Russia: Tolstoy's ‘War and Peace’ Legacy Today

RuNet Echo continues its series examining the 200th anniversary of Tsarist Russia's Victory over Napoleon by examining Leo Tolstoy's novel ‘War and Peace’ and the role it plays today online. Although the book was initially published in 1869, its story begins in July 1805 and progresses through the 1812 French invasion, the Battle of Borodino, and the occupation of Moscow, all the way to the French retreat and rebuilding of Russia.

A recent survey of over 100 respected British and American authors revealed that ‘War and Peace’ is considered to be one of the greatest works of the past two centuries. Russian blogger paradise-apple enthusiastically reported these results in a post titled, “Anna Karenina Won!”

These works were listed as the nineteenth century's best:

‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy, ‘Madam Bovary’ by Gustave Flaubert, ‘War and Peace’ by Tolstoy, ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ by Mark Twain, Anton Chechov's short stories, ‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot, ‘Moby Dick’ by Herman Melville, ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens; ‘Crime and Punishment’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and ‘Emma’ by Jane Austin.

Additionally, reviewed the authors whom the British and American judges selected as the greatest writers of all time. Again, Tolstoy was listed at the top, followed by William Shakespeare, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Kramskoy's portrait of Leo Tolstoy (1873), public domain.

On the RuNet today, discussions about ‘War and Peace’ and Tolstoy's literary style are common, often addressing a variety of issues such as the proper translation of the title, the length and depth of the work, and Tolstoy's use of the French language.

Translation of the Title

The title ‘War and Peace’ is written in Russian as ‘Вoйнá и мир’ (Voina i mir). ‘Voina’ is the Russian word for ‘war.’ In the context of Tolstoy's novel, ‘mir’ is traditionally translated as ‘peace,’ although an alternate translation of ‘mir’ in a variety of contexts is ‘the world.’

Recently, two RuNet Twitter users debated whether or not the common translation, ‘War and Peace,’ is what Tolstoy intended, rather than ‘War and the World.’


Вчера узнал, что слово “мир” в “Война и мир” Толстого имеет значение “сообщество”, а не “перемирие”.

Yesterday I learned that the word “mir” in Tolstoy's “Voina i mir” carries the meaning “the world,” not “peace.”


А я не согласен. Я считаю, что он сравнивал их. Ведь у него через том описывается то война, то мир (перемирие).

I disagree. My reading is that he was contrasting [war and peace]. Why, he writes about war and about peace throughout the book.


Влияние войны на общество.

[Tolstoy wrote about] the influence of war on the world.


Ты так говоришь, как-будто сам Толстой встал из гроба и тебе об этом рассказал :) Это же не математика!

You speak as though Tolstoy himself somehow rose from the grave and explained everything to you. :) This can't be explained like math!


Добавь к моему мессаджу “мне кажется”))

Well, add a postscript that this is my personal opinion. :)

Length and Depth of the Novel

Famous for being one of the longest books ever written in either the Cyrillic or Latin alphabets, ‘War and Peace’ is divided into four volumes. The novel is unique for its detailed and realistic discussion of the nature of war. Tolstoy combined his own Crimean War experiences with interviews he conducted with survivors of the French invasion to write something that resembles Thucydides’ ‘History of the Peloponesian War’ as much as it does a traditional novel.

On Twitter, RuNet users often focus on the magnitude of the work in terms of both its size and gravity, frequently referencing other Russian authors like Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Bulgakov.


Школьники, которым предстоит прочитать 4 тома «Войны и мира» очень жалеют, что на дуэли убили не Толстого, а Пушкина!

Schoolchildren, who will have to read the four volumes of ‘War and Peace,’ are filled with regret that it was Pushkin who died [prematurely] in a duel, and not Tolstoy!

Ruslan Tomatov:

Читал войну и мир, только позже, когда проникся мировоззрением толстого. у булгакова до сих пор люблю только записки юного врача

I read ‘War and Peace’ only later, when I appreciated Tolstoy's worldview. Until now, of Bulgakov's I've only liked ‘A Young Doctor's Notebook.’

Tolstoy's Use of French in the Novel

The French language was effectively the language of Russia's nobility, when Napoleon's army invaded in 1812. Tolstoy underscored the elite's relationship to this foreign language by writing parts of ‘War and Peace,’ including the opening paragraph, in French.

In comments following an April 2012 post, Russian LiveJournal blogger dohlik_nemruchi discussed the practice of creating art in a foreign language, comparing ‘War and Peace’ to Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov's award-winning 2011 film ‘Faust,’ which was made in German. LJ user menelik3 reminded readers that some of Tolstoy's ‘War and Peace’ had been written in French, arguing that Sokurov had likely used German simply to incite controversy. dohlik_nemruchi responded that Tolstoy's use of French was a tool to show progression in the novel — that ‘War and Peace’ is initially in both Russian and French, with the latter fading as the plot develops and anti-French sentiments grow.

Some Russian bloggers prefer not to analyze Tolstoy's literary style, instead simply posting notable and perhaps timeless lines from ‘War and Peace’ to their journals as status updates:

**Lovely Girl**:

Обратите все ваше внимание на самого себя, наложите цепи на свои чувства и ищите блаженства не в страстях, а в своем сердце. источник блаженства не вне, а внутри нас…

Turn all of your attention inward, restrain your feelings, and look for bliss not in passion, but in your own heart. The source of bliss is not outside, but inside us…

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