Mixail Zagoskin and Tolstoj’s War and Peace: A Study of Influence

In November of 1864, two days before sending off the first two parts of War and Peace to his publisher, Tolstoj wrote in a letter to his wife: “I did not manage to write you yesterday because I was engrossed in reading Roslavlev. You cannot understand how necessary and interesting it is for me … I read it all with a delight, which no one beside an author could understand” (PSS, vol. 83, p. 58). In this letter Tolstoj is writing about Roslavlev, or the Russians in 1812 (1831), a historical novel by Mixail Zagoskin (1789–1852) set during the Napoleonic invasion of Russia.

Despite this unstinting praise for a novel with obvious thematic similarities to War and Peace, however, the influence of Zagoskin on Tolstoj’s masterpiece has been largely overlooked. Most critics, if they choose to mention Zagoskin at all, do so only in passing. Typical in this respect are Bayley, who refers to Roslavlev only as a novel “which Tolstoj had read and enjoyed,” and Christian, who mentions Zagoskin among the “minor novelists” in Tolstoj’s library while he was composing War and Peace. The only critic to attempt an extended study of the topic is I. P. Ščeblykin, who concentrates on how both authors contrast the hypocritical gallomania of Russian high society to the patriarchal love of the peasantry in the countryside (“Roslavlev M. N. Zagoskina i Vojna i mir L. N. Tolstogo.” Tolstovskij sbornik. Vypusk 5, pp. 111–18).

My study will attempt to expand on the work of Ščeblykin, by pointing out certain structural similarities between the two novels, including parallel scenes and the similar plot lines relating to the main heroines. In addition, I will show that Tolstoj’s hero, Pierre Bezuxov, holds a striking number of similarities to Zagoskin himself, from his stout and incredibly strong physique to his bespectacled and almost childlike face to his loquacity, absentmindedness and unaffected manner in high society. Thus, although Bezuxov expresses many of Tolstoj’s own thoughts, he seems to do so from behind the mask of Russia’s first and, until the publication of War and Peace, foremost historical novelist.