Throughout the novel, Tolstoy contrasts aristocratic Russia (which is European-influenced, contrived, and often pretentious) and traditional Russia (which is more instinctual, more honest, and more authentic overall). Aristocrats aspire to “European” traits, like an obsession with French culture and the adoption of complicated German war strategies. However, these don’t work well in the long run—or at least they can’t suppress authentically “Russian” instincts in the novel’s characters, such as religious piety and love of life. With such examples, Tolstoy isn’t saying that European values are totally corrupt or meaningless. He suggests instead that Russia and its people thrive when they’re true to their own culture and values, instead of importing foreign ideas that tend to undermine what Russian people know best.
Within aristocratic society, there’s an internal contradiction—can aristocrats remain authentically Russian while embracing “European” things? Tolstoy suggests they can’t. Aristocratic Russians love all things French. The novel literally opens with French conversation, as Anna Pavlovna Scherer welcomes people to one of her famous soirées, which typically showcase French émigrés. At the same time, the conversation suggests that Russia alone, led by “angelic” Emperor Alexander, can be Europe’s “savior” against the “monstrous” Corsican/French Napoleon. To maintain a place in aristocratic society, a good Russian must act culturally “French” even while denouncing French “monstrosity.”
There’s a similar dynamic in warfare. German strategic approaches dominate Russian warfare. In Volume 1, Prince Nikolai (who is identified with the older, more Russian generation) teases his son Andrei by mocking the German influence on the modern Russian military. And he’s right—German strategy doesn’t work well for Russia; at Austerlitz, the more “Russian” General Kutuzov is presciently resigned to the failure of the younger generals’ elaborate offensive strategy. By Borodino, even Prince Andrei is critical of “German […] reasoning, which isn’t worth a tinker’s damn” compared to native Russian passion and courage.
While the Russian aristocracy has an inauthentic and counterproductive fixation on Europe, families and characters who are more distant from aristocratic society are portrayed as more authentically “Russian.” For example, Princess Marya, the most devout Russian Orthodox character, is associated not with aristocratic society, but with the “people of God” (impoverished Russian pilgrims) whose naïve piety would be mocked at any society soirée. Surprisingly, Natasha Rostov—despite being an aristocrat—is another character who seems characteristically Russian, as she’s associated with a Russian free-spiritedness and zest for life. Despite not having been taught to dance like a peasant (indeed, she was raised by a French émigré), Natasha charms her rustic relatives: “[H]ow […] had this little countess […] sucked this spirit from the Russian air she breathed[?] […] Yet that spirit and these ways were those very inimitable, unstudied Russian ones[.]”
Most notably, Platon Karataev is symbolic of the authentically joyful, spiritually wise Russian peasantry: for Pierre, Platon “remained forever […] the embodiment of everything Russian,” and he helps Pierre rebuild the world “in his soul with a new beauty, on some new and unshakeable foundations.” Pierre, who is French-educated and tormented by aristocratic society’s expectations of him, only realizes who he is after he learns from this paragon of “Russianness.” In other words, Pierre himself is an embodiment of how a Russian soul won’t thrive on European foundations alone.
Again, Tolstoy doesn’t simplistically reject “European” people, culture, or values. Rather, he suggests that Napoleonic-era Russia stunted its own welfare by failing to embrace distinctly Russian beliefs, values, and love of life.