After the battle of Borodino, in which the Russians apparently did well, why did the French simply advance to Moscow and why was it considered inevitable that Moscow would be abandoned and the army would have to retreat past Moscow?

  • 1
    The author speaks about various historical topics by giving his own opinions, and he juxtaposes his opinions to that of "historians" whom he doesn't always see in a positive light. Also, sometimes his take on an occurrence is built through the eyes of the characters. So my question is, from Tolstoy's interpretation of events, why did all his characters see the inevitability of abandoning Moscow? @DrTyrsa
    – xoux
    Jul 8, 2019 at 18:42
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    @evianpring Can you please provide a quote where "all his characters" saw the inevitability of abandoning Moscow? Here's what I've found (tr. by Louise and Aylmer Maude): "The discussion began. Bennigsen did not yet consider his game lost. Admitting the view of Barclay and others that a defensive battle at Filí was impossible, but imbued with Russian patriotism and the love of Moscow, he proposed to move troops from the right to the left flank during the night and attack the French right flank the following day. Opinions were divided, and arguments were advanced for and against that project."
    – DrTyrsa
    Jul 9, 2019 at 9:36
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    And the council was ended with these Kutuzov's words (same translation): "“Well, gentlemen, I see that it is I who will have to pay for the broken crockery,” said he, and rising slowly he moved to the table. “Gentlemen, I have heard your views. Some of you will not agree with me. But I,” he paused, “by the authority entrusted to me by my Sovereign and country, order a retreat.”" Doesn't look that "all the generals" were against a defensive battle.
    – DrTyrsa
    Jul 9, 2019 at 9:38
  • @DrTyrsa I will soon take the time to give you the sections
    – xoux
    Jul 16, 2019 at 22:50
  • @DrTyrsa Check out the new answer below - definitely a Literature answer and not purely a History one :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 17, 2020 at 20:01

1 Answer 1


TL;DR: It suited Tolstoy’s theory of history to portray the abandonment of Moscow as inevitable.

Tolstoy’s theory of history

Tolstoy portrays the decision-making after Borodino in the first four chapters of book 11 of War and Peace. This opens with an essay on the difficulty, or maybe even the impossibility, or determining cause and effect in history. He attacks, in particular, the ‘great man’ theory of history, which says that events can be explained by “the actions of some one man—a king or a commander”: that Kutuzov, for example, gave the order for the army to abandon Moscow to the French, and therefore they did so. But Tolstoy points out that this confuses correlation and causation:

“But every time there have been conquests there have been conquerors; every time there has been a revolution in any state there have been great men,” says history. And, indeed, human reason replies: every time conquerors appear there have been wars, but this does not prove that the conquerors caused the wars and that it is possible to find the laws of a war in the personal activity of a single man. Whenever I look at my watch and its hands point to ten, I hear the bells of the neighboring church; but because the bells begin to ring when the hands of the clock reach ten, I have no right to assume that the movement of the bells is caused by the position of the hands of the watch.

Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace 11.1. Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude.

The alternative theory is that the pressure of events, the accumulation of the millions of “common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved,” drove Kutuzov one way and another until the orders he gave were the only possible ones in the circumstances:

For people accustomed to think that plans of campaign and battles are made by generals—as any one of us sitting over a map in his study may imagine how he would have arranged things in this or that battle—the questions present themselves: Why did Kutuzov during the retreat not do this or that? Why did he not take up a position before reaching Fili? Why did he not retire at once by the Kaluga road, abandoning Moscow? and so on. People accustomed to think in that way forget, or do not know, the inevitable conditions which always limit the activities of any commander in chief. The activity of a commander in chief does not all resemble the activity we imagine to ourselves when we sit at ease in our studies examining some campaign on the map, with a certain number of troops on this and that side in a certain known locality, and begin our plans from some given moment. A commander in chief is never dealing with the beginning of any event—the position from which we always contemplate it. The commander in chief is always in the midst of a series of shifting events and so he never can at any moment consider the whole import of an event that is occurring. Moment by moment the event is imperceptibly shaping itself, and at every moment of this continuous, uninterrupted shaping of events the commander in chief is in the midst of a most complex play of intrigues, worries, contingencies, authorities, projects, counsels, threats, and deceptions and is continually obliged to reply to innumerable questions addressed to him, which constantly conflict with one another.

War and Peace 11.2

Kutuzov calls a council of war among his senior generals to consider the question of whether or not to abandon Moscow, but he realizes that the issue was already decided before he came even to consider it:

The question for him now was: “Have I really allowed Napoleon to reach Moscow, and when did I do so? When was it decided? Can it have been yesterday when I ordered Platov to retreat, or was it the evening before, when I had a nap and told Bennigsen to issue orders? Or was it earlier still? … When, when was this terrible affair decided? Moscow must be abandoned. The army must retreat and the order to do so must be given.”

War and Peace 11.3.

The council of war itself is thus an anticlimax. Bennigsen suggests that patriotic duty requires that the army turn and fight another battle, but this appears to be motivated by political concerns, so that he does not share in the blame for the retreat, and not because of any prospect of success:

Bennigsen did not yet consider his game lost. Admitting the view of Barclay and others that a defensive battle at Fili was impossible, but imbued with Russian patriotism and the love of Moscow, he proposed to move troops from the right to the left flank during the night and attack the French right flank the following day. Opinions were divided, and arguments were advanced for and against that project. Yermolov, Dokhturov, and Raevsky agreed with Bennigsen. Whether feeling it necessary to make a sacrifice before abandoning the capital or guided by other, personal considerations, these generals seemed not to understand that this council could not alter the inevitable course of events and that Moscow was in effect already abandoned.

War and Peace 11.4. In this and other quoted passages, I have normalized the spelling of names, thus ‘Yermolov’ for ‘Ermolov’ and ‘Raevsky’ for ‘Raevski’, ‘Rayevsky’ or ‘Rayevskii’.

Benningsen’s ‘game’ here is the political game, his attempt “to throw the blame on Kutuzov”, not the military game, of beating the French.

Historical sources

So was the abandonment of Moscow without another battle really as inevitable as Tolstoy suggests? The question says, “the Russians apparently did well” at Borodino, which is true in the sense that the army stood its ground and did not break, but the cost was terrible: the Russians suffered about 45,000 casualties (killed, wounded and missing) from a force of about 150,000. After such a bloodbath it was a considerable achievement just to be able to withdraw in order. The army was also desperately in need of resupply, having fired off most of its ammunition in the battle.

Our only sources for Kutuzov’s decision-making and the council of war are the letters and memoirs of the participants, as no official minutes were taken at the council, and these sources are sometimes contradictory and often self-serving. Barclay wrote afterwards that he had found the Russian position outside Moscow (selected by Bennigsen) completely untenable:

Upon our arrival in Moscow, I summoned as much strength as possible to inspect the position designated for the army. I was surprised upon seeing it. Many divisions were separated by unpassable ravines. In one of them flowed the river, completely cutting off communications. The right wing was adjacent to the forest, which extended for several versts [kilometres] towards the enemy. Due to his superior firepower one could expect him to capture this forest without difficulty, and then we would be unable to support the right wing. Behind the First Army was a ditch, at the very least 10 to 15 sazhens [20–30 metres] in depth and with such steep banks that hardly a single person could cross it. The reserve to the right was so unfortunately placed that each shell could hit all four lines. The reserve on the left flank, separated from the corps which it was expected to reinforce would remain a silent spectator if these troops were overrun, since it would be unable to provide assistance due to the aforementioned ravine. The infantry of this reserve would at the very least be firing at both our troops and the enemy’s. The cavalry was already without the advantages which it was expected to have, and if it did not decide to immediately turn to flight, would quietly await its annihilation by the enemy artillery. […] In the case of defeat, the whole army would be destroyed to the last man, because a retreat through such a large city in front of a pursuing enemy is an unrealisable task.

Michael Barclay de Tolly. An Account of the Military Campaign of the Year 1812. Translated by Jimmy Chen (2018).

Yermolov suggested that the main point of difficulty for Kutuzov was not whether to abandon Moscow, but rather how to escape the blame for doing so:

The minister of war [that is, Barclay] summoned me and, with marvellous sagacity and insight, he explained the reasons for the necessity of retreat. He then went to Kutuzov, ordering me to follow him. No one knew better than Barclay the varied ways of making war and which of them were most feasible at any moment. In order to win the war, it was imperative for us to gain time, and, to that end, abandon Moscow. Listening attentively, Kutuzov could not conceal his excitement that the idea of retreat would not be attributed to him, and, to further avoid any blame, he summoned the army generals for a council of war.

Alexey Yermolov. Memoirs of the Napoleonic Wars, volume III, p. 194. Tbilisi: Napoleonic Society of Georgia. Translated by Alexander Mikaberidze (2005).

Similarly, Toll wrote that Kutuzov sought:

to shift the responsibility from himself and to relegate it to the generals assembled here

Karl Wilhelm von Toll. Quoted in Alexander Mikaberidze (2014), The Burning of Moscow: Napoleon’s Trial By Fire, p.35. Barnsley: Pen & Sword.

But even though Yermolov wrote that he agreed with Barclay about the untenability of the position, he went on to admit that political considerations led him to support a hopeless battle:

Since I was still relatively unknown, I did not dare give my consent to the surrender of Moscow, fearing the accusations of my compatriots; so without defending my hasty opinion, I proposed an attack. I argued that, after 900 versts of continual retreat, the French would not be prepared for such an action; that this sudden move would force the French to take up defensive positions, and undoubtedly spread confusion which His Excellency [that is, Kutuzov], as a talented commander, could exploit to our advantage.

Clearly displeased, Kutuzov told me that I had suggested that only because I did not fear the responsibility of taking such an action. He had vented his indignation too hastily as he should have known that there would be some cautious opinions to come. Uvarov briefly expressed his consent to retreat. Konovnitsyn supported attacking; he was an enterprising and undaunted officer, but inexperienced in taking extensive and complex decisions. Dokhturov said that it would be good to march against the enemy, however, because of the loss of so many commanders at Borodino, who had been replaced by less familiar officers, success in the ensuing battle could not be guaranteed; therefore, he proposed to retreat. Bennigsen, known for his knowledge of the military art and being experienced in the wars against Napoleon, supported attacking. I was encouraged by his views since I was confident that he based them on the most correct calculations of the likelihood of success, or at least on the possibility of not being overwhelmed. However, there were certainly some at the council who were astonished by his proposal. Ostermann-Tolstoy agreed to retreat, and, to criticize the proposed offensive, he asked Bennigsen if he could guarantee success? With his usual calm, Bennigsen responded that if the subject of our discussion were not in doubt, it would have been unnecessary to call a council and his opinion would not have been required. I was ordered to relay Barclay’s observations and the opinions of each council member to Raevsky, who had arrived late. He soon expressed his consent to retreat. Everyone based their decisions on the minister’s observations, without explaining their reasons or considerations, and certainly there could hardly be a more thorough reasoning than that of Barclay. Completely sharing his opinion, Kutuzov ordered plans drawn up for a retreat. He courteously listened to the opinions of his generals and could not hide his pleasure that the surrender of Moscow had been urged upon him whilst he had been committed to giving battle.

Yermolov, p. 195.

In this situation, where the generals are torn between military disaster if they stand and fight, and political disaster if they retreat without fighting, it is quite possible to imagine the decision going the other way—without Barclay insisting on the untenability of the position (which doesn’t discredit him, since he can blame it on Bennigsen) we can imagine all the generals agreeing to a hopeless stand out of fear for their reputations. There have certainly been military parallels where decisions quite as disastrous have been taken, such as the Austrian failure to retreat from Ulm in 1805.

Elsewhere in War and Peace Tolstoy grossly exaggerates the extent of historical determinism. In the epilogue to the novel he portrays the whole of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars as if they were no more than a meaningless rushing about of ants:

In 1789 a ferment arises in Paris; it grows, spreads, and is expressed by a movement of peoples from west to east. Several times it moves eastward and collides with a countermovement from the east westward. In 1812 it reaches its extreme limit, Moscow, and then, with remarkable symmetry, a countermovement occurs from east to west, attracting to it, as the first movement had done, the nations of middle Europe. The counter movement reaches the starting point of the first movement in the west—Paris—and subsides.

War and Peace 2nd Epilogue.

This is too much, but no doubt Tolstoy saw the exaggeration here and elsewhere in the novel as a necessary corrective to a literature that described the events of 1812 as the intended outcomes of the considered decisions of monarchs and generals.

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