Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
What’s your verdict on the BBC’s War and Peace? One of Britain’s leading military historians is emphatic. ‘They’re wearing 1812 pattern shakos in 1805!!’ he tweets, deploying capitals.
Tolstoy, himself a veteran of the Crimean War (see this post for more on that), also knew something about shakos. And his literary genius partly lay in the remorseless accumulation of a million details. But he used shakos not so much for their patterns as for the emotions they might evoke.
Much later in the novel, Pierre is a prisoner of the French in devastated Moscow. His captors are preparing to flee the city. ‘Just as Pierre reached the door the corporal who had offered him a pipe the day before came up with two soldiers,’ Tolstoy writes. ‘Both the corporal and the soldiers were in marching kit with knapsacks and shakos with chin-straps buttoned, which altered their familiar faces.’ The shakos contribute to a moment of terrible anxiety. ‘In the changed face of the corporal, in the sound of his voice, in the agitating, deafening din of the drums, Pierre recognized the mysterious, callous force which drove men against their will to murder their own kind…’
Those of us who scarcely know our shakos from our shields will defer to the experts. Avoidable errors reduce the credibility of the performance, and slips in accuracy are to be regretted.
But War and Peace is the greatest of realist novels not only because of the characters, moments, and places that often seem so real to us, but because of the realism of its driving vision. Written by Andrew Davies, directed by Tom Harper, and compellingly acted, the BBC’s production is also more than the sum of its brilliant scenes, vividly animated as it is by themes of chance, conscience, temptation, and sensuality.
More specifically, its message is timely. It reminds us that Russia, on Europe’s eastern flank, is historically central to European security. In time it will show us that Russia has been Europe’s saviour at moments of the greatest peril. It also demonstrates the essentially European sensibility of one of Russia’s greatest works of literature. And it’s tremendous fun, a riotously good start to the New Year.