War and Peace: 7 little-known facts about Russia’s greatest epic

Vyacheslav Tikhonov as Bolkonsky (left) and Boris Zakhava as Kutuzov in the Soviet movie 'War and Peace,' directed by Sergei Bondarchuk.

Vyacheslav Tikhonov as Bolkonsky (left) and Boris Zakhava as Kutuzov in the Soviet movie 'War and Peace,' directed by Sergei Bondarchuk.

Ria Novosti
From Dec. 8 to 11, hundreds of people worldwide will read Leo Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' online. In the run-up to the event, RBTH recalls interesting trivia about the writer’s most famous novel.

1) At around 1300 pages, War and Peace is not the longest novel ever written – that distinction goes to the little known Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus, which comes in at over 13000 pages – but it is certainly one of the longest 19th-century European epics. The first two editions of the novel were divided into six books, rather than the now standard four. Tolstoy himself made this new division along with other changes for the third edition of the work in 1873.

2) Tolstoy did not originally envision a novel about the Napoleonic wars; instead he was planning to tell the story of an old Decembrist – one of the Russian officers who led a failed attempt to overthrow Tsar Nicholas I on Dec. 14, 1825 – who was allowed to return home from his Siberian exile 30 years after the revolt. However, Tolstoy soon realized he would not be able to explore what made this character take part in the uprising without describing his time in the Napoleonic wars. There was also the consideration that the censors would not look too favorably on a book about the revolt, and so the “story of a Decembrist” turned into an epic novel.Source: YouTube/ Kultur Films

3) On his wife’s insistence, Tolstoy removed the fairly explicit description of main character Pierre Bezukhov and his first spouse Hélène’s wedding night. Sophia convinced her husband that the scene would never pass the church censors.

4) However, another controversial plot twist concerning Hélène Bezukhova, who Tolstoy apparently wanted to symbolize the dark and sexual aspects of human nature, did make it into the novel. Hélène, a young woman in her prime, dies unexpectedly in 1812, leaving Pierre free to marry Natasha Rostova. Russian high schoolers, who study the novel at the age of 15, usually see this death as a conventional trope needed to move the plot forward. A more mature reading, though, reveals that Tolstoy leaves subtle hints here and there that suggest Hélène dies as the result of a failed abortion.

5) The Rostovs and Bolkonskys are thinly-disguised versions of Tolstoy’s own family members, who came from an ancient Russian noble line. For example, the character of Nikolay Rostov borrows a lot from Tostoy’s father, Nikolay, who was also a hero of the Patriotic War of 1812 and a lieutenant colonel in the Pavlograd regiment, which is mentioned in the novel by name. Marya Bolkonskaya bears a great resemblance to Tolstoy's mother, Marya Tolstaya, née Volkonskaya. The description of their wedding ceremony is similar to that of Tolstoy’s parents, and the same is true of the characters’ estate, Lysye Gory, which resembles Tolstoy’s own home, Yasnaya Polyana.

Nevertheless, when the novel was published, only people who actually knew the Tolstoys could notice the similarities – after all, there was no Wikipedia at the time. Tolstoy himself insisted that the main characters’ names only sound like real Russian noble names because this made it easier for him to insert them into the historical context and allow them to communicate with the work’s numerous actual historical figures – from Moscow’s governor Fyodor Rastopchin to Napoleon and Alexander I.

6) Tolstoy’s wife copied the novel as he wrote it, producing at least eight complete manuscripts by hand, with some episodes rewritten up to 26 times. It took Tolstoy five years (1863-1869) to finish his epic, during which time Sophia gave birth to four of their 13 children. The pair had married a year before he began work on War and Peace, when he was 34, and she was 18.

7) As the famous French Slavist Georges Nivat has confirmed, the French spoken by the characters of War and Peace is true to what 19th-century French aristocrats would have used. However, the language in the novel is closer to what was used in the middle of the century – that is, at the time the novel was written as opposed to the period it is set in.

Read more: Online reading of Tolstoy's ‘War and Peace’ to be open to all

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