Leo Tolstoy was 26 years old when he first saw the ramparts of Sevastopol. The weather in Crimea in the early winter of 1854—subtropical, cool but not cold—was a paradise compared with the harsh snow and ice farther north. The city itself, though, was in chaos. The heights above the port were ringed with earthworks of woven saplings and packed dirt and stone. Below, the narrow entrance to the harbor was blocked by the hulls of wooden ships deliberately sunk by the Russian navy, placed there to block the invaders. “There are thousands of different objects,” Tolstoy wrote, “thrown in heaps here and there; soldiers of different regiments, some provided with guns and with bags, others with neither guns nor bags, crowd together; they smoke, they quarrel.”
A junior officer in an artillery brigade, Tolstoy already knew something of the exhilaration and horror of battle. For nearly three years, he had been in the Caucasus, the Russian empire’s mountainous southern frontier, in the middle of a grinding counterinsurgency campaign against upland Muslims. He had seen native villages destroyed and besieged, with the great forests of Chechnya whittled down to nothing—a strategy of the Russian army to deny shelter to Chechen raiding parties. Muslim gunmen would wait in the underbrush and aim their long guns at the Russian sappers sent to hack away a clearing on either side of a road. Not that Tolstoy had placed himself in the line of fire. By his own admission, he spent much of his time there in a Cossack stanitsa, or fortified village, hunting, drinking, “running after Cossack women,” and “writing a little,” as he noted in his diary.
Readers of my blog might recall Tolstoy’s Chechnya experience led to his novel, The Cossacks, which I read and examined last year. You can read about that here.
While Chechnya was more of a raid, incursion, and reconnaissance between small tribal factions, Crimea was Tolstoy’s first experience of major set armies in modern warfare. From King’s article:
When he arrived in Crimea, Tolstoy found himself in the middle of a war that did not yet have a name. For years, tensions had been rising between the two great powers in the Near East, the Russian and Ottoman empires. Czar Nicholas I claimed a right to protect the lives and property of Orthodox Christians inside Ottoman lands, including those who controlled access to the holy sites in Jerusalem. The Ottoman sultan, Abdülmecid I, countered that Orthodox Christians—who formed more than a third of all his subjects—were under no particular threat. The czar’s claims, he said, were merely a pretext for interfering in his domestic affairs.
Britain, France, and Sardinia came to the Ottomans’ aid. By the time Tolstoy arrived in Crimea, most of the great battles of the war were already past. Russian infantry had been put to flight by an Anglo-French force at the River Alma, the Light Brigade had made its doomed cavalry charge at Balaklava, and brutal hand-to-hand combat at Inkerman had broken Russia’s fighting will and ensured that the rest of the conflict would be focused on the desperate defense of Sevastopol. The war became a siege, with the Russians defending the heights against cannonades and bayonet charges.
Tolstoy was there to witness the results: British and French ships sitting within cannon shot of the Crimean coast; creaking wooden carts being pulled up the steep hills, loaded with corpses; the constant roar of the Russian batteries; and the repeated thrusts of Allied troops, tripping over their greatcoats and slipping downhill in the mud.
Tolstoy’s writing career actually was initiated while serving.
Tolstoy had spent much of the siege writing dispatches from the city, realistic accounts that, in an era of intense press censorship, provided Russia’s reading public with some of its first true-life accounts of battle. They appeared in The Contemporary, an influential St. Petersburg literary journal, and as hard-nosed pieces of reportage—with as much gore as could pass the state censor—they made him almost instantly famous.
“On the earth, torn up by a recent explosion, were lying, here and there, broken beams, crushed bodies of Russians and French,” he wrote in his final installment from the scene of battle, later collected as Sevastopol Sketches, “heavy cast-iron cannon overturned into the ditch by a terrible force, half buried in the ground and forever dumb, bomb-shells, balls, splinters of beams, ditches, bomb-proofs, and more corpses, in blue or in gray overcoats, which seemed to have been shaken by supreme convulsions . . .” Tolstoy had arrived in Crimea as a casual patriot; he was now a committed skeptic.
King then ends his article with this interesting observation from the point of view of another writer who happened to be in Crimea a decade later.
A decade after the war, in 1867, Mark Twain visited Sevastopol and walked over the old battlefields with a group of American tourists, kicking up bits of shrapnel and shards of bone. U.S. newspapers had carried news of the fighting, and photographers had captured images from the front lines. The telegraph and glass-plate photography had made their debut as tools of war reporting. “Sevastopol is probably the worst battered town in Russia or anywhere else,” Twain wrote in The Innocents Abroad. “But we ought to be pleased with it, nevertheless, for we have been in no country yet where we have been so kindly received.”
By this stage, Tolstoy was on the other side of his journey of disillusionment, one that had begun in the forests of Chechnya and ended on the Black Sea coast. He was nursing the ideas that would define his work as a mature writer: that battles were a form of deliberate folly, that the only enduring nation was humanity, that ordinary Russians were always better than the rulers whom history seemed to give them. While Twain was looking over the ruins of Sevastopol, Tolstoy was far to the north, back home on the old family estate at Yasnaya Polyana. He was in the final stretch of a manuscript he had decided to call War and Peace.
As it turns out, Russia did take Crimea from the Ottoman Empire, and apparently has retaken it from Ukraine. History does sometimes repeat itself, though this second iteration was without any battle. War is a terrible thing, and Tolstoy learned firsthand. Read Charles King’s entire article.