In Petersburg’s highest social circles, court life churns anxiously. But underneath that, city life continues much as before, with the same round of balls and theater. The dulling effect of luxury and entertainment makes it hard for people to realize Russia’s peril. In the highest circles, people gossip about the two empresses. Empress Maria Feodorovna busily oversees the welfare of almshouses and orphanages, while Empress Elizaveta Alexeevna gives no orders, but staunchly claims that she will be the last to leave Petersburg.
While Moscow is imperiled by the French, Petersburg remains somewhat sheltered—especially for people who continue to spend their time in the usual round of aristocratic balls and parties. Maria Feodorovna was the dowager empress, or mother of Emperor Alexander. Elizaveta Alexeevna was Alexander’s wife.
On the day of the battle of Borodino, August 26th, Anna Pavlovna throws a soirée. The party’s centerpiece will be the dramatic reading of a patriotic letter from the metropolitan, which was written on the occasion of sending the emperor an icon of St. Sergius. Prince Vassily will perform the reading, as he’s considered especially gifted at this. Anna Pavlovna invites some guests in order to shame them for attending the French theater.
Metropolitan Platon II served as bishop of Moscow from 1775 until his death a few months after the battle of Borodino; he was renowned for his sermons. St. Sergius was a medieval monastic reformer, one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s most beloved saints. So Anna Pavlovna’s soirée is heavily Russian in tone—in contrast to the very French one she threw at the beginning of the novel.
Today the big news in Petersburg is Countess Hélène Bezukhov’s illness—angina. For several days now, she hasn’t attended any social gatherings, and rumor has it that she’s being treated by an innovative Italian doctor. Everyone believes the illness is due to the “inconvenience” of having two husbands at once, but nobody says that aloud.
While Pierre is at Borodino, Hélène is suffering at home, uncharacteristically withdrawn from society. While people speculate that she’s suffering because of her moral transgressions, people who care about their reputations would never criticize her in public that way.
The last of the guests arrives, so Anna Pavlovna tells Prince Vassily to begin his reading. The metropolitan’s letter refers to France as “the brazen and insolent Goliath” which will be crushed by “the sling of the Russian David.” After Vassily finishes, everyone praises his performance as well as the letter’s style. Everyone begins discussing the war, and Anna Pavlovna predicts that they’ll hear good news soon.
The bishop likens France to the biblical giant and Russia to the plucky, resourceful young man who can beat him, even when it looks unlikely. In other words, even religious leaders publicly champion Russia; patriotism is woven throughout all parts of Russian identity.
Anna Pavlovna is right. The next day, the Emperor’s birthday, Kutuzov sends a report of victory at Borodino. For the rest of that day, Petersburg is in a celebratory mood. Prince Vassily boasts that he always knew Kutuzov could beat Napoleon. But when the following day brings no update, everyone grows anxious, and Vassily no longer boasts. On top of this uncertainty, Hélène Bezukhov dies. Though angina is the official cause, people speculate that, when Pierre failed to answer Hélène’s last letter, she took a suicidal dose of medicine and died in agony.
At first, Kutuzov steadfastly maintained that Russia had won the battle. In the aftermath of Borodino, the outcome appeared murkier, as it also became clear that the Russian army was too exhausted to annihilate the French. The triumphalist mood in Petersburg wavers. Helene’s end is rumored to be as scandalous as her immoral life. Pierre is now free from his troubled marriage, though he doesn’t know it yet.
The next day, news arrives of the surrender of Moscow to the French. Now Kutuzov is regarded as a traitor. Even Prince Vassily, grieving his daughter Hélène, now says that nothing else could have been expected from a blind old man like Kutuzov. The Emperor sends an envoy to Kutuzov demanding an explanation for the surrender.
When people hear that Moscow won’t be defended from the French, public opinion of Kutuzov changes instantly—after being celebrated as the hero of Borodino, he’s now denounced as a traitor.
Nine days after Moscow was abandoned, Kutuzov sends a messenger to Petersburg, Michaud (a Frenchman who’s “Russian in heart”), with the official news. When Michaud tells the Emperor that Moscow is on fire, the Emperor starts to cry, then quickly collects himself. Michaud assures the sovereign that the Russians’ morale is strong, and the Emperor promises that he would sooner eat potatoes with the peasants than surrender. Furthermore, he won’t be deceived by Napoleon again.
Emperor Alexander, who’s portrayed as characteristically Russian in his deep emotion and fervor for his motherland, is grief-stricken at the burning of Russia’s spiritual capital. He sends the message that he won’t surrender Russia to Napoleon altogether. Attitudes toward the French have reversed since the days of the treaties at Tilsit.