Page 628. " first we have to sit down "

In Russia it is traditional for everyone to sit for a moment before embarking on a journey. Both the travellers and those staying behind sit for a short while in silence just before the moment of departure. Some people say that the custom is intended to cheat evil spirits into thinking that the travellers will be staying at home; others suggest that it is simply a moment to remember any forgotten items before leaving the house. It has also been suggested that the tradition comes from the time of the Golden Horde, when the Mongols ruled Russia: as a nomadic people they would frequently travel and developed certain rituals which have been transmitted to the Russians.

Page 644. " the enormous and brilliant comet "


The Great Comet of 1811 by William Henry Smyth
Public DomainThe Great Comet of 1811 by William Henry Smyth

 This was the Great Comet of 1811, which could still be seen in the night sky in 1812. First discovered by Honoré Flaugergues, it was visible to the naked eye for 260 days, making it the second most visible comet after Hale-Bopp in 1997. Its association with Napoleon's invasion of Russia led to it being known as 'Napoleon's Comet'. Its scientific designation is the slightly less catchy 'C/1811 F1'.

This comet's appearance marks a slight problem in Tolstoy's timeline: he accidentally left out 1811. Natasha's engagement to Prince Andrei spans 1810, up until Anatole's appearance at the 'end of January' 1811. The crisis happens over about ten days, taking them to mid-February by the time Pierre becomes involved. Pierre notices the appearance of the Great Comet in the sky above Moscow, pinning him to February 1812, although he has just come from comforting Natasha in 1811, earlier that same evening.

Page 644. " the end of the world "
Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov
Public DomainRussian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov
 The end of the world is a common theme in Russian literature and philosophy. From about the fifteenth century (the time of the Mongol invasion) onwards, Russia underwent bouts of believing that the apocalypse was imminent. The belief was widespread among Russian peasants at times of crisis, influencing the way Russians thought about philosophy and their own national identity. The invasion of Napoleon led to a resurgence of these eschatological ('orientated towards the end of time') preoccupations. When the world failed to end at this time, eschatological feelings subsided, only to build up once more towards the end of the nineteenth century towards the time of the Russian Revolutions.

Though it sounds counterintuitive, the apocalypse can actually present itself as a comforting thought in times of stress. Peasants who found themselves threatened by the invasion of a foreign power, or simply oppressed by their own autocratic government, looked to the end of the world as a time of redemption of their suffering and of revenge against their oppressors. It was a sign of the enormous powerlessness felt by the people of Russia that they felt change could only come in such a dramatic way.

Examples of eschatological Russian philosophy can be found in the work of Sergei Bulgakov, Nikolai Fyodorov, and Vladimir Solovyov.

Page 647. " the non-observance of the Continental System "

The Continental System was Napoleon's attempt to cut off Great Britain from the rest of the world by imposing a strict trade embargo on countries within France's sphere of influence. However, Britain's dominance over the seas meant that the embargo was impossible to enforce.

Page 647. " on the island of St Helena "
Napoleon in Saint Helena by Francois-Joseph Sandmann
Public DomainNapoleon in Saint Helena by Francois-Joseph Sandmann

 The island of St Helena lies in the South Atlantic Ocean, 1,870 km west of Africa. It is one of the most isolated islands in the world, and was uninhabited until its discovery by Portugal in 1502. Napoleon was exiled here after his final defeat in 1815. He was put in the charge of Hudson Lowe, who has been criticised by historians for his poor treatment of the former emperor.

Napoleon's residence on St Helena, Longwood House, is currently the subject of a joint Anglo-French preservation campaign, as the house is in urgent need of restoration. See here for more information on how to donate to the campaign.

Page 649. " we are forced to fall back on fatalism "
Frederick Nietzsche in 1882
Public DomainFrederick Nietzsche in 1882

 Fatalism is a commonly-held philosophy in Russia. People believed that fate ruled their lives, and that individuals are powerless to change their destiny. It is thought that this widespread belief stemmed from serfdom, which denied people control over their lives; rather than struggle against this lack of control, many Russians adopted a fatalistic attitude towards it instead.

The German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche argued that Russian fatalism was a form of survival tactic that helped individuals to face difficult circumstances by becoming passive towards them. However, this passivity means that people do not attempt to change their circumstances, no matter how hard they became.