Tolstoy’s characterization of Napoleon as lawless brigand (Putin)

One of Leo Tolstoy’s characteristic beliefs about history in War and Peace is the idiocy of the notion of “great men” who make history. In this light his characterization of Napoleon as a lawless, aimless, and murderous brigand is revealing. And his description is oddly striking when we consider the current world’s tinpot Napoleon seeking dominion over a European country — Vladimir Putin. This extended passage is taken from the first epilogue of War and Peace. I will simply highlight the passages that seem apt today in application to Putin. 

A man without convictions, without habits, without traditions, without a name, and not even a Frenchman, emerges—by what seem the strangest chances—from among all the seething French parties, and without joining any one of them is borne forward to a prominent position. 

The ignorance of his colleagues, the weakness and insignificance of his opponents, the frankness of his falsehoods, and the dazzling and self-confident limitations of this man raise him to the head of the army. The brilliant qualities of the soldiers of the army sent to Italy, his opponents’ reluctance to fight, and his own childish audacity and self-confidence secure him military fame. Innumerable so called chances accompany him everywhere. The disfavor into which he falls with the rulers of France turns to his advantage. His attempts to avoid his predestined path are unsuccessful: he is not received into the Russian service, and the appointment he seeks in Turkey comes to nothing. During the war in Italy he is several times on the verge of destruction and each time is saved in an unexpected manner. Owing to various diplomatic considerations the Russian armies—just those which might have destroyed his prestige—do not appear upon the scene till he is no longer there. 

On his return from Italy he finds the government in Paris in a process of dissolution in which all those who are in it are inevitably wiped out and destroyed. And by chance an escape from this dangerous position presents itself in the form of an aimless and senseless expedition to Africa. Again so-called chance accompanies him. Impregnable Malta surrenders without a shot; his most reckless schemes are crowned with success. The enemy’s fleet, which subsequently did not let a single boat pass, allows his entire army to elude it. In Africa a whole series of outrages are committed against the almost unarmed inhabitants. And the men who commit these crimes, especially their leader, assure themselves that this is admirable, this is glory—it resembles Caesar and Alexander the Great and is therefore good. 

This ideal of glory and grandeur—which consists not merely in considering nothing wrong that one does but in priding oneself on every crime one commits, ascribing to it an incomprehensible supernatural significance—that ideal, destined to guide this man and his associates, had scope for its development in Africa. Whatever he does succeeds. The plague does not touch him. The cruelty of murdering prisoners is not imputed to him as a fault. His childishly rash, uncalled-for, and ignoble departure from Africa, leaving his comrades in distress, is set down to his credit, and again the enemy’s fleet twice lets him slip past. When, intoxicated by the crimes he has committed so successfully, he reaches Paris, the dissolution of the republican government, which a year earlier might have ruined him, has reached its extreme limit, and his presence there now as a newcomer free from party entanglements can only serve to exalt him—and though he himself has no plan, he is quite ready for his new role. 

He had no plan, he was afraid of everything, but the parties snatched at him and demanded his participation. 

He alone—with his ideal of glory and grandeur developed in Italy and Egypt, his insane self-adulation, his boldness in crime and frankness in lying—he alone could justify what had to be done. 

He is needed for the place that awaits him, and so almost apart from his will and despite his indecision, his lack of a plan, and all his mistakes, he is drawn into a conspiracy that aims at seizing power and the conspiracy is crowned with success.

He is pushed into a meeting of the legislature. In alarm he wishes to flee, considering himself lost. He pretends to fall into a swoon and says senseless things that should have ruined him. But the once proud and shrewd rulers of France, feeling that their part is played out, are even more bewildered than he, and do not say the words they should have said to destroy him and retain their power. 

Chance, millions of chances, give him power, and all men as if by agreement co-operate to confirm that power. Chance forms the characters of the rulers of France, who submit to him; chance forms the character of Paul I of Russia who recognizes his government; chance contrives a plot against him which not only fails to harm him but confirms his power. Chance puts the Duc d’Enghien in his hands and unexpectedly causes him to kill him—thereby convincing the mob more forcibly than in any other way that he had the right, since he had the might. Chance contrives that though he directs all his efforts to prepare an expedition against England (which would inevitably have ruined him) he never carries out that intention, but unexpectedly falls upon Mack and the Austrians, who surrender without a battle. Chance and genius give him the victory at Austerlitz; and by chance all men, not only the French but all Europe—except England which does not take part in the events about to happen—despite their former horror and detestation of his crimes, now recognize his authority, the title he has given himself, and his ideal of grandeur and glory, which seems excellent and reasonable to them all.

Paris, the ultimate goal, is reached. The Napoleonic government and army are destroyed. Napoleon himself is no longer of any account; all his actions are evidently pitiful and mean, but again an inexplicable chance occurs. The allies detest Napoleon whom they regard as the cause of their sufferings. Deprived of power and authority, his crimes and his craft exposed, he should have appeared to them what he appeared ten years previously and one year later—an outlawed brigand. But by some strange chance no one perceives this. His part is not yet ended. The man who ten years before and a year later was considered an outlawed brigand is sent to an island two days’ sail from France, which for some reason is presented to him as his dominion, and guards are given to him and millions of money are paid him.

Napoleon, according to Tolstoy’s telling, was a lying, opportunistic, amoral, and phenomenally lucky tyrant who by massive misadventure was empowered to play a role in producing continent-wide mayhem. He was not a strategic and tactical genius, manipulating the pieces on the face of Europe like a chess grand master, but more like an Inspector Clouseau bumbling through a collapsing building and miraculously avoiding destruction. And this sounds a great deal like Vladimir Putin, except Putin has an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

But perhaps the comparison to Napoleon — even Tolstoy’s amoral, bumbling outlaw Napoleon — does not quite hit the mark. The better comparison is to one of Putin’s most important role models, Joseph Stalin, in his conduct of the war against Germany. Stalin was a murderer without scruples — like Putin — and was responsible for the massacre at Katyn Forest of over 20,000 Polish officers and prisoners of war at the hands of the NKVD — the very Soviet secret police organization that eventually became Putin’s training ground as a KGB officer. It now seems likely that the innocent civilians killed in Ukraine exceeds the number of murders at Katyn Forest in 1940. Putin’s war crimes begin to approach the magnitude of those committed by Stalin. And Stalin presents an apt comparison to Putin in another way as well: Stalin’s mismanagement of military strategy was a great disaster for the Red Army in 1941 and 1942, leading to massive unnecessary deaths and encircled armies. Eighty years later, Putin’s misperceptions of the determination and strength of his foe have led to similar military disasters.

What will it take for the Russian people to remove this dangerous, murderous, and isolated zealot from power?

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