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War and Peace | Context


Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars

While many people often refer to Napoleon Bonaparte as being French, he was actually born in the Corsican capital of Ajaccio. Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, was conquered by the French and taken from the Italians in 1769—the year of Bonaparte's birth. Napoleon is lauded by many for spreading democratic ideas and reforming the French legal system. His reputation has risen and fallen at various moments in history. Nonetheless there is no doubt that Napoleon's agenda was to gain domination over as much territory as possible and spread his approach to governance. He initially took part in the French Revolution in 1789 against the monarchy and then seized power and crowned himself emperor of France in 1804.

The Napoleonic Wars were a series of conflicts Napoleon fought with various coalitions of European countries, although the Napoleonic Wars were fought beyond Europe. After the French Revolution, the kings of Europe felt threatened by republican ideas, and Austria and Prussia provoked the first conflict with France in 1792, when they called for all the rulers of Europe to help put the French king back on the throne. This conflict evolved into the first coalition against Napoleon. The third coalition formed in 1805, with Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia against France. This is the first war in War and Peace. Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812, the second war in the novel, was justified by Napoleon because Russia had broken its promise not to trade with Great Britain, but the conflict was also over who would control Poland. Napoleon invaded with a drafted army of some 650,000 men from various nations, called the Grande Armée (Great Army). By most accounts, between 20,000 and 30,000 men returned from the conflict with Russia, with some deserting, some staying in Russia, some captured, and the vast majority missing or dead.

The Decembrists

The Decembrist Revolt was the first serious challenge to absolute monarchy in Russia, which foreshadowed the Russian Revolution of 1917. This revolt was several years in the making. In fact the Decembrists evolved from earlier secret societies that began forming in 1816, such as the Union of Salvation. The Napoleonic Wars exposed a larger number of the Russian upper class to the liberal and revolutionary ideas of Europe and created a sharp contrast between the absolute autocracy of Russia and the evolving constitutional monarchies of the rest of Europe. Preceding the Decembrist Revolt, a faction of the Russian imperial guards, the Semyonovksy Regiment, revolted in 1820. After that the Decembrists went underground. The Decembrist Revolt took place on December 26, 1825, as a protest against Tsar Nicholas I's accession to the throne after Alexander I died. The rebels supported his brother Constantine, who favored constitutional monarchy. The Decembrists also supported emancipation of the serfs. The revolt was quickly quelled, with five participants sentenced to death and others exiled to Siberia. At the end of War and Peace, Pierre goes to Petersburg on business related to a society for which he was "one of the chief founders" (Epilogue, Part 1, Chapter 11) and later speaks to the family about forming a society to aid the fatherland. No doubt Leo Tolstoy is hinting at Pierre's involvement in, or at least flirtation with, the early Decembrist movement.

The Julian Calendar

The historical dates of important events cited in War and Peace are different from the dates given by Tolstoy because he uses the Julian Calendar. Introduced by Julius Caesar, the Julian Calendar was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar in the Christian west by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 to more accurately reflect the duration of Earth's revolution around the sun. Russia remained on the Julian Calendar until after the Russian Revolution in 1918. There is an approximately 12- or 13-day lag between Tolstoy's dates and the dates of the modern calendar. Thus Tolstoy says the Battle of Borodino was fought on August 26, but the battle was actually fought on September 7. Dates using the Julian Calendar are referred to as being in "Old Style."

The Westernization of Russia

Tolstoy writes 2 percent of his novel in French, with his own translation, to show that the Russian aristocracy generally spoke in the French language. Most upper-class people knew French better than Russian, and some could not even speak their own language. For example, at the beginning of the novel (Vol. 1, Part 1, Chapter 4), Ippolit attempts to speak in Russian, with "a pronunciation such as Frenchmen have after spending a year in Russia."

The replacement of Russian with French grew out of widespread reforms that began in the late 17th century with the first emperor of Russia, Peter the Great. Considered one of the most influential reformers, Peter undertook a series of measures to bring his country into the modern era and to change its image, in the eyes of Western Europeans, from an Asian to a European country. Following the Western Europeans, he built a navy, reorganized the army, and secularized schools, among other reforms. Aristocrats were forced to adapt Western dress and manners and learn European languages. Peter also moved the capital from Moscow to Petersburg. About 100 years later, Catherine the Great continued to westernize Russia and was responsible for making knowledge of the French language and culture a prerequisite for those in the aristocratic class. French became a key subject in the schools, and French teachers were given many perks to come to Russia.

From Petersburg to Moscow

The characters often travel between Petersburg and Moscow; at the time Petersburg was a more sophisticated city that was heavily influenced by Western Europe, although both cities were rich cultural centers. The distance between the two cities is about 400 miles. Travelers would have gone by horse and carriage, changing horses every 20 or 30 miles during a total of about 100 miles per day. Thus it would take at least four days to get from one city to another, depending on the number of overnight stops. When Pierre travels to Petersburg and meets Bazdeev at the rest stop (Vol. 2, Part 2, Chapter 1), there is a delay because horses are not available.

The Russian Class System

The Russian class system was extremely rigid and oppressive for those who did not belong to the upper classes. Landowners controlled all of the wealth, while the majority of the people worked for them. There was a middle class, but it was very small. Russia remained primarily an agricultural country until the early 20th century, when the Russian Revolution brought about sweeping changes. In traditional Russia, the nobles owned the people who worked on their land. They had complete control over their lives in a relationship that was similar to that of white European Americans and African slaves in the United States before the Civil War. The slaves in Russia were called serfs. They were different from the African slaves in that they shared a history and a culture (to some degree) with their masters, as well as a common nationality and religion. Nonetheless landowners could sell their serfs or force them to serve in the army, and at one point the customary term of conscription was 25 years. This is the situation for Platon Karataev, who is forced to join the military for a minor offense. Tolstoy, writing shortly after the abolition of the serfs in 1861, clearly views the old system as unjust and morally offensive.

The major characters in War and Peace are in the aristocratic class, often counts and princes. A "prince" in Russia was not an heir to the throne: the Tsar's children would be titled grand dukes or grand duchesses. Instead "prince" is a high-ranking title of nobility, and a count, which was Tolstoy's own title, ranked just below a prince.

Orthodox Russian Christianity

The Christianity of the Russians has the same root as Western Christianity. The Latin (Roman) and Greek Christian churches officially split in 1054, although doctrinal and political differences had been moving them apart for hundreds of years. This was long before the Protestant revolutions further fragmented the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern churches spawned separate branches—for example, Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Churches. Eastern Christianity was brought to Russia in the 10th century and developed into the Russian Orthodox Church. This form of Christianity shares most of the same beliefs as the Roman Catholic Church, although many of the rituals and customs and dogma are somewhat different. Russian Orthodoxy uses many visual representations of God the Father, Jesus, and Jesus's mother Mary, as does the Russian tradition. An icon, or image, is a physical representation of divine figures and might be a large representation or a smaller item worn around the neck as Andrew promises to do (Vol. 1, Part 1, Chapter 25). A spiritual image, in both the Eastern and Western tradition, is thought to convey a blessing or protection.

The Masons

Freemasons (Masons) were originally members of brotherhoods of stonemasons who regulated the building trade, beginning in 14th-century Europe. The Protestant revolutions spelled a decline in the building of cathedrals, and as a result, the Masons began accepting people who were not actually stonemasons into the order. The group evolved into a brotherhood focused on ethics and morality based on its Christian roots. In some ways Masonry mimicked religion, for example, in its use of rituals, ceremonies, and initiation, and over time it mixed in non-Christian beliefs. In Pierre's Russia the Masons were a combined pseudo-religious and social organization for aristocratic men.

Revisions of War and Peace

War and Peace was first published in serialized form over a two-year period, beginning in 1865, in a Russian magazine called Russkiy Vestnik. But Tolstoy was not happy with it, so he continued to tinker with the novel and published a complete, revised edition in 1869 (second edition). In the third edition of the book (1873), Tolstoy made additional stylistic revisions and took out most of the French, and he also changed the structure, reorganizing six volumes into four volumes. N.N. Strakhov, a literary critic and friend of Tolstoy's, helped him prepare the third edition. In the fifth edition (1886), edited by Tolstoy's aristocratic wife Sofya, the French was restored. It became customary, beginning with the Jubilee Edition of the Complete Works of Tolstoy, published in 1937 (second printing), to introduce the corrections that were made in the 1873 edition to the second edition (1869) of the text. However it was later uncovered through perusing letters written by Tolstoy to Strakhov—and by looking at corrections made by both men when they were preparing the 1873 edition—that some corrections were made by Strakhov and never approved by Tolstoy. Thus most translations are now based primarily on the second edition, adding only those later corrections that have been verified as being Tolstoy's.

English Translations

Louise and Aylmer Maude, a husband-and-wife team, were close friends of the Russian writer and published their translation of War and Peace in 1922. Ann Dunnigan's Signet translation was published in 1968. According to Michael Katz, Professor Emeritus of Russian and East European Studies at Middlebury College, these two translations have best "stood the test of time."

New translations include that by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Vintage Classics, 2007), another husband-and-wife team. This team has been highly praised by most critics for their fresh and accurate translations of classic Russian novels. With regard to War and Peace, Katz says they manage to "preserve most of Tolstoy's stylistic originality."

Students who are new to War and Peace might want to read either the Pevear and Volokhonsky or the Dunnigan translations. The Pevear/Volokhonsky translation includes Tolstoy's original French and footnotes by the translators that provide a wealth of information on the Napoleonic Wars and Russian culture. The Dunnigan translation is highly readable but provides no additional information to the text.

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