Human beings have an irrepressible need to search for causes, and they tend to latch onto the first plausible cause they can find. Often this supposed cause involves historical heroes. But if we look into the complexity of an event, we quickly see that even so-called heroes are being guided, even if we don’t understand how. We can only understand something about history when we stop looking to individuals’ wills as sole causes. It’s like discovering the laws of planetary movement, which only became possible when people stopped believing that the earth stood still.
Tolstoy returns to his recurrent reflections on history. He suggests that it’s human to try to understand the meaning of events, and people usually simplify this meaning in order to make it easier to understand. Tolstoy argues that looking to “heroes” is one way of simplifying history. In reality, if people stopped thinking this way, it would be a paradigm shift, allowing them to see much bigger “laws” at work.
After Borodino and the burning of Moscow, historians identify the Russian army’s flanking march beyond Krasnaya Pakhra as the most important event in the War of 1812. This is when the army moved from the Ryazan to the Kaluga road in the direction of the Tarutino camp. Even French historians acknowledge that it was a brilliant move. But it’s hard to see what was ingenious about it—it doesn’t take a military genius to see that an army should move toward the area with the most provisions. And this move could just as easily have proven disastrous for the Russians as for the French.
The march described here was part of Kutuzov’s plan. After the Russian army withdrew from Moscow to Krasnaya Pakhra, they turned south toward Tarutino in order to block the French from the agriculturally rich southern provinces. Tolstoy points out that this is a perfectly sensible move and not unusually brilliant. But because historians can now look back at the longer-term effects, they attribute “genius” to a fairly ordinary decision.
Furthermore, the flanking march wasn’t the decision of any single person. It proceeded one step at a time and was only considered as a whole in retrospect. At first, the army marched toward Nizhni Novgorod; then Kutuzov learned that it would be difficult to transport provisions across the river Oka once winter arrived. So the army deviated south, and kept doing so, little by little, depending on French movements and the availability of provisions. Only after the army reached Tarutino did people convince themselves that they’d always meant to go there.
Tolstoy also likes to point out that what seem to us to be isolated, discrete decisions were actually something different. That is, “decisions” are the sum of a chain of smaller steps that people simplify in retrospect. For example, Kutuzov’s flanking march to Tarutino came about because of many smaller decisions along the way; Tarutino wasn’t the end goal.
Kutuzov isn’t a genius, but he understands the significance of events better than most. He already senses the meaning of the French army’s inactivity, continues to maintain that Borodino was a Russian victory, and avoids useless battles as much as possible. Napoleon, on the other hand, thinks that whatever’s most recently come into his head is good. He sends Lauriston to Kutuzov to request terms of peace. Kutuzov staunchly refuses.
Tolstoy locates Kutuzov’s success not in “genius,” but in his instinct for the larger meaning of things. In his view, this instinct is more important than strokes of genius, and certainly more effective than Napoleon’s arrogant short-sightedness.
During the month after Borodino, when the French are looting Moscow and the Russians are stationed at Tarutino, the Russian army gains superior strength. Many signs point to the advisability of a Russian attack: the Russians are rested and well provisioned, the French are said to be in disarray, and the Russians long for revenge on the burning of their capital.
In the lull following the battle of Borodino, conditions seem to point to renewed battle, as the Russians have had a chance to recover—and more importantly, they’ve been impassioned by the French invasion.
Following the abandonment of Moscow, the army has to create new war plans. Previous plans had been dependent on the capital staying in Russian hands. In addition, generals like Bagration have been killed, and Barclay has left his position. As roles are replaced, generals jockey and engage in various intrigues. They imagine they’re conducting the vital business of war, but in reality, the war plays out independently of these maneuvers.
The situation after Borodino is complicated. Strategists hadn’t anticipated the loss of Moscow, and there’s a power vacuum, which inevitably leads to political maneuvering. Tolstoy suggests that such maneuvers, which people consider crucial at the time, actually have little effect on larger outcomes.
On October 2nd, after the battle of Tarutino, the Emperor writes to Kutuzov. He observes that Kutuzov hasn’t gone on the offensive since Moscow was taken, and in fact, the army has retreated further back. Given that Napoleon is still in Moscow and the French army has broken up into several regiments, perhaps it is time to act—especially before the French have an opportunity to threaten Petersburg. The sovereign reminds Kutuzov that he still must answer for the loss of Moscow.
Alexander has never liked Kutuzov and doesn’t seem to understand his instincts about war. He essentially asks Alexander to redeem himself by attacking the French before they’re strong enough to continue the invasion. But Kutuzov isn’t motivated by such considerations, time and patience being his preferred tools.
By the time Kutuzov receives this letter, the Russians have already initiated battle against the French. Earlier that day, a Cossack had stumbled into General Murat’s army while hunting rabbits deep in the forest. This information made its way to the army staff and, despite his reluctance to offer battle, Kutuzov yielded to his inferiors’ wishes and “blessed the accomplished fact.”
Kutuzov always avoids going on the offensive, lacking the aggression of younger generals and believing the defensive is more important. However, in this case, he goes along with the prevailing view. It’s an “accomplished fact” because Kutuzov holds that men’s willingness to fight is more important than plans or orders.