Tolstoy wants to state his view of War and Peace for those readers who may be interested. He asserts that War and Peace is not a novel. It is simply what Tolstoy wanted to express, in the form in which it was expressed. This actually conforms to the history of Russian literature from Pushkin’s time to the present. No Russian work from Gogol’s Dead Souls to Dostoevsky’s Dead House fits neatly into the genre of novel, epic, or story.
This article appeared in the March 1868 edition of the Russian Archive journal, while Tolstoy was working on the fifth of six projected volumes of the novel. He argues that War and Peace fits well within the tradition of Russian literature, in that it defies conventional categories.
Readers have objected that Tolstoy’s portrayal doesn’t reflect the brutality of the period. Based on his study of the documents of the time, Tolstoy doesn’t believe it was more brutal than any other age. It possessed the same “complex mental and moral life” we have today. There is, however, a character of that time which is captured in the gap between the upper classes and lower ones, expressed in such things as the use of French. Tolstoy has sought to capture this class discrepancy instead. He also defends the use of French in a Russian work, while acknowledging that he may have gotten carried away.
Tolstoy defends the novel’s historical authenticity by explaining that his emphasis has been class difference, suggesting that the gap between classes, and other markers of class difference, is more foreign to his contemporaries than the supposed brutality of the Napoleonic age.
There is an inevitable divergence between Tolstoy’s accounts of historical events and a historian’s. That’s because a historian and an artist have different aims. Just as a historian wouldn’t try to portray a figure in all his complexity, so an artist doesn’t always present figures simply in their historical significance. A historian portrays heroes; an artist should not have heroes, but people. He tries to convey a human being, not a famous person.
Both historians and artists make choices in their portrayals of figures. A writer like Tolstoy isn’t strictly seeking what we might call historical accuracy, but rather trying to convey a figure as a fully rounded person.
When it comes to events, a historian is concerned with the results, an artist with the fact of the event. The artist studies the details of an event, but from these he derives his own image of the event and often draws a different conclusion about it than the historian.
Similarly, a historian is doing something complex with historical facts. Instead of seeking to produce a factual narrative—the task of the historian—the artist presents an interpretation of history that may or may not neatly align with a historian’s view.
For example, military history is based on the military discipline assumed in commander’s reports. In the immediate aftermath of a battle, a researcher would gain a complex, diverse, and vague impression of what happened. A few days later, all these details are flattened into a deceptively clear, flattering report. Within a few months, even veterans describe their experiences in ways that conform to official reports. Furthermore, Tolstoy assures the reader that his portrayal of historical figures’ speech and actions are not invented, but based on a whole library of research, and that he can always provide references.
Tolstoy illustrates his point by considering military reports. The aftermath of a battle is always confusing; the narrative solidifies over time. An artist might study the reports (something Tolstoy hastens to assure his readers that he’s done!), but an artist’s portrayal aims for a more colorful, textured, and complicated story.
Finally, Tolstoy’s most important consideration has been the insignificance of “great men.” Why did millions of men try to kill one another, while knowing such things are bad? There can’t be a single isolated cause. There seems to be no answer besides the “zoological law” of male creatures exterminating one another. But because human beings are convinced of their individual freedom, they search for proof of this answer.
An event like war is so inexplicable, in Tolstoy’s view, that people lionize “great men” like Napoleon in order to explain such events to themselves. In reality, such events can’t really be explained by a single cause, or in any way except for the existence of animalistic drives.
When we commit an act, we’re convinced that we do it by our own free choice. But when we look at actions as part of humanity’s common life, we’re convinced that they’re predetermined. How does this mistake happen? The answer is that there are really two sorts of acts: those that depend on one’s will and those that do not. The mistake occurs when we transfer the awareness of freedom to those acts we commit jointly with others. Thus our more abstract actions are more free, and our more connected acts are more unfree.
People tend to assume that all their actions are free, but this isn’t true. The confusion comes in when people forget that when they act in concert with other people, their acts become less free.
Having become convinced of this, it makes sense that in his descriptions of the years 1805, 1807, and especially 1812, Tolstoy emphasizes the law of predetermination. He believes this law governs history, and he was interested in the characters’ activity insofar as it illustrates that law. He was also interested in the psychological law which enables people who commit unfree acts to convince themselves that they are in fact free.
For Tolstoy, the Napoleonic Wars are a perfect illustration of his thesis that predetermination governs history, and he believes that his characters’ actions prove this—especially since, in his view, mass events like war are only explainable by law. Yet those same characters, from the greatest to the least, make the fundamentally human mistake of believing all their actions are freely chosen.