War and Peace: Revisiting History through Fiction

✨📖 War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy📖✨

Of the things I enjoy reading and learning about in life, history of wars and military strategies are not one of them. I do, however, enjoy Tolstoy (or so I thought?), so naturally, I was curious to try my hands at his War and Peace. Besides, somewhere somehow I had heard that War and Peace was also about love, princesses and ballgowns … and I sure love reading about that.

Getting through War and Peace with cutesy set ups: coffee and apple pie included.

Well, now that I’ve finished it, I can tell you that it’s not really about princesses and ballgowns, at least not in the way I expected. War and Peace is much too much about war for my liking, and I personally had a hard time enjoying it. At ~1200 pages, it took me a good two months of sporadic reading to finish it. I wanted to give it a fair chance, but in the end, I don’t think I would recommend this particular piece of Tolstoy’s over Anna Karenina. But perhaps, different strokes for different folks.

The book starts off at a party in 1805’s Russia, and features about 38746827346 characters. In fact, it starts off with a character that barely gets mentioned throughout the rest of the book afterwards. At that party, socialites discuss Napoleon’s rise to power in France and his European conquests. If I’ve lost you already, no worries; I lost myself as well. You see, I don’t think my history teachers did a very good job at making history interesting for me, so I sort of glossed over this whole French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars thing. To my slight dismay, upon discovering that the book featured and referenced real historical figures and events, I decided to brush up on my history. Now this was one bit of my War and Peace experience that I really appreciated.

As any millennial would (and should), I found myself a cute, well-animated YouTube video on the French Revolution that lead up to Napoleon’s rise to power. While I knew the pop culture-y bits (Louis the XVI; the guillotine; Marie Antoinette; “let them eat cake”), I didn’t know that the revolution abolishing the monarchy, led to an equally power hungry political system. It didn’t solve anything per se, it just replaced one flawed system with another. <sarcasm> I mean who would’ve ever guessed that revolutionaries don’t want to abolish power, as much as they just want to hoard power themselves? Ha ha, right? </sarcasm> Kidding, everyone could’ve guessed that. That seems to always be the case in history, including in Russia!

Once I had a solid understanding of the historical period this was set in, I could go on to reading and attempting to enjoy the book. The plot, if there is one, follows a couple of Russian families as they grow up, send their children to war, and marry them off. Because there were so many characters to begin with, I had a difficult time deciding who to ‘root’ for. About halfway through the book (one month & 600 pages later), I finally had a grasp of who the story would actually focus on. (Mind you, I did not want to read a lot about War and Peace online, because I hate spoilers). In the end, the story didn’t feel like it was about the characters.

A very very good chunk of the book is descriptions of war, fighting, military strategy and just general war musings. It’s almost philosophical. If you’re into that, you might enjoy it. I personally, wasn’t. I couldn’t wait to be done with this book, so I can finally pick up something more enjoyable again. One thing I did appreciate though, is that it’s very much a historical piece. It’s a work of fiction, that captures a very precise moment in history, and having the opportunity to read that, in 2020, felt very cool. And it made me want to learn about that part of history too. It’s a shame we don’t have many works of fiction from our own recent history – or at the very least, I don’t know of them.

All in all, if you’re thinking of giving this book a go, I’d have these four tips to share:

  1. It’s a book about war. Know what you’re getting yourself into. It’s very much a book about history, war, military strategy, philosophizing. And it’s ~1200 pages of it.
  2. There’s no main character, and there are too many characters. If you’re going to read it, be ready to not devote too much thought to a lot of the names you see pop up. Focus on Pierre Bezukhov, Andrew Bolkonsky, Natasha Rostov, Nicholas Rostov. They each have five family members at a minimum, who are regulars, but you get the gist.
  3. Take notes in the beginning, to map out character’s relationships to one another. Do this as you read, rather than looking something up online to avoid spoilers (if you don’t like them).
  4. Maybe don’t read it on the beach. ⛱ It’s quite a gloomy book, best read in gloomy-friendly settings.


If you decide to give it a read, let me know how it goes! And if you’ve read it in the past, do let me know how you liked it!


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