In 1854 the young Russian officer Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was stationed in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. For several weeks French and British forces had laid siege to the city. An aspiring writer and inspired Russian patriot, Tolstoy transformed his observations into the Sevastopol Sketches, three long dispatches that won him the regard not just of critics but also of Czar Alexander II, who was desperately seeking a way out of the war that his just-deceased father, Nicholas I, had recklessly begun.
No doubt it was Tolstoy’s praise of the Russian soldiers’ courage and spirit that pleased Alexander. It was, Tolstoy wrote, a “higher motive,” higher than religion or personal glory, that drove the soldiers—their deep, nearly instinctual attachment to Russia. Tolstoy admired, even shared, that patriotism, but he quickly came to detest how political and military leaders, exploiting the trait, had transformed the Crimea into a killing field.
As cannons fired from the ramparts, Tolstoy stepped into a military hospital, where he saw buckets filled with amputated limbs and the writhing bodies of the wounded, moaning less from pain than from anticipation of their surgery. Here, he wrote in his first sketch, “you will see war not with its orderly beautiful and brilliant ranks, its music and beating drums, its waving banners … but war in its real aspect of blood, suffering, and death.”
In the second sketch, Tolstoy’s disenchantment cuts deeper: The “angel of death has hovered unceasingly” over the besieged city, he announced, and the “question the diplomats did not settle remains unsettled by power and blood.”
On the 160th anniversary of the Crimean War, the region—and the world—again risks seeing war in its “real aspect.” And the question, at least in regard to the Crimea, remains as unsettled today as it was in 1854. As a result, it is of more than literary interest to consider the lessons that Tolstoy took from his experience in Sevastopol. The sketches announce the philosophy of history that Tolstoy embedded in War and Peace—a philosophy that bears on our understanding of the crisis now unfolding.
Scholars by and large agree that the Crimean War was a misbegotten and misconceived event—one that, in the words of the historian Trevor Royle, “encompassed maladministration on an epic scale.” Poorly informed and even more poorly prepared, France and Britain tilted into the conflict in early 1854, following Russia’s invasion the previous winter of a swath of the Balkans controlled by the Ottomans.
By the time the war finally lurched to an end the following March, more than 700,000 soldiers had been killed. Thanks to Tennyson, most of us recall only the demise of the Light Brigade, overlooking the prosaic fact that the vast majority of soldiers died not in insane cavalry charges but instead, as Florence Nightingale understood, from cold and disease.
In one of his sketches, Tolstoy declared that “the hero of my tale … is Truth”—a celebrated line over which readers still wrestle. But the case has been made, most famously by Isaiah Berlin, that the truth Tolstoy discerned in Sevastopol is how weakly we control events, yet how fervently we try to suppress that knowledge. We habitually, for that reason, explain the succession of events by ascribing them to the decisions and actions of generals and political leaders.
Military and civilian leaders have the same tendency themselves, of course, the most abject example, for Tolstoy, being Napoleon Bonaparte. His description of the French emperor at the Battle of Borodino, filled with the conceit from his elevated perch that his commands and orders directed the vast and convulsive forces massed below, starkly illustrates this conviction. When it came to Napoleon’s catastrophic invasion of Russia, historians, Tolstoy announced, “provided cunningly devised evidence of the foresight and genius of the generals, who of all the blind instruments of history were the most enslaved and involuntary.”
What would Tolstoy say about the actors, in particular Vladimir Putin, in the current Crimean crisis? Is it possible that the Russian president is little more than a “figurehead on the prow of a ship,” as Tolstoy described Napoleon, convinced that he is pulling a vessel that, in reality, is pushing him?
At first glance, the question of course seems preposterous. Putin has been at the helm of the Russian ship of state, commanding the military exercises on the Russian-Ukrainian border, offering asylum to Ukraine’s deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych, and overseeing the collaboration between Moscow and pro-Russian movements in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. European and American political leaders, as well as the news media on both sides of the Atlantic, have fingered Putin as the prime mover of events in the current crisis. Indeed, without Putin, it is difficult to imagine the world in the same situation it now finds itself.
But as Tolstoy would insist, in the unfolding of history there exists a crucial difference between prime and unmoved movers. Consider the role of Russian nationalism, from which the young Tolstoy was not immune. In 1854 the great wave of Russian pan-Slavism, which had led Russia to invade the Balkans, was less the creation of Czar Nicholas I than a movement that had made him its creature. In particular, the pan-Slavic ideologue Mikhail Pogodin, who insisted on Russia’s providential role in the creation of a Slavic Empire, had the czar’s ear. That autocratic ear, moreover, had grown deaf to voices of reason and restraint, the result of having held unquestioned power for nearly 30 years. Isolated and persuaded of his infallibility, the czar inevitably interpreted the efforts at a diplomatic resolution by Western powers as intolerable meddling in Russia’s internal affairs.
A reading of the Sevastopol Sketches prods us to ask how much has changed since then. It is striking how closely Putin’s character and circumstances, as well as his “choices,” mirror those of his czarist predecessor. His 14 years of increasingly iron rule—he has now been in power nearly half of Nicholas’s own time as czar—have inured him to critical or questioning voices. Moreover, just as Nicholas came to power in the midst of revolutionary confusion, so too did Putin, and both men sought to resolve the confusion and decline of their respective eras by reaffirming the greatness of the Russian nation.
Most important, though, is the persistence of a particular kind of Russian nationalism, one that spills into pan-Slavism. To be sure, Pogodin’s ideological descendants like the nationalist thinker Alexander Dugin have helped shape Putin’s own brand of pan-Slavism, one that has serious consequences for Russia’s so-called “near abroad”—a nebulous realm that inevitably includes Ukraine.
The starkness of his philosophy of history placed Tolstoy, and us, in something of a dilemma: If great leaders do not control, but instead are controlled, by the whitewater of historical events, what are we to do? How can the West avoid a repeat of the wounded national and personal vanities that led to the first Crimean War? Tolstoy’s modest proposal was that the contending powers simply choose one man from each of their armies, have them meet in individual battle, and allow the winner to decide the peace. Given the options that we now face, his bitter suggestion seems less satiric with each passing day.
Author Bio: Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College. His latest book, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, was published last fall by Harvard University Press.