Riding on the success of “Childhood,” his first work, burning with patriotism and thirsting for adventure, the young Leo Tolstoy, ardent army officer, requested a transfer to Sevastopol during the Crimean War. His presence there did not win the war for the Russians. But it did launch Tolstoy’s career, provide him with fodder for the later, great “War and Peace,” and caused him to invent, or at least further, the genre of war reporting.
The three sketches (“rasskazy”, or stories) to come out of his experiences in Sevastopol are three separate works, connected only by their subject matter. In each one we see Tolstoy’s art develop further into what it would become in “War and Peace.”
The first sketch, “Sevastopol in December,” is a sort of eye-witness look at Sevastopol under siege, but rather than making the author the eye witness who has seen things that others can’t and is now initiating them into the mysteries they can’t understand while always maintaining his distance as someone with the true knowledge of combat, Tolstoy narrates the whole thing in the second person plural (the “vy” form). While the “ty” (second person singular) form in Russian can mean impersonal action, not directed at anyone in particular, the “vy” (second person plural) is specifically addressed to “you, my interlocutor,” placing the reader directly in the thick of the action. Tolstoy takes the reader from the dock straight to, not the heroically defended fourth bastion, but the hospital, where we see patients receiving hasty field amputations while other casualties watch, knowing their turn is next. Only after the full horror of the situation has been allowed to sink in–although Tolstoy does not dwell, sketching everything out in a couple of succinct paragraphs–are we taken to the fourth bastion, where heroes, willing or not, are made.
“Sevastopol in May” is much longer than “Sevastopol in December,” and begins with general philosophical musings about war, which will be developed in much greater detail in “War and Peace,” before moving on to the story of a group of officers involved in the defense, particularly Mikhailov, an awkward, low-ranking officer who doesn’t fit in either with the aristocrats or the regular soldiers. He, and the other characters, worry about their courage or lack thereof; Tolstoy devotes considerable page space to the thoughts of characters who know they are about to go into battle, as well as characters who worry afterwards about whether they appeared courageous or not.
This is also the case in “Sevastopol in August,” the longest of the three sketches, which follows the fall of Sevastopol and the fate of two brothers, both officers. The younger, Volodya, is still a teenager and is tormented by the fear of cowardice on the eve of his first battle, and delighted when he realizes he is capable of being cool under fire once the battle starts.
The cycle cannot help but end tragically, both from the national perspective and from the personal perspective of the characters, although Tolstoy juxtaposes the pitiful fear and physical pain of some with the elevated mental state that others are able to reach before death, just as Prince Andrei has his moment of clarity in the field of Austerlitz. Still, these are not tragic works, any more than “War and Peace” is: Tolstoy is too much of a believer in the strength of the Russian spirit and the possibility of redemption and enlightenment for these works to be truly gritty and depressing. Tolstoy creates a worldview of living, interconnected beings, in which each character lives an intense and unique inner life, while also being aware of the intense inner lives of others, even the enemy: there are some amusing moments when Russian and French soldiers attempt to communicate during a cease-fire. If Tolstoy had stopped his literary activities with these sketches, we would probably not be devoting whole courses and dissertations to him, but the “Sevastopol Sketches” are certainly worth reading in their own right, as well as showing the evolution of Tolstoy’s mastery.
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