Lev Tolstoy – War and Peace; volume III

Two passages for the third volume, the first of which contains something very close to the work’s title (I have to believe that in the original Russian, it was the title word-for-word).  It’s from a conversation between Andrei and Kutuzov before the decisive battle of Borodino:

[C]hanging the subject, Kutuzov began speaking about the Turkish war and the peace that had been concluded.  “Yes, I’ve been reproached a great deal,” sad Kutuzov, “both for the war and for the peace … but everything came at the right time.  Tout vient à point à celui qui sait attendre [Fr.: ‘Everything comes at the right time to him who knows how to wait.’].”    (744)

Kutuzov mentions being blamed for both war and peace; that is, both his success and his failures as a military commander.  This reflects two things: the fickleness of high society and Tolstoy’s revisionist goals with much of his prose, especially the essay chapters since the start of the third volume.

The fickleness—and general frivolity—of the group of powerful people known under the umbrella term “society” is a popular target of Tolstoy’s criticism throughout War and Peace, usually with regard to their opinion towards various characters, especially Kutuzov.  Following the Battle of Austerlitz, Kutuzov shoulders most of the blame and this perceived failure is remembered by some characters when he is sent west to fight Napoleon, many members of the gentry criticize him at various soirées.  (How useless such talk is in this context is obvious to Tolstoy and should be to the reader—worse even than bar talk about Bush and Kerry.)  Specifically, we get a peek at an Anna Pavlovna soirée at which Prince Vassily Kuragin questions whether or not Kutuzov should be made commander in chief:

Is it possible to appoint as commander in chief a man who cannot mount a horse, who falls asleep at a council, a man of the lowest morals! … [I]s it possible at such a moment to appoint a man who is decrepit and blind, plain blind?    (707)

And then Kutuzov is appointed commander in chief, and Vassily literally reverses his opinion, praising his strategy (on the very same page of the text, no less).  Vassily keeps this opinion through the battle of Borodino, when early reports point towards a Russian victory (and news of the fall of Moscow has yet to spread): “ ‘What did I tell you about Kutuzov?’ Prince Vassily now kept saying with the pride of a prophet.  ‘I always said he alone was capable of defeating Napoleon,’ ” (939).  But, then, of course, the fall of Moscow is reported, and people “denounced him for being the cause of the sovereign’s worry.”  Kutuzov, at least, recognizes the futility of struggling against public opinion, accepting that people will blame him, but in looking to the future (“Everything comes at the right time to him who knows how to wait”), hints that posterity will recognize his value and efforts.

One gets the impression from this portrayal, however, that when War and Peace was written, historians still laid some blame on Kutuzov’s shoulders.  Tolstoy is quick to defend his sense in the face of the unknown, though he stays away from praising him as too much of a visionary.  Many of the essay chapters that begin in volume III are concerned with revising typical interpretations of the war, in other words stripping away the legendary aura often ascribed to the actions of the various leaders.  For example, the first chapter of part 2 is concerned with the reasons for Napoleon’s and Kutuzov’s actions—namely, it questions the popular notion that Napoleon invaded Moscow when he did because he was too proud to wait and that Kutuzov and Alexander I deliberately led Napoleon in to Russian territory in order to force the French to be over-extended and then burnt Moscow so that they would run out of supplies.  According to Tolstoy:

All these hints at the foreseeing of what happened, both on the part of the French and on the part of the Russians, are now put forward only because events justified them.

Not only was there no wish on the Russian side, during the whole time of the war, to lure the French into the depths of Russia, but everything was done to stop them from the moment of their entry into Russia; and not only was Napoleon not afraid of extending his line, but he rejoiced, as a triumph, at his every step forward, and was very lazy, not as in his previous campaigns, in seeking battle.    (683)

The second passage takes place after the gentry has abandoned Moscow, leaving those without the will or means to flee the city in the hands of Count Rastopchin, the commander in chief of the city.  He is also the man in charge of public-information posters that have failed to inform the public due to their one-sided nature, and blames much of his failure to protect the remaining citizens from the invading French by scapegoating a (possibly-innocent) young printer named Vereshchagin of distributing unauthorized posters that he claims are French propaganda.  Rastopchin literally throws him to the angered crowd, where he is brutally murdered.  After the death of Vereshchagin, Rastopchin has a brief moment of self-reflection:

“Your excellency, this way … Where are you going? … This way, please,” a trembling, frightened voice said behind him.  Count Rastopchin was unable to make any reply and, turning obediently, went where he was told.  A caleche was standing by the back entrance.  The distant noise of the roaring crowd was heard there, too.  Count Rastopchin hurriedly got into the caleche and ordered that he be taken to his country house in Sokoniki.  Driving out to Myasnitskaya and no longer hearing the cries of the crowd, the count began to have regrets.  He no recalled with displeasure the agitation and fear her had shown before his subordinates.  “La populace est terrible, elle est hideuse,” [Fr.: ‘The rabble is terrible, it’s hideous’] he thought in French.  “Ils sont comme les loups qu’on ne peut apaiser qu’avec de la chair.” [Fr.: ‘They’re like wolves who can only be appeased by flesh.’]  “Count! there is one God over us!” he suddenly remembered Vereshchagin’s words, and an unpleasant sensation of chill ran down Count Rastopchin’s spine.  But the sensation was momentary, and Count Rastopchin smiled scornfully at himself.  “J’avais d’autres devoirs,” [Fr.: ‘I had other duties’] he thought.  “Il fallait apaiser le peuple.  Bien d’autres victimes ont peri et perissent pour le bein publique,” [Fr.: ‘The people had to be appeased.  Many other victims have perished and are perishing for the public good.’] and he began to thing about those general responsibilities he had in relation to his family, to his (entrusted to him) capital, and about himself—not as Fyodor Vassilievich Rastopchin (he supposed that Fyodor Vassilievich Rastopchin had sacrificed himself for the bien publique), but as commander in chief, representative of the authorities, and the tsar’s plenipotentiary.  “If I were merely Fyodor Vassilievich, ma ligne de conduite aurait été tout autrement tracée, [Fr.: ‘my line of conduct would have been drawn quite differently’] but I had to preserve the life and dignity of the commander in chief.”    (891)

The first point to note is that Rastopchin’s doubt is fleeting and lasts only a moment before his old scornful smile returns.  Nevertheless, one gets the impression that it’s sincere; that the return to comfort is a form of denial and displacement.

Rastopchin displaces his guilt onto his duty, and old favorite of public servants throughout history.  And, in case that fails to comfort himself, he blames the nature of his duty, i.e., those above him who placed duties not suited to his talents, and perhaps not giving him enough time, resources, or fair warning to get them done.  Just passing the buck.

More than that, Rastopchin blames the people of Moscow, those he’s supposed to represent and control: “the people had to be appeased” (emphasis here mine), and “they’re like wolves who can only be appeased by flesh”—a remark that is rendered problematical by the fact that Rastopchin quite literally orders the crowd to act: “Cut him down! I order it!” (889).

Like all good self-righteous trips, Rastopchin discusses sacrificing himself for the public good.  What’s intriguing, however, is that he not only sacrifices himself, he sacrifices himself as someone else, specifically the commander in chief: “he supposed that Fyodor Vassilievich Rastopchin had sacrificed himself for the bien publique“—as if he could think about what he does as his post, not the man placed in charge of it.

And, in fact, the last sentence blames the actions he took on an abstract sense of “life and dignity of the commander in chief.”  Rastopchin either can’t separate himself from his office, or he chooses not to in order to comfort himself for making a decision he thinks was necessary.  Whatever he can to do strip himself of any guilt in his own eyes, Rastopchin tries, and it’s evidently successful as he heads off down the road to his safe country estate, leaving Moscow to burn under the French invasion.


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