Updated: Jul 27
Fred A. Reed
Am I taking too many risks? These days you speak, write and even think about Russia and things Russian—or worse, titling a blog-post in Russian—at your peril.
Such is the frenzy that has seized the self-styled ‘free world’ following Russia’s Operation Z in Ukraine, uniquely attributed to that country’s putatively diabolical president, Vladimir Putin, that anything less than ringing condemnation may become cause for cancellation, effacement and ruin.
I’ve heard the expression: “FTS.” Not that I would ever employ such crude or off-colour language in this space, which from the beginning has been dedicated to the delicate workings of memory, to the finer qualities of the written word, and to intellectual subtlety…most of the time anyway.
There. That having been said, and having cast caution to the winds, permit me, dear and patient reader, to enter upon my tale.
It begins with Tolstoy. I first read this quintessential Russian author during my freshman year at Stanford. That would have been 1957 for the curious. Or was it my sophomore year (really the second of my two years there)? I don’t precisely remember. But I do remember what might be called the internal circumstances. My mind then was the thirsty sponge it has remained to this day. Still thirsty; less absorbent.
Instead of being intimidated by the syllabus thrust upon us by Professor Posen, I took it as a direct challenge. Went to the library. Checked out the books when I could, or read them there when they were reserved.
I soon found Gogol and Pushkin, and lined up close beside them in the stacks, Dostoevsky and Lermontov, Turgenev and Goncharov, Chekov and Sholokov, and others only a touch less illustrious. But heads and shoulders above them all towered the hermit from Yasnaya Polyana, Lev Nikolayevitch Tolstoy.
What universes, what far-away galaxies those books revealed! Each contained an entire and unknown (to me) world. No, there was more: worlds of the radically familiar unfamiliar. Across their pages strode aristocrats and serfs, tsars and assassins, Slavophiles and westernizers, Siberian exiles and royal courtiers, Decembrist revolutionaries and Black Hundreds, soldiers and commanders, high-society balls and peasant dances, hunger and satiation and—most of all—war and peace.
When the Mosfilm archive of restored Soviet and Russian films was posted on a YouTube channel several months back, the first title to pop up was Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. And that, in turn, set loose in our household a surge of high emotion, something entirely congruent with the lofty passions of Tolstoy’s noble protagonists.
Like Tolstoy’s novel—actually greater in its reach and ambition than any mere novel could be—the film attempts a living chronology of Russian history at a precise historical moment and though a precise catalogue of place names and characters numbering in the hundreds, some fictitious and many, like Marshal Kutuzov and the Georgian aristocrat Count Bagration, and of course, the arch villain Napoleon, realer than real. Does it succeed? Could any film hope to illustrate the boundless ambition of the French megalomaniacal genius, evoke the footfalls of the Grande Armée as it marches on Moscow to be later destroyed by Kutuzov, older still and much wiser, while attempting to cross the Berezina (a word that as a French common noun now signifies catastrophic defeat) as it fled in the depths of winter?
Leaving nothing to chance, Bondarchuk himself plays the role of Pierre Bezukhov, the dithering Francophile intellectual whose massive promised inheritance lends him social desirability. This is the self-same Pierre who later undergoes a baptism of fire as he wanders the battlefield at Borodino and through whose eyes we witness the desolation and the savage majesty of war.
In counterpoint, the film’s depictions of court life at Saint Petersburg are self-enclosed miniature masterworks, displaying the artificiality and the arrogance of the Francophile Russian aristocracy, all the more piquant in that their beloved French are hell bent on subjecting and ultimately destroying them. Such considerations have, of course, to be balanced against the fact that Tolstoy’s characters were drawn almost entirely from that very class of obscenely wealthy landed parasites. They were his people. How well he knew them!
In fact, in a bit of high society name-dropping, one of the film’s lesser characters refers to a Count Tolstoy, assuredly one of our author’s forebears.
At the 1805 New Year’s Day ball, waiting behind half-closed doors stands Natasha Rostova, the precocious sixteen year-old of pellucid complexion, as talented a singer as she is a dancer. “Who will pay me heed?” she agonizes, as the music quickens and the nobility in their powdered wigs and satin waistcoats whirl into the great ballroom, in a breathtaking scene shot from somewhere above ceiling level. We, as viewers, know that soon indeed she will be paid heed.
Bondarchuk is a master of the abrupt transition. As the viewer may begin to yawn amid the gossip and posturing of the nobility, there comes a direct cut to the boom of artillery fire, the roar of musketry and the cries of the wounded. Suddenly we find ourselves transported that very year to Austerlitz, where the “Battle of the Three Emperors” rages.
Austerlitz was an unmitigated disaster for the imperial Russian forces, and another bloodstained feather in Napoleon’s hat. After all, the magnificent Gare d’Austerlitz in the French capital testifies to the battle’s historical significance; for the French, that is.
As I watched the battle unfold, I detected a resonance with another Austerlitz, the title of the novel by the Anglo-German author W.G. Sebald. That book’s ‘subject’ is the Kindertransport, the enterprise to rescue the orphaned children of Europe’s doomed Jewish population.
Austerlitz, the protagonist, is a composite figure whose own name he only vaguely understands. His parents bore him at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, which Nazi Germany maintained as an elaborate fiction to convince the Red Cross and other international authorities that inmates were being held for their own protection.
No such thing was true. Several thousands of the children born there were sent through the Low Countries to England while their elders were dispatched to extermination camps. But what strikes the reader is the odd resonance of the name ‘Austerlitz’, with all that it evokes of the conflict and bloodshed that occurred some 200 kilometers distant, on a battlefield in what is now the Czech Republic.
Sebald, who died in 2001, sifted through stories told by others in search of material for his fictions. The first section of an earlier novel entitled Vertigo is built upon the notebooks and sketches of Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, who accompanies Napoleon’s army over the Alps. There, in a northern Italian provincial town he attends a performance of Domenico Cimarosa’s opera buffa, Il Matrimonio Segreto, and falls in love with the lead soprano who is missing a front tooth.
Stendhal, in his romantic frivolity, had early on embraced Napoleon, viewing him as the implacable enemy of hereditary European royalty. Not unlike Beethoven, who only changed the title of his Third Symphony to ‘Eroica’ after the Little Corporal bombarded Vienna. Well before the practice was inaugurated by the United States and its vassals like Canada in their wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, Stendhal was an ‘embedded’ author, travelling in his own carriage either a day ahead or a day behind the Grande Armée.
Thus he arrives in Moscow, already emptied of its inhabitants, after the French army and describes the burning of the city as “a most delightful bonfire.” And to his good fortune, he reaches the Berezina one day before the troops get there to find no bridges, at the precise point where they intersect the denouement of Tolstoy’s narrative and Kutuzov’s triumph.
For Kutuzov’s triumph the debacle was, indeed. The year is 1812. Seven years have passed. Unlike the disaster of 1805, French troops are on Russia’s doorstep. Napoleon’s march on Moscow, begun metaphorically years before, is now entering its final stages. The Tsarist forces under the aging and cantankerous commander resolve to meet the French challenge though victory is far from assured. They select favourable terrain. The engagement begins.
In contrast to Austerlitz, where the battle took place in bitter cold and snow (which the film overlooks), the confrontation at Bordino was fought over a single bright late-summer day some 90 kilometers from Moscow. The film’s third hour, entitled 1812, opens with throat-gripping long shots of marching men, of cavalry with their distinctive headgear, of the French artillery moving forward. Clouds of dust obscure the horizon, officers’ medals glint in the sunlight, the sound of martial music fills the air.
In the battle scenes that ensue the director surpasses in scope and visual dynamism his visual account of Austerlitz. Thousands of extras throng the battle scenes, shooting and dying, thanks to the soldiers of the Red Army who played the adversaries as they met in mortal combat.
In no way could a battle like Borodino be described or depicted in rational terms; the protagonists themselves, Napoleon and Kutuzov, were stunned and confused at the slaughter they had unleashed. The film directs our gaze to a Russian artillery battery reduced to four cannons, whose crew continues firing into the charging ranks of French cavalry and in so doing create the impression that their army was still intact, still fighting bitterly, even though it was not and was.
Another scene shows Prince Andrei, one of Tolstoy’s protagonists, amid the ranks of his troops held in reserve. There they stand, at attention, as French cannonballs rain down amongst them and men die without firing a shot. Finally he relents and gives the order ‘at ease.’ Just then a grenade lands nearby, and whirls fizzling in the grass, soon to explode and end Andrei’s military career…but not his life. Looking around him he meditates on the green grass at his feet, on the sky and the wind, and on life and death itself.
And through the carnage wanders Bondarchuk the actor, as Pierre, witnessing in numbed shock the horror of a battle that left some 70,000 dead or injured in a single day’s combat; a figure to be equalled only 112 years later at the First Battle of the Marne.
Companies of infantrymen rush forward, bayonets fixed, amid bugle calls, only to be cut down. “Fire the grapeshot!” order the Russian battery commanders. French cavalry in their crested gilt helmets charge, sabres drawn, across the corpse-strewn field. All is fluidity, the rush and roar of masses of men driven by the intoxication of hand-to-hand combat, by fear and terror.
Bondarchuk has learned from the master, Sergei Eisenstein, who amidst scenes of mass action quick-cuts to vignettes of individual soldiers. And so we encounter men of the dark Russian earth, with thick moustaches and indomitable grins ramming home the cannonballs.
And as his alter ego Pierre Bezukhov observes in a reflective aside as he stumbles across piles of corpses, some French, some Russian, “are they not like us?”
According to some accounts, Borodino was a French victory. If that is so, why is there no metro station, no Parisian railway terminus? Nothing, in fact but memories of a field littered with corpses, of men dead and dying, their bones being plucked bare by ravens, uniforms and possessions scavenged by villagers.
Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake Napoleon once observed. While Austerlitz had been a ringing victory Borodino, where the French had prevailed at a high cost, bore within it the seeds of defeat. The Russian army had stood its ground, suffered immense losses but withdrawn in good order. The Grande Armée continued its advance, and in short order reached Moscow, whose inhabitants had deserted it, and perhaps even ignited the blaze.
In Bondarchuk’s film we observe Napoleon as he wanders through the abandoned halls of power. He has come to accept the city’s surrender. But no one is present to offer that surrender. What then is a conqueror to do?
Meanwhile, French supply lines have been stretched to the breaking point; then broken. One horse needs ten times the daily ration of an infantryman. The countryside is bare; Russian partisans harass the invaders.
Soon enough, but not soon enough, Napoleon understands that he must retreat. His army slogs westward, freezing, through snow and mud, having marched confidently to the tune of “la Marseillaise” eastward on firm earth. Pursuing them are the Russian forces, soldiers dressed in winter greatcoats, well fed and with revenge in mind.
No need to show the final engagement at the Berezina, for it was a foregone conclusion.
Another military maxim states: “Never march on Moscow.” Russians know this, know they could not have attempted to interrupt the invader’s mistakes, not least because they were attentive enough not to interrupt Napoleon himself in 1812.
Or Hitler in 1941, when Operation Barbarossa penetrated to the gates of Moscow, where began the Soviet counter-offensive that was to destroy the Third Reich four years later. Whose great tank and infantry offensives, given names like Bagration and Kutuzov, unfolded over the lands that today are called Ukraine.
* War and Peace