A century and a half ago, on July 1, 1865, the first installment of Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peacewas published in the newspaper Russkiy Vestnik (the novel was titled The Year 1805 in the serialization, which ran through 1867. Whether you’re a Tolstoy aficionado or you tend to steer clear of his lengthy works, check out some fascinating facts about this classic of Russian literature.
When Russian spelling was reformed in 1918 and several useless letters were removed – the ъ in particular – the novel ended up about 11 pages shorter.
Don’t worry if the novel is not your cup of tea – Tolstoy himself was not a fan of War and Peace. As early as 1870 he wrote to a fellow author that he was glad he would never write anything as ridiculously verbose as War and Peace again. In 1908 he made a particularly dismissive entry in his diary: “People love me for the trifles – War and Peace and so on – that they think are important.”
The narrative mentions 559 different characters, of which about 200 are historical figures. Tolstoy tried to get everyone into his novel: emperors, generals, nobility, peasants, soldiers, all with their own mannerisms and speech patterns.
Russians like to claim that the title of the book could be a clever play on words. The Russian word for ‘peace,’mir, can also mean ‘world,’ so really, the claim goes, Tolstoy was writing about the relationship between war and the world we live in. But was that really his intent? In pre-Revolutionary Russian, there were two ways of writing this word, with миръ meaning ‘peace’ and мiръ meaning ‘world.’ Only once did Tolstoy himself use the second spelling, not necessarily on purpose, but several editions, including the first printing of the entire novel, used it by mistake. To contribute to the confusion, a 1916 poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky, with the same title as Tolstoy’s novel, used the play on words that Tolstoy passed up.
The novel took six years to write. During that time, Tolstoy is said to have rewritten the entire manuscript by hand at least 8 times, and individual scenes up to 26 times.
The first full version of the novel was supposed to have been published in 1866, on the heels of the few excerpts published in Russkiy Vestnik. That manuscript was significantly shorter, as it skipped many of Tolstoy’s philosophical discussions and presented French conversations in Russian (the author’s translation) instead of in French, as in later editions. One editor characterized that version as “half as long and five times as interesting” – quite a departure from the novel’s modern reputation as being a bit of a drag.
The 4-part film adaptation, filmed in 1965 in the Soviet Union, was 7 hours 11 minutes long. It was the most expensive Soviet film ever made.