How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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 some sense Russian, they are Russians apart. To make this point, Tolstoy has a number of his characters speak French rather than Russian. Nowhere is this truer than in the beginning of the novel. This section depicts two of the novel’s heroes, Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrey, in a St. Petersburg salon. These characters identify deeply with Napoleon. For Pierre, the French leader is an example of European liberty, a role model for Russians living amid tsarist despotism and sloth. For Prince Andrey, Napoleon is military excellence personified.
Throughout the novel, Tolstoy develops the contrast between Westernized Russians and their unpretentious, emphatically non-Western counterparts. Tolstoy’s central character, Natasha Rostova, is another of the novel’s European-oriented aristocrats. But she is also something else. In a famous scene, Rostova spontaneously dances to a Russian folk tune while visiting a relative who lives among peasants:
Here was a young countess, educated by a French émigré governess—where, when and how had she imbibed the spirit of that peasant dance along with the Russian air she breathed, and those movements which the pas de châle ought to have squeezed out of her long ago? But her movements and the spirit of them were truly Russian, inimitable, unteachable.
Tolstoy embeds Natasha’s story within a three-part tale of national awakening. Her betrayal by a handsome, Europeanized lover reflects the seductions of French culture. Her suffering anticipates the burning of Moscow by Napoleon. And her recovery and return home resemble Russia’s victory over France in 1812.
Pierre traces a similar journey. He evinces a deep admiration for Napoleon in 1805, but after experiencing war, Pierre changes his viewpoint. He wanders the Borodino battlefield, shedding his infatuation with the West and with the French Revolution. He befriends a Russian peasant, Platon Karataev, who gives him a robust education in Russian folkways. While the French occupy Moscow, the new Pierre sets out to kill Napoleon—so closely aligned has he become with the defense of Russia.
To compare the events of the nineteenth century with those of the twenty-first is in many ways absurd. No latter-day Napoleon descended on Moscow in 2014. In fact, it was Russia that invaded eastern Ukraine and swallowed up Crimea. And yet the world Tolstoy describes has a number of clear parallels with the present. Although Putin’s Russia harbors no aristocracy and no peasantry, it is once again a highly unequal society. And just as in tsarist Russia, the country’s elite devoted itself to imitating the West after the Soviet Union fell—learning English this time, rather than French; taking up Western ideas, especially with regard to economics; and assimilating American or western European styles of music, cuisine, dress, and education. In the twenty-first century, travel and study in the West are the marks of a wellborn Russian, just as they were for Tolstoy’s fictional creations Pierre and Prince Andrey.
If the similarities are palpable in times of peace, they are even clearer in times of war. Renewed tension with Europe and the United States has enabled Putin to turn away from the West, both politically and culturally. Just as once, Russia would dance the pas de châle no longer, now it would submit no longer to the liberal international order. Among the most important consequences of the Ukraine crisis has been the widening desire, in the Kremlin and in Russia at large, not just to deviate from the Western model but to supplant it with a Russian model. Nobody who had read War and Peace prior to 2014 should have been surprised by this turn of events.
This is not the first time since Napoleon’s day that conflict with the West brought Russia itself into focus. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the middle of World War II, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church. He later proclaimed the Russian people as the true heroes of the war, a status to which Russians remain attached, both at home and in the diaspora. Stalin’s efforts did much to promote an idea of authenticity and Russianness—over and against the internationalist rhetoric of socialism.
But the Soviet Union had a Soviet rather than a Westernized elite. And during the Soviet years, inequality was not the central issue of the day. In these and other respects, Putin governs a Russia that comes closer to the Westernizing tsarist autocracy of 1805 than to Stalin’s Soviet Union. The comparison can help explain what happened after 2014—when Russia again found itself in opposition to the West.
The United States and Europe responded to Russia’s annexation of Crimea by imposing sanctions on Moscow and attempting to isolate Russia internationally. Such measures may have deterred Russia from extending its military reach within Ukraine; they were a valid response to the crisis. But they also reinforced binary thinking in Russia. Putin invented a boogeyman West—and the West furnished some of the raw material for his caricature. An us-versus-them frame is the price the United States and Europe have paid for economic sanctions, which have so far elicited more defiance than submission from Russians. Russian countersanctions on European goods, for example, have fueled a revival of Russian cuisine and local foods.
Many Russians see themselves as inhabitants of an embattled civilization. The United States has reinforced that view by attempting to isolate the country internationally. In practice, the isolation has consisted of expelling Russia from the G-8 in 2014, minimizing high-level diplomatic meetings, and refusing to invite the Russian president to certain symbolic events, such as World War II commemorations. But efforts to sequester the country have backfired, insofar as they appear to stigmatize not only Putin’s government but all of Russia. The more Russia sees itself confronted with a binary choice—authenticity or Western rejection—the more an escalatory conflict acquires the aura of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What, then, are the lessons from Tolstoy’s time that can be applied to the present? In War and Peace, Tolstoy reflects on the wages of imitation and dissects Russia’s geopolitical culture, including its penchant for conflict with the West. This is a story that plays out again and again. Putin’s anti-Western foreign policy goes back at least to 2007, when the Russian president surprised the Munich Security Conference with his fiery condemnation of U.S. hegemony. Putin wanted to mark the arrival of a post-Soviet Russia at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. He achieved his goal—not through the games but rather through the Ukraine crisis, which forced Russia’s Western-leaning elites into internal or actual exile.
Western governments risk fueling the binary thinking that undergirds Putin’s rule—for example, by cheerleading civil society as the alternative to Putin’s regime, thus confusing internal Russian politics with outside Western interests. A more astute cultural diplomacy would subvert binaries by emphasizing the countless links between Russia and the West in music, dance, art, religion, architecture, cinema, and, of course, literature. Tolstoy, one might note, drew on the work of Henry David Thoreau in formulating his thoughts on pacifism and civil disobedience; in turn, Tolstoy’s novels indirectly influenced Martin Luther King’s doctrine of nonviolence.
The Natashas, Pierres, and Prince Andreys of today should not be forced to choose between a life led in English and the defense of the motherland. A viable Western approach to Russia is one that tries not to subdue or subsume Moscow but to promote Russia as a country at ease with itself and with the West.
CORRECTION APPENDED (September 16, 2019)
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Tolstoy wrote the first 40 pages of War and Peace in French. French sentences appear throughout the book, but the opening section is not entirely in French.