French has always played a prominent role in the Russian court. Even though in the 19th century it was no longer the main language spoken by the nobles, it was still considered to be the language of money and power. Tolstoy wanted to mock that conviction, and to do that he made the nobles in his monumental work speak more French than necessary. As a result, speaking Russian might not be enough to read War and Peace in the original.
The first sections of the novel were published in parts in the press in 1865 – thereafter, the novel was first published as a book in 1868. This is when it gained its final title. Since the novel was originally serialised, it could be called the first Russian soap opera in print.
The plot of War and Peace involves more than 500 characters. More than 200 of them are real historical figures put to life on the pages of Tolstoy’s novels. All of the main characters: the Bezukhovs, the Rostovs, the Bolkonskys, are fictional. The historical figures, like General Kutuzov or Napoleon, are in the background. They are a vivid depiction of Tolstoy’s view of the forces governing history, which are an important motif of the novel.
Tolstoy didn’t consider his epic novel to be finished. The story ends long after the victory over Napoleon in 1812. In fact, the last scenes take place in 1820 and hint at some of the characters’ intentions to take part in the uprising of 1825. The uprising was unsuccessful and those who took part in it were sent to exile. Allegedly the part of War and Peace which was never written was supposed to begin with Pierre Bezukhov’s return from that exile.
The title of the novel is much more ambiguous in Russian than it is in English. ‘Mir‘, the Russian word for ‘peace’, has a second meaning. It can also mean ‘the world’ or ‘the universe’. In modern Russian, both the pronunciation and the spelling of the two words are the same. In pre-Revolutionary Russian, their spelling slightly differed. Sources indicate that the initial manuscript of the novel had the word for ‘the world’ in its title. Tolstoy, however, when he referred to his novel in French, was using the word ‘paix‘, an equivalent of ‘peace’. It is now believed that the controversy around the title appeared because of a typo which got to the manuscript on the way from Tolstoy’s desk to the publisher’s.
The Russian Revolution didn’t only change the country, it also changed the Russian language. The changes unified certain letters to match the pronunciation. Some characters, which became redundant, were simply dropped. As a result, the novel in its original Russian is now about 30 pages shorter than when it was written.
War and Peace was first adapted for the screen as soon as films became vaguely popular, in 1915. Since then it has been inspiring generations of filmmakers. The novel has also been adapted for TV, radio and theatre. It’s a story which lives its own life now and truly belongs to the core of the world cultural heritage.