Slot:       29C-1          Dec. 29, 1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.                                                

Panel:     Tolstoy as Artist and Critic

Chair:     Inessa Medzhibovskaya, The New School


Title:       L’Russe Besuhof”: Names in War and Peace

Author:   Karin Beck, Columbia University

What is the name of one of the major characters of War and Peace? Is it Pierre Bezukhov or Пьер Безухов? Or is it Петр Кириллович? Or is it, according to his own manipulation, L’Russe Besuhof? In War and Peace, names are even more confusing than in other Russian novels.  Almost every member of the aristocracy has a Russian and a French name and these aristocrats in turn use different names for Napoleon – Bonaparte or Buonaparte, depending on their attitude to him. Naming in this text frequently has a symbolic connotation.

War and Peace has been called a bi-lingual text (Vinogradov) and this bi-lingual character and the interaction of the two languages is reflected in the use of names. This paper analyzes the use of different versions of names in different settings in the context of the bi-lingual and bi-cultural setting. Pierre Bezukhov is the most prominent example for this cultural symbolism of names: his first name is French, written in the narrative consistently in Cyrillic (as his patronymic indicates). His existence within both cultures is thus emphasized already in his name. However, the bilingual character of names does not stop with Pierre and Napoleon. Even the Rostov siblings address each other sometimes as “Natalie” and “Nicholas”, indicating how deeply French has penetrated everyday life.

Reading the bi-lingual and sometimes trans-lingual character of names as emblematic for Tolstoy’s innovative use of different languages can help document the degree of linguistic innovation in War and Peace and to see this innovation as part of a poetic search for a new, all encompassing language.


Title:       Tolstoy’s Dialogue with the Sources

Author:   Tim West, Princeton University

Among the episodes gleaned by Tolstoy from historical memoirs in order to dramatize them in War and Peace, two stand out as illustrations of the narratological problems and possibilities presented by historical fiction.  Both concern events that occurred during the summer of 1812 early in Napoleon’s march eastward.

The first episode is the account of the swimming of the Viliya by a squadron of Polish Uhlans in which Tolstoy enters a polemic with his sources on matters of historical fact.  Not having been present himself, faced with numerous conflicting reports and motivated by his own polemical aims, Tolstoy can arguably have chosen no more effective means of promoting his depiction of Napoleon than to offer this, his own parodic and selective “eye-witness account.”  Feigning nescience, his narrator’s version of events contains the persuasive force of a memoir even as it surpasses the actual memoirs in perceived reliability, deriving as its source the very omniscience which reveals the thoughts of various characters in adjoining passages.

In the second episode, which dramatizes an interview between Napoleon and an unnamed Cossack, Tolstoy exploits the differences in discourse modes between fiction and historical writing to look beyond questions of historical fact and enter a dialogue with historiography itself.  Whereas the cacophony of voices emanating from the Uhlan episode’s multiple accounts occasioned Tolstoy’s decision to conspicuously ignore them, the scarcity of sources in the case of the Cossack episode leads him to carefully examine the single existing account and render what is initially a deceptively faithful retelling.  By means of a simple detail, however, Tolstoy undermines the presumption of the memoirist’s reliability and, by implication, utterly subverts the epistemic hubris of Napoleon and his historians.


Title:       Denying Shakespeare: Tolstoy’s Essay against Literary Imperialism

Author:   Nicholas K. Kupensky, Bucknell University

This paper will investigate Tolstoy’s understanding of nation and history and how these theories lead him to construct a distinctively Russian genealogy in history and literature that is not subject to Europe.  I will focus specifically on Tolstoy’s enigmatic essay “Shakespeare and the Drama” (1906), which energetically confronts the West by denying Shakespeare’s reputation as a transcendent figure of literary genius.  Harold Bloom has suggested that all poets in one way or another are forced to confront the imposing figure of Shakespeare, for the Bard casts a shadow into the future from which no poet can entirely emerge.  Tolstoy is no exception.

Because much of nineteenth-century Russia assimilated Shakespeare into its literary landscape – Pushkin’s Boris Godunov (1825) “arranged according to the system of our Father Shakespeare” (Levin 80), Turgenev’s “Hamlet and Don Quixote” (1860), or Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1865) – some critics have read “Shakespeare and the Drama” alongside Tolstoy’s heavy moralizing and rigid aestheticism of his later writings.  I will propose that Tolstoy’s denial of Shakespeare is primarily an attempt at illegitimizing a Western figure of authority, and thus continuous with the same gesture made in War and Peace. 

This reading of “Shakespeare and the Drama” will consider Tolstoy’s attempts at placing himself as a Russian writer adjacent to a European intellectual empire, which in literature has Shakespeare at its center.  Indeed, Edward Said mentions the possibility of a “Zulu Tolstoy” (25) when considering the efficacy of intellectual and aesthetic colonization.  What this approach to Tolstoy’s denial of Shakespeare does, then, is trace Tolstoy’s lifelong commitment to exposing and opposing an intellectually privileged Europe and examine ways in which national and canonical literatures take form.



Levin, Yury D.  “Shakespeare and Russian Literature: Nineteenth Century Attitudes.”  Russian Essays on Shakespeare and His Contemporaries.  Ed. Alexandr Parfenov and Joseph G. Price.  Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.                 

Said, Edward.  Culture and Imperialism.  New York: A. A. Knopf, 1993.