At the beginning of the nineteenth century Russia was a backward-looking, reactionary state with a stagnant agricultural economy. Russian society was divided into a tiny aristocratic class and millions of deprived, oppressed peasants, with very little in between. The great cultural achievements of the nineteenth century had yet to begin: Pushkin's great poem Eugene Onegin, which is credited with kick-starting Russian literature, was not published until 1825. Although the eighteenth century rulers Peter the Great and Catherine the (also) Great brought about some modernisation, Russia's reliance upon serfdom, and its reluctance to consider serious political reform, meant that the country was largely left out of the great industrial, political and philosophical revolutions of the previous century. A sense of cultural inferiority led intellectuals to focus on studying and imitating European literature, culture and philosophy, at the expense of their own native culture.
After Catherine the Great's death, her unpopular son Paul I ascended to the throne, reigning from 1796-1801. During this time, Napoleon seized power in post-Revolutionary France and began his campaign to dominate Europe. Tsar Paul I opposed France in the War of the Second Coalition, although he eventually signed a peace treaty in 1800. This made Paul even more unpopular, and he was assassinated the following year.
The murdered tsar's son, Alexander I, may have been involved in planning his father's death. He was his grandmother Catherine the Great's favourite, and had been brought up by her, educated in Enlightenment thought. The start of his reign seemed to promise the great social reforms Russia so urgently needed; yet, over time, this hope evaporated as Alexander delayed and vacillated over making any serious changes. He was, however, shown to be a talented diplomat as the Napoleonic Wars continued.
In 1805 Napoleon realised that his plan to invade Britain was doomed, given the supremacy of the British Navy, and he turned his attention to Eastern Europe instead, invading Austria and what is now Germany and the Czech Republic. This stirred Russia back into action, and marks the point when the events of War and Peace begin.
The Russian army met the French at the Battle of Austerlitz, which resulted in a resounding victory for the French. Napoleon, having subdued most of Continental Europe, forced Russia to peace at the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807. The two countries became uneasy allies until 1812, when Napoleon decided to invade Russia, catching Alexander I unawares.
As Napoleon invaded the Russian army steadily withdrew, trying to avoid engaging the larger force. Eventually they met at the extremely bloody Battle of Borodino. Although the battle was inconclusive, the French were able to press on to capture Moscow, Russia's historical capital. Napoleon thought this would force Alexander I to come to terms, but the Russians refused to surrender. Napoleon's overstretched army eventually had no option but to retreat back along the route they had already taken. It was the beginning of winter, and the army had run out of supplies, making their retreat a particularly deadly one. More than 300,000 French soldiers died in the winter of 1812.
The remnants of Napoleon's army were chased back to France, where Napoleon was defeated and exiled to Elba. He returned briefly for a period known as the Hundred Days, only to be defeated once more at the Battle of Waterloo and re-exiled to the far more distant island of St Helena, where he died in 1821.
The Napoleonic Wars had a huge impact on Russian society. Russia's triumph over Napoleon led to a surge of nationalist feeling, but the experience of soldiers serving in the army abroad revealed how backward their country had become in comparison to the rest of Europe, further increasing the desire for reform. This came to a head after Alexander I's death in 1825, in the form of the Decembrist Uprising, the event Tolstoy originally planned to be at the heart of his novel. Alexander's successor, Nicholas I, swiftly put a stop to the uprising and exiled the rebels to Siberia.
Although War and Peace is set earlier in the nineteenth century, it is worth bearing in mind the events of the latter half of the nineteenth century, as Tolstoy's own era is inevitably reflected in his writing.
The novel was written during the 1860s, a time of momentous social change in Russia. From the 1830s onwards, the country began to produce world-class artists, writers and composers. The so-called Golden Age of Russian Literature began with Alexander Pushkin and continued with Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Gogol, Nikolai Leskov, Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Goncharov, Anton Chekhov and the two most widely-read Russian novelists, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. In music, the nineteenth century produced Mikhail Glinka, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, among others. Although Russian art of this time is less well known, it also flourished towards the end of the century in realist artists such as Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin, Ivan Kramskoi and Isaac Levitan.
But the single most important event of nineteenth century Russia was the Emancipation of the Serfs, which took place in 1861 under Tsar Alexander II. Alexander II's declaration had an enormous impact on Russian society, freeing the vast majority of Russia's population from bonded labour, stimulating the industrial economy, allowing migration from the country to towns and cities, and bringing an end to the aristocracy's overwhelming power. The tsar also instituted education reforms and relaxed censorship laws, leading to a flowering of public debate and political literature. These reforms were meant as concessions to the growing clamour for political change that was beginning to destabilise Russian society in the second half of the nineteenth century. Yet relaxed censorship and an increasingly literate population only served to stir up calls for more radical revolution, and Alexander II was assassinated by a bomb blast in 1881. His death ushered in a new period of repression under Alexander III and Nicholas II, the last of the Russian tsars.
Tolstoy himself lived to see the beginning of the end of tsarist Russia. The first revolution occurred in 1905, five years before his death.
From 1712 to 1917, Moscow saw its position as Russia's capital city usurped by St Petersburg. Despite this, the city remained the historical heart of Russia.
Founded on the banks of the Moskva River some time before the twelth century, Moscow was first capital to the Grand Duchy of Moscow, before this state expanded to become the Russian Empire. The city's famous Kremlin dates from 1156, when it was first built out of wood. Over the centuries the city has been sacked by the Tatars, the Mongols, the Swedish, the Polish-Lithuanian army and, of course, the French under Napoleon, when the Great Fire destroyed the majority of the city's historic wooden architecture; modern Moscow was created during the reconstruction after Napoleon's defeat.
Unlike St Petersburg, which was built as a modern, Western European city, nineteenth-century Moscow was seen as authentically Russian: a comfortable, homely place, more relaxed than the formal capital, but also more insular and backward-looking.
St Petersburg was the creation of one man, Peter the Great (1672-1725), who founded the city at the beginning of the eighteenth century on land newly conquered from Sweden. He wanted to create a 'window on Europe', a new capital city symbolising his aim to change Russia from a medieval country steeped in tradition to a modern, European superpower. It was Russia's capital from 1712-1917.
The city was built with forced labour, using tens of thousands of serfs, many of whom died in the process. Its location on marshy land on the River Neva meant that it was prone to catastrophic floods. These facts gave the city a sinister reputation, one best evoked in Pushkin's poem The Bronze Horseman, in which the famous statue of Peter the Great comes alive during a flood and terrorises the city's inhabitants. (Read it online here.) At the same time, in the nineteenth century St Petersburg was the city to which writers and artists flocked in search of inspiration. Tolstoy, however, fell out with the literary scene in St Petersburg during his youth and saw the city as shallow and inauthentic; he preferred Moscow, although as he got older he grew increasingly unhappy in any city environment.
Russian names often seem confusing. Typically, Russians have three names: a first name, a patronymic (father's name) and a surname. Thus, in War and Peace, we have Nikolai Ilyich Rostov, after his father Ilya, and his sister is Natasha Ilyinichna Rostov. Likewise, under this system, the ex-U.S. president George W. Bush would be known as George Georgievich Bush. Depending on how well you know someone, you might address them just by their first name (informally) or by their first name and patronymic (more formally).
To confuse matters, among friends and family Russians often employ diminutive versions of names. Natasha is itself a diminutive form of Natalya. Nikolai could be known as Kolya or Nikolenka; George W. Bush, if he was Russian, could be called Gosha or Goga. The current Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, might be called Volodya or Vova by his family. See here for more on Russian names and their diminutives.
Russian also employs a different alphabet to the Latin script I am using right now, meaning that names must be transliterated from Cyrillic to Latin or else translated into their English equivalents. Thus, in some translations of Tolstoy, Nikolai Rostov becomes Nicholas Rostov, and Prince Andrei, rather horrifyingly, becomes Prince Andrew. If transliterated properly Leo Tolstoy should be Lev Tolstoi, but the former has been in use for so long it has become standard.