Writing the World: Leo Tolstoy and 'War and Peace'

A new six-part film adaptation of 'War and Peace' simulcasts on A&E, Lifetime, and the History Channel starting today. Here is the story behind one of the greatest novels ever written.
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Fantastic Facial Hair: Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, (1828 - 1910), Russian writer.   (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Leo Tolstoy. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Russian novelists have never been noted for their brevity or narrow scope. Like the country itself, classic Russian novels are expansive in theme, full of incident, and packed with characters, many of whom have names that would give a census taker nightmares. But if there could be said to be one Russian novel that humbles them all in its sprawling glory, the king of the hill would unquestionably be Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Legendary as a work of literature and often regarded as a mountain to be climbed by intrepid readers, War and Peace indicates by its very title that it is a book that doesn’t pretend to be anything but monumental.

Totaling anywhere between 560,000 and 590,000 words (depending on the translation), featuring over 135 characters, and covering a period of more than a decade, War and Peace essentially defines the notion of epic. Most novels have one or two main characters; War and Peace has close to a dozen. War and Peace even toys with the limits of the novel itself, conflating real history with fiction and adding academic essays to the text. It is a book that creates a world and explores that world completely. Russian author and journalist Isaak Babel famously wrote that “if the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”

Where did this imposing book come from? It arose from circumstances both ordinary and unusual. Today Bio looks at the story behind the writing of War and Peace.

A New Life, A New Novel

When Tolstoy dipped pen into inkwell in the summer of 1863 to start his new novel, he had already achieved a prominent position in Russia’s literary community. Although he hadn’t published anything in nearly three years, a four-volume collection of his writings, The Collected Works of Tolstoy, was released early in the year and cemented his reputation as one of Russia’s best young writers (he was 35). His past work anthologized, Tolstoy felt prepared to create something new.

A young Tolstoy. (Photo: Pavel Biryukov (Life and Work, Heineman) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

A young Tolstoy. (Photo: Pavel Biryukov (Life and Work, Heineman) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

A major change in his personal life did much to focus him on his task. The previous September, after many years of illicit affairs and general misbehavior, Tolstoy had taken a bride, a pretty 18 year-old named Sofya Andreyevna Bers. He had had some difficulty choosing between Sofya and her two sisters, the slightly older Yalizaveta (“Liza”) and the slightly younger Tatyana (“Tanya”). Tanya, in particular, barely sixteen, had the kind of personality that appealed most to Tolstoy: free-spirited, passionate, and strong-willed. In his impulsive manner, however, Tolstoy soon made up his mind to marry the middle sister, who seemed to possess the right combination of common sense and ardor. In a move possibly indicative of cold feet, Tolstoy asked Sofya to read his diaries so that she could know for herself how profligate he had been in his past. Although the young woman was mortified by what she read, she agreed to marry Tolstoy anyway. (Their wedding day had the air of a screwball comedy, except Sofya didn’t find it very funny—Tolstoy couldn’t find a clean shirt and he kept 300 guests waiting for an hour while he rustled one up.)

With his marriage, Tolstoy gained a wife as well as the two lively sister-in-laws he so admired. Tanya became his confidante and inspiration; he would eventually base the character of Natasha Rostova on her. His affection remained brotherly, however; instead, his brother Sergey became infatuated with the girl. Nothing came of it since Sergey was already involved with a “gypsy” woman with whom he had had several children. Nonetheless, the presence of Tanya, a frequent visitor to her sister’s new home on Tolstoy’s country estate, gave Tolstoy the jolt that he needed to start work on his new book.

A Return to 1812

At the same time as Tolstoy’s home life was being revolutionized, he found himself more and more interested in a piece of increasingly distant Russian history – the Decembrist uprising of 1825, when a group of soldiers disenchanted with the promotion of one member of the royal family over another (and resolutely in favor of a more liberal ideology for the government) stood against their fellow loyalist soldiers. The uprising was quashed, but for Tolstoy it marked an interesting turning point in Russian history, a time when different ideas of what Russia should become had clashed. In some sense, the uprising and its failure could be seen as an aftershock of the French invasion of Russia in 1812, when Napoleon led his troops on a three-year campaign to conquer Russia, a campaign that failed but left the Russian people bitter and resentful of Western influences.

Tolstoy Photo

Tolstoy in 1897. (Photo: F. W. Taylor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Tolstoy himself had been a soldier in the Crimean War, and his writings during his time in the military were some of his earliest successes. Newly fascinated by the developments in Russia just before his birth, he sought out Decembrists to speak to about the uprising, as well as veterans of the war against Napoleon. Consequently, by October of 1863, he was calling his new work The History of 1812, intent on portraying an account of the events of that year that would take into account the sacrifices that his countrymen had made without discounting the “French” sympathies that would later motivate the rebels to act. He included ideas for battle scenes in his notes as well as many domestic scenes that often had an analogue in his real life. One example, a ball that Tolstoy attended with Tanya (Sofya was home with her newborn infant), turned into a key episode in the novel: the meeting between Natasha and Prince Andrey.

A Broken Arm, A New Resolve

The year 1864 was a challenging one for the Tolstoy household. Tolstoy let most of his help go, which meant that he, his wife, and a few dependable servants had to take over the running of his farm. He was ill-suited to the work, and generally made a mess of it – for instance, that year he cured all of the hams incorrectly and they all spoiled. When he wasn’t busy with mismanaging his estate, he would visit old friends in Moscow or fritter away his time hunting instead of working on his novel. By the fall, he had become stuck and had ceased to write.

Tolstoy Family Photo

Tolstoy's family, 1887. (Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

While riding for fun at a friend’s house in September, Tolstoy was thrown from his horse and fell on his right arm, which broke under his weight. Unable to write, he and Sofya, who was already pregnant with their second child, decided to go to Moscow to stay with her family so that they could both be attended to. As Tolstoy convalesced, unable to do much else, he resumed his novel by dictating it to either Liza or Tanya. At a gathering at the house later that fall, Tolstoy read several passages aloud of the novel in progress and his listeners were stunned to see themselves reflected in the characters. Each of the main characters seemed to mirror members of the household or Tolstoy himself. (A Tolstoy buff could while away many an hour comparing and contrasting the lives of Tolstoy’s circle with their fictional counterparts, and many do.)

The time that Tolstoy spent recuperating at the Bers’ house was productive; by the end of the year, the preliminary version of his new work was well underway. He changed the title to 1805, and soon he was able to pick up his pen again and continue writing it himself.

Wife and Advisor

Tolstoy may have enjoyed the company of his wife’s more unfettered sisters, but he made no secret of the fact that he loved Sofya most of all. Much to the perfectionist author’s delight, Sofya proved to be much more than just a wife and mother; she proved to be a faithful editor and careful copyist. Sofya became an expert at interpreting Tolstoy’s notes and jottings for revisions. By the end of 1864, Tolstoy was relying on her to update and correct the various drafts of his book that he had composed so far. Trusting her judgment, he listened to her perceptive readings of his drafts, often incorporating her suggestions.

Tolstoy Wife Photo

Sofya Tolstoy. (Photo: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It also turned out that Sofya was a good business advisor. Most 19th century novels, Russian or otherwise, tended to be serialized in literary periodicals over a period of months, and Tolstoy was happy to land his new book in a journal called Russkii Vestnik, which had published him before and paid him well. It was Sofya, however, who pushed her husband to pursue book rights over periodical rights. This decision would have great benefits later on.

1805 began to appear serially in February of 1865. Public response was immediately positive. The problem for Tolstoy was that the book was not satisfying him, and typically, he continued to rewrite and revise big sections of it. By April, the serialization had ceased as Tolstoy wrestled with his epic. (His publisher did not fret too much about losing Tolstoy’s novel in progress; he was serializing a book called Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky at the same time.) Over the spring, Tolstoy made good progress, and in June, 1805 emerged as the first completed volume of what would become the six-volume War and Peace.

Forging Ahead

Tolstoy continued to write into 1866 as his wife had another child and the household experienced some changes (a new land manager’s pretty wife temporarily caught Tolstoy’s eye, for one example). Tolstoy was also distracted by a law case he agreed to take on to defend a soldier who had been court-martialed for disrespecting a superior officer. The penalty for the charge was death, and Tolstoy felt the punishment did not fit the crime. Unfortunately, Tolstoy was a much better writer than a defender, and he lost the case. The man was put to death, and Tolstoy was temporarily traumatized by the turn of events. Certainly it had some impact on how he chose to portray various aspects of the military in his novel.

Determined to be historically accurate in his work, Tolstoy toured old battlefields and read every history of the Napoleonic Wars that he could find. Certain battles that Tolstoy wrote about, including the decisive Battle of Borodino, have come to be regarded as some of the best writing ever done about men at war. Tolstoy was able to absorb what he’d learned, inject his own experiences in the Crimea into the narrative, and create sequences that seemed like living history.

Imaginatively, Tolstoy was at his peak. On a more practical level, Tolstoy heeded his wife and made the momentous decision to self-publish the complete novel. He had to borrow money to do so, but the investment would prove to be sound. He also engaged a prominent illustrator named Bashilov to add art to the novel, a common procedure for the period. Tolstoy was as much of a perfectionist with the art as he was with his own language, and he sent Bashilov letter after letter containing suggested revisions for even the smallest details.

In 1867, Tolstoy revisited 1805, and carried on with the publication of subsequent volumes. By early 1868, three of the six volumes were in bookstores, and the impressive sales spurred him on. In 1869, the final three volumes were published and the novel was complete. By the end of the process, Sofya had copied a full seven draft versions of the novel and hundreds more partial sections that she carefully filed away for future reference.

A New Consciousness

The response to the complete War and Peace from critics in Russia was nothing less than rhapsodic. Critics elsewhere would occasionally be less complimentary (Henry James once referred to the book as a “loose baggy monster”), but within Russia, the book was regarded as nothing less than a distillation of the Russian spirit. These accolades did nothing to hurt sales. From a financial standpoint, the success of War and Peace made Tolstoy a very comfortable man, indeed. (His wife’s good advice about self-publishing paid off handsomely.) He bought more land and no longer worried about running the estates all by himself. Unfortunately, shortly after the book was published in full, he also suffered a bad bout of the flu. Somewhat worn out, he devoted the next period of his life to various projects, including learning ancient Greek and starting a school for the children on his estates.

Tolstoy Photo

Tolstoy in 1908, four months before his 80th birthday. The first color photo portrait in Russia taken by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky at Yasnaya Polyana. (Photo: Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

While Tolstoy occupied his time with other concerns, ideas for a new book began to germinate in his mind. War and Peace cast a gigantic shadow, but Tolstoy did not feel that he had exhausted his well of expression. In some respect, War and Peace felt limited because it was a historical novel, and he determined that his next work would deal with contemporary Russia. Social problems old and new continued to hobble the country, and Tolstoy knew that he wanted to address these problems in his art.

Tolstoy’s social consciousness would become the dominant theme of his later life, and his next book, Anna Karenina, would be emblematic of this shift in values. War and Peace was already a step in this direction, as Tolstoy clearly intended it to be much more than just entertainment for the moneyed class during long Russian winters. He wrote with one eye on serious social issues of the kind so often explored in 19th century novels, and he made his views explicit with the serious essays in the sixth volume. Although various groups interpreted Tolstoy’s social purpose differently (pacifists perceived War and Peace as a manifesto opposing the meaningless bloodshed of war, while Stalinists saw a defense of national pride against the invading tendencies of the West), Tolstoy certainly intended to reflect the undercurrents and influences that shift and change society. Although it was written about a historical period almost 50 years previous to its composition, War and Peace’s impact on the Russia of the mid-to-late 19th century was unmistakable. It showed Russia an image of itself that it was quick to recognize and embody. For Tolstoy, the next step would be to update this image and improve it. During his long, rich life, he would work towards doing just that.