On February 23, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the final day of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the most expensive winter games to date and the first hosted by an Eastern-bloc country since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Amid the fanfare and the flag-waving, the Russian leader’s attention was likely elsewhere—across the Black Sea, on the Crimean peninsula. Just hours before the start of the closing ceremony, Putin had decided to invade the Ukrainian territory. One can almost picture him in the early hours after dawn, eyes fixed on a map of Crimea—a world-historical actor deciding precisely how to shape the course of events.
The tableau invites comparison with a scene from War and Peace. In his celebrated epic about Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, Leo Tolstoy portrays Bonaparte on a hill, looking down at Moscow. The empereur des Français envisions rebuilding the Russian capital as a western European city—replacing its onion domes with Enlightenment temples and refashioning its Slavic culture after his own. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Napoleon (like Putin after him) wanted to construct his own international order. To that end, he crossed into Russian territory uninvited, beginning a bloody and unnecessary war that ended with Russian troops in Paris.
Putin’s annexation of Crimea hardly measures up. And yet contained in the pages of Tolstoy’s nineteenth-century novel is a premonition of Russia’s current, conflicted relationship with the West. One hundred and fifty years after publication, War and Peace still sheds light on the tensions that structure Moscow’s relations with other great powers and in particular with the United States.
Tolstoy opens his novel in 1805. The Russia he describes is calm and self-confident, sure of itself as a military power and still untempted by the revolutionary excitement that had recently boiled over in France. But the Russia of 1805 is also riven by inequality. If the peasants and aristocrats in Tsar Alexander I’s vast empire are all in
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