Page 56. " Monsieur Pitt comme traître à la nation "

 'Mr Pitt, as a traitor of the nation'

William Pitt the Younger (1759–1806) was Britain's Prime Minister at this time. The second son of Pitt the Elder, who was Prime Minister from 1766–1768, the second Pitt was the youngest Prime Minister Britain has had to this day, rising to the position at the age of only twenty four. He held this position twice: once from 1783–1801 and then again from 1804 until his death in 1806, shortly after the Battle of Austerlitz.

Pitt the Younger governed Britain's recovery following the American War of Independence. He was an important supporter of the abolition of the slave trade, and a determined enemy of Napoleon. Pierre is, at this time, a fervent admirer of Napoleon, so Pitt is nothing more than a traitor in his eyes.

Page 60. " the thousand rubles I paid for Taras "

  From the end of the sixteenth century until 1861, vast numbers of Russian peasants were classed as serfs - in other words, slaves tied to the land, who could be bought, sold or gambled away as part of the estates of their landowners. By the beginning of the nineteenth century an estimated 50% of Russian peasants were serfs; the system underpinned Russia's stagnant agricultural economy. Although they were most often bought and sold along with the land to which they were bonded, skilled serfs could also be sold individually, as here with Taras. For centuries, periodic peasant-led rebellions broke out against the system, the most famous of which being those led by Stenka Razin (1667-71) and Yemelyan Pugachev (1773–1775). Despite this, the system persisted, held in place by powerful, aristocratic landowners and indifferent or reactionary tsars. It was finally abolished by Alexander II (grandson of Alexander I) by means of the Emancipation Act of 1861.

In a burst of liberal enthusiasm in 1856 Tolstoy began talks with his own serfs, offering to free them and give them land in exchange for compensation. However Tolstoy's peasants believed they would soon be granted unconditional land and freedom, so they refused to go along with his ideas. Tolstoy was troubled that landowners such as himself would not be properly compensated if the serfs were emancipated, and irritated by his own serfs' suspicious attitudes. The ambiguity in his portrayal of serfs - partly as the only authentic Russians, partly as backward and close-minded - reflects this incident.

The issue of serfdom appears in many works by nineteenth century Russian writers, most famously in Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol's Dead Souls. Tolstoy's most interesting treatment of this subject is arguably his 1895 story Master and Man, which can be read online here.

Unfortunately slave labour still exists in Russia today, as it does in many other parts of the world, including England. In February 2009 Human Rights Watch issued a report on the abuses of migrant workers in Russia, many of whom are tricked by 'employment agencies' who confiscate their passports and force them into unpaid manual labour or prostitution.

Page 63. " expecting the summons to zakuski "

Zakuski, 'little bites', make up the first course of any Russian meal, and are the typical accompaniment when drinking vodka and other spirits. They consist of a range of tempting savoury snacks from pickled mushrooms, beetroot and other vegetables, to caviar, smoked fish, cured sausages, and cheese.

Page 64. " how's my Cossack? "

 The Cossacks come from the south-west region of Russia and modern Ukraine, especially from regions around the rivers Don, Dneiper and Volga. Their culture and history was separate to that of Russia as a whole. Swearing allegiance only to the tsar, the Cossacks were fiercely independent, and considered wild and warlike by European Russia. They were valued in the Russian army as exceptional cavalry men.

Tolstoy wrote a brilliantly evocative novella called The Cossacks (published 1863) which is set in a Cossack village in the Caucasus. Read it online here.

Page 67. " Suvorov now - he knew what he was about "

 Count Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov (1729-1800) was a great military general who served under Catherine the Great. He is said never to have lost a battle, although that is now debated. In his youth, Suvorov learned to speak four languages and studied military history; he later published his own manual, The Science of Victory.

As well as fighting in Russia's wars against the Ottoman Empire, Prussia and Poland, Suvorov took part in the suppression of the Pugachev Rebellion of 1775. After the ascension of Tsar Paul I, Suvorov retired in disgrace, only to return to fight the French Revolutionary armies in Italy in 1799. His triumphs in this war led him to become the fourth generalissimo of the Russian Army, an honour not bestowed to anyone for many hundreds of years, although Paul I's suspicions towards Suvorov led to the cancellation of further honours. Suvorov has long been considered a great military hero in Russia.

There is a Suvorov Museum in St Petersburg.

Page 75. " à Moscou on se croit à la campagne "

 'In Moscow one feels as if one were in the country.'

Moscow was the capital of Russia from the late fifteenth century until 1703, when Peter the Great moved his court to the newly-constructed St Petersburg. Even after it fell from power, as the historical capital Moscow always held a special place in Russian hearts. Whereas St Petersburg was designed to be a modern, Western city (Peter's "window on Europe") Moscow was always seen as more traditionally Russian, the spiritual heart of the country. Tolstoy much preferred Moscow to St Petersburg. His most sympathetic characters, such as the Rostovs, all feel more at home there. Moscow is traditionally portrayed as having a more relaxed, rural, informal atmosphere than formal, urban St Petersburg.

In 1918, under the Bolsheviks, Moscow became the capital of Russia again.