After the battle at Vyazma, the Russian army is exhausted and can no longer keep up with the fleeing French. Despite this, many generals grumble over Kutuzov’s failure to capture Napoleon. For his part, Kutuzov does his best to subtly diminish the army’s marches. History doesn’t remember him kindly for this, seeing him as cowardly and weak. Yet it’s hard to imagine a figure more successful than Kutuzov in doggedly pursuing and attaining a single goal.
Tolstoy suggests that historians often misunderstand the motivations of truly good leaders. While most Russian generals frantically pursue the next obvious step, Kutuzov takes a longer view of what’s best (preserving Russia’s strength by letting the French destroy themselves), which makes him an easy scapegoat for misguided critics.
Kutuzov seldom talked about himself. He enjoyed novels, wrote letters to his daughters, and joked around with his subordinates. He often spoke the first words that come into his head, not because he was thoughtless, but because he learned that an individual’s words aren’t what moves other people. Yet he never spoke against his main goal. All his life, he categorized the battle of Borodino as a Russian victory, stated that the loss of Moscow wasn’t the loss of Russia, and recognized that there would never be peace until the people desired it.
With his down-to-earth restraint, Kutuzov is the opposite of Napoleon. His focus on the long view and his faith in the people’s will also contrast with Napoleon’s ego-driven ambition. Kutuzov’s seeming carelessness in speech explains some of his strange words, like claiming he didn’t abandon Moscow when Rastopchin confronted him.
Kutuzov’s goal was simply to defeat the French and drive them out of Russia in order to relieve both the army and the people. Kutuzov alone understood the significance of the war, even when he was alone in his opinions and never expressed them to anyone. This was because of his deep, pure “national feeling.” This was why the people chose him, even though the tsar disliked him, and why he cared more about sparing people than destroying them. Because of all this, Kutuzov “could not fit into that false form of the European hero” invented by history.
If Kutuzov has any failing in Tolstoy’s view, it’s that he’s a man of a bygone age. While younger Russians take their cues from Europe, Kutuzov is traditionally, instinctively Russian in a way that benefits Russia, even when people can’t see or appreciate it. His strengths don’t suit him for the larger-than-life heroic mold of men like Napoleon.
In November, during the Krasnoe battles, Kutuzov is called upon to offer remarks. After thanking the soldiers for their service, his voice becomes quieter, like an old man’s instead of a general’s. He tells the soldiers that while their situation is hard, the French are more pitiable, and they’re human, too. But then, cursing, he adds that nobody invited the French here, and it’s their own doing. The crowd roars joyfully as Kutuzov takes off at a full gallop, something he’s never done before. The soldiers feel that Kutuzov has expressed precisely what they all feel.
The Krasnoe battles were some of the final skirmishes of the French retreat. Kutuzov’s fatherly remarks on this occasion reveal his character. He acknowledges French humanity, but at the same time, he has a perfect instinct for what the rank and file soldiers want to hear, and he encourages their morale accordingly.
On the last day of the Krasnoe battles, the troops arrive at their night camp to find that most of the available quarters are occupied by sick Frenchmen. With good-natured cursing and singing, the men chop down trees and dismantle abandoned cottages. While high command reviews the day’s battle and proposes tomorrow’s maneuvers, the soldiers smoke their pipes and steam lice from their clothes..
After his consideration of Kutuzov’s legacy, Tolstoy portrays the everyday realities of army life, a reminder that these aspects of military life were ongoing at the same time.
Despite the freezing conditions, lack of adequate winter gear, and substandard rations, the Russian soldiers are as cheerful as ever. By now, the weak and disheartened have all been thinned out of the ranks. The eighth company sits by a blazing campfire and speculates about when they’ll get new boots. They reminisce about Borodino but agree that since then, all the fighting has been about making the French suffer. As most of the men settle down to sleep by the fire, a few wander over to the fifth company, where a lively Frenchman is said to be playing songs.
Without downplaying the horrible conditions, Tolstoy also highlights Russian resilience and spirit. Though soldiers’ lives generally revolve around mundane details like new boots instead of politics, they’re also invested in the bigger picture of the war.
In the middle of the night, some soldiers think they hear a bear in the woods. Instead, they see two strangely dressed Frenchmen emerge from the trees. One, Ramballe, is tall and weak, barely staying on his feet. The second, Morel, is a stocky man with a kerchief, in stronger shape. The Russians bring them food and vodka. Two men carry Ramballe to the colonel’s quarters to warm him up. A Russian soldier imitates Morel’s drunken French singing, struggling comically over the pronunciation. Even the seasoned soldiers can’t help but smile at the scene. Eventually, everyone falls asleep while the stars twinkle overhead.
Tolstoy uses this scene to give a more detailed picture of army camp life. Ramballe, the wine-loving officer who quartered with Pierre back in Moscow, reappears in bad shape, showing how devastating the past weeks have been for the French. There’s a touching humanity about the soldiers’ good-natured care for, and even teasing companionship of the Frenchmen. At this point in the war, a certain brotherhood prevails. As Nikolai, Andrei, and Pierre all realized, French and Russian alike sleep under the same eternal sky.