My Sunday Guardian column.
Over one-and-a-half centuries ago, a young Russian aristocrat racked with gambling debts enlisted in the army. A few years later, as a second lieutenant in the artillery, he arrived in Sevastopol, a strategic fort then under siege by the British, French and Ottoman armies, the loss of which proved to be the final episode of the Crimean War.
His experiences in Crimea provided the 26-year-old Lieutenant Tolstoy, already in the grip of literary ambition, with fodder to write three fictionalized accounts set in the Black Sea port during the blockade. It's because of these that he's sometimes referred to as the first modern war correspondent. In a paragraph from the second sketch that was censored when first sent for publication, Tolstoy’s as-yet budding pacifism comes to the fore. “One of two things appears to be true,” he writes. “Either war is madness, or, if men perpetrate this madness, they thereby demonstrate that they are far from the rational creatures we for some reason commonly suppose them to be”. We’re still far from realising the truth of those words.
All three pieces first appeared in a reputed St Petersburg journal in 1855; they were later collected under the title, The Sebastopol Sketches. His incipient attitudes towards armed conflict apart, they also provide a foretaste of literary talent. (The Crimean War has other literary echoes, the most well-known being Tennyson's thundering The Charge of the Light Brigade.)
In the sketches, one can find Tolstoy trying to come to grips with his feelings when he sees at first hand the confrontation between notions of nationalistic pride and the reality of carnage. Death is a commonplace in Tolstoy’s Sevastopol: it arrives unexpectedly, yet is treated in an everyday manner. The wounded and the limbless recover from and reflect upon their experiences; others at the front display attitudes that range from the courageous to the boastful to the cowardly.
The first sketch is in the second person, addressed to a newcomer to Sevastopol. Here, Tolstoy writes, you will “witness spectacles both sad and terrible, noble and comical, but which will astonish and exalt your soul”. There are further contradictory experiences: despite a conviction that “the strength of the Russian people cannot possibly ever falter”, you will see “fearsome sights that will shake you to the roots of your being; you will see war not as a beautiful, orderly and gleaming formation, with music and beaten drums, streaming banners and generals on prancing horses, but war in its authentic expression -- as blood, suffering and death”.
In the second sketch – which ran afoul of the Russian censors – more doubts emerge, often couched in irony. This alternates between the fortunes of fellow officers during the conflict, revealing behaviour that’s often vain and haughty. One officer is “infected by that painful excitement that is commonly experienced by onlookers who are confronted by the outward manifestations of battle at close quarters but are not taking part in it”. Elsewhere, “the soldier who has been wounded in action invariably believes the battle to have been lost with fearful carnage”. The real hero of the tale, Tolstoy adds, “is truth”, which “will always be supremely magnificent”.
The last is the most personal of the lot, dealing with the actions and sacrifices of two brothers -- one sensitive, the other boisterous -- during the siege. One can detect the character of the writer in the younger brother, especially when “he was going to have to endure much mental anguish if he was to become the man, patient and calm in toil and danger, who constitutes our generally accepted image of the Russian officer”. In the shadow of constant shelling by the enemy, the port has been transformed into “this terrible place of death”, yet he can see “beautiful, festive, proud Sebastopol surrounded on the one hand by yellow, misty hills and on the other by the bright blue sea, sparkling in the sun”. All these years later, that beautiful and festive city is once again under threat.