Russian President Vladimir Putin has a secret fascination with Leo Tolstoy.
As a young KGB agent, he purportedly made a pilgrimage to the Leo Tolstoy Museum and Estate at Yasnaya Polyana. In 2012, he named the writer’s great great grandson Vladimir Tolstoy his cultural advisor. He made War and Peace a prominent set piece in the opening ceremonies at the Sochi Olympics.
But for a guy who says Tolstoy is his favorite writer, Putin is, well, a very bad reader.
Pretty much everything he stands for — authoritarianism and repression at home, aggression and jingoism abroad — are the very things Tolstoy abhorred.
Tolstoy’s message is that when we think we’re winning, we may, in fact, be losing, or even planting the seeds of our own destruction. Hubris might help us to win a battle or two, but never the war.
In his annual state of the nation address in December, Putin sounded one of his favorite themes: the need for Russia to assert its greatness on the international stage. “If for many European countries, sovereignty and national pride are forgotten concepts and a luxury,” he said, “then for Russia, true sovereignty is an absolutely necessary condition of our existence.”
In War and Peace, first published 150 years ago this year, Tolstoy also wrote about Russian national greatness. But he believed that Russia’s true greatness stemmed not from hubris, but humility — from Russians’ capacity to maintain dignity in the face of aggression and keep a clear moral compass in the very worst of times. As he writes, “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness, and truth.”
The fact is, War and Peace is one of Russia’s most patriotic works. It memorializes a key historical moment — Russia’s wars with Napoleon and ultimate defeat of him in 1812 — during which Russia established itself on the international stage.
But if Tolstoy was a patriot, he was not a nationalist. He believed in the unique genius of every culture and the dignity of every human being. A hallmark of his writing is his ability to portray the full-blooded humanity of each of his characters, no matter their nationality. In War and Peace the French characters aren’t caricatures; they’re real people. Nobody is all good or all bad. Even Napoleon, whom the writer positively dislikes, is, at least, interesting. There are even moments when Tolstoy allows us to glimpse into his soul and feel his pain, as when Napoleon surveys the corpse-strewn battlefield of Borodino, only to realize the full extent of his cruelty, as well as his impotence.
Putin, by contrast, offers caricatures of the West as engaged in conspiracy to destroy Russia. “The U.S. would have found ways to curb Russia’s growth even without the Crimea pretext,” he said during his state of the nation address. “The EU wanted to disintegrate Russia like they did with Yugoslavia. We stopped them.”
The toxic mixture of nationalism, xenophobia, and aggressiveness that mark Putin’s rhetoric has nothing to do with Tolstoy’s definition of Russian national greatness. Yet Putin’s grandiloquence resonates with a contemporary audience smarting from recent sanctions as well as the humiliations of the last twenty-four years since the fall of the Soviet Union. Many ordinary Russians today are seeking unequivocal proof of their worthiness — indeed superiority — among the family of nations.
Putin is offering them just that. No wonder his approval rating soared to nearly 90 percent after he invaded Crimea. “Only with the annexation of Crimea did people start to feel that our great-power status was restored,” says Lev Gudkov, a well-known Russian sociologist. “The sense of frustration and humiliation dissipated.”
In his state of the nation address, Putin reminded his countrymen of Hitler’s siege of Leningrad in 1941, and went on to assure them that Western attempts to destroy Russia through sanctions will not succeed, just as Hitler failed to destroy Russia. This alleged Western plot to dismember Russia, Putin insisted, has a long history. “The policy of containment was not invented yesterday,” he said. “It has been carried out against our country for many years, always, for decades, if not centuries. In short, whenever someone thinks that Russia has become too strong or independent, these tools are quickly put into use.”
Listening to Putin, you’d hardly guess that it was 2014 and Russia invaded and then annexed Crimea, and is now fomenting war inside Ukraine. You’d think that it was 1941 and Hitler had just attacked; or even 1812 as Napoleon crossed the Nieman River to invade Russia. Both of these events remain firmly rooted in Russian national consciousness to this day, which is one reason why Putin’s words play so well to the majority of the Russian public.
But there is a world of difference between an actual invasion by a foreign enemy of the sort experienced by Russia in 1941 and depicted by Tolstoy in War and Peace, and the Western conspiracy theories concocted by Putin to rile up patriotic sentiment. In War and Peace the year of 1812 was a time of genuine horror and shock during which an entire country — aristocrats, peasants, government, and all — came together in a spontaneous explosion of collective resistance against a foreign invader.
The solidarity Putin has forged with his Russian people today is far more brittle. His tacit agreement with them — I’ll give you prosperity, you give me your freedoms and your loyalty — is sure to break down at some point. With the price of oil, the mainstay of Russian economy, continuing to fall, inflation rising, and a recession looming, Putin will eventually find it impossible to hold up his end of the bargain.
Add to that the dire political and economic consequences of his reckless foreign policy, and it’s not surprising that his euphoric speeches and jingoistic propaganda are already beginning to wear thin. Russians’ support for their country’s presence in Ukraine has plunged from 74% to 23% in a matter of months. Cracks within Putin’s own tight circle of supporters are showing.
In fact, of all the characters in War and Peace, the one Putin most closely resembles right about now is Napoleon himself, who gloats when he is on the verge of realizing his dream of conquering Moscow. A few months later he loses nine-tenths of his army on the long, winter march out of Russia. For while the French soldiers are enjoying wartime booty in the Russian capital, they are also depleting the very resources needed for their retreat out of Russia.
Putin should reread War and Peace. It will help him see just how far he has led his country away from her true greatness, and how to back to it before it’s too late.