Summary and Analysis
Book XV: Chapters 4–11
Unable to restrain his troops, Kutuzov unwillingly fights at Vyazma and his troops race after the fleeing French with their pursuit exacting a terrible toll of men and horses. All Kutuzov wishes to do is to follow the enemy and"see them off," but his ambitious generals, anxious to distinguish themselves, order maneuvers and battles the men are not fit to carry out. The generals consider Kutuzov cowardly and incompetent and senile.
Kutuzov was the only leader who judged the events of the war accurately, Tolstoy reminds us. He persisted in calling Borodino a victory, recognized that losing Moscow did not mean losing Russia, and correctly assessed the driving power of his army's spirit. He exerted his powers as commander-in-chief not to kill and maim men but to save them and have mercy on them. His simplicity and greatness is of a different nature from that of the"strutting, vain" figure of Napoleon whom history considers great.
After Vyazma, after the long chase, Kutuzov addresses the troops and tells them Russia is delivered."We will see our visitors off, then we will rest," he says, counseling them to have pity on their frostbitten and starving prisoners, for they are men too.
As the French retreat faster and more helplessly than ever, Kutuzov's lack of aggression wins him more disfavor. The sub-commanders openly mock him and treat him as if he were senile. Clearly Kutuzov's day is almost done. At Vilna, where the tsar gives him the highest honors and decorations, Kutuzov's career begins its ebb. Alexander gradually transfers his staff to himself and appoints a new commander; he wishes to carry on the war to liberate Europe and this is beyond Kutuzov's scope. His mission in life is completed with Russia restored to the highest pinnacle of her glory. Kutuzov has nothing left to do, except to pass on.
Tolstoy uses these chapters as a eulogy for Kutuzov. Calling him the"Russian of the Russians," Tolstoy echoes Prince Nikolay Bolkonsky's earlier pronouncements about Russia requiring a"true Russian" to lead her, a man who intuitively understands the nature of his country and can act according to its spirit. Like the old prince whose life is outdated, Kutuzov also passes on, leaving a clean slate for the next generation to inscribe.
In many statements, Tolstoy describes Kutuzov by means of the same expressions he uses to describe Platon Karataev."This old man [he says, by way of an example], who through experience of life had reached the conviction that the thoughts and words that serve as its expression are never the motive force of men, frequently uttered words, which were quite meaningless — the first words that occurred to his mind." Karataev, we recall, also uttered words with the same simplicity and spontaneity.
By comparing Karataev with Kutuzov, Tolstoy illustrates the general's awareness of the universality of experience and the organic continuity of history of which each man is a significant part. This awareness allowed Kutuzov to win the war. Thoughts and words, however, do not reveal this inner truth; rather, by externalizing it they diminish its clarity. Tolstoy thus states a truth he has stated before: Words are mere outer manifestations of a sensibility essentially inexpressible, and only actions reveal implicit truths. We shall presently see how Pierre lives his"new life" without philosophizing its significance; his happiness expresses itself in a personal harmony whose roots, like those of Kutuzov and Karataev, grow out of a sense of cosmic unity.