for the whole world.”
Like Marx and his own father, he never acknowledged his illegitimate child, Timofei Bazykin, and made no effort to educate him while preaching the necessity of educating the peasants.
He distrusted democracy and parliaments. He was yet another intellectual who pursued abstract ideas at the expense of actual people. The 1917 revolution destroyed the Russia he loved.

Ross Howard | 06 March 2022  
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Unfortunately, the history of Russian literature’s relationship to the Russian state is grim. For example, Tolstoy did not have to live through the Stalinist period, where he would not only have been told what to write about by the state, but how to write it. The Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich is someone of great value to read. She is currently living in exile in Germany for obvious reasons, which is why she may never complete her latest project about how everything’s gone wrong under Putin in recent years. She wrote on Chernobyl, but her panorama book (if you like) is ‘Secondhand Time’.

Philip Harvey | 07 March 2022  

There are many contradictions to Tolstoy and many people had, and have, more fun focusing on them than on what he’s actually saying and doing. It is a symptom of our times that people seem more interested in finding fault with great figures than facing up to their greatness, or even conceding that’s what’s going on. The purpose of my essay is not to praise or blame Tolstoy for anything, but to present his attitude to war through different kinds of writing. It seems ludicrous to me to dismiss Tolstoy as a person who didn’t love humans. We have an immense written heritage and a global readership that argues this a fairly difficult claim to sustain.

Philip Harvey | 07 March 2022  

I described Tolstoy as, “Perhaps the greatest of all novelists”, and it is natural such a writer has a “global readership” and devotees. But when a celebrity strays outside their area of expertise seeking to influence others, it is entirely proper to examine their moral and judgmental credentials.
Rousseau was a great influence on Tolstoy. Rousseau was another who proclaimed himself a lover of humanity, but his ego (“show me a better man than me, a heart more loving”) also led him to treat others with contempt—his foster mother Madame de Warens; and his mistress, Therese Levasseur, who bore him five children all of whom were abandoned to almost certain death, and yet he wrote theories about bringing up children. Small wonder he devised an all-powerful State to control and maintain everyone, and which led to such barbarity in the 20th century.
And just like those close to Tolstoy, people close to Rousseau, like Hume, described him as “a monster”, and Diderot, as “cruel, hypocritical, and full of malice.” But his writings impressed others from afar, such as Kant, Shelley, and John Stuart Mill.
But I take your very pertinent point that you were presenting, “his attitude to war.”

Ross Howard | 08 March 2022  

Thanks Ross. I cannot speak for Rousseau, though Tolstoy is not Rousseau. Tolstoy turned his ‘confessions’ into characters. When we read ‘Anna Karenina’ we see Tolstoy in Stiva, Karenin, Anna, Vronsky, but are confronted by the idea that he became most like Levin. Such powers of self-awareness and expression deserve our attention, as we wander around working out what kind of person we might be, or anyone else for that matter. I don’t for a minute think of Tolstoy as a ‘celebrity’, which is a very contemporary term. He was a literary lion who engaged in public debate at every level, spoke at peace conferences, and influenced many people including Mahatma Gandhi. There is nothing superficial about Tolstoy, in fact that’s the point.

Philip Harvey | 08 March 2022  

I am indebted to Ross Howard for his post. It could be argued that Jeremy Bentham, the Utilitarian, who was not a believer, was trying to implement a sort of "Christianity without Christ", but Bentham did not see himself as a Messiah-figure. Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are extremely difficult to get your head around because the picture they are attempting to paint is vast. Their novels are like the painted exteriors of the great wooden churches in Romania. The difference is you can read the theme here which is The Ladder of God. Those who fall off the Ladder are the ones who dissociate from the Church. Strict Orthodox Theology condemns them to Hell. Now I don't want to go there, because some great saints have been in contention with the Church at times. Tolstoy is not a saint. I am not a subscriber to the Leavisite 'Literature and Life' school. I do not think you can 'learn' morality from books. I think they can expose injustice as Charles Dickens did and point the way, but that is all.

Edward Fido | 07 March 2022  
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Thank you, Edward. Funny you mention Leavis. The Leavis attitude to Tolstoy at Melbourne University was that he ‘lost it’ when he found Christianity and became (their word) didactic. Their own moral theories about the novels chose to ignore half the social meanings of Tolstoy’s stories. I find the Leavisites still useful on occasion when reading but quaint. I see now that Tolstoy is uncategorisable and all of a piece. It's just silly to accuse his polemic, for example, of being didactic. Isn’t that the point? The thing about his fiction is not that it’s long but that it’s exciting; you can’t put it down.

Philip Harvey | 08 March 2022  

I loved this essay, published at an auspicious time and forwarded, per kind favour of ES, to my large network of friends from the world of theology and politics. From them I've gleaned a cornucopian response, aspects of which I am privileged to share:

'To introduce Rousseau to the discussion might be to damn Tolstoy with faint praise. Both were Big Picture men but Rousseau was neither an historian nor a novelist. His 'Emile' did much to generate critical reflection about education and schooling, especially the emphasis that sinfulness is the source of all folly, rather than free will'; and

'Tolstoy's take on Buonaparte (and, inter alia, Harvey's) does something no historian I know has done. Here was a vain man, driven by ambition, but also (like Putin?) placed in the seat of opportunity that he would not have gained in other circumstances. His most glorious victory was his escape from Elba, followed by his skill as a military tactician; although that is questionable, given his defeat, albeit against great odds, at Waterloo and the lack of foresight in his campaign against Russia.'

Amidst the curmudgeonliness, be buoyed, Philip, that one added: 'No more a door-stop but to be read!'

Michael Furtado | 21 March 2022  
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And another, arriving today from a French Napoleonic scholar: 'What a fascinating essay to produce at this time! Tolstoy's great achievement was to portray not just the folly of war but also of all ambitious men.... The best that can be said of Bonaparte was that he was a creation of his times, devising the Code Napoleon for a tattered and divided country, restoring order and imperial pride by 'departmentalising' France and redirecting the energies of his people towards a false consciousness of an imperialism that may well be the downfall of Czarist Putin.... A great pity the Czars, like Napoleon, didn't stop at doing what they were good at and instead cultivated the gifts of contemporary others. Hence, Chamberlain should have stopped at managing Birmingham's municipal sewers and Putin at being a KGB agent.' Quite.

Thanks again, Philip Harvey and ES.

Michael Furtado | 23 March 2022  

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