Give War and Peace a Chance
The mind’s game of chess goes on independently of life, and life of it.
—Tolstoy’s diary, March 1863
As a nineteen-year-old nobleman and proprietor of a vast estate, Tolstoy had big plans for his future. He listed them in his diary:
(1) To study the whole course of law necessary for my final examination at the university. (2) To study practical medicine, and some theoretical medicine. (3) To study languages: French, Russian, German, English, Italian and Latin. (4) To study agriculture, both theoretical and practical. (5) To study history, geography and statistics. (6) To study mathematics, the grammar school course. (7) To write a dissertation. (8) To attain an average degree of perfection in music and painting. (9) To write down rules. (10) To acquire some knowledge of the natural sciences. (11) To write essays on all the subjects I shall study.
And, in order to keep himself on track, he created an extensive list of rules that he’d intended to follow religiously. Here are just a few of the headings taken from his diary:
RULES FOR DEVELOPING THE PHYSICAL WILL
RULES FOR DEVELOPING THE EMOTIONAL WILL
RULES FOR DEVELOPING THE RATIONAL WILL
RULES FOR DEVELOPING THE MEMORY
RULES FOR DEVELOPING ACTIVITY
RULES FOR DEVELOPING THE INTELLECTUAL FACULTIES
RULES FOR DEVELOPING LOFTY FEELINGS AND ELIMINATING BASE ONES, OR, TO PUT IT ANOTHER WAY, RULES FOR DEVELOPING THE FEELING OF LOVE AND ELIMINATING THE FEELING OF SELF-LOVE
RULES FOR DEVELOPING SOUND JUDGEMENT
A Man with a Plan: Tolstoy as a student in 1849.
Oh, and Tolstoy had one more rule:
“The first rule which I prescribe is as follows: No. 1. Carry out everything you have resolved. . . . I haven’t carried out this rule.” Nor was he exaggerating. Within five years of writing down that list of intentions he had the following accomplishments to show for it:
• Briefly attended Kazan University, but withdrew without graduating
• Moved to Petersburg, planned to enroll in the university and enter the civil service, but having become distracted by cards, women, and booze, did neither
• Failed as a farmer, estate manager, and agricultural reformer
• Opened a school for peasant children on his estate with no success
• Gambled away tens of thousands of rubles (in today’s money, around a half million dollars) at the card table
• Lost the house in which he was born in a game of cards
• Failed at every romantic relationship he attempted
• Visited a brothel with his brother, and wept from shame when it came time to settle the bill
• Was hospitalized on multiple occasions for venereal disease
• Exhibited increasing signs of severe hypochondria as well as pathological fear of death
• Lost his faith in God, regained it, and then lost it again
True, Tolstoy had been promoted to ensign for distinction in action in the Caucasus. And, interestingly, he’d enjoyed success in one pursuit he hadn’t thought to include in his list of youthful ambitions: the writing of fiction. These were, however, among the very few bright spots on an otherwise dismal CV. Up to that point he’d failed at pretty much everything he tried, forcing him to come to a sobering conclusion:
“It is easier to write ten volumes of philosophy than to put a single precept into practice.” Not that this prevented him from trying. Future generations of readers, moreover, may be thankful that Tolstoy’s life wasn’t exactly turning out as he’d planned, for while he was amassing an impressive list of failures, he was also acquiring wisdom essential for the creation of War and Peace.
“The mind’s game of chess goes on independently of life, and life of it,” Tolstoy wrote in his diary in 1863. So it is with his characters’
every intellectual conviction and rational intention. Whether in the ballroom or on the battlefield, as soon as they come into contact with real life, their ideas and plans disintegrate like so much meteor dust. The characters who come to recognize how little they know about what will happen, Tolstoy suggests, are actually the ones who know the most.
Toward the novel’s beginning, the night before the battle of Austerlitz in 1805, a council of high-powered generals and military strategists prepare for the upcoming battle—analyzing troop movements, estimating the size of Napoleon’s army, evaluating strategies. With all that planning you’d think victory was a sure thing, right? Actually, the Russians and their allies, the Austrians, will get trounced, and not in spite of all their good planning, but precisely because of it.
Hovering self-assuredly over a great map spread out before the council, the Austrian general Weyrother intones for an hour, in nauseating detail (and in German), his written “disposition for the attack on the enemy’s position behind Kobelnitz and Sokolnitz, 20 November, 1805” (261). Alas, unlike the map so beautifully illuminated by candlelight the evening before, the actual battlefield the next morning is shrouded in a fog that prevents the attacking army from seeing where in the hell they’re going! As Tolstoy would write later in the novel about another battle, “[a]s in all dispositions, everything was beautifully thought out, and, as with all dispositions, not a single column arrived where it was supposed to at the appointed time” (994).
By the time the Russians do arrive at Kobelnitz and Sokolnitz, the place where they’d intended to begin the action, they are no longer the attackers, but the ones being attacked. It is a contingency Weyrother’s plan hasn’t provided for. Nor did it include a provision for the vexation felt by the Russian troops toward their supposed allies, those “muddleheaded” Germans, or the ill-humor felt by the commanders and superior officers, who are understandably frustrated that the action being undertaken bears no relation to what they’d proposed at the council of war. Dispirited to have arrived late, unable to see, and finding themselves now under assault, they are entirely unprepared to cheer up their troops.
Considering all of the crucial details that Weyrother’s brilliant battle plan has left out, Commander in Chief Mikhail Kutuzov’s decision to catch some shut-eye during the war council appears in retrospect a pretty good use of his time. “ ‘There’s nothing more important before a battle than a good night’s sleep,’ ” Kutuzov murmurs to the chattering strategists at the military council, upon waking for a moment (264). For he knows what Tolstoy knows: nothing in battle ever goes according to plan—so just get some rest. That way when the unforeseen cannonballs are whizzing toward you in the morning, you may at least respond quickly and, with any luck, get out of their way.
History, Tolstoy reminds us, proved Kutuzov right. Though the Russians lost the battle of Austerlitz, they ultimately won the war against Napoleon in 1812, and no thanks to the bickering strategists, either. Kutuzov eventually defeats Napoleon not because he has a perfect plan, but because he manages to be present to what’s happening in the moment. His nattering generals, motivated by self-interest and entirely removed from the realities on the ground, urge Kutuzov to attack the wounded French army after the battle of Borodino and hold on to Moscow. But “Kutuzov saw one thing: the defense of Moscow was in no way physically possible, in the full meaning of those words” (827).
And so, out of sheer necessity the Russian troops retreat, unintentionally luring the overconfident French army into the abandoned capital. That “conquest” is the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s army, for while enjoying their wartime booty they are at the same time depleting the very resources needed for the long march out of Russia. How did Kutuzov, the nincompoop, as many of his compatriots called him, plan for that? He didn’t, and that’s just Tolstoy’s point: “Kutuzov’s merit consisted not in some strategic maneuver of genius, as they call it, but in that he alone understood the significance of what was happening” (990).
Kutuzov was in his sixties at the time, with a long military and diplomatic career behind him. But he had sufficient humility to throw all of his “knowledge” out the window when necessary, letting go of preconceived
notions about how things are supposed to go on the field of battle, and embracing instead what is occurring right in front of him. Actors sometimes refer to this as “being in the moment.” Buddhists call it “nonattachment to concepts.” Tolstoy sees it simply as the key to living wisely and leading effectively in a radically uncertain universe.
To appreciate Tolstoy’s interest in the topic of plans, it is helpful to know something about Russia in the heady days of the 1850s and 1860s. The hard sciences were becoming all the rage, and most educated Russians were convinced that you could solve the vast majority of problems facing their society through the rigorous application of the principles of science and reason. Leading that charge was the so-called radical intelligentsia, a motley crew of edgy intellectuals, journalists, and writers who studied French sociology, devoured Darwin, and traveled to Europe to worship at the feet of the German philosopher Karl Marx and the exiled Russian nihilist Mikhail Bakunin. The imprisoned revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s rather bad programmatic novel What Is to Be Done? (1863) was their bible, as it would be for nearly all future Russian revolutionaries, not least Lenin himself. The intelligentsia was ingesting, too, the writings of the French philosopher Charles Fourier, who envisioned a perfectly organized society that would feature seas made out of lemonade, androgynous plants that copulate, four lovers or husbands per every adult female, and approximately 37 million poets of the caliber of Homer and 37 million mathematicians with the genius of Newton.
Everybody in those days, it seemed, had a Plan—everybody, that is, except for Tolstoy, who by the early 1860s had hunkered down on his estate to write, hunt, have kids, raise pigs, tend bees, and picnic with his family in the sprawling fields of Yasnaya Polyana. It’s not that he didn’t care about what was happening around him; he cared very much, if his letters and diaries of the period are any indication, and for that very reason stayed out of the ideological screaming matches,
which he believed were not only hurting everybody’s ears but were in fact harmful to Russia itself.
Chastening personal experience had taught him that life’s most important truths cannot be understood by means of scientific theory, that even the most brilliant social engineering project is bound to fail. That’s because, while the idea of a perfect utopia is enticing, we imperfect humans are incapable of actually living in one. So, as Tolstoy understood, what begins as an intention to create heaven on earth almost inevitably leads to the exact opposite. Even a brief glance at twentieth-century Russian history, in which plans to build a socialist paradise produced a totalitarian society far more brutal than the nineteenth-century autocracy it replaced, proves just how prescient Tolstoy was.
It’s little wonder, then, that he rejected the fashionable insistence in the 1860s that the purpose of fiction writing was to promote the “correct” social agenda. For starters, nobody at that time could agree on what that agenda was; and beyond that, the very notion of fiction as a vehicle for ideology was anathema to the man who said that the artist’s goal is to represent “life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” Later in his life, of course, Tolstoy would not always practice what he preached, but at the time he wrote War and Peace, the author believed that fiction should do neither more nor less than tell the truth about things the way they are, rather than the way an author thinks they should be. And the way things are, Tolstoy reminds his readers throughout his greatest novel, is far more fluid and unpredictable than the dyed-in-the-wool proponent of one or another social agenda generally cares to acknowledge.
Where was all this progressive thinking coming from in the first place? Tolstoy wondered. As early as the 1850s he searched for an answer to this question by delving into Russian history and became particularly fascinated by the so-called Decembrist Revolt of 1825, when a small band of Russian officers led thirty thousand men in a protest against the assumption of power by Tsar Nicholas I. Taking place just three years before Tolstoy’s birth, the event loomed large in
his imagination, as it did for many of his contemporaries. The poorly organized rebellion failed miserably, with some of the rebels executed, and the rest exiled to Siberia. Still, it was bitter confirmation of something most thinking Russians had long suspected: that their country was in dire need of social reform—reform, though, not a revolution as such, or some grand utopian project of the sort the more radical intelligentsia were advocating. For Count Tolstoy was loath to throw out what was precious in his country’s past along with what was admittedly pernicious.
And so, with these ideas in mind, he set out to write a novel about a Decembrist returning to Russia in the 1850s after a quarter-century Siberian exile. It was to be a polemical work whose goal was to arouse sympathy for his hero’s progressive aims while at the same time showing that he was a better breed of man than those shrill reformers he encountered upon his return to a changed Russia. The hero’s name? Pyotr Labazov, the earliest incarnation of none other than Pyotr (aka Pierre) Bezukhov.
Where had all these good men gone? Tolstoy wondered. Come to think of it, where had they come from in the first place? They were forged, he concluded, in the crucible of the Napoleonic campaigns, and in that transformative year of 1812, in particular, a time of horror and shock during which the entire country—aristocrats, peasants, government, and all—came together in a spontaneous explosion of collective resistance against a foreign invader. In spite of all that hardship—or because of it?—Russians experienced a national unity they had never known before, and would not experience again until World War II, or, as the Russians call it, the Great Fatherland War. The crisis that tore the country apart, Tolstoy believed, also brought people closer together. Moreover, the future Decembrists were men who, traveling to the European capitals in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, became acutely aware that Europeans not only enjoyed a higher living standard than Russians, but were less intimidated by their rulers, and freer to express their political opinions.
These insights came later, of course. All Tolstoy wanted to do initially was write a book focusing on Russia in the 1850s. But the more he worked, the more he realized that in order to understand his hero, it would be necessary to know how he lived at the time of the uprising in 1825. And to make sense of that event, it would be essential to understand the critical formative events of the year 1812. But wait: How could he tell the story of 1812 without first describing the years leading up to it, beginning in 1805? Fortunately for us, Tolstoy stopped with 1805, finding it, as a starting point, suitable for his purpose. Otherwise, War and Peace might have ended up 15,000 pages long rather than a mere 1,500.
One thing is clear, though: at no point did Tolstoy know what the final version would look like. He admitted as much when, at the end of 1864, he wrote in an unpublished draft of an introduction to his novel:
“I cannot determine how much of my work will consist of what is now being published, because I do not know myself and cannot foresee what dimensions my work will assume.” He wasn’t kidding. The book came together over countless different stages of writing, during which the writer’s interests and intentions continually changed, so much so that it seemed to some readers of the Russian Herald, where the novel was being published in installments, that later portions might have been written by someone else altogether.
Not only was the shape of Tolstoy’s novel unclear to him; its very title eluded him. When he first conceived of the idea of a novel about a returning Decembrist back in 1856, he thought the book would be called, sensibly enough, The Decembrists. Having scrapped that idea soon thereafter, he then put the title Three Eras on his manuscript. By the time he actually started publishing the novel in the pages of the Russian Herald in 1865, he was calling it 1805. The next installments, however, appeared in 1866 under a different title altogether: War. In April of that same year Tolstoy had another change of heart, confident that he’d finish the book the following year, and that it would be called, with apologies to Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well.
A lot can happen in a man’s life over a year, particularly in one as dynamic as Tolstoy’s. For instance, a well-known French philosopher by the name of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, whom Tolstoy had met in Brussels several years earlier, in 1861, would suddenly die, unleashing a spate of articles about him in the Russian press. Surely Tolstoy was paying attention, for he was himself already deeply interested in Proudhon’s highly publicized books about warfare, as well as social and economic issues. One of Proudhon’s works in particular, which the Frenchman had completed just around the time Tolstoy met him in Brussels and appeared in Russian translation in 1864, kept flitting around Tolstoy’s brain: it was called La Guerre et le Paix, or War and Peace, a title that Tolstoy, presumably rather liking it, now decided to borrow. This, of course, was the title he settled on through future stages of writing and publication, which took him another two years to complete.
Yet here is the interesting point: All those lost threads, failed plans, starts and stops, and shifts in direction—none of it amounted to time wasted. For almost everything, in some form or another, ended up in the book. The character of Pyotr, for instance, makes it through all of the drafts with just a slight name change, and the Decembrist theme, too, is still alive and well, for, as any Russian reader in the 1860s would have known, the heated political discussions taking place in the epilogue are harbingers of the future Decembrist uprising that would occur only a few years after the novel’s ending. Even the planned title 1805 is not discarded, since the first quarter of the novel takes place in that pivotal year. The theme of War is omnipresent, as is the fundamental optimism about the world underlying the novel’s previously plundered title, All’s Well That Ends Well.
Had Tolstoy rigidly stuck to his original intention, the novel might easily have become just another long-winded addition to the ideological shouting matches of his time. But because he allowed the creative process to guide him, rather than the other way around, he ended up producing a masterpiece that manages to re-create life in all its unpredictable misery and splendor. The very existence of War and Peace,
then, is testimony to the wisdom contained in the novel itself: Plans may very well not work, but planning is well worth doing anyway. Or, as General Eisenhower would put it nearly a century later: “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” So it is, Tolstoy continually reminds us, on the battlefield, in the creative process, in life itself.
A page from the ninth draft of the opening of War and Peace: Plans don’t work, but they’re worth making anyway.