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The novel which has made its author "the true lion of the Russian literature" (according to Ivan Goncharov) upon its publication enjoyed great success with the reading public and spawned dozens of reviews and analytical essays in the press, some of which (by Pisarev, Annenkov, Dragomirov and Strakhov) formed the basis for Tolstoy scholars' later research. Yet the Russian press's initial response to the novel was muted, most critics feeling bewildered by this mammoth work they couldn’t decide how to classify. The liberal newspaper Golos (The Voice, April 3, #93, 1865) was one of the first to react. Its anonymous reviewer posed the question which was later repeated by many others: "What could this possibly be? What kind of genre are we supposed to file it to?.. Where is fiction in it, and where is real history?"
Writer and critic Nikolai Akhsharumov, writing in Vsemirny Trud (#6, 1867) suggested that War And Peace was "neither a chronicle, nor a historical novel", but a genre merger, this ambiguity never undermining its immense value. Pavel Annenkov, who praised the novel too, was equally vague when trying to classify it. "The cultural history of one large section of our society, the political and social panorama of it in the beginning of the current century," was his suggestion. "It is the [social] epic, the history novel and the vast picture of the whole nation's life," wrote Ivan Turgenev in his bid to define War and Peace in the foreword for his French translation of "The Two Hussars" (published in Paris by Le Temps in 1875).
In general, the literary left received coldly the novel which, as they saw it, was totally devoid of social critique and keen on the idea of national unity. The major fault with the novel, being, as they saw it, "author's inability to portray a new kind of revolutionary intelligentsia in his novel," as critic Varfoomey Zaytsev put it. Articles by D.Minayev, V.Bervi-Flerovsky and N.Shelgunov in Delo magazine characterized the novel as "lacking realism", showing its characters as "cruel and rough", "mentally stoned", "morally depraved" and promoting "the philosophy of stagnation". Still, Mikhail Saltykov-Schedrin, who's never expressed his opinion of the novel publically, in the private conversation was reported to have expressed delight with "how strongly this Count has stung our higher society". Dmitry Pisarev in his unfinished article "Russian Gentry of Old" (Staroye barstvo, Otechestvennye Zapiski, #2, 1868) while praising Tolstoy's realism in portraying members of high society, still was unhappy with the way the author, as he saw it, 'idealized' the old nobility, expressing "unconscious and quite natural tenderness towards" the Russian dvoryanstvo. On the opposite front, the conservative press and "patriotic" authors (A.S.Norov and P.A.Vyazemsky among them) were accusing Tolstoy of consciously distorting the 1812 history, desecrating the "patriotic feelings of our fathers" and ridiculing dvoryanstvo.
One of the first comprehensive articles on the novel was that of Pavel Annenkov, published in #2, 1868 issue of Vestnik Evropy. The critic praised Tolstoy's masterful portrayal of man at war, marveled at the complexity of the whole composition, organically merging historical facts and fiction. "The dazzling side of the novel", according to Annenkov, was "the natural simplicity with which [the author] transports the worldly affairs and big social events down to the level of a character who witnesses them." Annekov thought the historical gallery of the novel was incomplete with the two "great raznotchintsys", Speransky and Arakcheev, and deplored the fact that the author stopped at introducing to the novel "this relatively rough but original element". In the end the critic called the novel "the whole epoch in the Russian fiction".
Slavophiles declared Tolstoy their 'bogatyr' and pronounced War and Peace "the Bible of the new national idea". Several articles on War And Peace were published in 1869-1870 in Zarya magazine by Nikolai Strakhov. "War and Peace is the work of genius, equal to everything that the Russian literature has produced before," he pronounced in the first, samller essay. "It is now quite clear that from 1868 when the War And Peace was published the very essence of what we call Russian literature has become quite different, acquired the new form and meaning," the critic continued later. Strakhov was the first critic in Russia who declared Tolstoy's novel to be a masterpiece of level previously unknown in Russian literature. Still, being a true Slavophile, he could not fail to see the novel as promoting the major Slavophiliac ideas of "meek Russian character'ss supremacy over the rapacious European kind" (using Apollon Grigoriev's formula). Years later, in 1878, discussing Strakhov's own book The World as a Whole, Tolstoy criticized both Grigoriev's concept (of "Russian meekness vs. Western bestiality") and Strakhov's interpretation of it.
Among the reviewers were military men and authors specializing in the war literature. Most assessed highly the artfulness and realism of Tolstoy's battle scenes. N.Lachinov, a member of the Russky Invalid newspaper stuff (#69, April 10, 1868) called the Battle of Schöngrabern scenes "bearing the highest degree of historical and artistic truthfulness" and totally agreed with the author's view on the Battle of Borodino which some of his opponents were disputing. The army general and respected military writer Mikhail Dragomirov in an article published in Oruzheiny Sbornik (The Military Almanac, 1868-1870), while disputing some of Tolstoy's ideas concerning the "spontaneity" of wars and the role of commander in battles, advised all the Russian Army officers to use War and Peace as their desk book, describing its battle scenes as "incomparable" and "serving for an ideal manual to every textbook on theories of military art."
Unlike professional literary critics, most prominent Russian writers of the time supported the novel wholeheartedly. Goncharov, Turgenev, Leskov, Dostoyevsky and Fet have all gone on record as declaring War and Peace the masterpiece of the Russian literature. Ivan Goncharov in a July 17, 1878, letter to Pyotr Ganzen advised him to chose for translating into Danish War and Peace, adding: "This is positively what might be called a Russian Ilyad. Embracing the whole epoch, it is the grandiose literary event, showcasing the gallery of great men painted by a lively brush of the great master... This is one of the most, if not the most profound literary work ever.  In 1879, unhappy with Ganzen having chosen Anna Karenina to start with, Goncharov insisted: "War and Peace is the extraordinary poem of a novel, both in content and execution. It also serves as a monument to Russian history's glorious epoch when whatever figure you take is a colossus, a statue in bronze. Even [the novel's] minor characters carry all the characteristic features of the Russian people and its life." In 1885, expressing satisfaction with the fact that Tolstoy's works have now been translated into Danish, Goncharov again stressed the immense importance of War and Peace. "Count Tolstoy really mounts over everybody else here [in Russia]," he remarked.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (in a May 30, 1871, letter to Strakhov) described War and Peace as "the last word of the landlord's literature and the brilliant one at that". In a draft version of the Teenager novel he described Tolstoy as "a historiograph of the dvoryanstvo, or rather, its cultural elite." "The objectivity and realism impart wonderful charm to all scenes, and alongside people of talent, honour and duty he exposes numerous scoundrels, worthless goons and fools," he added. In 1876 Dostoyevsky wrote: "My strong conviction is that a writer of fiction has to have most profound knowledge - not only of the poetic side of his art, but also the reality he deals with, in its historical as well as contemporary context. Here [in Russia], as far as I see it, only one writer excels in this, Count Lev Tolstoy."
Nikolai Leskov, then an anonymous reviewer in Birzhevy Vestnik (The Stock Exchange Herald), wrote several articles praising highly War and Peace, calling it "the best ever Russian historical novel" and "the pride of the contemporary literature". Marveling at the realism and factual truthfulness of Tolstoy's book, Leskov thought the author deserved the special credit for "having lifted up the people's spirit upon the high pedestal it deserved". "While working most elaborately upon individual characters, the author, apparently, has been studying most diligently the character of the nation as a whole; the life of people whose moral strength came to be concentrated in the Army that came up to fight mighty Napoleon. In this respect the novel of Count Tolstoy could be seen as an epic of the Great national war which up until now has had its historians but never had its singers," Leskov wrote.
Afanasy Fet, in a January 1, 1870, letter to Tolstoy, expressed his great delight with the novel. "You've managed to show us in great detail the other, mundane side of life and explain how organically does it feed the outer, heroic side of it," he added.
Ivan Turgenev gradually re-considered his initial skepticism as to the novel’s historical aspect and also the style of Tolstoy's psychological analysis. In his 1880 article written in the form of a letter addressed to Edmond Abou, the editor of the French newspaper Le XIX-e Siecle, Turgenev described Tolstoy as "the most popular Russian writer" and War and Peace as "one of the most remarkable books of our age". "This vast work has the spirit of an epic, where the life of Russia of the beginning of our century in general and in details has been recreated by the hand of a true master... The manner in which Count Tolstoy conducts his treatise is innovative and original. This is the great work of a great writer, and in it there’s true, real Russia," Turgenev wrote. It was largely due to Turgenev's efforts that the novel started to gain popularity with the European readership. The first French edition of the War and Peace (1879) paved the way for the worldwide success of Leo Tolstoy and his works.
Since then many world famous authors have praised War and Peace as a masterpiece of the world literature. Gustav Flaubert expressed his delight in a January 1880 letter to Turgenev, writing: "This is the first class work! What an artist and what a psychologist! The first two volumes are exquisite. I used to utter shrieks of delight while reading. This is powerful, very powerful indeed." Later John Galsworthy has called War and Peace "the best novel that had ever been written". Romain Rolland, remembering his reading the novel as a student, wrote: "this work, like life itself, has no beginning, no end. It is life itself in its eternal movement." Thomas Mann thought War and Peace to be "the greatest ever war novel in the history of literature." Ernest Hemingway confessed that it was from Tolstoy that he'd been taking lessons on how to "write about war in the most straightforward, honest, objective and stark way." "I don't know anybody who could write about war better than Tolstoy did," Hemingway asserted in his 1955 Men at War. The Best War Stories of All Time anthology.
Isaak Babel said, after reading War and Peace, "If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy." Tolstoy "gives us a unique combination of the 'naive objectivity' of the oral narrator with the interest in detail characteristic of realism. This is the reason for our trust in his presentation."
- Crafting the novel
- Background and historical context
- Plot summary
- Principal characters in War and Peace
- Full translations into English