After reporting to the regiment, Rostov rides to Tilsit with Denisov’s letter for the sovereign. On June 13th, Napoleon and Emperor Alexander are meeting at Tilsit. Boris Drubetskoy is also stationed there. Boris witnesses the two emperors greeting one another on a raft in the middle of the river Niemen and then disappearing inside a pavilion. Boris observes the proceedings closely, including the precise length of the emperors’ meeting, and writes down all the details. Boris believes that his presence at this important meeting assures his position in the “higher world.”
On July 7th and 9th, 1807, Napoleon and Alexander signed treaties in Tilsit (then in East Prussia) dividing territories between France and Russia, securing Russia’s alliance with France, and effectively giving Napoleon control over most of Central Europe. Boris continues looking for any chance to put himself close to power, so he can store up benefits for himself.
During the stay in Tilsit, Boris rooms with a Polish adjutant named Zhilinsky who loves French culture. Boris and Zhilinsky host frequent gatherings for French officers. One of these dinners includes Napoleon’s adjutant and page; that same night, Rostov arrives and visits Boris’s apartment in civilian clothes. Rostov is startled by the friendly atmosphere—he’s used to thinking of French soldiers as enemies and of Napoleon as a criminal. Nikolai asks for Boris’s help on Denisov’s behalf, refusing to stay for the French party.
Boris and Rostov have very different attitudes about the war. With his straightforward patriotism, Rostov finds it jarring, even unconscionable, to socialize with the French, while socially conscious Boris, who mainly cares about his long-term standing in society, seeks out such connections without regard for higher principles.
Rostov’s timing is poor. The two emperors are signing a preliminary peace agreement and then attending a celebratory banquet. Rostov decides that if he can’t trust Boris, he’ll take matters into his own hands. He lingers outside Emperor Alexander’s quarters and, surprised at his own resolve, walks straight inside. He believes Alexander can be trusted to side with justice. An officer scolds Rostov for his presumption, but just as he’s about to slink from the house in shame, he runs into a sympathetic former commander who accepts Denisov’s letter.
Rostov’s errand isn’t working out. He came to Tilsit on a matter of individual justice, but all he finds is diplomatic pomp and social ambitions. His boldness in trying to approach Alexander shows that Nikolai’s rugged devotion to principle remains intact—it’s considered offensive for him to enter the imperial quarters in civilian clothes, so his behavior isn’t without risk. Even though he doesn’t speak to Alexander, his daring is rewarded.
As Rostov leaves, he hears the emperor approaching, and he can’t resist crowding close along with some townsfolk. Seeing Alexander, Rostov’s love for the sovereign is rekindled; he feels the emperor’s gaze lights up everything it touches. He watches the two sovereigns shake hands and bestow honors on soldiers in the town square; he can’t help noticing that Napoleon’s smile looks fake and that he’s a poor horseman.
Despite Rostov’s disillusionment, the Emperor still has a nearly supernatural appeal for him, suggesting that patriotism has a deep, almost mystical pull on the average Russian’s heart. Tolstoy portrays one of his lowest-ranked characters—a hussar—encountering the very highest (even judging Napoleon’s horsemanship!), a reminder of how the actions of the highest shape the lives of the lowest in history, and vice versa.
During the ensuing banquet, Boris notices the stormy expression on Rostov’s face. Rostov agrees to visit with Boris, but he stands there pensively silent, thinking about the suffering amputees in the hospital, Denisov’s trouble, and the two emperors. He goes to a bustling inn and, while downing two whole bottles of wine, listens to Russian soldiers criticizing the peace treaty. Suddenly, Rostov has an outburst. Soldiers have no right to criticize the sovereign, he insists; it’s their job to do their duty and die—not to think. If they keep questioning everything, he continues while banging the table, what will remain sacred? He calls for another bottle.
At Tilsit, Rostov’s recent experiences build to an emotional climax. He’s gone from a disease-ridden hospital to an imperial banquet, witnessing the gamut of the war. He struggles to reconcile the agonies and injustices of war on a personal level with the beauty and ceremony of alleged peace on a symbolic level. In the end, he’d rather be around fellow soldiers than banqueting officers, and even then, he can’t make sense of what’s real. His outburst suggests that he’s suppressing his own criticisms of Alexander, sensing that everything will unravel if he dwells on them.