The officers who arrested Pierre treat him respectfully at first. The next morning, however, after the shift changes, the soldiers see him as just another Russian. The other prisoners, who are all from the lower classes, mock Pierre because he’s a French-speaking gentleman.
As usual, Pierre struggles to fit in no matter where he goes. To the French, he’s a worthless Russian prisoner; to his peasant fellow prisoners, he’s culturally foreign, too.
A few days later, Pierre is questioned in relation to the charge of arson. It’s clear that the interrogators have made up their minds, and they ignore any statement that isn’t incriminating. Pierre feels completely in their power. He sticks to his story, but he won’t reveal his identity. He spends several difficult days waiting blindly for a decision.
The French look for people to scapegoat for the burning of Moscow. They don’t care who Pierre is, and his fight with the French looters was just a pretext for arresting him.
On September 8th, Pierre and the other 13 prisoners are led from the shed where they’ve been kept and through the charred remains of Moscow. Except for the Kremlin and some churches, the city is unrecognizable. Pierre is struck by the French army’s smooth, confident operation of business; they seem to be right at home in what once was Moscow.
When Pierre is brought outside, the beloved city he knew is gone. To the French, there’s no poignancy in the destruction, since Moscow is just another city to be subdued.
Pierre and the other prisoners are taken to the house of Prince Shcherbatov, which Pierre used to visit and which is now being occupied by the French marshal. Eventually, Pierre is led inside to General Davout, who’s known for his cruelty. When Davout asks Pierre’s name, he feels frozen with fear and does not respond. Davout looks up at him and coldly claims that he is a Russian spy. Pierre energetically denies this. He tells Davout his name. When their gazes meet, Pierre is saved. There’s a mutual, tacit recognition of shared humanity between them.
Not only is Moscow’s appearance altered, its once-familiar social landscape is now overlaid with a French hierarchy. Yet when Pierre meets with Davout, the general’s brief moment of humanity ends up saving Pierre’s life—suggesting that even though war often has a dehumanizing effect on people, the opposite can unexpectedly occur.
Just then, however, Davout is distracted by good news from an adjutant. He orders Pierre taken away. With the others, Pierre walks numbly, believing he’s going to be executed. He wonders who has ordered this, who is depriving him of his life, and feels it is just the impersonal order of things.
In the face of what he assumes is likely death, Pierre is struck by the anonymity of the moment—for something as personal as losing his life, there are no answers to why or by whose decree it’s happening.
The prisoners are taken to Devichye field, which Pierre knows to be the place of executions. In a garden, there’s a post and a freshly dug pit. There’s a crowd of French soldiers and other Napoleonic troops, as well as some Russians. The prisoners are placed in order—Pierre is sixth—and led to the post. Pierre can no longer reason; he only sees and hears and wishes that whatever is about to happen would end quickly.
Pierre feels detached from everything around him. After so many years of seeking meaning in his life, he’s instead confronted with the thing he’s feared and refused to face—his death.
Pierre hears some French soldiers debating about how to shoot them. The sentence is read in Russian and French. Then the first two criminals are brought forward. The solders blindfold them with sacks and then tie them to the post. Twelve soldiers step forward, and Pierre looks away while they fire. When the next two are led forward, Pierre sees their pleading, disbelieving looks. When the fifth man is led forward alone, it doesn’t register in Pierre’s mind that he’s going to be spared. He doesn’t look away as the man is shot. He sees the haste and fear in the Frenchmen’s movements as they bury the bodies in the pit, and he believes they know they’re doing something criminal. “That’ll teach them to set fires,” one of the soldiers says.
Tolstoy describes the executions in detail, effectively slowing down the action to heighten tension—naming small details and counting down the killings one by one. Pierre is so absorbed in what’s happening that he doesn’t realize at first that he’s been spared for some reason. He does notice the stealthy air of guilt as the soldiers bury the evidence, trying to convince themselves that they’re doing something just. In actuality, it’s not clear that any of the executed men was responsible for the fires.
After the executions, Pierre is left alone for a while in an abandoned church. Later, some soldiers come and inform Pierre that he’s been pardoned and will now be taken to the barracks. Pierre doesn’t understand them and, when taken into the crowded, makeshift prison, can’t make sense of anything around him. After witnessing the executions, carried out by unwilling men, he feels that something in his soul has broken. He no longer has faith in God, life, or in anything good.
Far from feeling relived, Pierre finds that witnessing the inhumanity of the executions has killed his idealism. There’s a sense that his efforts to understand life’s meaning have been mockingly cut short, and this fate is a death of sorts.
Next to him, barely visible in the darkness, a little man with a gentle, melodious voice is watching Pierre. When he asks Pierre, “So you’ve seen a lot of misery, master?” Pierre almost starts to cry. The man tells Pierre not to grieve; there are both good and bad people in the world.
Just as Pierre despairs, he is interrupted—much like his first encounter with Bazdeev, when he first learned about Freemasonry.
They exchange stories; the other man was taken prisoner in a hospital, where he was suffering from a fever. He introduces himself as Platon Karataev. A peasant, he was sent into the army for going into another man’s grove. While this seemed a great grief at the time, he explains, it turned out to be a joy, because it spared his younger brother, who had many children, from having to go to the army. Then the man prays and lays down to sleep. Pierre lies awake for a long time, feeling that a new, beautiful world has arisen in his soul.
Platon is Bazdeev’s opposite in many ways. While Bazdeev was aristocratic and esoteric, teaching Pierre to seek meaning in mystical practices of self-purification, Platon is different: he’s a peasant, as down-to-earth as it gets, and he appears to find a simple joy in everyday life. Like last time, Pierre feels hopeful for a new beginning.
Pierre is held prisoner for four weeks. Though much of this remains a fog in Pierre’s mind, he always remembers Platon Karataev, who seems to Pierre “the embodiment of everything Russian.” What Pierre remembers most is the older man’s quick, persuasive speech, which Platon seems never to have to think about in advance. He keeps himself busy with menial tasks all day long and talks and sings in the evenings before falling into a contented sleep. He offers a steady flow of wholesome folk proverbs which Pierre finds profound, even when the sayings contradict one another.
Platon Karataev is the novel’s archetypal Russian peasant, and in Tolstoy’s portrayal, that means only good things: Platon is simple, deceptively wise, hardworking, and content with what he has. Unlike the Masons, who strive for an abstract, hierarchical form of knowledge, Platon’s peasant wisdom is immediate and earthy. Tolstoy portrays such wisdom as wholesomely, essentially Russian.