By Bill Keller
I certainly agree with Ms. Prose that it’s hard to read Tolstoy’s account of the Napoleonic wars today without thinking of Iraq. (Is General Petraeus Kutuzov? Or Napoleon?) From a Russian vantage point the more apt military analogy is probably World War II — the “Great Patriotic War,” in Soviet-speak. Both the war against Napoleon and the war against Hitler cost Russia immensely, yet both victories left Russia with relative superpower status.
But I find myself, as I make my way through “War and Peace,” flashing back to the final years of the Soviet Union. The novel stirs up different, even conflicting thoughts about the Soviet era. Most superficially, in the accounts of the aristocratic Russia of the early 19th century you can find the excesses and inequities that, combined with tightening oppression and misrule, made the country ripe for the upheaval that came a century later.
Alternatively you can look at the European gloss on Tolstoy’s Russia— the Francophone elite, the English Club — and wonder whether Russia could have skipped the Soviet interlude altogether.