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War and Peace: In Search of an Ending
by Dr. Kathryn Duda (’03)
Assistant Professor, Russian Studies
St. Vincent de Paul Lecture & Concert Series
Thomas Aquinas College, New England
September 15, 2023
Let me name the textual problem of War and Peace. In the opening of volume III, Tolstoy, for the first time in his text, dedicates a whole chapter to a mediation on the actions of men and their significance. This chapter, halfway through the novel, signals a shift to a preoccupation and a mode of writing that Tolstoy will conclude his “novel” with the significance of man’s actions, the laws of history, and the ratio of freedom and necessity. These philosophical interludes pose a problem for readers. They are lyrical, interrupting a narrative that, in its scope, is already hard to keep a handle on. They are atemporal in a novel that is relentlessly temporal. They are the voice of an invisible author that interrupts and distances the reader from the mind of that author’s many characters. They speak in an authoritative mode about history in a work that weaves a literary transformation of historic figures. For over 150 years, readers have asked in light of these passages: “What are we to do?”
Tolstoy himself foregrounds that question when, after attempting to capture a national spirit of 1812 and pointing to its persistence in the failed Decembrist uprising of 1825, he concludes with a critique of historical accounts on the grounds of genre. What are we to do about history that we can neither change nor barely affect, when we ourselves are so limited? What should Tolstoy’s understanding of a new historical science that acknowledges freedom as an infinitesimal force lead us to?
When I proposed the title of my lecture “in search of an ending” two things were on my mind. The first was: this is a wishful statement about my lecture– hopefully, I will find something conclusive to say or at least have the rhetorical rhythm of a conclusion. The second was the obvious problem of the ending of War and Peace itself. I am not the first person to talk about the lack of an ending in War and Peace. Much better scholars with much more specific Tolstoy-focused research have tackled this problem. However, like the tutors and seniors here, I have read War and Peace, and the experience of reading War and Peace (especially for the first time, cover-to-cover) is to get to sections in the epilogue (and its entire last part) and experience something like disappointment (maybe coupled with exhaustion). As someone put it to me: War and Peace is amazing but then Tolstoy goes and ruins it with the ending. I have to say the ending is less disappointing the more I have read of Tolstoy and the more I learn about him, but it is not any more satisfying or any less strange to the project of the novel. I want us to hold on to how strange the final chapters are (and I say final chapters, but I mean is a culmination of discourse Tolstoy had been weaving into the text especially in the second half).
When I teach the 19th century to students, I show them a lot of pictures. These pictures are portraits, landscapes, sketches, war scenes, religious pieces that all, at first blush, conform to a 21st century imagination of classic and unremarkable, but after I give students some language and give permission to name some details, they tend to appreciate that there is a lot in those images that are out of place or unexpected. The same can be said for the novel. Anyone who’s finished Don Quixote? (Really, we have all read something called a novel). What is it? It certainly does not conform to the requirements of beginning, middle, and end, and catharsis as Aristotle laid out in The Poetics. Great novels are always making themselves a little strange, remarkable, and unexpected. One of Tolstoy’s lasting legacies in the history of Russian literature is his mastery of a technique that someone at the turn of the 20th century (Viktor Shklovsky) named “de-familiarization” or “making strange” (остранение/ ostranenie). Tolstoy does not employ this technique just for novelty but that the reader might appreciate something that he/she had not appreciated before. The technique slows down the reading in its unexpectedness and tests of our suspension of disbelief, and the technique makes us see details when we might not have. Please keep this in mind as we discuss everything tonight.
Despite being a TAC alumna, I have pursued expertise in a field that may be understood as area studies. I certainly teach in this mode. This mode often focuses on context provided by the knowledge of the Russian language and the cultural backdrop, and so the question has haunted me a bit as to what I can provide a TAC audience that does not alienate you all and more importantly limit your reading of War and Peace. (It should be noted that specialist scholars [myself included] can use our particular knowledge as a cudgel that reduces close textual reading as naive, or worse yet, deem certain readings impossible because they transcend the contextual limitations of an author). To avoid making references to things inaccessible to you all (I do hope we can have a conversation): I want to list a couple things that I will talk about that are field specific.
More of a warning, I will talk about Tolstoy’s biography. I try to avoid using that biography to explain away the text but try to use it to give rhythm to Tolstoy’s inquiry about history, war, and family.
I will talk about two works of Tolstoy’s that are not War and Peace
We will look at pictures for illustrative purposes but a few of them feature in my analysis.
Historical facts do come up: Russia’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars is the content of War and Peace. There are two main nodes– 1805 (Russia’s loss to Napoleon) and the notorious year 1812 (Russia’s eventual defeat of Napoleon).
The Decembrist uprising in 1825 (after the death of Alexander I) which the epilogue (1820) hints at. Tolstoy wanted to write a novel about a Decembrist but put that aside/ it became War and Peace. The Decembrist uprising wanted to push for more governmental reforms that were only in discussion in the pre-1812 era, including the abolition of serfdom and a republic-style government. Russia’s monarchs including Alexander I had a habit of initially embracing liberal reform and then going back on their ideals fearing revolution.
Crimean War (1853-1856) The war that Tolstoy fought in and where Russia lost to a coalition of Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. This was a costly war for Russia in terms of finance and loss of life.
By way of how I came to tackle this lecture let me tell you two quick stories. Last year, I participated at a conference of European historians in New York state on a roundtable dedicated to how I and others were teaching Russian (language, history, culture) in light of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. A co-panelist succinctly wrapped up what we do as teachers of Russia, sharing in the heritage of Russian thinkers such as Tolstoy. She said, “In my class, we always come back to two questions: ‘What is Russia? And what is to be done?’” These two questions are the focus of my talk tonight, first and foremost, because they are the questions the text of War and Peace poses to us and second because Tolstoy’s life seemed to come back to these questions that remained only tentatively answered for him.
I do not claim to have made any new discoveries about Tolstoy’s life, but I want to introduce parts of his biography because he can serve as a model of a liberal education. This is somewhat ironic given Tolstoy’s own experience with formal education. Like some of us here may eventually decide, university was not for Tolstoy. Hopefully, unlike Tolstoy, none of us are ever told “we are unable to learn” as his professors at Kazan University told him. When I say model, I do not mean to say that Tolstoy was correct about a lot of things nor that anyone should copy Tolstoy’s life. His hobbies and interests were vast, and, in some instances, short-lived. A number of his conclusions strike us as repugnant. However, he models a wonder about the world–including obviously, language, history, philosophy, Christianity, and psychology, but less obviously geometry, ecology, entomology, farming, and photography. All these interests, oftentimes uneven, kept returning Tolstoy to the second question I already mentioned: “What then is to be done?” This return reminds me of St. Augustine’s oft-cited summary of human life: that our hearts are truly restless until they rest in the Lord. Tolstoy’s life was a restless one in pursuit of the truth that exists beyond simple facts.
The other reason I think Tolstoy’s biography is worth referring to tonight complements my promise that we would search for an ending in War and Peace and is something that I discussed with my TAC classmates at our 20th reunion this summer. We were revisiting Plato’s “Ion” and Book 24 of The Iliad together after almost 25 years since we read it as freshmen and let me promise you something, it just hits different after that much time. Mr. Ferrier and Ms. Reyes asked us as a kind of coda about whether the college does right by “poetry.” Conversation resumed, and we touched on how nothing gets as much attention as The Iliad and The Odyssey and argued whether that was fair. As time was running over, one of my classmates pointed out that even if we read things like Don Quixote or The Brothers Karamazov slower it still would not be as meaningful as revisiting works in a different light of experience and intellectual space. While I can optimistically suggest that many of us have only read War and Peace for the first time or have YET to read it for the first time (implying there will be second and third times), I mean that Tolstoy offers us this model of intellectual return. I hope to highlight in a few ways how Tolstoy made a habit returning to ideas and holding them up to a new light of experience. This really is what I hope we can keep from our education are the questions and the foundations of inquiry that will deepen and develop with time.
One theme that Tolstoy would return to throughout his life was that of war and whether it was natural (that is part of what men and nations do). Despite his admiration for the men (and women) of 1812, Tolstoy balked at romantic notions of war. After leaving university and wasting his life, Tolstoy followed his brother into the army and served in the disastrous Russian war effort in Crimea. The Crimean War is often referred to as the first modern war, in part, because, for the first time, war was brought home from the distant front in a graphic, authentic, and timely way. In Great Britain, William Howard Russell and other war correspondents broke with the tradition of war writing, with its tendency to glorify and valorize the subject, to reveal the truth about the miserable conditions (‘the filth and starvation, and deadly stagnation of the camp”), thus refusing to “tell lies to ‘make things pleasant’” to the authorities. (Alfred Tennyson composed “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in response to Russell’s report in the Times about the slaughter of British cavalry at Balaklava).
The Crimean War was where war photography was used for the first time. Here we can see an example of the first wave of wartime photography from Roger Fenton. Unlike paintings of war, through photography we appreciate something entirely different about the war and that is even without any human beings in the picture (the bodies of whom Fenton was not allowed to photograph).
I bring up this comparison to photography for two reasons. The first is that we have some of the earliest photographs of Tolstoy from this period and the second I will discuss a bit later is the explicit comparison between photography and Tolstoy’s prose. In a moment we are going to look at photographs of Tolstoy before and after his participation in the war. I want to present them as a shorthand for us to think about Tolstoy’s experiences of war. For the Russians, Tolstoy’s voice would dominate their developing imagination of the Crimean war, and his work from the time reflects his desire to understand war but not valorize it, a theme that he returns to in the campaign of 1812. These photographs bookend three stories Tolstoy would write about the siege of Sevastopol (1854-55). The first two stories, “Sevastopol in December” and “Sevastopol in May” appeared while Sevastopol was still under siege and were read, despite their fictional elements, as dispatches from the front. Tolstoy’s name, then, became associated with truth for the Russian reading public.
The stories are remarkable for a few reasons. For one, they have no central character. Two, they move freely from one character’s conscience to another. Last, they incorporate a lot of uncontextualized dialogue, sometimes between the Russian and French soldiers when there was a break in the fighting. The habit of “making strange” is evident from these early texts of Tolstoy. While narratively innovative and complex, the stories’ broad incorporation of voices defamiliarizes and makes the reader confront their expectation of development and heroism.
Tolstoy had a serious problem with the journalistic dispatches from the front. The reader is told immediately that they are unreliable in “Sevastopol in May” when one of the soldier’s friends writes: “The papers reach us awfully late, and though there are plenty of rumors one cannot believe them all. For instance, those musical young ladies you know of, were saying yesterday that Napoleon [III] has been captured by our Cossacks and sent to St. Petersburg, but you can imagine how much of this I believe.” The papers’ job was only to highlight or manufacture positive outcomes of the Russian army. It used fact (when it could) to build a lie of nobility, honor, and nearly won victory in the Russian position at Sevastopol. Despite the journalistic effort, by May 1855, nearly everyone realized that Russia was losing. Sevastopol would fall to the allies in September on Tolstoy’s birthday.
Tolstoy would make a name for himself not only as a hero of the battlefield but as a voice of battle, and it would set him on the task to figure out what good art was at getting at the truth. In the closing paragraphs of “Sevastopol in May,” Tolstoy wrote:
"Yes, white flags are hung out from the bastion and the trenches, the flowery vale is filled with dead bodies, the splendid sun sinks into the blue sea, and the blue sea undulates and glitters in the golden rays of the sun. Thousands of people congregate, gaze, talk, and smile at each other. And why do not Christian people, who profess the one great law of love and self-sacrifice, when they behold what they have wrought, fall in repentance upon their knees before Him who, when he gave them life, implanted in the soul of each of them, together with a fear of death, a love of the good and the beautiful, and, with tears of joy and happiness, embrace each other like brothers? No! But it is a comfort to think that it was not we who began this war, that we are only defending our own country, our fatherland. The white flags have been hauled in, and again the weapons of death and suffering are shrieking; again innocent blood is shed, and groans and curses are audible.
I have now said all that I wish to say at this time. But a heavy thought overmasters me. Perhaps it should not have been said; perhaps what I have said belongs to one of those evil truths which, unconsciously concealed in the soul of each man, should not be uttered, lest they become pernicious, as a cask of wine should not be shaken, lest it be thereby spoiled.
Where is the expression of evil which should be avoided? Where is the expression of good which should be imitated in this sketch? Who is the villain, who the hero? All are good, and all are evil. [...]
The hero of my tale, whom I love with all the strength of my soul, whom I have tried to set forth in all his beauty, and who has always been, is, and always will be most beautiful, is—the truth."
I am sure we recognize discourse similar to that in War and Peace. Here, the contrast made with newspaper at the beginning of the story, prefigures Tolstoy’s arguments against historians and journalists in War and Peace. Certainly no one misunderstood the Sevastopol sketches as journalism, readers from the emperor down appreciated that these three stories revealed more to them about Russia’s involvement in the Crimean war than the newspapers. Truth seems to be honored.
While Tolstoy had recognized the tension of truth and fact before Sevastopol, it was the war that had him focus on the national consequences of writing this way. Even eight years before he began writing War and Peace, Tolstoy demonstrated the conviction of what should be done: write so that people cannot ignore the waste and violation of war. In war we ask that love and self-sacrifice be used for the death of others; one must tread carefully to use this as the epitome of a noble national project.
I want to draw our attention to these two portraits of Tolstoy taken before and after the siege to emphasize Tolstoy’s habit of returning to ideas (with new experiences) and his preoccupation with what should be done. In the earlier photograph of Tolstoy in uniform, his cape draws attention to his large epaulets and his casual and perhaps dashing pose. His arms are open and suggest a carefree attitude. By contrast, in the older photograph, he revisits the image of young soldier, but now his uniform has been stripped down to bare essentials (while still being recognizable as an officer’s uniform). His posture is unremarkable. His hands folded on his lap indicate an effort to keep still. Many years later, Vladimir Solovyov would praise Tolstoy for “exposing the futility, falsehood, and sad illusoriness of phenomena.” These pictures looked at together suggest just that. War in the imagination of a young man was a place to prove himself; war, in the imagination of a veteran, brings discomfort. What was to be done seemed obvious: remove from the uniform commendations and medals earned in this campaign and indicate wartime heroics are illusions. Like any individual character in the Sevastopol sketches, “we witness the heroic ‘uncloaking’ of Tolstoy himself” (Katherine MH Reischl, Photographic Literacy: Cameras in the Hands of Russian Authors, 35).
Tolstoy would eventually write a treatise called “What is to be Done?” in the 1880s after his work with the census. His concern was the urban poverty in Moscow, and his focus was the lack of response to this poverty by its citizens. He begins this work of non-fiction with an encounter with the police who have taken a beggar into custody. Tolstoy asked the police clerk why and that clerk said because that was what the authorities commanded. Tolstoy asks another way:
"'Is it true that beggars are forbidden to ask in Christ's name for alms?' The policeman roused himself, looked up at me, and then did not exactly frown but seemed to drowse off again, and sitting on the windowsill said: 'The authorities order it, so that means it's necessary'; and he occupied himself again with his notebook."
The policeman’s unexamined acceptance of the authoritative forces the reader to sit with Tolstoy’s question. The reader must continue to sit with it when Tolstoy’s friends dismiss the author’s concern for the poor in Moscow’s dosshouses as a naive misunderstanding of the nature of a city, where poverty is natural. They must sit with Tolstoy, after his family become uncomfortable when they witness Tolstoy’s appeal for help from Moscow’s wealthy citizens. This question left unanswered– why must the poor be relegated to shame– recalls Tolstoy’s inquiry about historical causes in the second part of the epilogue of War and Peace. In “What is to be done?” though, critiques similar to those about historiography are leveled at the city.
Tolstoy’s proposed solution in this text is unclear and tinged with a utopic outlook typical of his post-1880s writing. However, it serves as an entry point into the period of Tolstoy’s life (the last three decades) that was characterized by Lev Nikolaevich using his renown and his fortune to support social causes like peasant literacy, feeding those affected by the famine of 1891-92, and helping the Dukhobors emigrate to Canada. Works like War and Peace cemented Tolstoy’s reputation as a wise man who knew better than anyone what Russia was and could be trusted to diagnose its malaise. By the end of his life, in 1910, Tolstoy’s advice and opinion would be sought by people as diverse as Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky, George Bernard Shaw, and Mahatma Gandhi. Still considered the master of Russian belles-lettres, Tolstoy, who had always been interested in questions of education and farming, would gain notoriety from diverse corners of the world on Esperanto, literacy, non-violence, the gospels, and vegetarianism. Tolstoy was one of the first Russians to achieve celebrity status in a way recognizable to us in the 21st century: he was immortalized in photographs, including new color images, his endorsements had weight and his name and image were used to sell goods and ideas. One of the first videos we have from the Russophone world is of Tolstoy’s ad hoc funeral procession.
Yet Tolstoy remained dissatisfied with his position or what good he could do with his inherited wealth and literary fortune. Infamously, discussions of giving up his rights to his literary works renewed regular conflicts in his marriage. (There are other reasons for these conflicts). A few nights before he died, Tolstoy left his estate in secret, explaining to his wife he needed solitude, and set off to visit a series of monasteries and toward Novocherkassk to relatives in the south. He never made it that far. He died at a small train station on Nov. 7, 1910. His death came in the middle of his questions. Even in life Tolstoy did not do endings well.
Tolstoy’s death and his final efforts to find solitude and a more ascetic environment takes me back to the beginning of Volume 3 of War and Peace.
"There are two sides to each man’s life: his personal life, which is more free the more abstract its interests are, and his elemental, swarmlike life (роевая жизнь in Russian from рой “swarm”), where man inevitably fulfills the laws prescribed by him. Man lives consciously for himself but serves as an unconscious instrument for the achievement of historical, universally human goals. [...] History, that is the unconscious, swarmlike life of mankind, uses every moment of a king’s life for its purpose."
In his final days, Tolstoy seems to have wanted to retreat into just such a free and abstract personal life. If we look at the stills from how people met his remains as they were transported back, it suggests a meaning of a new kind of king whose life is completely used up by history.
Before we go back to the ending, I want to pause on the question of swarm life. Scholars argue about how to understand what Tolstoy means by swarm life. Is it politics in a classical sense or less rigid in its boundaries? I invite us to take the metaphor as seriously as we can. The swarm suggests bees (or wasps) at a time of reproduction when new colonies form. The bees in a remarkable act as a group split into two hives. These facts position swarm life as moving toward reproduction and through that a survival of the group. Thinking of it this way recalls Prince Andrei’s frustration at being married to his (pregnant) wife at the beginning of the novel and frames his desire to go to war as a desire to avoid that life (only to find that war too is part of this life) (14, 29).
Let’s assume that swarm life does encompass both war and family. These are the two great literary themes preoccupied Tolstoy throughout his life. Both these themes also provide their own literary ending– a wedding and a victory– and yet, Tolstoy does not want to pause at an ending. The first part of the epilogue springs us forward past a wedding into new children. While victory over Napoleon is won, Pierre is doing things in St. Petersburg that are worrying his wife (seemingly participating in Decembrist circles). Time continues to push us forward.
Tolstoy’s refusal to pause his narrative time brings me to a point I promised to make earlier: the explicit connection Tolstoy’s contemporaries made between his prose and photography. Writing for an English audience in 1888 soon after the first English translation of War and Peace appeared, Julia Wedgwood warned readers of Tolstoy’s new aesthetics and by extension new values. Most of Wedgwood's article centers on a comparison between the photograph and the painting and she attempts to sketch a general outline of the evolution of art. She claims that the ancient artist has a direct correspondence to the sculptor, that the high renaissance artist to artist of the current day correspond to the painter, and that the contemporary artist, of which Tolstoy is an example, corresponds to the photographer. These phases, in turn, relate to the three epochs of the life of the city expressed in the ancient world; the rise of the private life in Europe within a nation; and “the epoch of disintegration” and the rise of the individual.
Wedgwood believes that the change in epochs will be felt on the level of art, but also certain national characteristics are also more suited to each epoch. Since the contemporary moment is on the cusp of two epochs, Russianness and its advantage in the dawning epoch is alien to British sensibilities and their dominance in the waning epoch. To illustrate this, Wedgwood compares War and Peace to William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Thackeray’s novel still supposes a unified nation. Thackeray, Wedgwood claims, adopts a point of view proper to the time of which he speaks. Tolstoy, however, provides a modern point of view toward the Napoleonic wars which describes the disintegration of the belief in the nation. Their points of view not only differentiate Thackery and Tolstoy but accentuate the dueling epochs. Wedgwood freely admits her bias as an English reader. Her aesthetic habits have been formed by reading Shakespeare, and as a moral-political being, she still feels herself the member of an empire and a nation. She claims that, as a consequence, she and other English readers would weary of Tolstoy’s detail. But Tolstoy, as a consequence of his being Russian, lacks a concept of nation. He is familiar with an empire whose disintegration appears to be inevitable. Accordingly, as a representative of his native culture, Tolstoy feels this disintegration naturally. Therefore, Tolstoy is a forerunner of a new kind of “photographic” prose that no longer recognizes individuals participating in a greater whole.
Wedgwood returns us to the question of the strangeness of Tolstoy’s prose. He never seems to leave out a detail in a scene. When Natasha is preparing for her first ball, Tolstoy mentions not just that her skirt is too long but that as the maid tries to fix it, Natasha puts a small tear in the skirt. Does this signal a deterioration? Perhaps. Wedgwood, of course, is correct: the Russian Empire would deteriorate faster and more dramatically than the British Empire but does Tolstoy’s inquiry as to how delicate an idea of nationhood mean that he is contributing to its rift? Additionally, is this flimsy nation just a Russia problem?
I will offer my own conclusions, but they are tentative. First, the looseness of the nation that strikes Wedgwood as a problem of a modern epoch is not entirely fair to the claim at the beginning or the end of War and Peace. In the opening scene at Anna Pavlovna’s soiree, the question of Napoleon is on everyone’s mind and Pierre, in particular, is fixated on the claim to power inherent in Napoleon’s authority. [An aside, the conversation in Anna Pavlovna’s drawing room is where Napoleon is first mentioned as the antichrist and his actions are held up to moral scrutiny, while Pierre wants to argue about the idea(s) of Napoleon; this has an interesting reversal after Pierre becomes taken with the Masonic prophecies. The question of political authority is one that the age of Revolutions drew out for everyone]. As Tolstoy points out in chapter 1 of part 2 of the epilogue, history no longer accepts divine intervention in the undertakings of men (national actions) as a cause (1179). While Tolstoy is discussing the national achievement of war, the very idea of nation and empire is at play. At the beginning of chapter 3, Tolstoy lays out the causes that historians cite and explains that aside from the muzhik’s understanding (that the world of God and the devil interfere in man’s affairs), the others continue to mistake effects for causes. Since, as modern readers (which the validity of Revolution has something to do with) we do not see God’s intervention in creating states, the idea of nation is not sufficient.
But is this frailty of the nation just acutely a Russia problem? This takes us back to the first question and one that I may be poorly equipped to answer. Russia is my job. War and Peace is often cited as a foremost example of answering the question: “What is Russia?” Orlando Figes’s broad work of Russian cultural history (Natasha’s Dance) takes its name from Vol. II, Part 4, chapter 7 of War and Peace and he models his multi-century inquiry on Tolstoy’s inquiry about the energy and unity of the 1812 generation. Of course, Natasha has a couple famous dance scenes in the novel; perhaps the one that first comes to mind is when she dances with Prince Andrei. Per Figes, that is not the dance that is most important for Tolstoy’s central female character, rather it is Natasha’s dance at her “uncle’s”:
"Where, how, and when had this little countess, brought up by an emigre Frenchwoman, sucked this spirit in from the Russian air she breathed, where had she gotten these ways, which should have long been supplanted by the pas de chale? Yet that spirit and these ways were those very inimitable, unstudied Russian ones which the uncle expected of her. [...] She did it exactly right, and so perfectly precisely, that Anisya Fyodorovna, who at once handed Natasha the kerchief she needed for it, wept through her laughter, looking at this slender, graceful countess, brought up in silk and velvet, so foreign to her, who was able to understand everything that was in Anisya and in Anisya’s father, and in her aunty, and in her mother, and in every Russian (512)."
Tolstoy draws our attention to Natasha, ever energetic and sincere, adopting this country dance not because she is a great dancer but in spite of it. Tolstoy states that Natasha’s rearing and education is an impediment. He suggests that artifice is a problem, and she is somehow able to transcend through her characteristic openness and receptivity. What does she access through this? Tolstoy rigorously pushes War and Peace on a forward timeline; there are no narrative flashbacks except those that seem reasonable and are tethered to a character’s imagination. However, this dance seems to transcend time. Natasha is able to understand not just Anisya but the latter’s entire family.
Likewise, in the campaign of 1812, Tolstoy writes, as he reflects on the greatness of Kutuzov:
"Kutuzov knew, not by reason or science but with all his Russian being, he knew and felt what every Russian soldier felt, that the French were defeated, that the foe was fleeing and had to be driven out; but along with that he felt, together with the soldiers, all the difficulties of this march, of its unheard-of swiftness at such a time of the year (1083)."
Both Kutuzov and Natasha share this capacity to tap into something Russian. No one thing in particular is Russian: not the dance, not the army, not even Moscow, but it is, at least for Tolstoy, its people. To help go back to the central image of the swarm, abandoned Moscow is compared to a queen-less, empty beehive (874). The dance, Moscow, and the army provide “artifacts” and “impressions” of “national consciousness” and “shared sensibility” and that from these effects. Tolstoy excavates from his 1812 men and reclaims a desire for his own generation “a broad community with the Russian peasantry” (Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance, xxvii).
Is this all to say, then, that yeah, this text is Russia limited? No. Why do I think it is not fair to limit this inquiry to Russia? Tolstoy in his method of returning to ideas in his writing (and therefore, we can assume in his life) would return stories about war; he would write at least one more historical novella. More intensely, though, he would return to stories about family and about self. However, he gave up laws of history, seemingly for the calculus of freedom. Even when he would revisit war and history, the individual’s “consciousness” of the laws that govern and limit men would be the part he returned to. It is after all a return to the question of what is to be done. In my opinion, Tolstoy would agree with Julia Wedgwood that the idea of the nation was disintegrating (and that was a disastrous outcome), but I think he would extend that problem to communities more general, even families. (I would be curious what audience members who have read Death of Ivan Ilych have to say about that. By the way, it was written in 1886 the same year as “What is to be done”).
The question “what is to be done” animated Tolstoy’s imagination, and it can animate ours as well. As Tolstoy sought to understand why Russia acted as a nation in 1812, he came to the rather vague conclusion of thousands of men (more like millions of people) coalesced around a single task of defeating Napoleon. As he sought to understand what forces bind the “swarm” of men in the enterprise of an empire or a nation, he points to the importance of understanding not from the top but from the smallest units (for him the peasants, God’s folk; for us, that can be our neighbor, our family, our community). Even if we reject Tolstoy’s metaphor of calculus, it remains vital for us to think of what it means to act as a family, a community, a nation.
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