Vladimir Putin’s favorite book

Vladimir Putin’s favorite book

The foreign affairs content of Vladimir Putin’s latest “Direct Line” annual live broadcast of Q&A with the general public was notable for more than his dismissing the possibility of World War III being ignited by the confrontation of Russian and British forces in territorial waters off the Crimean coast several days previous, about which I published my commentary yesterday.

The additional gems, which my peers in East and West seem to have overlooked came later in the program and in a wholly different context, when the Iron Man lifted his protective gear and gave us a rare look into his soul, which is quite broad in the positive, Russian understanding of that concept. He was asked about how he spends his free time and he said that on weekends he is just another Russian guy who enjoys a  tipple and loves to sing Russian songs together with his friends.  He also was asked to name his favorite novel and he did not pause for a moment before answering War and Peace by Tolstoy. Now that was a revelation worthy of all our residual Kremlinologist talent and experience.

There is vastly more to War and Peace than the romance between Natasha and Andrei which is the key element adored by successive generations of teenage girls everywhere or than the carefully built cinematic structure of unfolding scenes which facilitated the novel’s transposition into films made in Moscow and in Hollywood that won over still broader audiences around the globe.

War and Peace was used by its author to set out his thoughts about the broad sweep of history, about the driving forces and causality, about great men in history and the role of the masses. He did this not only in asides planted within the narrative but also in a lengthy Epilogue consisting of philosophical musings. Indeed, historiographical analysis was so invasive that literary critics of his day questioned whether War and Peace was a novel or something else.

I have written about these issues extensively in one of my most successful, and I believe, enduring political essays:  https://gilbertdoctorow.com/2019/01/27/war-and-peace-the-relevance-of-1812-as-explained-by-tolstoy-to-current-global-affairs/

Since study of causality has always been one of my own passions that I indulged by pursuing a doctorate in history, in reading War and Peace I considered very closely Tolstoy’s pronouncements such as his insistence that the war of 1812 was much more than a French invasion made in the name of Revolutionary principles to bring down the ancien régime of which Russia and its tsar Alexander I was a key bulwark.  Tolstoy reminds us that by its composition, the Grande Armée was a mass movement of the whole of Europe to the East, to Russia to engage in acts that in ordinary times are properly called out as counterfeiting money, murder and pillage. Aside from the well-known and substantial Polish contingent which was fighting for its national liberation, Napoleon’s soldiers included a great many volunteers from among Germans and other West European peoples.

Tolstoy went on to say that the realization of the invasion came about not because of directions of one man, Napoleon Bonaparte, but because of the willing participation of every last man at the bottom of society, both those in the army proper and those on the home front who supported them. It came about because every noncommissioned officer under Napoleon had re-enlisted when his time in service was fulfilled and had done so willingly. And their motivation was booty, the spoils of war.

When I read Tolstoy, this very point seemed questionable.  However, two days ago, I had to revise my judgment entirely when I visited the ongoing exhibition in the South Belgian city of Liege marking two hundred years from the death of Napoleon entitled “Going Beyond the Myth.”

The curators of this exhibition did not show much daring in their attempt to go “beyond the myth” surrounding Napoleon. However, in some small details which were included, whether wittingly or by negligence, they fully answered my doubts about Tolstoy’s identification of the motivation of those marching on Moscow in 1812.  In particular, I was struck by the remarks of the curators about Napoleon’s extraordinary rapport with ordinary soldiers under his command which explains the valor and success they enjoyed in combat. The curators tell us that just before one of the major battles Napoleon addressed his troops thus: “Our stores of supplies are empty. The enemy’s stores are full.  Go do what must be done!”

And then, in another room displaying the uniforms and equipment of foot soldiers in Napoleon’s army we are shown a typical back pack carried by every soldier and weighing 25 kilograms. This held alongside two spare pairs of footwear and heavy undergarments a container for war booty.  We are told that as that booty expanded in the course of a campaign the soldiers jettisoned the underwear to make room for more precious possessions.

And so, there you have it: Napoleon’s armies were motivated by spoils of war. The indiscipline that raged among them during the occupation of Moscow when Napoleon’s troops engaged freely in marauding led ultimately to his defeat and to the massive loss of life among his soldiers on the retreat.

It is one very small step from the vision of geopolitics that Tolstoy sets out in War and Peace to the present day concerns of the Kremlin over the new Grande Armée represented by NATO and poised to march East at any moment. The prominence of the Poles today among agitators and constituents of the anti-Russian hordes is just a cherry on the cake. It is one small step from the brigands of Tolstoy’s 1812 to those who would, as Putin said recently, like to take a bite out of Russia’s territorial vastness which they claim is too much for one country to possess. He went on to say that anyone who tries to take a bite now will have his teeth knocked out.

Continuity in historical trends is a theme which comes up in a recently published paper co-authored by one of America’s best known experts on Russia, Eugene Rumer, under the imprimatur of one of the country’s most highly regarded think tanks, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:  “Grand Illusions: The Impact of Misperceptions About Russia on U.S. Policy.”

To sum up their thinking in a nutshell:  “America is Back” – Good; “Russia is Back” – Bad. 

The Kremlin’s concern over national security, over loss of strategic depth essential to that security due to the eastward advance of NATO to its borders is all a matter of “perception” in the view of Rumer and his co-author, Richard Sokolsky. They tell us it is regrettable that American policy planners were so overwhelmed by hubris after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 and so struck by the economic and political shambles that Russia became as that decade proceeded that they could not imagine Russia returning to the table of great powers and took decisions according NATO membership to former Warsaw Pact member states and even former republics of the Soviet Union under terms that were unwise, as we see today. However, Messrs Rumer and Sokolsky lack the vision or, more likely, just the courage to say that these new Member States never should have been invited into NATO because their presence subtracts from rather than adds to the collective security of the Atlantic Alliance. Such frankness would not win them plaudits for speaking truth to power.

So long as Vladimir Putin and his entourage have Tolstoy’s War and Peace on their night table, the Collective West will do well to put aside any thoughts that Russian policy is the arbitrary result of decisions taken by one man only in an authoritarian regime. Russian policy is taken on the basis of the collective memory of a 145 million strong nation whose guard is up and whose perceptions of threat are razor sharp.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021