But, there is a long process of initiation before readers of War and Peace can appreciate the extent to which Tolstoy struggled with the concept of freedom. The author lived during times of reform and repression. Serfdom had not yet been ended but there were attempts, not to mention significant setbacks, to reform. Reformists from the upper-classes fought for greater liberty and were put down by the tsar. Foundational institutions—marriage, for example—were riven by hypocrisy and void of virtues. And then there was the Church, with its self-proclaimed power over heaven and earth, which instilled superstition in the masses while doing very little to improve the conditions of poor. Everywhere Tolstoy looked, people were punished for thinking for themselves. War and Peace addresses this dilemma on a scale that can only be described as epic.
Tolstoy is such a good writer at creating convincing characters and story lines—extraordinarily good—that it can be tempting to become irritated with his habit of inserting exposition where the reader expects the narrative to chug along on its tracks, as if it were a well-oiled machine. And important authors have criticized him for his digressions, sermonizing, and belief system. There is a temptation to skip the boring parts of War and Peace, as they say, and get on with the story. But, at a price. War and Peace takes the reader through the military campaigns beginning with the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 through France’s invasion of Russia in 1812. The war ends with the French army’s retreat after the Battle of Borodino, where some 70,000 lives are lost. The French arrive in Moscow to chaos—much of the city is in flames. The exposition makes it possible for the reader to understand why the beautiful city had to be destroyed in the most objective manner possible. For this task, Tolstoy settles on a detailed description of a dying beehive—and it is but one example of how the author asks us to consider the true complexities of historical events, so much so that the instigator of this destruction can never be named.