Napoleon goes to war with Russia because he can’t help himself—can’t help being overwhelmed by honors, moved by fine weather, and bursting out in anger at diplomats. Emperor Alexander refuses to negotiate because he feels personally offended. Everyone involved in the war does the same—acting on the basis of their personal qualities and habits, though they all imagine they’re choosing to act in given ways. “Providence” moves them all.
Tolstoy suggests that a divine power, or “providence,” guides people’s actions, whether through people’s individual personalities or through factors as minor as weather that influence people’s decisions. All the while, people suppose they’re acting on the basis of pure free will. Tolstoy develops this argument in the epilogue and appendix.
Today, it’s obvious what caused the French army’s downfall in 1812—the French army’s lack of preparation for a Russian winter, and the hatred their actions stirred in the Russian people. At the time, however, nobody foresaw this—the Russians seemed obviously weaker than the French.
Historical events always look different in retrospect than they did at the time. When Tolstoy wrote, people could look back and identify significant factors that weren’t obvious to participants in the events.
In retrospect, both sides did the very things that would ultimately destroy them. Today, French historians like to say that Napoleon understood he was overextending his army. Russian historians, meanwhile, claim that the Russians knowingly lured the French into the depths of Russia. But both sides only say these things because the events of 1812 justify them. The facts contradict such claims. The Russians tried their best to halt the French advance, and Napoleon fearlessly extended his line.
Even when modern historians have more information, that doesn’t mean they use evidence accurately. They still make claims justifying the actions of their preferred side. However, it’s still possible to look at the facts to determine what really happened—in this case, that both the French and Russians acted against their best interests in 1812.
By August, Napoleon reaches Smolensk and plans to advance toward Moscow, though this will doom him. Luring Napoleon never occurs to the Russian commanders. Everything plays out by chance. The enemy is drawn to Smolensk when the Russian armies involuntarily retreat in a certain direction. Personal rivalries between generals affect the direction and timing of the retreat. Lack of unified leadership, helped by the indecision swirling around the Emperor while he lingers with the army, leads to avoidance of battle.
Tolstoy gives some examples of his claims about how history works. For instance, though it may have looked like the Russians tried to draw the French deep into Russian territory, factors like personal rivalries and even indecisiveness combine to produce results that ultimately doom the French.
The day after Prince Andrei leaves, Prince Nikolai blames Princess Marya for his son’s departure. He stays in his study for a week and even refuses to see Mlle Bourienne. Princess Marya divides her time between tutoring Nikolushka and staying in her room, sometimes visiting with God’s people. She thinks about the war “as women [do]”—worrying about Andrei and failing to understand the bigger picture.
From sweeping remarks on history, Tolstoy moves back to the specific. The Bolkonsky family remains divided. Princess Marya’s “womanly” worries are very specific, too. This isn’t necessarily a criticism on Tolstoy’s part—he, too, holds that “small” individuals and events contribute to large historical moments.
Julie Karagin, now Princess Drubetskoy, has resumed writing to Princess Marya—patriotic letters in Russian, as she claims she can no longer abide French. Prince Nikolai refuses to acknowledge the war, so Marya assumes it isn’t very important. Meanwhile, Prince Andrei sends his father a humble letter asking his forgiveness. Prince Nikolai responds warmly and distances himself from Mlle Bourienne at that time. In his second letter, Andrei encloses a map and explains that the Bolkonskys should move to Moscow for safety—Bald Hills lies directly in the troops’ line of movement.
Now that the French have invaded Russia, aristocratic attitudes about the French shift abruptly, pointing out the shallowness of these attitudes all along. Even as family relationships are tentatively patched up, the war begins to intrude on the Bolkonskys’ lives in a more than strictly personal way—unlike in the fighting that took place in 1805–1807, the French are now near at hand.
Even after this letter is read to the household, Prince Nikolai refuses to believe that Bald Hills is in danger. In fact, he believes the French are still in Poland and have never crossed the Niemen. He resumes talking with his architect about plans for a new servants’ building.
Whether it’s because of his growing senility or simple refusal to believe that Russia could be invaded, Prince Nikolai remains in steadfast denial about the war’s growing encroachment on their lives.
Bald Hills sits 40 miles east of Smolensk and two miles from the Moscow road. One night, Nikolushka’s tutor Dessales tells Princess Marya to write to the head of the province to find out what’s going on, since Prince Nikolai refuses to act. When Alpatych the steward sets off for Smolensk, sent by the Prince to do some ordinary shopping, he takes the letter with him. On his way, he passes baggage trains and troops and even hears shooting, but he doesn’t think anything of it. When he reaches his friend Ferapontov’s inn, where he always stays in Smolensk, the men agree that the ongoing exodus from Smolensk is foolish.
The Prince isn’t alone in his denial. The idea of the French being a couple of days’ march from the estate is unprecedented and hard for everyone to absorb, Prince and servant alike. But now Alpatych heads straight into the fighting—in mid-August, 1812, the battle of Smolensk was the first major battle on Russian soil. While many flee in advance, others remain skeptical of what’s happening.
Early the next morning, however, the people of Smolensk hear both musket fire and cannon fire. Alpatych conducts his business around town and then goes to the governor’s house with the letter. When the governor hurriedly receives Alpatych, he hands him a paper and urges that the Bolkonskys go to Moscow. As Alpatych returns to the inn, he can hear the gunfire. He reads the paper, which is Barclay de Tolly’s order saying that his army and Prince Bagration’s army will soon unite before Smolensk, and that the inhabitants needn’t worry.
As battle bears down on the city, Russian generals try to assure the people that Smolensk will be defended, but evidently few people believe this—even the governor’s recommendation belies these orders. Ordinary people’s instincts often reflect reality more than official orders do.
Back at Ferapontov’s inn, Alpatych hastily packs up his purchases. By the time he goes outside, the inn’s windows shake from cannon fire, and shells fall on the city. Napoleon’s army is bombarding Smolensk. Everybody stands on the street, curiously watching the flying shells overhead. Ferapontov’s cook is standing at the corner, marveling. As she heads back toward the inn, something explodes in the middle of the street, and a crowd quickly gathers around the wailing cook, whose hip has been smashed by a shell splinter.
Those who fled turn out to have had the right instincts. Tolstoy highlights the experiences of ordinary civilians, not just soldiers; besides fear, they’re filled with curiosity at this unprecedented event in their city. And civilians can suffer as cruelly and randomly as combatants do.
While Alpatych and the innkeeper’s household gather in the cellar, Ferapontov goes to the cathedral, where the miracle-working icon of Smolensk is being carried in procession. Towards evening, the town grows quiet. The air is filled with smoke. Alpatych goes outside, and a fleeing officer warns him that the town has surrendered—everyone should leave. Alpatych and his coachman nervously prepare their horses as wailing people take stock of their burning city. When Ferapontov comes back, he tells Alpatych that Russia is finished. His family also boards a cart to flee.
The burning of Smolensk has apocalyptic overtones. The icon procession highlights traditional Russian religious piety in response to a catastrophe—appealing to God for a miracle. As they take in the devastated city, people conclude that their way of life has come to an end.
The wagons progress slowly out of the city, as the streets are blocked by confused groups of soldiers and smoldering fires. As Alpatych stands with a crowd watching a blazing barn, he suddenly hears Prince Andrei’s voice. Alpatych bursts into tears, asking his master’s son if Russia is lost. Prince Andrei doesn’t answer. He quickly scrawls a note to Princess Marya, telling the family to vacate Bald Hills at once. As he gives Alpatych hurried instructions, the barn’s ceiling collapses. Prince Andrei rides off.
Alpatych’s unexpected encounter with Prince Andrei highlights the role of chance in war. The collapse of the barn symbolizes what’s happening to Russia more broadly—at least as things appear in this moment, as people’s whole world seems to be falling down around them.
The Russian army continues to retreat from Smolensk with the French in pursuit. On August 10th, Prince Andrei’s regiment passes right by the avenue to Bald Hills. The land lies under a severe drought, with crops and swamps drying up. Troops suffer in the relentless heat and choking dust. The burning of Smolensk is a turning point for Prince Andrei; his anger at the enemy masks his personal grief.
Seeing his home fields devastated, Prince Andrei’s personal feelings about the war undergo a shift. Rejoining the army had been a way of fleeing the seeming meaninglessness in his life; now that the French invasion has literally struck close to home, he regains a sense of purpose.
Though Prince Andrei has received word that his family fled Bald Hills for Moscow, he feels compelled to visit the estate when his regiment passes by. As he rides through the property, he sees that the garden is overgrown and livestock wanders through it. Alpatych is still there, too. When Prince Andrei sees two peasant girls taking plums from one of the conservatory trees, he feels strangely comforted by the persistence of ordinary human interests, and he hopes the best for the girls.
Prince Nikolai’s lovingly tended estate is now abandoned and in disarray, showing how war senselessly overturns normal life. Yet, in one of Tolstoy’s subtle, human details, the presence of the foraging peasant girls suggests that elements of normal life persist despite this.
When he reaches the road again, he finds soldiers swimming naked in a small, muddy pond, whooping with delight. Their merriment is somehow sad. Timokhin encourages Andrei to swim, too, but he decides to have a shower in a nearby shed instead. “Cannon fodder” he thinks with a shudder as he looks at all the naked bodies.
Prince Andrei senses that the soldiers’ delight is a fleeting moment in the midst of hopeless circumstances. In a moment that Andrei will flash back to later, the men’s bodies signify the grinding reality of war, which consumes human lives indiscriminately.
On August 7th, Prince Bagration writes a letter to Arakcheev, knowing it will also be read by the Emperor. He reports that the minister shamefully abandoned Smolensk while Bagration’s troops held out against the French for more than 35 hours. It would have cost nothing to stay, Bagration argues, since the French were short of water and would have retreated soon anyway. He goes on to say that making peace at this point is unthinkable. He tells Arakcheev to call out the militia. It’s too bad that the sovereign entrusts his army to the minister’s adviser, Adjutant Wolzogen, who’s rumored to be more loyal to Napoleon than to Russia. He laments Russia’s “cowardly” retreat.
From the ordinary men or “cannon fodder,” the focus once again shifts back to the decisions of high-ranking officers and government officials. Though later historians will argue that the Russian army intentionally lured the French into the country’s vast interior, Tolstoy points out that generals like Bagration criticized the Russian retreat at the time. Events which later proved to favor the Russians were, at the time, influenced more by questionable decisions than by considered strategy.