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War and Peace 2013: Entry 18--Readings Eighteen and Nineteen

N.B.: This post will discuss only the events through the end of Book III, Part 3, Chapter 25. Unlike with The Odyssey, the eventual resolution of the story is not necessarily common knowledge, so I will make every attempt to avoid spoilers as we go. Also, there seems to be some weird chapter numbering going on with some editions of the novel, Kindle and otherwise. I've updated the reading schedule to make it clearer where the readings end and will be more than happy to answer any questions if you're confused.

Secondary N.B.: Somewhere along the line, my number system for the readings got all screwy. I've gone back and updated the headings, so they should be accurate. The "through the end of" figures were correct, however.

"On the way Pierre heard of the death of his brother-in-law, Anatole, and of Prince Andrew."

Believe it or not, this sentence is the reason I waited to write about these two readings together. Firstly, we find out only a few chapters later that Prince Andrew is, while perhaps mortally wounded, certainly not dead yet. (Anatole's ultimate fate is yet to be determined.) Either discussing or ignoring this revelation could have, potentially, "spoiled" later developments. Secondly, this sentence encapsulates the "fog of war" misinformation theme that resonates through both of these readings. Indeed, Tolstoy builds a lengthy argument about the impossibility of directing a battle from high above the field, because information goes stale essentially immediately. What's more interesting is how Tolstoy portrays this as it relates to the people who are still in Moscow as the French army approaches and the Russian army retreats to the far side of the city.

There will be plenty of time to return to our main characters later, however. What intrigues me is to think about how we would feel if one of *our* great cities essentially emptied itself out and handed itself up to the enemy? Imagine if New York, London, Toronto, Paris, Syndey, or even modern-day Moscow not only were abandoned by its nation's military to an invading foreign force, but if its citizens decided, en masse, that abandoning their city--the city they view as inherent to their national identity--was preferable to living under foreign rule.

The only other instance of this I can think of this stratagem is from the ancient world when, during the Second Persian Invasion, the Athenian leader Themistocles convinced the people of Athens to abandon their city--which, for them, was their country--so that they could reform Athens on the seas and defeat the Persians using their navy. (Of course, Tolstoy would argue that Themistocles hand't convinced anyone of anything, since it's contra his theory of history.) The Persian invasions of Greece are perhaps the first great confrontation between East and West, a recurring theme in Western culture and history, and the French invasion of Russia has been described similarly, with the West being the invaders in this case. Napoleon even describes Moscow as "Asiatic." The idea being put forward here, and hinted at throughout much of the rest of the novel, is that, while Saint Petersburg is the Western capital of Russia, Moscow is the Eastern one, and, apparently to Tolstoy, the heart of real Russia. The French seizing of it, then, is fundamentally different from their earlier capture of cities such as Vienna. This is why, to Tolstoy, retrospectively, it seems obvious and natural that an entire city of over a quarter million people, should just leave their homes, even though many of them would have had nowhere else to go.

As we see in these readings, solid information in the period from just before the Battle of Borodino right up until the French entree into Moscow (a period of only a week) was almost impossible to come by. All around different stories are spread--the idea of their being a major battle led by the Muscovites themselves being a recurring one with little or no basis in reality. Abandoned by most of its citizens and lacking any sort of solid information about what its supposed to do to prepare for the inevitable, law and order in the city begins to break down. Effectively, Moscow ceases to be a functioning city and becomes a sort of frontier town, just on this side of absolute chaos. A few short vignettes of life in the empty Moscow are sufficient to show this.

The lengthy discourse about Rostopchin and his actions during the crisis also gives Tolstoy another chance to poke holes in the great man theory of history. Fundamentally, Tolstoy believes that the abandonment of Moscow by its citizens was not a plan instigated or organized by central authority. Rather, it was a decision made individually by some quarter million minds about what was best for them to do. The fact that so many made the same decision, even though almost none of them really knew what was going on, is, to Tolstoy, proof that there was something else going on. What is that something else? Well, let's save that discussion for later.

Next time, we'll get back to the people, particularly my favorite, Prince Andrew, who doesn't look long for this world. But, who knows? He's been reported as dead a few times already.

P.S.--You can follow the blog on Twitter (@WandP2013) & #WandP2013.

P.P.S.--As I write this, it's almost 201 years to the day since Napoleon entered Moscow. Here's a brief and informative summary of the event--don't read if you don't want to see how it turns out.

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