Tolstoy’s ‘Sevastopol Stories’

 [spoiler alert]

I’ve finished reading a collection of Tolstoy short stories – welcome to part two on ‘Sevastopol Stories’ (‘Севастопольские рассказы’). [1] These three sketches were based these on personal experience, particularly the Siege of Sevastopol of 1854-55 in which the 26-year old Leo served as second lieutenant in an artillery regiment, posted there after his time in the Caucasus. [2] 

26 year-old Lev Tolstoy in the Army, 1854

26 year-old Lev Tolstoy in the Army, 1854

The Siege was a crucial part of the Crimean War (1853-1856), with Sevastopol then and now the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and besieged by the British, French and Ottomans. [3] The sketches are contemporary, written and published during and shortly after the conflict in the monthly journal ‘Современник’ (Sovremennik, ‘The Contemporary’). Made up of three separate parts – ‘Sevastopol in December’ [1854] (written in April, published in May), ‘Sevastopol in May’ [1855] (written in June, published in September) and ‘Sevastopol in August 1855’ (written in December, published in January), each with it’s own distinct mood, these writings are typically of Tolstoy’s realistic fiction: he brings out both the horror and banality of war by creating complex characters in just a few lines.

But the first part, ‘Sevastopol in December’ has almost no characters at all – except for the reader. It is the only work I’ve read written entirely in the second person – the narrative is addressed to the reader. You are new in Sevastopol, you are led to the military hospital, you talk to wounded soldiers and experience the sights, smells and sounds of a city at war and you feel the emotions they provoke; the fear, the excitement, the pride and the dread. It’s almost a prologue to the later sketches and it instantly puts the reader in the middle of the situation, taking the place of the young Tolstoy, who undoubtedly received a similar introduction, making the sketch inclusive, the reader a participant, not an uninformed outsider. Tolstoy’s voice shines through: war is mundane for those who have experienced enough – you are surprised to see how people lack zealousness, enthusiasm or even dismay. You go out to a bastion, witness a man’s chest blown open and the officer, seeing the horror on your face, yawns, rolls a cigarette and tells you that happens 7 times a day. It ends on a confident, patriotic note, with the calmness of the troops in the face of these terrible conditions reassuring you of their capability, and you are confident their love of their native land will see them victorious. This doesn’t last. 

The mood immediately darkens in ‘Sevastopol in May’, the patriotism that ended ‘December’ giving way to anger, with a personal monologue emphasising the senselessness and immorality of war. Since December thousands have been insulted, killed, awarded ribbons, stripped of ribbons yet the war goes on as ever. The war is achieving nothing: diplomats are failing to end it and the spilling of blood is achieving even less. Tolstoy seethes at the futility of war: a thought often came to him, he tells us, that the issue could be better solved if each army dismissed a soldier. And then another, and then another until just one remained from each side. [4] Then, if combat was still necessary let one besiege the town and one defend it to decide the victor. As what is the difference between eighty thousand Russians fighting eighty thousand Allies and one fighting one, except the latter is more humane? He final paragraph in this angry monologue fell foul of government censors when sent for publication: “One of two things appears to be true: either war is madness, or, if men perpetuate this madness, they thereby demonstrate that they are far from being the rational creatures we for some reason commonly suppose them to be.” The Imperial Government clearly disproved of those sentiments, especially from active soldiers at the front.

Following this Tolstoy returns to his classic narrative style and there are many snapshots of many characters, none of any particular significance or importance, all dealing with their surroundings in their own way: typical people in Tolstoy’s realistic fiction. No longer the mass of patriotic heroes, the individuals are self-interested; all are trying chiefly to avoid death while gaining honours and promotions along the way and avoid anybody recognising their fear and cowardice. The new arrivals are still driven by vanity – wanting to win awards and build a reputation, while the old hands had already pretended to be brave, run risks, acquired honours, lost honours and now reached the point where they work to rule: carrying out their duties to the letter and preserving the minimal chance they have of survival for as long as possible. The senselessness of the slaughter is the common theme throughout ‘May’. The truce allowing the French and Russians to collect bodies leads to fraternising and laughing between the troops as they walk amongst the devastation they have caused. Tolstoy expects that their Christian faith should see them repent immediately but no – a day later the artillery will fire, the blood will flow and the groans continue. He looks for heroes and villains in his own narrative and finds none – all are equally blameless and equally wicked. He defines the hero of his stories as truth, which he aims to portray in all its beauty. No surprise then that the censor took the knife to these writings.

 Franz Roubaud Panorama: 'Siege of Sevastopol (1854-1855)'

Franz Roubaud Panorama: ‘Siege of Sevastopol (1854-1855)’

‘Sevastopol in August’ covers the end if the siege, which was surprising as I thought I knew the history but clearly didn’t, and quite moving as [spoiler alert] the French take a crucial area and the Russians abandon the city to the Allies, their defensive positions untenable, crossing over to the North Side of the harbour and leaving the city empty and burning. After following the lives of individuals throughout the months it’s quite sad to see them abandon the place for which the reader has seen so much trauma, so much bloodshed and so much casual death.

What comes out of these are how personal the stories are. Despite their fictional nature Tolstoy wrote them as he was serving in the battle and they clearly reflect his views and experiences. Tolstoy openly tells us what he thinks about the war (to the disapproval of the censor) both through narrative monologues and the portrayal of characters. ‘Sevastopol in December’ places you in his shoes and mind, the new recruit experiencing the city at war for the first time. ‘Sevastopol in May’ seethes with anger at the senselessness of war: his later pacifism clearly had early and very personal roots. The work is inclusive, always making the reader an insider in the siege adding emotion to the moving end of ‘Sevastopol in August’. Despite being fictional it is no wonder Tolstoy is often called the first modern war correspondent – he has placed ‘truth’ at the centre of his stories and depicted the war in its full and gruesome picture. The initial patriotism gave way to showing the complexity of individuals, the humanity of all combatants and the senselessness of their slaughter. It became a message he developed further and preached his whole life and inspired later, greater works like War and Peace. It’s a message that began with life on the battlements and was recorded in these Sevastopol Stories.

[1] For part one on The Cossacks:

[2] Where he began The Cossacks.

[3] Although only the French feature in the stories.

[4] As he says, assuming the armies are the same size and one can account for the quality of soldiers.


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