Henri Troyat: Tolstoy’s visceral detestation of war
From Tolstoi (1965)
Translated by Nancy Amphoux
At the sight of Napoleon’s tomb, he was seized with indignation…How could a people who claimed to be peace-loving, freedom-loving and reason-loving dedicate this haughty sarcophagus in red porphyry to a man who had drenched all Europe in blood? “This idealization of a malefactor is shameful,” he thought. He scowled furiously at the names of the victories carved in the walls of the crypts…He left in a rage, and the sight of two old disabled veterans sunning themselves in the courtyard merely fanned the flames of his wrath. That evening the man who had once sung hymns to the bravery of the Crimean troops – whatever their nationality – wrote of these cock-hatted and medallioned derelicts, “They are nothing but soldiers, animals trained to bite. They should be left to starve to death. As for their torn-off legs – serves them right!”
While the final chapters of Anna Karenina were being published, the public was badly shaken by news of the uprising of the Serbs and Montenegrins against the Turks. Could the Czar turn a deaf ear to this, could be abandon his traditional role of protector of the faithful in the Balkans? Aroused by the journalists’ call to arms, scores of Russians volunteered to serve under General Chernayev and defend their “little Slavic brothers.” Collections for the downtrodden rebels were taken up at church doors. The officers of the guards had visions of a short military tour through the land of the miscreants, complete with distributions of the St. George Cross. Tolstoy, who was writing the Epilogue to Anna Karenina, dared to express his disapproval through the mouth of his hero Levin, who said the volunteers for the front were “misguided…hotheads,” always itching for a fight on the first pretext that came along; nothing could be more scandalous than these ladies in sable capes and trains behind their dresses going to extort money out of the peasants, when their total collection amounts to less than the price of their train”; he even proclaimed that “the good of society is dependent on scrupulous obedience to of the moral law engraved in every human heart” and that “no one, therefore, should desire or advocate war, whatever generous aim it purports to serve.”
The quelling of the Philippine uprising by the United States, and the British expeditions against the Boers in the Transvaal shocked his sense of justice. “They are horrible, these wars that the English and Americans are waging in a world in which even schoolchildren condemn war!” he wrote.