Tolstoy, Putin, and Napoleon: Lesson Not Learned
It has been two years since the first local case of Covid was diagnosed and we went into lockdown, not really knowing anything, except that we should avoid other people for an undetermined amount of time. Lucia and I immediately decided to go through it together as both of us were single and have no children. It was an easy decision and the right one.
Around the same time I bought a modern translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace to occupy myself with a long story, when I needed to read myself to sleep. Clocking in at 1200 pages and written so well I felt I needed to take my time with it, meaning I’m only just now, two years later, nearing the end.
In a remarkable instance of history repeating itself, the big set piece near the end, the decisive battle of Borodino between the French and the Russians, coincides with the real time invasion of a sovereign country, Ukraine. Tolstoy observes that the French were going to lose this battle because they faced an enemy defending its homeland and it’s beloved capital.
This, he said, was the advantage the French could never overcome, despite being the greatest army on the planet, having won victory after victory. I can’t help but see parallels and lessons to be learned from this story of a war two hundred years ago. But this time it is the Russians who have not learned from their history and find themselves fighting a war of attrition against an enemy defending all that is theirs, against an invader they hate.
Unlike those genteel generals long ago, Putin’s Russians are burning Ukraine to the ground and showing no mercy to civilians in a campaign of fear. This is the last resort of an army and its leader, who cannot accept the thought that they were very wrong about virtually everything. So, they destroy.
Like the hapless peasants in the armies of the book, the Russian soldiers do not appear to have any idea why they are there, nor do they have any way of finding out. These draftees, mocked and shot at by the Ukrainians, are mostly young men with no experience of death and war and they fight listlessly, from all reports.
There is no glory in war, something Putin may finally be learning in his ivory…