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Leo Tolstoy on Peace and War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020

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“War always interested me,” wrote the twenty-three-year-old Leo Tolstoy in “the raid” (1853), an early story inspired by his personal experience of a brutal border skirmish in the Caucasus. “Not war in the sense of maneuvers devised by great generals … but the reality of war, the actual killing” (1). The focus of Tolstoy's interest here remained absolute throughout his long and brilliantly inconsistent life. As a second lieutenant during the Crimean War in 1854–55, he wrote three “Sevastopol Stories” about that city under siege, which were so cannily constructed and voiced that the new tsar, Alexander II, deeply touched, decreed that they be translated into French so that Russian courage would reach a European audience—whereas other readers took these tales as critical of the imperial war effort, even as subversive. Tolstoy revealed his own chauvinist side in the mid-1860s while writing the final books of War and Peace. Napoléon was a caricature from the start, of course, but, in a rising arc of patriotic disdain, Tolstoy proceeded to ridicule almost every alien nation's soldiers, generals, and tacticians; only simple Russian peasants, partisans, Field Marshal Kutuzov, and the occasional clear-seeing field commander were exempt from the author's scorn. By the end of his life, Tolstoy professed radical Christian anarchism and pacifism, preaching nonviolent resistance to evil and urging young men to oppose the military draft. But he never lost his fascination with close-up “actual killing.” The greatest literary achievement of Tolstoy's final decade, the Caucasus novel Hadji Murad, ends with such graphic slaughter, so many grotesque hackings and mutilations, and even the beheading of the hero described at such epic leisure that it is difficult to believe Tolstoy ever doubted the veracity of languages of violence.

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Correspondents at Large
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Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 2009

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References

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