Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Our Russian Folk

In the final pages (that last 200, I mean) of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy sets out his views of how a good life should be lived. Tolstoy was quite the moralizer, although only in that fascinating way 19th century writers were capable of being, without looking like a sanctimonious fool. The novel chronicles the French invasion of Russia, the destruction of Moscow, but also the spiritual regeneration of its characters. In many cases, this is shown by its characters rejecting foreign ideas and finding a new love for their country and culture.

Pierre is the most visibly affected character. Count Pyotr Bezukhov is the bastard son of an aristocrat who’s sent abroad to study, hence his French name. Like many other Russians of high society he speaks a lot in French, and he also espouses the French Revolution’s ideals of progress, democracy and fraternity. He even admires Napoleon. But as a young man he’s also a dissolute, unruly never-do-well. His marriage to Elena (Hélène) is an unhappy one, marked by suspicions of infidelity. Once he injures a man in a duel thinking him to be her lover. Beset by a crisis of consciousness, he turns to the Free Masons, to charity and philanthropy as means to give his life purpose. His life is one long pursuit of meaning and spiritual peace. Still under the influence of progressive ideals, he plans to free his serfs, but his inertia and lack of tact for practical things stop him, he can’t do anything by himself, instead he defers to lackeys who exploit his fortune and good will, and who erect Potemkin villages where the serfs are happy and free just to fool him.

When the French army enters Moscow, he finds answers in the occult: using gematria he discovers that Napoleon’s name has the mystical value number of the beast, or 666: he also thinks he’s destined to assassinate him. But he’s wrongly arrest for arson and in captivity meets a prisoner, the peasant Karataev, who transforms him spiritually. Pierre survives the war and goes back home. This is how Tolstoy describes him in its aftermath:

During the whole time of his convalescence in Oryol Pierre had experienced a feeling of joy, freedom, and life; but when he during his journey he found himself in the open world and saw hundreds of new faces, that feeling was intensified. Throughout his journey he felt like a schoolboy on holiday. Everyone – the stage-coach driver, the post-house overseers, the peasants on the roads and in the villages – had a new significance for him. The presence and remarks of Willarski, who continually deplored the ignorance and poverty of Russia and its backwardness compared to with Europe, only heightened Pierre’s pleasure. Where Willarski saw deadness Pierre saw an extraordinary strength of vitality – the strength which in that vast space amid the snows maintained the life of this original, peculiar and unique people. He did not contradict Willarski and even seemed to agree with him – an apparent agreement being the simplest way to avoid discussion that could lead to nothing – and he smiled joyfully as he listened to him.

The Gematria, the Free Masons, the ideals of the French Revolution, none of these things give him any peace. In the end his search for peace and meaning comes to an end when he learns to love the tradition of Russia and its idiosyncratic character. Unlike the Enlightened Willarksi, Pierre’s satisfied with the way Russians are.

Nikolai is another character who comes to love the Russia for what it is:

Having started farming from necessity, he soon grew so devoted to it that it became his favourite and almost his sole occupation. Nikolai was a plain farmer: he did not like innovations, especially the English ones then coming into vogue. He laughed at theoretical treatises on estate management, disliked factories, the raising of expensive products and the buying of expensive seed corn, and did not make a hobby of any particular part of the work of his estate. He always had before his mind’s eye the estate as a whole, and not any particular part of it. The chief thing in his eyes was not the nitrogen in the soil, or the oxygen in the air, not manures, or special ploughs, but that most important agent by which nitrogen, oxygen, manure, and plough were made effective – the peasant labourer. When Nikolai first began farming and began to understand its different branches, it was the serf who especially attracted his attention. The peasant seemed to him not merely a tool, but also a judge of farming and an end in himself.

The text clearly states that Nikolai distrusts English ideas. Like Pierre, he prefers tradition, he abides by the judgments of the serfs, who work in their immemorial way. He believes that their accumulated wisdom, passed from generation to generation, is more important than modern trends. Tolstoy spends 1300 pages tearing down abstractions like history, genius, great man, grandeur, chance, just to make the point that people ultimately are what matter. In front of the great men of history he puts the individual, the ordinary man.

  Often, speaking with vexation of some failure or irregularity, he would say: “What can one do with our Russian folk?” and imagined that he could not bear them.
  Yet he loved our Russian folk and their way of life with his whole soul, and for that very reason had understood and assimilated the one way and manner of farming which produced good results.

Nikolai sticks to the known methods and prefers not to disrupt the traditional flow of serf life, although he also introduces many changes to improve their living conditions, which draws the contempt of his landlord neighbours.

Natasha, his sister, and married to Pierre, equates a good life with an honest life:

Natasha did not follow the golden rule advocated by clever folk, especially the French, which says that a girl should not let herself go when she marries, should not neglect her accomplishments, should be even more careful of her appearance than when she was unmarried, and should fascinate her husband as much as she did before he became her husband. Natasha, on the contrary, had at once abandoned all her witchery, of which her singing had been an unusually powerful part. She gave it up just because it was so powerfully seductive. She took not pains with her manners, or with delicacy of speech, or with toilette, or to show herself to her husband in her most becoming attitudes, or to avoid inconveniencing him by being too exacting. She acted in contradiction to all those rules.

Like Nikolai who distrusts English ideas about agriculture, Natasha doesn’t care for French notions of feminine beauty. After marrying, she leaves high society and starts devoting more time to her husband and family. In the aftermath of the war, French ideas fall out of favour. This is also seen in the way the French language nearly disappears from the book in the Epilogue, whereas in the beginning it was used for whole conversations amidst high society.

The novel, however, isn’t against foreign ideas or the outside world. After Pierre tells Natasha about Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theories on breastfeeding, she, against her husband’s wishes, stops using wet nurses in order to breastfeed her babies herself, an unthinkable thing for a lady of her social standing. But this too conforms to Tolstoy’s precepts of a more natural life for men and women. Although War and Peace may be the greatest novel ever written, it’s not very cosmopolitan. Tolstoy was after all the writer who once said that if you want your book to be universal, first write about your village. I detect in him a Romantic strain in the sense that he valued tradition, national culture, the proximity to the land, the positive aspects of labour, honesty, spontaneity and nature.

I don’t think Tolstoy was a reactionary, I think he was just against the idea of progress for the sake of progress. Often change and progress are mistaken as the same thing and people who stick to tradition are seen as old-fashioned. But the progressive ideals of the French Revolution led to the Terror and to Napoleon, a self-declared messiah who wanted to turn Europe into a utopia, by hook or by crook. And just fifty years after War and Peace, a similar utopian revolution in Russia led to Stalinism. Progress as an ideology instead of a process that moves at the rhythm of the needs of people, and that has their participation and input, tends to have disastrous effects.

I don’t think Tolstoy was against progress, I don’t see anything in Pierre and Nikolai and Natasha, who boldly breaks child-rearing taboos, that makes them incompatible with innovation, but I think Tolstoy was worried about progress as its own end, as a blind force transforming everything in its path. Perhaps he was right, perhaps not. It’s however worth thinking about it.

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