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Tolstoy and Politics

For years I have been fascinated by Tolstoy’s great novel War and Peace, a fascination prompted by the BBC’s grand, multi-episode version made back in the ‘70s when I was growing up (and featuring a young Anthony Hopkins — who even then stood out in my mind as a face to watch). It’s a huge book, and somewhat daunting to get into at first, but after a while it creeps up on you. I recall, about a third of the way in, encountering the death of a particular character — I burst into tears, unexpectedly. It made me watch more carefully what Tolstoy was doing, how he was winding the lives of these characters into my imagination and emotions, and where it was all leading.

Character creation and deft plotting aside, though, Tolstoy’s lasting legacy from this book was the philosophical view which he elucidates in it at length. Whole chapters in the book are really essays about military and social history and a way of looking at politics and human endeavour in their entirety. Towards the end, once the tale of the characters is done, once Napoleon’s invasion of Russia has been defeated by what you might call ‘a series of unfortunate events’ (unfortunate if you’re Napoleon that is), Tolstoy launches into a whole final section which is more to do with philosophical musing than with fiction. Though it’s at times a turgid read, it is largely that viewpoint which has drawn me back to the book again and again. I’ve read it four times now.