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How the Horrors of Crimea Shaped Tolstoy

How a war made the great Russian novelist

Leo Tolstoy was 26 years old when he first saw the ramparts of Sevastopol. The weather in Crimea in the early winter of 1854—subtropical, cool but not cold—was a paradise compared with the harsh snow and ice farther north. The city itself, though, was in chaos. The heights above the port were ringed with earthworks of woven saplings and packed dirt and stone. Below, the narrow entrance to the harbor was blocked by the hulls of wooden ships deliberately sunk by the Russian navy, placed there to block the invaders. “There are thousands of different objects,” Tolstoy wrote, “thrown in heaps here and there; soldiers of different regiments, some provided with guns and with bags, others with neither guns nor bags, crowd together; they smoke, they quarrel.”

A junior officer in an artillery brigade, Tolstoy already knew something of the exhilaration and horror of battle. For nearly three years, he had been in the Caucasus, the Russian empire’s mountainous southern frontier, in the middle of a grinding counterinsurgency campaign against upland Muslims. He had seen native villages destroyed and besieged, with the great forests of Chechnya whittled down to nothing—a strategy of the Russian army to deny shelter to Chechen raiding parties. Muslim gunmen would wait in the underbrush and aim their long guns at the Russian sappers sent to hack away a clearing on either side of a road. Not that Tolstoy had placed himself in the line of fire. By his own admission, he spent much of his time there in a Cossack stanitsa, or fortified village, hunting, drinking, “running after Cossack women,” and “writing a little,” as he noted in his diary.

When he arrived in Crimea, Tolstoy found himself in the middle of a war that did not yet have a name. For years, tensions had been rising between the two great powers in the Near East, the Russian and Ottoman empires. Czar Nicholas I claimed a right to protect the lives and property of Orthodox Christians inside Ottoman lands, including those who controlled access to the holy sites in Jerusalem. The Ottoman sultan, Abdülmecid I, countered that Orthodox Christians—who formed more than a third of all his subjects—were under no particular threat. The czar’s claims, he said, were merely a pretext for interfering in his domestic affairs.

Diplomacy failed to resolve the dispute, and in the summer of 1853, Nicholas ordered a military buildup in the Danubian Principalities, a Christian buffer zone that would later form much of present-day Romania. Since the principalities were recognized as part of the sultan’s domains—although they had long been under substantial Russian influence—European powers denounced the troop presence as an unprovoked invasion. Démarches and ultimatums flew across the continent. The Ottomans soon declared war. In November, Russia dispatched a squadron of heavy ships-of-the-line from Sevastopol to the Ottoman winter harbor at Sinop, just across the Black Sea. In one of modern history’s most spectacular naval routs, the ships destroyed the Ottoman force and suddenly shifted the strategic balance in the czar’s favor.

Britain, France, and Sardinia came to the Ottomans’ aid. By the time Tolstoy arrived in Crimea, most of the great battles of the war were already past. Russian infantry had been put to flight by an Anglo-French force at the River Alma, the Light Brigade had made its doomed cavalry charge at Balaklava, and brutal hand-to-hand combat at Inkerman had broken Russia’s fighting will and ensured that the rest of the conflict would be focused on the desperate defense of Sevastopol. The war became a siege, with the Russians defending the heights against cannonades and bayonet charges.

Tolstoy was there to witness the results: British and French ships sitting within cannon shot of the Crimean coast; creaking wooden carts being pulled up the steep hills, loaded with corpses; the constant roar of the Russian batteries; and the repeated thrusts of Allied troops, tripping over their greatcoats and slipping downhill in the mud.

Crimea became an artilleryman’s war, and it quickly reached its inevitable end: the pummeling of the Malakov redoubt, the last bastion of the city still held by Russians in the late summer of 1855, and the silencing of the cannons on September 9, when the city fell to the Allies. It happened to be Tolstoy’s twenty-seventh birthday.

When he left Crimea, toward the end of 1855, Allied flags flew above the port. Tolstoy had spent much of the siege writing dispatches from the city, realistic accounts that, in an era of intense press censorship, provided Russia’s reading public with some of its first true-life accounts of battle. They appeared in The Contemporary, an influential St. Petersburg literary journal, and as hard-nosed pieces of reportage—with as much gore as could pass the state censor—they made him almost instantly famous.

“On the earth, torn up by a recent explosion, were lying, here and there, broken beams, crushed bodies of Russians and French,” he wrote in his final installment from the scene of battle, later collected as Sevastopol Sketches, “heavy cast-iron cannon overturned into the ditch by a terrible force, half buried in the ground and forever dumb, bomb-shells, balls, splinters of beams, ditches, bomb-proofs, and more corpses, in blue or in gray overcoats, which seemed to have been shaken by supreme convulsions . . .” Tolstoy had arrived in Crimea as a casual patriot; he was now a committed skeptic.

Allied troops eventually withdrew. The Black Sea fleet was scuttled and, by the terms of a peace treaty concluded in Paris, Russian fortifications were disarmed. Nicholas I, the czar who had launched the strike on the Ottomans and their Western backers, had died in the middle of the conflict and was replaced with someone who turned out to be one of Russia’s greatest reformers, Alexander II. Peasant soldiers who had fought for the motherland in Crimea were loath to accept continued servitude when their units demobilized, just as their officers were convinced that Russia’s defeat had shown up the stark differences between the hidebound empire and its European competitors. Alexander’s long reign saw the abolition of serfdom and the slow improvement of Russia’s image abroad.

A decade after the war, in 1867, Mark Twain visited Sevastopol and walked over the old battlefields with a group of American tourists, kicking up bits of shrapnel and shards of bone. U.S. newspapers had carried news of the fighting, and photographers had captured images from the front lines. The telegraph and glass-plate photography had made their debut as tools of war reporting. “Sevastopol is probably the worst battered town in Russia or anywhere else,” Twain wrote in The Innocents Abroad. “But we ought to be pleased with it, nevertheless, for we have been in no country yet where we have been so kindly received.”

By this stage, Tolstoy was on the other side of his journey of disillusionment, one that had begun in the forests of Chechnya and ended on the Black Sea coast. He was nursing the ideas that would define his work as a mature writer: that battles were a form of deliberate folly, that the only enduring nation was humanity, that ordinary Russians were always better than the rulers whom history seemed to give them. While Twain was looking over the ruins of Sevastopol, Tolstoy was far to the north, back home on the old family estate at Yasnaya Polyana. He was in the final stretch of a manuscript he had decided to call War and Peace.

Charles King’s books include Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams and the forthcoming Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul. He is a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University.