Two years later, in 1808, Emperor Alexander meets with Napoleon at Erfurt, and the event is the talk of Petersburg society. In 1809, when France declares war on Austria, Russia comes to France’s aid against their former ally. There’s even talk of intermarriage between the two imperial houses. However, ordinary life goes on much as before, with little regard for politics.
The object of the sovereigns’ meeting was to confirm the treaty made at Tilsit, including the new French and Russian alliance. The new alliance—the Russians are now fighting against Austria—shows how dramatically war can reshape societies within just a few years. And yet, among ordinary people, there isn’t much change at all.
Prince Andrei still lives in the country. Without saying anything about it, Andrei has quietly carried out Pierre’s intended reforms—he has all the practicality and follow-through that Pierre lacks. One of Andrei’s estates is the first example of serfs being freed in Russia. He also brings in a trained midwife, as well as a priest to teach the peasants’ children. Prince Andrei divides his time between Bald Hills and Bogucharovo, reads widely, and finds that he’s better acquainted with current events than his Petersburg visitors. After carefully watching Russia’s failed military campaigns, Prince Andrei also draws up a proposal for military reform.
After his experience at Austerlitz, Andrei remains uninterested in fighting, turning his attentions instead to concrete things he can achieve at home. In the early 1800s, it was rare for landowners to emancipate their serfs, so like Pierre, Andrei shows he’s forward-thinking. And even though Andrei avoids both battle and Petersburg society, he isn’t totally detached from society; he lives the cultured life of a Russian gentleman.
One spring day in 1809, Prince Andrei visits his son’s estates at Ryazan. Along the way, his coach passes a massive, gnarled oak tree towering above the younger birches; it seems to scorn spring’s arrival. Prince Andrei keeps turning to look at the oak; it gives him melancholy thoughts about his own life. He feels he must simply live out his life without indulging either hopes or fears.
The oak tree symbolizes Prince Andrei’s life. It’s detached from others and looks down on them; it also looks old and weathered beyond its years. Its appearance prompts Andrei to think that he can strive for nothing beyond bare existence; life promises nothing more.
Count Rostov is the province’s marshal of nobility, and in May, Prince Andrei must visit him in connection with his son’s properties. As Andrei drives up to Otradnoe, the Rostovs’ country estate, he sees girls running beside the path and notes a slender, dark-eyed girl with a kerchief on her head; she laughs and darts away. The sight of the girl pains Prince Andrei; he wonders what makes her so happy.
The laughing girl (Natasha) reminds Prince Andrei of much that he lacks: youth, innocence, happiness—and a young woman he loves. More than anything else, though, Andrei feels the lack of meaning in his life; he’s too emotionally detached from his existence to be really happy.
Later, as Prince Andrei sits through Count Rostov’s dull entertainments, he keeps glancing at Natasha. Unable to sleep that night, he opens his window and gazes at the full moon in the bright sky. He hears conversation in the rooms above his, then a girl leans out the window above and calls tearfully for Sonya to admire the moonlight. He listens to Natasha for a long time until, overcome by a tangle of confusing, youthful emotions, he finally falls asleep.
Earlier, at the battle of Austerlitz, the sky symbolized eternal life to Andrei. Here, the symbolism is less clear, but the sky is associated with a youthful openness to life. When he and Natasha admire the sky’s beauty at the same time, it suggests they have some yearnings in common.
The next day, Prince Andrei departs for home. Once again, he pauses in the birch woods, looking for the old oak tree. He doesn’t spot it immediately; in the past weeks, its leaves have burst forth, hiding its gnarled shape and aged scars. When he finally recognizes the tree, a feeling of joy breaks over him. He decides that his life must not be over at age 31. He no longer wishes to live for himself alone; he wants his life to be joined to everyone’s, like Pierre’s, and the laughing girl’s.
After meeting Natasha at Otradnoe, Prince Andrei sees his life differently. The aged, gnarled tree has given forth improbable signs of new life, no longer appearing aloof and weary. This transformation tells Andrei that he, too, must seek meaning in relationship with others, and will find renewed life that way.
After his trip, Prince Andrei decides that he must go to Petersburg. It feels imperative that he begin to take an active role in life again. He wonders why he ever believed otherwise. Even Lise’s’s portrait no longer seems to look at him reproachfully but cheerfully. He arrives in Petersburg in August 1809.
After seeing the symbol of the revived tree, Andrei decides that the key to his new life is engaging in public service. He’ll no longer remain isolated in the country, captive to sorrowful memories of his late wife and keeping all his thoughts inside.
At this time, Speransky’s reforms are at their height. Emperor Alexander, who’s staying nearby while recovering from a leg injury, meets often with Speransky, beginning to realize the “vague liberal dreams” he’d brought to the throne with him. When Prince Andrei appears at court in Petersburg, he feels that the sovereign dislikes him and assumes it’s because he’s been absent from court for several years. Nonetheless, Andrei gives a field marshal, his father’s old friend, his proposed military reforms, and soon after, he’s invited to meet with the new minister of war, Count Arakcheev.
Powerful court adviser Mikhail Speransky issued several liberalizing decrees, abolishing lifelong court rank for the nobility and requiring examinations for administrative ranks, for example. In other words, Petersburg seems to be open to fresh, new ideas instead of relying on hereditary connections. At the same time, it’s notable that it’s Andrei’s family connections that gain him a hearing.
When Prince Andrei gets his chance to meet with Count Arakcheev, the minister grumbles about the proliferation of new military proposals, yet he also appoints Andrei to the commission on military regulations, without salary. Prince Andrei smiles before the Count dismisses him from the office.
The historical Count Arakcheev served as minister of war and councilor under Emperor Alexander I. When Arakcheev grants Andrei a government position, Andrei feels he’s meeting his goal of being useful to the world.
While in Petersburg, Prince Andrei renews the acquaintances of people who can benefit him. Speransky’s civil reforms remind him of being on the battlefield. He soon becomes more interested in this than in his military reforms. His reputation as a liberal landowner precedes him, and the story of Lise’s death (and his own rumored death before that) gains sympathy for him. Everyone agrees that Andrei has matured for the better.
Though Andrei once scorned Petersburg’s social world, he knows how to play its game when necessary by currying favor with influential people. Civil reforms also begin to displace the idealistic role filled by war when he was younger. People used to see him as pompous, but his sufferings have made him more approachable.
The day after he visits Count Arakcheev, Prince Andrei meets Speransky at a soirée. Andrei feels this is a life-changing moment. He tries to resist the man’s magnetism and not agree with him in everything as they debate inherited court privileges. When Speransky invites Prince Andrei to meet with him the following week, he believes he’s found his longed-for exemplar of “the fully reasonable and virtuous man.” At the same time, he feels that the quiet way of life he’s cultivated in the country is being consumed by Petersburg life. It seems that life is taken up with appointments and talking, not doing.
Prince Andrei continues to avail himself of social connections, something he scorned not too long ago. He even begins to idealize the reformer Speransky, believing he lives a truly moral life that benefits others. Even as he admires Speransky, though, Andrei wonders if this life of meetings and discussion is really the kind of new life Natasha inspired him to seek.
Prince Andrei’s admiration for the bright and aloof Speransky reminds him of what he once felt for Bonaparte. Besides his work on military regulations, Andrei also becomes head, at Speransky’s direction, of a section of the legislative commission, though Andrei lacks a legal education. His first task is to revise the first part of the civil code. Using the Code Napoléon and the Justiniani to guide him, he must write a section titled “Personal Rights.”
Andrei is aware that his admiration for the glittering Speransky could fade, as did his idealization of Napoleon. Because Prince Andrei has freed his serfs, he’s gained a reputation as a reformer. The Code Napoléon was the French code of civil law; the Codex Justiniani was a significant Byzantine law code, issued under the sixth-century Emperor Justinian, which had long formed the basis of European law. Being entrusted with reforming the law code represents a big step up in the world for Andrei.