Russian troops move from Ryazan to the Kaluga Road – a strategic choice that will turn the tide of the war and lead to Napoleon’s defeat.
The balance of power gradually shifts and, due to the French army's location and to the disorganization of the French troops, the Russians now have the advantage.
At Tarutino, Count Bennigsen and Kutuzov continue to bicker about the best course of action. Kutuzov ultimately decides to attack the French. Meanwhile, the tsar has rallied the troops in St. Petersburg.
Kutuzov prepares a disposition with the battle plan and has it sent to the other generals. There is much carousing among the troops.
Kutuzov is upset when he discovers that the order to advance has not been delivered to all the regiments.
Despite some confusion among the generals, the Russian troops begin to advance on the French. However, they fail to carry out certain aspects of Kutuzov’s plan because the dispositions have not been delivered to them.
Although the battle of Tarutino is relatively small compared to those of Borodino and Austerlitz, it allows the Russians to shift from defensive to offensive tactics.
Tolstoy argues that although Napoleon handled the invasion of Moscow ingeniously, he made some bad decisions afterward that cost the French their advantage.
The French establish a police force and a city council for Moscow.
Despite their best efforts, the French fail to establish an efficient infrastructure in Moscow. Looting continues. The disorder begins to take its toll on the French troops, who become more savage and unprofessional. Between this and the loss at Tarutino, the French decide to retreat from Moscow.
Back at Pierre's place of imprisonment, Pierre has prevented a prison riot and thereby befriended the French officers. The prisoners have been ordered to sew clothes for the French soldiers. One soldier does not like the garment Platon Karataev has made for him, but after some initial hesitation, he graciously accepts it and lets Platon keep the fabric scraps.
Pierre’s time in prison with the peasants has given him a more relaxed, charitable outlook on life.
The French soldiers gather their 30,000 prisoners of war and march them out of the city. Pierre tries to intercede for a prisoner who is too sick to walk, but the French officers cruelly ignore him. The sick man dies while trying to walk, which infuriates the prisoners.
The prisoners are disturbed by the extent to which Moscow has been destroyed. Pierre laughs at the absurdity of the situation.
Napoleon sends a letter of surrender to General Kutuzov. Just as the letter arrives, the Russians see an opportunity to destroy a French regiment. Kutuzov doesn’t want to attack since the French have already surrendered, but the other generals convince him to attack with a small detachment. Tolstoy praises the actions of Dokhturov, the leader of the detachment, who delays the attack by sending a messenger to Kutuzov to tell him that the French have retreated from Moscow.
Dokhturov’s messenger arrives at Kutuzov’s camp and informs the lower officers of France’s retreat.
Kutuzov is relieved when he hears of the French retreat and orders the troops not to attack the enemy unless it is necessary.
The French realize that the war is lost and retreat as quickly as possible.
Many Russian officers believe the French are not retreating quickly enough and want to attack them. Kutuzov prevents them from doing so.
Tolstoy temporarily leaves most of his main characters in this section to describe the endgame of the 1812 war. His account focuses heavily on both sides’ tactical successes and failures – from maneuvers in battle to how they handled occupied territory. Before the French surrender, Pierre’s brush with execution becomes a cutting satire of French bureaucracy, which functions so badly that Pierre is nearly executed simply because a general was interrupted while he was deciding Pierre’s sentence.
However, the Russians also become objects of Tolstoy’s critique. He depicts disorganization and a lack of professionalism on both sides. On the Russian side, examples of this include Kutuzov’s lost disposition and the soldiers’ carousing before the battle of Tarutino. As Tolstoy explains, “No battle––Tarutino, Borodino, Austerlitz––comes off the way its organizers supposed. That is an essential condition” (1000). This belief obviously echoes his oft-repeated philosophy of history.
Likewise, the French failures are not limited to their ineffective bureaucracy. “Since the battle of Borodino and the looting of Moscow,” Tolstoy writes, “[the French army] had borne within itself, as it were, the chemical conditions of its decomposition” (1027). Napoleon and his generals seem to have good intentions – they order their men not to loot and treat the Russians they meet respectfully. However, the privation and lack of discipline in the French army means that the foot soldiers eagerly and violently loot Moscow at their first opportunity.
Throughout his war chapters, Tolstoy implicates fear and deprivation as sources of human cruelty. The French soldiers are at their most heartless when they are marching the prisoners out of Moscow. This behavior is easily explained by the fact that the soldiers have been living in increasingly miserable conditions and now must retreat as fast as they can or be killed. Likewise, Pierre tries to kill Dolokhov earlier in the novel because of the primal fear the duel inspires in him.
Despite his mostly scathing critique of how the war’s endgame was handled, Tolstoy also includes vignettes of fundamental human kindness, continuing a motif that has cropped up throughout the novel. The French general Davout is infamous for his cruelty, but Pierre only has to look him in the eye to connect with him on a basic human level and arouse the man’s empathy. Likewise, the prisoners develop camaraderie despite their squalid living conditions, and Pierre becomes a better person through his relationship with the working-class soldier Platon Karataev.
The one main plot that is furthered here is that of Pierre, who now willingly engages in the life around him. Where he once avoided society, drowning himself in drink and women when he had to live within it, he now relishes the society he has. The fact that conditions are miserable is not lost on him, but instead, seems to engender a deeper appreciation for life itself. Simplicity is a virtue Pierre has sought throughout the novel but rarely finds - he usually ends up returning to his licentious ways, or committing to strange rituals like those of the Masons. Here, he has found a serenity in simplicity.