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Boris and ‘the unwritten code’ of power... Learning to smile ambiguously... 'Nothing was ready for the war which everyone expected'...
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
I first read War and Peace at the age of about 17-18. I loved it and was captivated by the famous scenes — Natasha’s first ball, the hunt at Otradnoe, Natasha dancing in the hut, Prince Andrei overhearing the girls talking from a window above and regaining his love of life, Nikolai and Sonya dressed as ‘mummers’ kissing in the snow, Nikolai facing his first enemy fire, the appalling Dolohov torturing Nikolai with ‘one little card’, Pierre striding around Borodino…
I didn’t appreciate how politics is discussed even though the main thing I was studying at that age was history. I’ve re-read it after each big political project I’ve done: in 2005 after being involved in politics for the first time over the euro and the North East referendum, in 2014 after I resigned from the Department for Education, in 2017 after the referendum, and in 2021 after resigning from No10.
Each time I see and feel more of the extraordinary depth that I didn’t see before. The way it describes political meetings, with the drones swarming in the direction of imperial favour and drowning out all sense with their buzzing — just like the Cabinet room! Boris learning to smile ambiguously as he glides from promotion to promotion, behind the mask another mask! The awful Berg spinning his heroics and imitating a superior in smiting his own breast, but a beat late! Although my mind has never recovered from 2015-16 — I’m slower, I stumble over words, in many ways I aged years and didn’t recover, then deteriorated further in 2020 — it feels like I understand it better because I’m older, I’m married, I have a child and so on. Primitive emotional pattern-matching feels more important for appreciating at least some parts of great art than ‘cognitive function’.
In 2017 I re-read Anna Karenina for the first time. When I first read this at Oxford aged about 19-20, I could not understand how my mum could prefer it to War and Peace. I found a lot of it boring. The relationships and marriages made little impression. I didn’t grasp the politics and found Karenin tedious. I had a wonderful Ancient History tutor, Robin Lane Fox, who said to me ‘your Mum’s right, Anna Karenina is better, you’ll realise when you’re older’. I didn’t believe him, of course, but now I know what he meant.
I dont know if it’s ‘better’ but it seems deeper in some ways. When I re-read it aged 46 I was stunned. My own marriage and feelings were there on the page. Some of the arguments and reconciliations between Levin and Kitty almost exactly mirrored those with my own wife! When I looked at my own baby’s fat arm, it ‘looked as if a piece of thread had been tied tightly round the wrist’. So many pages brought tears to my eyes. And in Karenin, an awful shock of recognition. Not only did I recognise him in so many people. But … terrible thought… is it possible that … I too might resemble this awful chacracter in some ways?! Unthinkable surely… Yet…
You can learn more about politics if you really study a few classics and case studies than almost everybody involved in it figures out in a lifetime. But there are deep aspects of politics in Tolstoy that you don’t really read in history books, at least not with the same depth and insight, because it takes an artistic genius to portray the feelings and atmosphere with honesty. (Occasionally there is someone in politics who is also a brilliant artist. Some of Bismarck’s setpieces are masterpieces but they’re often more artistic masterpieces, refined in the re-telling, than historical masterpieces honestly recording what happened.) Often I’ve tried and failed to explain something that’s at the edge of my consciousness, I can’t write it because I can’t capture it in my mind, it floats away as I try to grasp it, but then I read Tolstoy and there it is, the thing I couldn’t articulate but immediately see is true.
I’ll post a few snippets below, I won’t email each one separately. When I post on other subjects I’ll mention if I have updated this page. I’ll add the occasional point from my own experience but that isn’t the purpose of this. The purpose is just to encourage you to read Tolstoy if you haven’t, regardless of anything to do with politics, but also to suggest to those who haven’t that if you keep your eyes open you will also read about politics in a way that you won’t read in history books.
All page references are to the Rosemary Edmonds translation. I’d be grateful if someone could leave a reference in comments to the definitive Russian text. I could once speak very basic Russian, at least after vodka in Moscow nightclubs, and can still read it and would like to look at some passages in the original.
I. Boris: ‘the unwritten code’ of power, learning to smile ambiguously
‘It is very difficult to tell the truth and young people are rarely capable of it.’
Boris Drubetskoy is from a grand but impoverished family. His mother’s determined exploitation of her social network gets him appointed to the high status Guards before the battle of Austerlitz, one of Napoleon’s most famous victories.
After being separated for months, Boris and Nikolai meet. Nikolai has been at the front. Boris is looking to develop connections and be promoted. Why do you want to become an adjutant, asks Nikolai?
Why, because once a man goes in for a military career he ought to try to make it as brilliant a career as he can.
Just before Austerlitz, Boris rides to find Prince Andrei hoping to fix a promotion to the office of some important personage, reflecting on his own relative poverty:
It's all very well for [Nikolai] Rostov, whose father sends him ten thousand roubles at a time, to talk about not caring to cringe or be anyone's lackey, but I have nothing except my own brains so I must pursue my career and not let opportunities slip but must make the most of them.
When Boris arrives at Andrei’s lodgings, he finds an old general talking to Andrei with an obsequious look. Andrei listens disdainfully, eyes drooping. When Andrei sees Boris, he nods and turns to him with a smile.
At that moment Boris realised clearly something of which he had already had an inkling — that in the army, quite apart from the subordination of discipline prescribed in the military code and recognised by him and the others in his regiment, there existed another and more actual form of subordinancy, one which compelled this tight-laced, purple-faced general to wait respectfully while Captain Prince Andrei chose to chat with Lieutenant Drubetskoy. More than ever was Boris determined to follow in future the guidance not of the written code laid down in regulations but of this unwritten code. He felt now that simply by having been recommended to Prince Andrei he immediately took precedence over the general, who in other circumstances, at the front, had the power to annihilate a mere lieutenant in the Guards. (287)
Andrei takes Boris to see to Prince Dolgorokov, fresh from the crucial meeting to decide strategy against Napoleon.
Dolgorokov, one of the warmest advocates of an immediate offensive, had only just returned from the council, weary and exhausted but full of excitement and proud of the victory he had obtained… ‘Ah, my dear fellow, what a battle we have won! God grant that the victory to follow may be equally brilliant…’
Dolgorokov elaborates his theory that Napoleon has misjudged the siutation, is weak, and Russia should attack. (This was a blunder, Napoleon was feinting weakness to invite attack on ground and in circumstances he thought favourable, but Dolgorokov’s view was dominant and led to disaster.)
Boris was greatly excited by the thought of being so close to the higher powers as he felt himself to be at that moment. He was conscious that he he was in contact with the springs that set in motion all those vast movements of the mass, of which he in his regiment felt himself a tiny, humble and significant atom.
The novel opens with a soirée at the house of Anna Pavlovna who, with an ‘affected smile which constantly played round her lips’, presents star guests to other guests like a chef presenting treats. We meet Prince Vasili, the cynical, entirely self-interested diplomat who always speaks languidly, ‘like an actor repeating his part in an old play’. He knows how to ask the question he most wants the answer to ‘with studied carelessness as if the matter has just occurred to him’. He understands the currency of power.
Influence in the world, however, is a capital which has to be used with economy if it is to last. Prince Vasili knew this and, having once realised that if he were to ask favours for everybody who petitioned him he would soon be unable to ask anything for himself, he rarely exerted his influence. (17)
These golden rooms are the scene for a play in which the upper class act out their roles, sensing and displaying subtle signals of their status as they score points. Politics hangs in the air but being too serious or earnest, even in wartime, is a faux pas that marks you out as not really belonging in such a scene. The players shift from politics to their children and possible liaisons and back. Alliances are floated. Favours are traded. Insider gossip bubbles away. Intellectual celebrities theorise and pose. Idiots speak with such self-confidence ‘that no one could be sure whether his remark was very witty or very stupid’, but the hostess is grateful as it diverts people from an uncomfrtable scene. The most beautiful and those with the best connections are at the top of the hierarchy. Pierre, the illegitimate son of a grand aristocrat, is at the bottom and does not know how to behave. Anna spots a telltale sign — suddenly ‘they were talking and listening too eagerly and too naturally’, a bad sign and Anna Pavlovna did not like it. (If you stay at one of England’s grand country houses and talk about Westminster to the old aristocracy (who have almost entirely abandoned politics) you can still taste this atmosphere.)
Towards the end of 1806, Boris makes his appearance at such a soirée, with himself as ‘the choice morsel to be served up to the company’.
Thanks to his mother’s efforts, his own inclinations and the peculiarities of his canny nature, Boris had with time succeeded in making a very snug place for himself in the service. He was aide-de-camp to a very eminent personage, had been sent on a most important mission to Prussia, and had only just returned from there as a special messenger. He had become thoroughly conversant with that unwritten code which had so pleased him at Olmütz, in virtue of which an ensign might rank incomparably higher than a general, and all that was needed to ensure success in the service was not exertion, not work, not courage or perseverance, but simply the art of knowing how to get on with the dispensers of promotions and awards, and he often marvelled at the rapidity of his own progress, and of the inability of others to grasp the secret.
His whole manner of life, all his relations to former friends and acquaintances, all his plans for the future were completely transformed in consequence of this discovery. He was not well off but he would spend his last farthing to be better dressed than others, and would rather deprive himself of many pleasures than allow himself to be seen in a shabby carriage or appear in the streets of Petersburg in an old uniform. He cultivated the friendship and sought the acquaintance only of those who were above and could therefore be of use to him. He liked Petersburg and despised Moscow. He found it distasteful to look back on the Rostovs’ house and his boyish passion for Natasha, and since the day of his departure for the army had not once been to see the Rostovs. To be in Anna Pavlovna’s drawing room he considered an important step up in the service, and he at once understood his role, and allowed his hostess to make the most of whatever interest he had to offer, while himself carefully scanning every face and appraising the advantages and possibilities of establishing intimacy with each of those present… (428ff)
Boris grasps ‘the political thermometer’ at the soirée and acts out his role impeccably. The idiot Prince Hippolyte tells an imbecilic story. We see how Boris has developed.
Boris smiled discreetly, a smile that could be taken as ironical or appreciative, according to the way the pleasantry was received.
I’ve seen this smile around the Cabinet table so often. The higher ranks are filled with people whose blunders have killed many but are masters at deploying this smile. (Another smile you see around power every day is the smile that means ‘hello, here we both are at this scene about to start that may be so important, that so many wish they could watch, surrounded by so many fools, what nonsense may be talked, but we know what’s what, don’t we’.)
In 1807 the Tsar and Napoleon met at Tilsit. Boris wangles things so he is included in the suite appointed for the occasion.
‘I should like to see the great man,’ he said in French, alluding to Napoleon, whom hitherto he, like everyone else, had always called Bonaparte.
‘You are speaking of Bonaparte?’ the general said to him, smiling.
Boris looked at his general inquiringly, and immediately saw that he was being quizzed.
‘I am speaking, mon prince, of the Emperor Napoleon,’ he replied.
The general patted him on the shoulder with a smile.
‘You will go far,’ he said, and took him to Tilsit with him. (477)
Promotion can depend on such tiny signals.
Boris watches those around him very, very carefully and knows what details to remember so he can recount them later.
Ever since he had begun to move in the highest circles Boris had made a practice of watching attentively all that went on around him and noting it down… At the moment the Emperors went into the pavilion he looked at his watch and did not forget to look at it again when Alexander came out. The interview had lasted one hour and fifty-three minutes, an item was he recorded that evening among other facts which he felt to be of historic importance. As the Emperor’s suite was a very small one, to be at Tilsit on the occasion of this interview between the two Emperors was a matter of great moment for a man who prized success in the service, and Boris, having succeeded in this, felt that henceforth his position was perfectly secure. He was not only known by name but people had grown accustomed to his presence and expected to see him. (478)
When Nikolai sees his old friend again, ‘his eyes, gazing serenely and unflinchingly at Rostov, seemed to be veiled by something — shielded as it were by the blue spectacles of conventional society.’ Nikolai, a cavalry officer of modest intellect and good character, reacts to the scene with the Emperors very differently to the sophisticates around Boris.
His brain was seething in an agonising confusion which he could not work out to any conclusion. Horrible doubts were stirring in his soul. He thought of Denisov and the change that had come over him, and his surrender, and the whole hospital with those amputated legs and arms, and its dirt and disease. So vividly did he recall that hospital stench of putrefaction that he looked round to see where the smell was coming from. Then he thought of that self-satisfied Bonaparte with his little white hand, who was now an emperor, liked and respected by Alexander. For what, then, those severed arms and legs, why those dead men? Then his mind went to Lazarev rewarded and Denisov punished and unpardoned. He caught himself harbouring such strange reflections that he was terrified at them…
He is so perturbed by the sudden turn of political events that when someone makes a remark he flies into a rage.
‘If it’s his Majesty the Emperor’s pleasure to recognise Bonaparte as emperor and to conclude an alliance with him, it must be the right thing to do. If once we begin sitting in judgement and arguing about everything, there will be nothing sacred left. If we take that line we shall soon be saying there is no God, no nothing!’ shouted Nikolai, banging the table with his fist.
They think he must be drunk.
Boris is one of many who has an affair with the beautiful, depraved Helene, wife of the hero Pierre. Much to Pierre’s surprise, his wife, who was very stupid, had acquired the reputation of being intelligent as well as beautiful, une femme charmante, aussi spirituelle que belle. Being invited to her soirées was a certificate of intelligence. Bilibin, the charming cynical diplomat (to whom I will return), saved up his most amusing epigrams to fire off in her drawing room. Pierre feels like a conjurer afraid his tricks will be seen through.
But whether because only stupidity was just what was needed to run such a salon, or because those who were deceived found pleasure in the deception itself, at any rate the secret did not come out and Helene Bezuhov’s reputation as a lovely and intelligent woman became so firmly established that she could say the most commonplace and stupidest things and still everybody would go into raptures over her every word and discover a profound meaning in it of which she herself had no conception…
Among the many young men who were daily to be seen in Helene’s house Boris Drubetskoy, who had already achieved marked success in the service, was, since Helene’s return from Erfurt, the most intimate friend of the Bezuhov household.
Boris now had a brilliant position in society and in the service. His thoughts turn to marriage. He goes to the Rostovs to make clear that ‘the childish vows between himself and Natasha could not be considered binding’. But he is so struck by Natasha he can’t quite say what he intended. On the other hand, ‘he must not yield to his feelings because to marry her — a girl almost without a dowry [because of the old Count’s ruinous spending] — would ruin his career’. He tries to stay away but finds himself returning until Natasha’s mother tells him to stop.
He fixes upon Julie Karagin, an ugly but enormously rich woman who affects melancholy to make herself seem more interesting. Boris plays along, thinking about the estates that would come to him as her dowry.
Julie had for some time been expecting a proposal from her melancholy adorer, and was fully prepared to accept it, but some secret distaste for her, for her passionate desire to get married, for her affectation, and a feeling of horror at thus renouncing the possibility of true love, still restrained Boris. (650)
He kept delaying his proposal. When he looked at her face, he could not speak ‘although in imagination he had long regarded himself as the master of those estates, and had more than once arranged how he would spend the income from them.’ Julie noticed the hesitation and she sometimes worried he didn’t like her but her ‘feminine vanity’ came to the rescue and she hit upon a plan — she suddenly became very attentive to the awful idiot Anatole Kuragin.
The risk of being left to look a fool, and of having wasted that whole month in the arduous, melancholy service of Julie, and of seeing all the revenue from those estates, which he had already assigned and put to proper use, fall into the hands of another, especially into the hands of that fool Anatole, outraged Boris.
He goes to see her, they begin to quarrel, he’s on the point of blowing the whole thing up.
[B]ut at that instant the galling reflection occurred to him that he might have to leave Moscow without having attained his object and having wasted his efforts in vain (an experience he had never known yet).
He looks at her. What thought flashes through his mind as he proposes?
‘I can always manage to see very little of her,’ thought Boris. ‘And the thing’s been begun and must be finished!’ He blushed hotly, raised his eyes to hers, and said, ‘You know my feelings for you!’
There was no need to say more: Julie’s face beamed with triumph and self-satisfaction, but she forced Boris to say all that is usually said on such occasions — to say that he loved her and had never loved any woman more. She knew that for her Penza estates and the Nizhni Novgorod forests she could demand that, and she received what she demanded. (652)
I can always manage to see very little of her! Boris organises a brilliant wedding and goes from promotion to promotion. In 1812, leaving Julie behind, he is with the Emperor as the war restarts.
Boris was now a rich man who had risen to high honours and no longer sought patronage but stood on an equal footing with the most distinguished representatives of his own generation…
Nothing was ready for the war which everyone expected… The longer the Emperor remained at Vilna the less did everybody … do to prepare for the war. Every effort of the men who surrounded the Sovereign seemed directed solely to making his stay as pleasant as possible and enabling him to forget the impending clash of arms. (723)
Nothing was ready for the war which everyone expected… those around the leader focused on keeping him happy rather than the crisis… lines that had particular force for me when I re-read them in 2021.
At a ball, Boris, naturally, watches the Tsar carefully. He spots that an adjutant is standing in a way that is contrary to court etiquette. Without hearing any words, Boris realises that important news is being conveyed and a senior person, Arakcheyev, is ‘annoyed that apparently important news had reached the Emperor otherwise than through himself.’ The Tsar goes into the garden for a discrete discussion, leaving the ball behind.
Boris continued to perform the figures of the mazurka but he was wondering all the time what the news could be that Balashev had brought, and how he could get hold of it before other people.
In the figure in which he had to choose two ladies, he whispered to Helene that he meant to ask Countess Potocka who had, he thought, gone out onto the balcony, and gliding over the parquet floor he slipped through the door opening into the garden, where, seeing Balashev and the Emperor returning to the verandah, he stood still. They were moving towards the door. Boris, pretending he had not time to get out of the way, respectfully pressed back against the doorpost and bowed his head. (725)
He overhears the conversation. The Tsar realises.
‘Let no one know of this,’ the Emperor added with a frown.
Boris understood this was meant for him, and closing his eyes he inclined his head a little. The Emperor re-entered the ballroom and stayed another half an hour or so.
Boris was thus the first to learn that French troops had crossed the Niemen — which enabled him to give certain important personages to understand that much which was concealed from others was commonly known to him, thereby he succeeded in rising still higher in their estimation. (725)
Tolstoy reflects on the nature of some of those who rise to surround the Tsar and Napoleon.
Davoust was to the Emperor Napoleon what Arakcheyev was to Alexander. Though not a coward like Arakcheyev he was as exacting and cruel, and as unable to express his devotion to his monarch otherwise than by cruelty.
In the mechanism of administration such men are as necessary as wolves are in the economy of nature, and they are always to be found, making their appearance and holding their own, however incongruous their presence and their proximity to the head of the administration may be. This indispensability alone can explain how a man so cruel as Arakcheyev, who tore out grenadiers’ moustaches with his own hands yet whose weak nerves rendered him unable to face danger, who was ill-bred and boorish, could retain such influence with a sovereign of gentle chivalry and nobility of character like Alexander. (730)
II. The buzz of the ‘drone swarm’ drowns out the few seeking truth
Tolstoy describes a meeting with the Tsar to discuss goals and strategy. There are many factions. There are those who want to follow ‘the pseudo-theory of war’, those who think the opposite, and courtiers who try to effect a compromise between the two — ‘Though by this course neither one aim nor the other could be attained, this seemed to the party of compromise the best line to adopt’.
I’ve heard such arguments so often over twenty years. It is quite normal for those at the centre of power to be unable to define their goals and for someone trying to seem ‘sensible’ to argue for a ‘compromise’ that guarantees only chaos. The inability of senior people to be rigorous in their thinking about goals, and the failure of institutions to force clarity, is one of the most under-appreciated aspects of politics and government. For example, if you trace the history of the Prussia-Austria conflict 1862-6 through the famous Schleswig-Holstein affair to the decisive battle of July 1866, a conflict so crucial in shaping the modern world, one of the most important features is that Emperor Franz Joseph would not and could not prioritise the conflicting goals of a) retaining Austria’s position in Germany and b) regainining her position in Italy. On the other side, Bismarck knew exactly what his priorities were. This fundamental fact lies behind the hugely complex diplomacy and Austria’s disaster. And exactly the same failure to prioritise goals recurs over and over — you see it around the Cabinet table before August 1914 and I saw it around the Cabinet table in 2020. Assuming wrongly that ‘at least those in charge know what they’re trying to do’ is one of the biggest errors made by the media and high status, often highly competent, observers.
Another faction wants to promote X, another wants to promote Y. But most are thinking mainly about their own career, about money, decorations and promotions.
The eighth and largest group, numbering ninety-nine to every one of the others, consisted of men who were neither for peace nor for war, neither for offensive operations nor a defensive camp at Drissa or anywhere else; who did not take the side of Barclay or of the Emperor, of Pfuhl or of Bennigsen, but cared only for the one thing most essential — as much advantage and pleasure for themselves as they could lay hold of.
In the troubled waters of those cross-currents of intrigue that eddied about the Emperor’s headquarters it was possible to succeed in very many ways that would have been unthinkable at other times. One courtier simply interested in retaining his lucrative post would today agree with Pfuhl, tomorrow with Pfuhl’s opponents, and the day after, merely to avoid responsibility or to please the Emperor, would declare that he had no opinion at all on the matter. Another, eager to curry favour, would attract the Tsar’s attention by loudly advocating something the Emperor had hinted at the day before, and would dispute and shout at the Council, beating his breast and challenging those who did not agree with him to a duel, thus displaying his readiness to sacrifice himself for the common weal. A third, while his enemies were out of the way, and in between two Councils, would simply solicit a special gratuity for his faithful services, well aware that it would be quicker at the moment to grant it than to refuse it. A fourth would contrive to be seen by the Tsar quite overwhelmed with work. A fifth, in order to achieve his long-cherished ambition to dine with the Emperor, would vehemently debate the rights and wrongs of some newly emerging opinion, producing more or less forcible and valid arguments in support of it.
All the members of this party were fishing after roubles, decorations and promotions, and in their chase simply kept their eye on the weathercock of Imperial favour: directly they noticed it shifting to one quarter the whole drone-population of the army began buzzing away in that direction, making it all the harder for the Emperor to change course elsewhere. Amid the uncertainties of the position, with the menace of serious danger which gave a peculiarly feverish intensity to everything, amid this vortex of intrigue, selfish ambition, conflicting views and feelings, and different nationalities, this eighth and largest party of men preoccupied with personal interests imparted great confusion and obscurity to the common task. Whatever question arose, a swarm of these drones, before they had done with their buzzing over the previous theme, would fly off to the new one, to smother and drown by their humming the voices of those who were prepared to examine it fully and honestly.
From the euro campaign in 1999 to the Department for Education to the referendum campaign meetings to the Cabinet room and Chequers, this buzzing has been the background noise to my twenty years in politics.
Prince Andrei watched the debate and ‘could only wonder in amazement’. After listening, he asked to serve with the army instead of remaining near the Emperor and thereby ‘lost his standing in court circles for ever’.
Focus on the actual job, rather than the courtier game, is often a disaster for one’s status and career.
In all bureaucracies — government, corporate or any other — people such as Boris, who have ‘the art of knowing how to get on with the dispensers of promotions and awards’ and cultivate the friendship of those ‘above’, rise to power regardless of their ability to do what is supposedly their ‘job’. When covid struck in 2020, a large fraction of those at the apex of power in the British state were such people. And this is even more true now than it was then. War did not change this in 1805-15. Disaster did not change this in Britain 2020-22.
When I walked around No10, there was an official from the Cabinet Office who, when he came around the corner and nearly bumped into me, would stop, skip backwards, bow, and motion me forward with a rolling flourish of his arms in just the way you see on TV in period dramas. He had perfected a courtier’s flourish and bow, just as if he were working in Downing Street three hundred years ago. Power unmistakeably attracts such characters. They are often in charge of things like civil contingencies.
These phenomena are so ubiquitous that normally they’re practically invisible. Tolstoy’s genius makes them visible.
It’s amazing that the Tsarist regime allowed War and Peace to be published. Does anybody know if there were discussions about banning it?
What are the best things written about Tolstoy, particularly by other artists? (I’ll re-read Orwell’s essay.)
[May 2022. Below rough notes, needs work and editing, will change without .]
Berg: careerist, social climber
Berg married the eldest Rostov daughter, Vera, who nobody really likes.
Like Boris he’s a distinct type, though less intelligent and aware and more common than Boris.
Berg always spoke quietly, politely and with extreme precision. His conversation invariably related entirely to himself: he always preserved a serene silence when a topic arose which was of no direct personal interest. He could remain silent for hours without feeling or causing others to feel the slightest embarrassment. But as soon as the conversation touched him personally he would begin to talk at length with visible satisfaction. (66)
Often when he speaks about his successes he looks at the other person ‘as though he had no doubt that his success must always be the chief desire of everyone else’. In ‘the naiveté of his youthful egotism’ he is quite blind to irony or indifference.
After Austerlitz Berg tells everyone the same story, how he was wounded in his right hand but kept fighting with his left. Many pages later we’re told:
It was even related of Berg, by strangers, how when wounded in his right hand he had taken his sword in his left and gone forward. Nothing was said about Prince Andrei…
As he advances in the bureaucracy he pays court to Vera. He affects to hold his (unnecessary) sword in his left hand.
He related the episode so persistently and with so important an air that everyone had come to believe in the expediency and merit of his action, and he had received two decorations for Austerlitz.
He had decided to marry Vera years earlier. Now he proposed. Vera was from a grand family. He was out of his league.
But Berg’s most characteristic trait was an egoism so naive and good-natured that the Rostovs found themselves thinking that it must be a good thing since he himself was so firmly convinced that it would be.
And they were very short of cash. And Vera was not a society hit. So consent was given though the family felt bad because they knew they were all keen to get Vera ‘off their hands’.
Berg being Berg approaches poor old Count Rostov to discuss the dowry. The Count tries to cut short the conversation but Berg insists.
Berg, smiling bluntly, explained that if he did not know how much Vera would have, and did not receive at least part of the dowry in advance, he would be obliged to withdraw.
‘Because, consider, Count — if I were to allow myself to marry now without knowing what I had to depend on to maintain my wife I should be acting abominably.’
After he’s married he arranges a party, a grotesque affair.
Berg, tightly buttoned into his new uniform, sat beside his wife, explaining to her that one always could and should be acquainted with people above one in station, that being the only real satisfaction in having friends.
‘You can always find something to imitate or ask for. Look at me now, how my life has gone since my first promotion. (Berg measured his life not by years but by promotions.) My comrades are still nobodies while at the first vacancy I shall be a regimental commander. I have the happiness of being your husband… And how did I accomplish all this? Principally by knowing how to select my acquaintances. It goes without saying, of course, that one must be conscientious and methodical.’
Berg smiled with the consciousness of his superiority over a weak woman, and paused, reflecting that this dear wife of his was after all but a feeble woman unable to appreciate the dignity of being a man… Vera meanwhile was smiling too with a sense of her superiority over her good, worthy husband, who nevertheless, like the rest of his sex, according to Vera’s ideas of men, took an utterly wrong-headed view of the meaning of life. Berg, judging by his wife, considered all women weak and foolish. Vera, judging only by her husband and generalising from her observation of him, supposed that all men believe that no one but themselves had any sense, though they had no real understanding and were conceited and selfish…
‘The only thing is, we mustn’t have children too soon,’ he said, by a correlation of ideas of which he himself was unaware.
‘No,’ answered Vera, ‘I don’t at all want that. We must live for society.’
They are soon happy their soirée looks like every other with ‘the same conversation, tea and lighted candles’.
Berg and Vera could not repress blissful smiles at the sight of all this stir in their drawing-room, at the sound of the disconnected chatter, and the rustle of skirts and of curtsies and bows. Everything was identically the same as it was everywhere else…
Vera tries to make sophisticated conversation, speaking of ‘these days’…
as people of limited intelligence are fond of doing, imagining that they have discovered and appraised the peculiarities of ‘these days’ and that human nature changes with the times…
Berg then arranges an argument over politics so that his soirée is complete.
Berg was satisfied and happy. The blissful smile never left his face. The soirée was a great success exactly repeating every other soirée he had been to. Everything was similar: the ladies’ refined conversation, the cards, the general raising his voice over the game, the samovar and the tea cakes; only one thing was lacking which he had always seen at the evening parties he wished imitate. There had not yet been a loud conversation among the men and argument over some grave intellectual concern. Now the general had started such a discussion and it was to this that Berg carried Pierre off.
The hideousness reminds me of many a London dinner party…
Bilibin: diplomat, cynic, meme-legend
When we meet Bilibin after the disastrous battle of Ulm, he’s a thirty-five year old diplomat in Prince Andrei’s set. Very intelligent, ultra-sophisticated, a brilliant nose for power and social signals, and extremely cynical. (Interestingly he’d begun work at 16 in Vienna — no university. Our public service suffers from far too many graduates and would work far better if we had more people who started work at 16.)
He was not one of the great multitude of diplomats whose merits are limited to the possession of negative qualities, who have only to avoid doing certain things, and to speak French in order to be considered good diplomats. He was one of those who like and know how to work, and not withstanding his natural indolence would sometimes spend the whole night at his writing-table. He put in equally good work whatever the nature of the matter in hand. It was the question ‘How?’ that interested him, not the question ‘What for?’ He did not care what the diplomatic business was about, but found the greatest satisfaction in preparing a circular, memorandum or report skilfully, pointedly and elegantly. Bilibin’s services were valued not only for the labours of his pen but also for his talent for dealing and conversing with those in the highest spheres.
He enjoyed conversation, just as he enjoyed work, only when it could be made elegantly witty. In society he was always on the watch for an opportunity to say something striking, and took part in a conversation only when this was possible. His talk was always plentifully sprinkled with amusingly original and polished phrases of general interest. These sayings were elaborated beforehand in the alembic of his mind as if intentionally in a portable form easy for even the dullest member of society to remember and carry from salon to salon. And in fact Bilibin’s witticisms were hawked round the Viennese drawing-rooms and were often influential on matters that were considered important.
His face was covered with wrinkles the movement of which ‘made up the principal play of expression of his countenance’.
Prince Andrei explained his encounter with the minister and the reception of his tale of success. He can’t understand it — Mack lost an army, there’s disaster after disaster, Kutozov finally gains a real victory and nobody seems interested!?
That's just it, my dear fellow! Don’t you see — it's hurrah for the Tsar, for Russia, for the Faith! All very fine and good, but what do we, the Austrian court, I mean, care for your victories? Bring us nice news of a victory by the Archduke Karl or Ferdinand — one archduke’s as good as another, as you know … and it will be quite another story… But this sort of thing can only annoy… The one general we all loved — Schmidt — you put in the way of a bullet, and then expect compliments on a victory! Confess that more exasperating news than yours [of victory] could not have been conceived. It’s as if it had been done on purpose, on purpose.
He’s part joking, part mocking, but also deadly serious! This really is the way that people think and feel at the apex of political power.
No, your skirmishes won’t change anything, he says:
Nor will gunpowder decide the matter, but those who invented it, said Bilibin, quoting one of his own mots, releasing the wrinkles on his forehead and pausing.
Shortly after Bilibin tells Andrei the tragicomic story of how the French tricked their way across the Tabor bridge which was supposed to be destroyed to stop the French advance. He tells the story very amusingly and gets to the punchline.
‘It’s not treason, or dastardliness, or stupidity: it’s the same as at Ulm… it is…’ — he seemed to be trying to find a suitable expression. ‘It’s … c’est du Mack. We’ve been Macked,’ he concluded, feeling that he had coined a word, a new word that would be repeated.’ (186)
As I said in The Hollow Men 2014, we get Macked every day.
Andrei sets off searching for glory in the hopeless situation. Bilibin stops him.
What are you going for? And in support of the irrefutability of his argument all the creases ran off his face…
I know you think it is your duty to gallop back to the army now that the army is in danger. I understand that, my dear fellow, it’s heroic… But you are un philosophe, so be a complete one: look at things from the other side, and you will see your duty, on the contrary, is to take care of yourself. Leave it to others who are not fit for anything else... You have had no orders to return and you have not been dismissed from here; therefore you can stay and go with us wherever our unhappy lot carries us. They say we’re going to Olmütz. And Olmütz is a very decent little town. And you and I can make the journey very comfortably in my calèche…
I'm speaking to you sincerely, as a friend. Consider. Where and why are you going, when you might remain here? One of two things will happen (here he puckered the skin over his left temple): either peace will be concluded before you can reach your regiment, or else defeat and disgrace awaits you with the rest of Kutuzov’s army.
And Bilibin let his brow go smooth again, feeling that his logic was incontestable.
Later in a new phase of the war Bilibin sends Prince Andrei a wonderful letter, dripping with sarcasm, summarising recent events. It also reminds that the Current Thing and narrative whiplash are permanent features, as is the eternal issue that the biggest political problems are almost always internal and the biggest political enemies are almost always internal.
We civilians, as you are aware, have a very undesirable way of deciding whether a battle was won or lost. The side that retreats after a battle has lost is what we say; and going by that, we lost the battle of Pultusk. In short, we retreat after the battle but we send a courier to Petersburg with news of a victory, and the general does not relinquish the command to Buxhowden…
We embark on a remarkably interesting and original series of manoeuvers. Our aim is no longer, as it should be, to avoid or attack the enemy but solely to avoid General Buxhowden, who by right of seniority should be our chief. We pursue this aim with so much energy that when we cross an unfordable river we even burn our bridges to cut off the enemy, not Bonaparte but Buxhowden. General Buxhowden was within an ace of being attacked and captured by superior enemy forces as a result of one of the pretty little manoeuvres by which we escaped him. Buxhowden comes after us — we scuttle. No sooner does he cross to our side of the river than we cross back again. At last our enemy — Buxhowden — catches up on us and attacks. Both generals lose their tempers. There is even a challenge to a duel on Buxhowden’s part and an epileptic fit on Bennigsen’s. But at the crucial moment the courier who carried the news of our Pultusk victory to Petersburg returns bringing our appointment as commander-in-chief, and our enemy number one — Buxhowden — is done for: we can now turn our attention to number two — Bonaparte. But at this juncture what should happen but a third enemy rises against us — namely the Orthodox Russian soldiery clamouring for bread, meat, biscuits, fodder and I don’t know what else… The Emperor proposes to authorise all commanders of divisions to shoot marauders, but I very much fear this will oblige one half of the army to shoot the other.
Prince Andrei: earnest idealist
We first meet Prince Andrei with Pierre at the soirée that opens the book but he then goes to the war where we rejoin him. He’s unusual because he cares about his job.
Prince Andrei was one of those rare staff officers whose chief interest was centred on the general progress of the war.
When news arrives of Mack’s disaster at Ulm, he ‘could not help feeling a thrill of delight at the thought of arrogant Austria’s humiliation’ and the prospect of an imminent France-Russia battle. As Andrei and some generals walked down the corridor they bumped into some staff. One of them was Zherkov, a joker. They were laughing and joking as usual.
A silly smile of glee that he seemed unable to suppress spread over the face of the comic man.
And Zherkov ‘congratulated’ the Austrian on his success with a bow. Andrei is appalled at the scene.
‘If you, sir,’ be began cuttingly, with a slight trembling of his lower jaw, ‘choose to set up as a clown, I can’t prevent you, but I warn you, if you dare a second time to play the fool in my presence I’ll teach you how to behave.
His friend can’t understand his rage.
Don't you understand, either we are officers serving our Tsar and our country, rejoicing in the successes and grieving at the misfortunes of our common cause, or we’re hirelings caring nothing for our master’s concerns! Forty thousand men massacred and the army of our allies destroyed, and you find something to laugh at!
Prince Andrei is earnest. If you’re involved in politics you will see that, first, earnest people are generally despised and, second, they are also almost the only people who ever achieve great things for the world.
While Prince Andrei is such a grand aristocrat that his status is automatically very high, he repeatedly loses status points for his earnestness. On Kutozov’s staff he had two opposite reputations. A minority recognised him as ‘in a way different from themselves and everyone else’, expecting great things from him. The majority ‘disliked him and considered him conceited, cold and disagreeable’ but they ‘respected and were even afraid of him’.
In the next battle, Andrei watches General Bagration commanding.
Prince Andrei listened carefully to Bagration’s colloquies with the commanding officers and to the orders he gave them and remarked to his astonishment that in reality no orders were given but that Prince Bagration merely tried to make it appear as though everything that was being done of necessity, by accident or at the will of individual commanders, was performed if not exactly by his orders at least in accordance with his design. Prince Andrei noticed, however, that though what happened was due to chance and independent of the general’s will, the tact shown by Bagration made his presence extremely valuable.
After further disasters Prince Andrei sees another general describing what happened in the battle.
‘I stood in that road and said to myself: I'll let them get through and then open fire on them; and that’s what I did.’
The general had so longed to do this, and was so regretful that he had not succeeded in doing it, that it seemed to him now that this was what had happened. Indeed, might it not actually have been so? How could anyone tell in all that confusion what did or did not happen?
(There will be a lot of this in the covid inquiry.)
Staff officers give more or less fake accounts to the general, implying they were more heroic than they were. Then they call in Captain Tushin. Tushin is a genuine hero so of course … he is reprimanded while the dishonest officers laugh at him. He does not defend himself. Prince Andrei cannot watch and speaks out in Tushin’s defence. Then he’s emotional at the whole experience, his heart heavy: ‘It was all so strange, so unlike what he had hoped.’
He sees Natasha and regains his desire for fame
After the disaster of Austerlitz, Prince Andrei returns to his father’s estates. His wife dies in childbirth, ‘disappears into the abyss’. He begins some reforms. Unlike Pierre’s they work. He works on a review of the failures against Napoleon and schemes for army reform.
In spring 1809 he sets off to visit distant parts of his father’s estates. He passes near the Rostovs’ estate at Otradnoe. He drives along the avenue to the house. He sees a group of girls running and a black-eyed slender girl in a yellow dress with dark hair escaping from a white handkerchief pulled over her head. She’s happy running in the sun, she isn’t thinking about army regulations or serfs and rents. It’s Natasha.
That night Prince Andrei opens the window of his bedroom to look at the moon. He overhears Natasha talking to Sonya from their room above.
Do come here. Darling, precious, come here! There you see? I feel like squatting down on my heels, putting my arms around my knees like this, tight — as tight as can be — and flying away! Like this…
Prince Andrei, listening silently below, is thrown into turmoil, new feelings surge in his heart. On his way home he sees the old oak which he’d seen on the way there but now it has accepted the spring. All the best moments of his life rushed through his mind. And now, because of the spring and Natasha and the moonlight, his life changes path again. Now he wants to return to the world, to do something big, to be famous, and he’s thinking of Natasha. He’s often disagreeably rational to his sister who thinks to herself how much intellectual activity dries up a man.
Speransky: what’s it like talking to people at the top of political influence?
In August he goes to St Petersburg. Speransky and his reforms were at the height of his fame and their influence. Liberal reforms were temporarily in the air, even a constitution was discussed. Speransky on the civil side and Arakcheyev on the military are in the ascendant.
Prince Andrei goes to see Arakcheyev. In the waiting room those of high rank looked awkward ‘concealed behind a mask of ease and ironical derision of themselves, their position, and the person they were waiting to see.’ When he goes in, Arakcheyev dismisses his plan and gives him a bit of paper with his thoughts — mis-spelled — though the plan is forwarded to a committee.
He soon becomes more interested in Speransky’s plans than his own. He assumes the new guru must be a ‘genius’. They meet at a party and he watches him talk to a chatty old man.
He was struck by the extraordinarily scornful composure with which Speransky answered the old man. He appeared to drop him condescending words from an immeasurable height.
To begin with Prince Andrei wants to believe in Speransky and sees him as wise and selflessly engaged in public service.
[Speranksy] flattered him with that subtle flattery which goes hand-in-hand with conceit, and consists in a tacit assumption that one’s companion is the only man beside oneself capable of understanding the folly of the rest of the world, and the sagacity and profundity of one’s own ideas… (506)
Speransky was precisely the man he would have liked to be himself — able to find a rational explanation for all the phenomena of life, recognising as important only what was logical, and capable of applying the standard of reason to everything.
Only the cold mirror-eyes and flabby white hands disconcerted him and he disliked ‘the excessive contempt for others that he observed in Speransky, and the various shifts in the arguments employed to buttress his opinion.’ But his lack of doubt, the fact he clearly never thought to himself ‘maybe everything I think is nonsense’ attracted Andrei. Being the son of a priest, a despised class, made him harder for Andrei to see through, writes Tolstoy.
The plot shifts to others, and the extraordinary ball scene where Prince Andrei sees Natasha and starts to fall in love. Immediately after he returns to the world of Speransky, one of whose devotees visits him —
… one of those men who select their opinions like their clothes, according to the prevailing fashion, and in consequence come to be regarded as the most eager supporters of the latest trends.
The man tells Prince Andrei of the latest political developments but, suddenly, these issues, which for weeks have absorbed him, are of no interest. Into his head popped the thought ‘can it make me any happier or better?’ and ‘this simple reflection suddenly destroyed all the interest Prince Andrei had formally taken in the impending reforms.’
Now intimate dinners with Speransky, previously so attractive, lost their pull. When he goes that evening for dinner, he is no longer under the spell.
All that had formally appeared mysterious and fascinating in Speransky suddenly became commonplace and unattractive.
The dinner is a typical political dinner.
The conversation never stopped for a moment, and seemed to consist of the contents of a book of funny stories. Before Magnitsky had finished his story someone else was anxious to tell them something even more amusing. Most of the anecdotes, if not confined to the world of officialdom, at least related to individuals in the service. It was as though in this company the nonentity of those people was so thoroughly taken for granted that the only possible attitude to them was one of good-natured ridicule…
Speransky’s shrill voice struck him unpleasantly and his incessant laughter had a false ring that grated on him…
He made several attempts to join in the conversation, but each time his remarks were tossed aside like a cork flung back out of the water, and he could not bandy jokes with them.
By the end of the dinner Prince Andrei emerges entirely changed from a few days ago.
Prince Andrei looked closely into those mirror-like impenetrable eyes and felt that it had been ludicrous of him to have expected anything from Speransky, or of any of his own activities connected with him, and marvelled how he could have attributed importance to what Speransky was doing.
He goes home and ponders.
He recalled his exertions, the efforts he had made to see people, and the history of his project of army reform, which had been accepted for consideration and which they were trying to shelve for the sole reason that another scheme, a very inferior one, had already been prepared and submitted to the Emperor. He thought of the sittings of the committee of which Berg [!] was a member. He remembered the conscientious and prolonged deliberations that took place at those meetings on every point relating to form and procedure, and how sedulously and promptly all that touched the substance of the business was evaded. He recalled his labours … and he felt ashamed for himself. Then he vividly pictured his [estates], his pursuits in the country, … his peasants and Dron the village elder, and mentally applying to them the section on Personal Rights, which he had classified into paragraphs, he was amazed that he could have spent so much time on such useless work.
Sitting in the sun, watching my son talk to himself, reflecting on so many meetings, this passage hits home! So much stronger are these feelings when Prince Andrei goes to the Rostovs and hears Natasha sing…
Prince Vasily, man of the world