Tolstoy Lite

In today’s busy world, not too many people have the time to read “War and Peace.” It’s a great work about the epic struggle of the Russian people against the invading forces of Napoleon. Ironically, many Russian aristocrats had to take Russian lessons because they were so used to speaking French.

The definitive scene is when Marshall Kutuzov, the corpulent Russian commander views Napoleon’s “Grand Armée,” 400,000 strong, arrayed before Smolensk or Kiev or someplace, and says, “I will make them eat horsemeat.”

The Russians retreated all the way to Moscow, but there they made their famous stand at Borodino — a close-range artillery duel, two enormous armies blasting away at one another. Napoleon was a master at using artillery, and Kutuzov was no slouch either.

Tolstoy describes a Russian artillery officer assigning his men, pointing to a spot and saying, “You die here.”

The battle was a stand-off, with the French in possession of the field. Half the Russian army and one fourth of the French army were killed or wounded. Then winter set in and Napoleon had to retreat from the burned-out city of Moscow.

Kutuzov more than made good his pledge. On Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, a bag of gold would not buy a crust of bread. Of the 400,000 men Napoleon led into Russia, and the 100,000 who reinforced them later, fewer than 20,000 would ever return. The Cossacks had a grand old time harassing their dwindling ranks.

So “War and Peace” is a corker of a story. It’s just that I would have left out the detailed description of the entire masonic induction ceremony (zzzz), the discussion of the Polish constitution (zzzzzz) and the application of the newly discovered principles of calculus to the study of history (zzzzzzzz).

If you would like a taste of Tolstoy that won’t take all summer try his collected short stories. I have one of those great Random House Modern Library editions, a paperback-sized hardcover.

His first story, “A History of Yesterday,” is more like a writing exercise — kind of interesting if you’re interested in the minutiae of a Russian aristocrat’s life in the nineteenth century.

The pace really picks up in Tolstoy’s subsequent stories because he went off to war, first as a volunteer and then as a cadet in an artillery battery fighting in Chechenya in the Caucasus Mountains. The beef between the Russians and the Chechens goes way back, you see.

It was kind of like the US Cavalry and the Indians — an indigenous population using guerilla tactics against a better armed, more numerous opponent. In one story a Chechen floats by a Russian river outpost unnoticed by breathing through a reed.

Then Tolstoy went to Sevastopol in 1854 when it was beseiged by the Turks, the English and the French in the Crimean War. There’s an excellent description of life under constant artillery shelling. Where is there room for courage and valor when everyone is under fire and some people get blown up and some don’t?

Tolstoy’s stories of Sevastopol got great reviews. In fact Tsar Alexander II had a second edition published (in French, curiously) and told his generals, “Guard well the life of that young man.”

Here’s a description from Tolstoy’s second story, “The Raid,” of an old Chechen villager captured by the Russians:

“The old man, whose only clothing consisted of a mottled tunic all in rags and patchwork trousers, was so frail that his arms, tightly bound behind his back, seemed scarcely to hold onto his shoulders, and he could scarcely drag his bare crooked legs along.

“His face and even part of his shaven head were deeply furrowed. His wry toothless mouth kept moving beneath his close-cut moustache and beard, as if he were chewing something; but a gleam still sparkled in his red lashless eyes which clearly expressed an old man’s indifference to life.

“Rosenkranz [the idiotic Russian ensign who has captured and bound the old man] asked him, through an interpreter, why he had not gone away with the others.

“‘Where should I go?’ he answered, looking quietly away.

“‘Where the others have gone,’ someone remarked.

“‘The dzhigits [warriors] have gone to fight the Russians, but I am an old man.’

“‘Are you not afraid of the Russians?’

“‘What can the Russians do to me? I am old.'”