The Rostovs get their first letter from Nikolai in midwinter. Anna Mikhailovna, who’s still living with them, finds the Count laughing and crying over the news that Nikolai was wounded and then promoted. Anna Mikhailovna offers to spend the day preparing the Countess for the news. Natasha persuades Anna Mikhailovna to tell her the news first, swears not to tell, then immediately runs and tells Sonya. The cousins cry together. To Natasha’s astonishment, Sonya confides that she’s in love with Nikolai. Natasha says she can’t relate to such feelings.
The Rostovs’ heartfelt, expressive emotion—Tolstoy’s idea of “Russian” character—contrasts with the artificiality of Petersburg society families like the Kuragins and Drubetksoys. Though many, like Natasha, have taken Sonya’s feelings for Nikolai as a childhood crush—more playful than serious, like Natasha’s flirtations with Boris and other young men—Sonya reveals that her emotions run deeper.
When Anna Mikhailovna goes into the countess’s room after dinner, Count Rostov listens at the keyhole, unable to hear much. Finally, Anna Mikhailovna opens the door with a triumphant look and informs him, “It’s done!” The count finds his wife alternately kissing Nikolai’s portrait and the letter. The whole family crowds into the room to hear the letter read aloud. When Sonya hears Nikolai’s affectionate greetings for her, she runs to the ballroom and twirls with delight.
Anna Mikhailovna relishes putting herself at the center of any drama, even though she’s not a member of the Rostov family. Countess Rostov exemplifies the devoted Russian soldier’s mother, and Sonya takes Nikolai’s greeting as evidence that he reciprocates her feelings.
The countess keeps the letter in her exclusive possession from then on, astonished to think that her little son has become a man capable of doing brave deeds on foreign battlefields. Over the coming week, the family members each write letters to Nikolushka and gather these, along with 6,000 roubles to outfit him for his promotion, to be mailed to Nikolai by way of Boris, who’s under the patronage of the grand duke Konstantin Pavlovich (the Emperor’s younger brother).
In his family’s eyes, Nikolai is the ideal Russian hero—an instance of dramatic irony, since Nikolai acted rather unheroically at Schöngraben. Unlike wealthier families, they have to scrape together money and avail themselves of social connections in order to support Nikolai’s military career. Both things—the contrast between ideal and reality and the importance of social standing—suggest that war doesn’t fulfill some glorious ideal.
On November 12th, Nikolai gets a note from Boris, telling him about the note and money from his family. At the time, Kutuzov’s army is camped near Olmütz. The Pavlogradsky guards are camped about 10 miles away and will join them the next morning, when the Russian and Austrian emperors will review the whole army. The hussars have been celebrating their victory with feasts and visits to a tavern, so Nikolai really needs the money to pay off his debts. He rides to Boris’s regiment, proud of how shabbily battle-seasoned he looks. Nikolai finds Boris with his friend Berg, who’s been recently promoted to company commander. They are playing checkers and are neatly dressed. Each day, the Izmailovsky regiment has made short marches accompanied by music, while their packs are transported by wagon.
The story transitions back to the war front, presenting a contrast between Nikolai and Boris and Berg. While Nikolai is proud of how battle-hardened he looks as part of the Pavlogradsky guards, Boris and Berg, in the Izmailovsky regiment, clearly haven’t taken part in actual fighting. While they’ve enjoyed leisure and public recognition, the hussars have literally been doing the dirty work. The contrast illustrates what patronage can do (Anna Mikhailovna’s appeal to Prince Vassily to get Boris this position). Still, Nikolai is a down-to-earth young man who prefers a simple soldier’s life.
Nikolai and Boris admire the changes in one another and swap stories about their experiences—Nikolai’s life as a hussar at the front and Boris’s in a regiment honored with frequent dinners and balls. When Nikolai reads the letter from home, he feels ashamed for frightening his family. He also tosses aside a letter of recommendation to Prince Bagration, secured for him by Anna Mikhailovna. Boris picks up the letter and tells him he needs it; it’s valuable. But Nikolai says he doesn’t want to be anybody’s adjutant, as it’s a “lackey’s” job. Boris, on the other hand, aspires to such a role.
Nikolai and Boris have opposite values. Nikolai doesn’t want things the easy way—gaining an adjutant job through connections, and thereby avoiding more direct fighting. Boris is unabashedly careerist and doesn’t understand how his friend can literally throw away such an opportunity, which doesn’t come along every day.
Over wine, Berg and Boris animatedly tell Rostov about the joys of serving in the Grand Duke’s regiment. Then Boris asks about Rostov’s wound, a story Nikolai happily tells. Though Nikolai is a truthful person, he gives an exaggerated account without quite intending or realizing it. He senses that his story needs to conform to their expectations of what a cavalry attack would be like, so he can’t just say that he fell off his horse, dislocated his arm, and then ran away into the woods (which is what really happened).
So far in the story, Nikolai has given every indication of being an honorable person, but he feels the pressure to live up to other people’s ideals of battlefield heroism. His out-of-character exaggeration suggests that war weakens people’s moral compass, even when it’s otherwise strong.
In the middle of the story, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky walks in. Prince Andrei can’t stand boastful front-line hussars; Rostov, in turn, scorns adjutants. Yet the latter blushes and falls silent as Boris talks to Bolkonsky. When Bolkonsky asks Rostov if he fought at Schöngraben, Rostov answers defensively, yet he can’t help admiring Bolkonsky’s arrogant sense of calm. As he leaves, he wishes he could challenge the adjutant with his pistol, and yet, at the same time, he wishes they could be friends.
War can entrench artificial distance between people, even when they’re on the same side. By this time, Prince Andrei has grown more cynical about war, and he senses that Rostov is exaggerating, as young soldiers do. Rostov, for his part, finds Andrei’s arrogance repellent, yet he also feels a grudging respect for the adjutant and wants his approval.
The next day, the Russian and Austrian emperors both review the 80,000-man allied army. Cavalry, artillery, and infantry stretch across an enormous field in three impeccable lines. Standing with the front ranks of Kutuzov’s army, Rostov feels proud as Emperor Alexander rides up to them. Everyone roars “Hurrah!” with a feeling that they’d do anything for their sovereign. Emperor Alexander is young and handsome with a surprisingly gentle voice. Rostov finds him enchanting and wishes he could die for the man. After the review, everyone talks about the Emperor and feels inspired.
Alexander Pavlovich Romanov became Emperor in 1801, just a few years before the story begins, after his father, Paul I, was assassinated. Rostov idolizes the Emperor and relishes the unity he feels during the review. Emperor Alexander seems to embody everything that’s worth dying for, even though Nikolai doesn’t seem to be clear on exactly what that is. While Tolstoy downplays the role of such “great men” in world events, he also shows—and implicitly criticizes—their ability to stir fanatical devotion because of what they symbolize.
The next day, Boris visits Bolkonsky in Olmütz, seeking an appointment to an adjutant position. He feels he’s in a more difficult position than Rostov, whose family can support him—he has to build his own career without such help. An unknown officer of the guard amidst the aristocracy, Boris feels invisible. But when Bolkonsky steps aside from important generals in order to speak to him, Boris realizes something: there are multiple systems in the army. There’s the official system of rank and discipline, and another, more basic system that, because of a letter of recommendation, allows a nobody like him to be recognized over a general. Boris resolves to build his career on the latter system.
In some ways, Boris has more advantages than Nikolai does. He has connections that allowed him to gain a relatively safe and comfortable position. But unlike Nikolai, Boris sees rank as more important than glory in battle, and if he hopes to advance further, he has to distinguish himself—hence seeking out Bolkonsky. When Andrei acknowledges him, Boris realizes that “who you know” is often more important than outward rank. It’s basically the logic of high society applied to the military, an insight that shapes Boris’s life form now on.
After Prince Andrei deals with a report from a purple-faced general (who stares resentfully at Boris all the while), he takes Boris to the other room and says they’ll go together to speak to an adjutant named Prince Dolgorukov, who may be able to establish Boris “closer to the sun.” Prince Andrei loves being in a position to confer success on others. That evening, he takes Boris to the palace in Olmütz, where the emperors are staying. In a war council earlier that day, the younger generals decided that the allies should go on the offensive against Bonaparte (though Kutuzov disagrees). The younger generals are so euphoric (encouraged in part by the emperors’ presence) that it’s as if victory has already been won.
Boris’s boldness in approaching Prince Andrei immediately pays off. He not only gets access to important generals; he gets to see consequential decisions being made up close. Characteristically, Kutuzov considers offensive warfare too risky, while the less experienced generals, buoyed by the events at Schöngraben, override him with their optimism. Even as he traces the generational differences among army staff, the novel questions whether generals’ decisions are as significant as they seem in the long run.
Prince Andrei introduces Boris to Prince Dolgorukov, who’s part of the group that argued for the offensive. Dolgorukov excitedly tells Prince Andrei about the allies’ advantages, especially their “combination of Austrian clarity with Russian courage.” Furthermore, he believes that Bonaparte is at a loss—his letter today sounded as if he was simply stalling for time. By this time, he’s summoned to the emperor and doesn’t have time to hear Prince Andrei’s request on Boris’s behalf.
Prince Dolgorukov is an example of a Russian officer who’s enamored of more “European” tactics (like fighting offensively instead of defensively). He sees a compound of Austrian and Russian traits as giving the allies an advantage. The novel will question this assumption as the war drags on—that is, do European tactics really suit Russia?
On the way out, they cross paths with minister of foreign affairs Prince Adam Czartoryski, a young man whom Prince Andrei dislikes. Upon such men, Prince Andrei acknowledges to Boris, the fates of nations rest. Boris ends up staying with the Izmailovsky regiment for the time being, since there’s no more time to see Bolkonsky or Dolgurokov before the next battle.
Prince Andrei advises Boris that diplomatic officials like Czartoryski make the really fateful decisions in war. It’s not clear that Andrei, with his newly cynical outlook, sees this as a good thing. Boris’s promotion can’t go forward for the time being, but more importantly, he’s established a pattern of befriending the “right” people and putting his name out there.