I wrote this article back in 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea. Back then the title was “How Tolstoy Can Save Putin’s Soul.” The tragic stakes are much higher now and Putin’s soul is clearly beyond saving, but the cultural backdrop is still entirely relevant so I wanted to share it with you.
The drama being played out right now in Russia and Ukraine isn’t merely geopolitical. It’s a deep-seated drama of the national soul that’s been around for centuries. And Russian literature is the place we see it in full flower. You see, the question Vladimir Putin is grappling with is the one that recurs throughout the 19th-century Russian classics: What is the source of our national greatness?
In approaching this question, Putin, whose two favorite writers happen to be Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, has two distinct traditions to choose from: Dostoevsky’s belief in Russian exceptionalism or Tolstoy’s belief in the universality of all human experience, regardless of one’s nationality, culture, or religion. Alas, he has chosen Dostoevsky, not Tolstoy.
Dostoevsky believed that Russia’s special mission in the world is to create a pan-Slavic Christian empire with Russia at its helm. This messianic vision stemmed from the fact that Dostoevsky thought Russia was the most spiritually developed of all the nations, a nation destined to unite and lead the others. Russia’s mission, he said in 1881, was “the general unification of all the people of all tribes of the great Aryan race.”
This sort of triumphalist thinking was anathema to Tolstoy, who believed that every nation had its own unique traditions, none better or worse than the others. Tolstoy was a patriot—he loved his people, as is so clearly demonstrated in War and Peace, for example—but he was not a nationalist. He believed in the unique genius and dignity of every culture.
One of the hallmarks of his writing from the beginning was his capacity to uncover the full-blooded truth of each one of his characters, no matter their nationality. In his Sevastopol Tales, which were inspired by his own experiences as a Russian soldier fighting against the combined forces of the Turks, French, and British in the Crimean War of the 1850s—in the very region recently re-annexed by Russia—Tolstoy celebrates the humanity of all his characters, whether Russian, British, or French.
Unfortunately, amid all the spiritual turmoil following the fall of the Soviet Union, Russians have tended to cling more to the starker, messianic vision of Dostoevsky than the calmer vision of universal humanity Tolstoy espoused, finding the latter perhaps a tad too democratic, humanistic, and soft for their hardened tastes.
After all the tragedies of 20th century Russian history, and the humiliations of the past 20 years, in particular, many ordinary Russians are seeking unequivocal proof of their national worthiness—indeed superiority—among the family of nations.
It is precisely that contingent of the population that Putin plays to. He rarely quotes Tolstoy in his speeches, yet often quotes 20th-century Russian messianic philosophers such as Solovyev, Berdyaev, and Ilyin, who were themselves influenced by Dostoevsky’s brand of nationalism, and took it to a whole new, sometimes virulent level. Putin has called the fall of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century and a “genuine tragedy” for the Russian people.
In a television interview in April, Putin went so far as to say, “There are enough forces in the world that are afraid of our strength, our ‘massiveness,’ as one of our sovereigns said. So they seek to divide us into parts.”
Listening to Putin speak during that interview and other speeches he’s given recently, you’d hardly guess that it was 2014 and Russia recently invaded and then annexed Crimea, and is now the invasion of 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 xenophobic words find such resonance among the majority of the Russian public.
Fear of foreigners runs deep in Putin’s own blood. One of his brothers died of diphtheria during the Nazi siege of Leningrad in World War II. His maternal grandmother was killed by the Germans in that war. And his maternal uncles disappeared at the front without a trace. Given Russia’s past and Putin’s biography, then, this perceived need to assert Russian superiority in a hostile world makes perfect sense.
But genuine strength, as Tolstoy understood so well, comes from humility, not hubris. That is a central message not only of Sevastopol Tales but of War and Peace, which memorializes Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812. If Putin draws on the trope of a country under siege in order to justify Russian bellicosity and his own tight grip on power, then Tolstoy uses that self-image to illustrate a very different point: Russia’s greatness, he believed, stems from the ability of its people to maintain their dignity in the face of aggression and keep a clear moral compass in even the very worst of times.
This is the sort of greatness exhibited by characters like the unnamed Russian soldier who, during the mayhem of the Moscow occupation, steps outside of his assigned duties to help a shopkeeper protect his store from looters; or of a teenage girl who insists that her family leave behind their possessions during the Moscow evacuation in order to make room in the carriages for wounded soldiers; or of a poor, elderly servant who gives a 25 ruble note of her own to a stranger who shows up at the doorstep saying he is a relative of the family she serves.
It is also the sort of greatness embodied in Russian Commander-in-Chief Kutuzov, who is beloved by his troops and compassionate toward his enemies, even refraining from attacking the wounded, departing French army, as some of his generals and members of the court urged him to do. It’s no coincidence that Nelson Mandela, who read War and Peace during his incarceration on Robben Island, would later call it his favorite novel, and single out Tolstoy’s Kutuzov as an exemplar of humane and effective leadership.
And then there’s Pierre Bezukhov, that big-hearted, bespectacled Russian count who at the beginning of the novel inherits the largest fortune in Russia. After that, he enters into a disastrous marriage, becomes a leading Freemason before growing disillusioned with its politics, botches his attempts to free the peasants on his estate, and eventually winds up as a French prisoner of war during Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia.
Just when he believes things can’t get any worse, Bezukhov is brought before a firing squad. Prepared to die, he discovers, miraculously, that he has been escorted there only as a witness. Still, the sight of the blind-folded factory worker being shot in the head (which Pierre well realizes might just as easily have been him) is enough to shatter every illusion he’s ever had about his own power, every ounce of his faith in “the world’s good order, in humanity’s and his own soul, and in God.”
Yet he survives, both physically and spiritually, and emerges from captivity neither cynical nor bitter, but with a redoubled commitment to the ideals of compassion and compromise he has always believed in. “‘I don’t say we should oppose this or that. We may be mistaken,’” he tells his wife after the war, upon returning from St. Petersburg, where Pierre has been trying to unite conservatives and liberals, who are at each other’s throats over the future direction of the country. “‘What I say is, let’s join hands with those who love the good, and let there be one banner—active virtue.’”
The only real inspiration Putin seems to have taken from War and Peace, unfortunately, is from neither Kutuzov nor Pierre Bezukhov, but from the character of Napoleon himself. The French emperor arrogantly imagines himself to be the ultimate geopolitical strategist, and never more so than when he achieves his long-awaited goal of conquering Moscow.
But what did that victory cost him? Nine-tenths of his army, for one thing, on the long, winter march out of Russia.
For while enjoying their wartime booty in Moscow, Napoleon and his army were using up the very provisions they needed to get back to Europe. Tolstoy’s message—which seems to have been entirely lost on Putin—is this:
When we think we’re winning, we may in fact be losing, or even planting the seeds of our own destruction.
Putin’s conquest of Crimea and now-invasion of Ukraine may seem to him right now like a masterful strategic move to re-establish Russian hegemony, but a few years or even months down the road it could well prove to be his country’s undoing. With sanctions mounting, Russia becoming more ostracized internationally, and the looming administrative and cultural challenges of reintegrating Crimea back into Russia, Putin’s Napoleonic gambit has already cost his country dearly—not just economically and politically, but spiritually, as well.
If Dostoevsky unintentionally laid the philosophical groundwork upon which Putin now stands, then Tolstoy offers the solution. He provides an alternative path that can lead Russia back to its own highest ideals, back to its deservedly proud place among the family nations. But that is the path of humility, not hubris.
As Tolstoy writes in War and Peace: “There is no greatness where there is no goodness, simplicity, and truth.”