Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston. His latest book is “The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas.”
Rarely in recent history has so much been said by so many about one man. Listen to the media, and you’ll come away convinced that the current march toward war — or not — on Ukraine’s borders depends on the will of a single individual: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It’s a description of current events the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy would instantly recognize were he alive today — and one he would reject.
Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is unsurpassed in its depiction of what we now call “the fog of war” — or in his words, the “strange, vague and bleak” nature of battle. But it is also unrivaled in its attempt to solve the fundamental question it posed: “What produced this extraordinary event”? The answer, Tolstoy argues, is most assuredly not the “great men” of history usually attributed to driving world events.
Putin may enjoy quoting Tolstoy, but he’s certainly not learned the lessons the author provides. The Russian leader clearly believes, like his antagonists and his admirers, that he is such a “great man,” convinced that whether Europe becomes a stage for the first country war since 1944 depends on him, and him alone.
As Russian analyst Tatiana Stanovaya put it, Putin’s “sense of superiority mixed with arrogance gives him a feeling of power.” Not only has a tsar been born in the 21st century, but this tsar believes he can change the course of history.
In his novel, Tolstoy describes the Battle of Borodino, the butchery that took place in 1812 between Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grand Army and Russian forces: “Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and their reason, had to go from west to east and kill their own kind, just as, several centuries earlier, hordes of men had gone from east to west, killing their own kind.”
That conflict, he writes, was also seen as the work of one man, including by that man himself. In his description of the French emperor’s inner thoughts, Tolstoy writes, “it seemed to Napoleon more than ever that it depended on him vers or not verse le sang de ses people — to spill or not to spill his peoples’ blood.”
Tolstoy himself, however, rejected this great-man theory of history, which assumes – as most current political commentary on Ukraine does – that the main driver of world events is, in the novelist’s words, the “force inherent in heroes and rulers.” This approach, he argues, is illusory: “The so-called great men are labels that give the event a name, which, just as with labels, has the least connection of all with the event itself.”
Just like that, in Tolstoy’s description of Napoleon’s view of the Battle of Borodino, the emperor pretends the battlefield is a chessboard, but he cannot see his pieces. Peering through a field glass, he cannot “see what was going on there, the less so as smoke, merging with mist, covered the whole terrain . . . it was impossible to know what was being done there.”
The truth, Tolstoy insists, is that historic events are determined by a multitude of preceding causes, too vast and varied for any single person to control. So-called great men are “involuntary instruments of history, and perform work hidden from them but comprehensible to us.”
At first glance, this philosophy of history may seem inapt for the events in Eastern Europe. Would Tolstoy have written “War and Peace” had it not be for Napolean’s specific character? (Or would I be writing this article if someone other than Putin held power in Russia?) But while character matters, it too is the product of context. One can point to an array of factors — from the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union and NATO’s rapid expansion eastward to the Maidan movement in Ukraine and the failing Russian economy — that have shaped Putin and his worldview.
If Putin were to read Tolstoy’s words, he might find a more accurate description of his likely place in history, when the author describes Napoleon inspecting the carnage after the Battle of Austerlitz.
The French emperor sees Prince Andrei, one of the novel’s main characters, lying motionless on the ground. “Voilà une belle mort,” a beautiful death, Napoleon declares, convinced he has willed these results into being.
The prince is, for now, only wounded — but he barely recognizes the emperor as his horse rides past. Instead, he hears Napoleon’s voice as merely a distant buzz, like a fly, flitting over corpses.