Grab a cup of coffee and pull up a chair. This review is going to be long, but not as long as the approximately 1,600 page book.
One of my professors from UW often said that Leo Tolstoy wrote War and Peace to explain the Decembrist Revolution of 1825 (not the band, but the event the band named itself for). Therefore, before I begin to discuss the book, I'm going to start with a history lesson (Yay!). All historical information and any further information you would like can be found in A History of Russia by Nicholas V. Riasanovsky (a classic).
Unlike many history lessons, this one will go backwards, for reasons that will be evident later. In December 1825 Tsar Alexander I died, leaving no legitimate heirs. It appeared to most of Russia (meaning those who were educated) that his younger brother, Constantine, would be declared Tsar. However, he had previously married a Polish aristocrat and renounced his rights to the throne. This was not widely known. It also meant that the youngest brother, Nicholas I, was declared Tsar in his place. When the new Tsar presented himself to the military, in order for them to swear allegiance to him, several officers began a riot, claiming that Nicholas had usurped the throne from his brother. At this time, officers in the military consisted of the aristocracy, well educated young men, many of whom had been to Western Europe. It was rumored that these young men convinced the regular soldiers to chant "For Constantine and a constitution." However, the simple soldiers reportedly thought that constitution was Constantine's wife. Needless to say, a few officers and confused soldiers a revolution does not make. Most of the elite society believed that the officers would receive lenient sentences. First, it was the beginning of his reign, and heavy punishment would show the new Tsar to lack mercy. Second, and most importantly, these young men were aristocrats and nobles, who were well educated, and whose families had supported the autocracy for centuries. Regardless, Nicholas I gave them heavy sentences and the story of the Decembrists and their wives riding through Russia on their way to Siberia inspired others who opposed the Tsar.
According to my professor, it was this event that Tolstoy was trying to explain. How could the best and brightest, those who personally benefitted from the autocracy, decide they wanted a constitution? The simple answer, according to my professor: the Napoleanic wars. Under the previous Tsar, Alexander I, Russia had first fought against Napolean (along with the rest of Europe), made peace with him, and then fought him again, when he actually invaded Russia in 1812. This is the story told in War and Peace. I looked for and expected to find, the story of how the Napoleonic wars created the Decembrists. However, I should add right here, I did not find it. Or rather, I kind of sorta found it in two pages at the very end of the book. Now, my professor is much more intelligent than me, but I do consider myself quite intelligent also. Therefore, if I was looking for this, and didn't find it, how are all the people not looking for it going to find it. I must conclude that if Tolstoy did indeed write War and Peace to explain the Decembrists, he failed.
War and Peace is considered, by many, to be the best novel ever written. In Russia, people argue over who is the best writer, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Now, I prefer Dostoevsky, but since Tolstoy is considered one of the greatest writers ever, I expected War and Peace to be a great story, highly readable, and that I would gain insight about the Napoleanic wars, Russian politics, Russian society and human nature. I did not. The book is divided into three volumes, of approximately 550 pages each. I felt that the first half of the book could adaquitely be summed up by reading Alexander Pushkins's Eugene Onegin, a much shorter story. The first half of War and Peace described the aristocratic scene, the love affairs, the intrigues, the nobility going broke and trying to broker advantageous marriages for their sons and daughters, the balls, the duels, the boredom, and only a small mix of politics. Although several of the characters are very well written, and you have to commend him for writing a story 1,600 pages long, it could have been much, much shorter.
Tolstoy actually praises himself for his description of the war, in the notes from the author. However, I felt his descriptions of the chaos, confusion, and futility of war could just as easily be gained by reading Red Badge of Courage or All Quiet on the Western Front. And again, both these books are much, much shorter than War and Peace.
However, I do not think the story, which is often fascinating, but quite longer than it needed to be, was not the reason Tolstoy wrote War and Peace. Throughout the book and in the Second Epilogue, Tolstoy delves into his philosophy of history. I believe this was his purpose in writing War and Peace. As these are by far the most boring part of the book, he probably felt he had to add a story to keep readers interested. In these sections, Tolstoy discusses history, the progress of history and so on. He argues about Great Man history (otherwise known as Dead White Man history). He argues about genius versus chance. He appropriates Hegel without naming him. He argues about whether or not God plays a role in history, whether we really have free will and whether history could progress without Napoleon and Alexander I. He discusses how history is written (political, cultural, by the victor). He was trying to figure out why men kill each other. Overall, he was trying to find the meaning of life, of history, of the world. This is his conclusion, "The activity of these people interested me only as an illustration of the law of predetermination which in my opinion guides history, and of that psychological law which compels a man who commits actions under the greatest compulsion, to supply in his imagination a whole series of retrospective reflections to prove his freedom to himself." This is not a bad lesson, only I didn't need to read 1,600 pages to get there. I already have my own theory of history.
Overall, I found War and Peace very disappointing. It is supposed to be the greatest book every written, by the greatest author ever born. Either I am too stupid to appreciate it, or too many people credit it with this title based on its length only. The story was good, but it was not worth the time of 1,600 pages. Perhaps I will pick it up in 30 years or so and will finally be illuminated, but for now, I remain firmly in Dostoevsky's corner and believe that the Napoleonic wars were the cause of the Decembrists, not because Tolstoy told me so, but because a very wise professor did.