There are many “great men,” or historical figures, who appear throughout Tolstoy’s work. Many have single appearances, like the Austrian general Karl von Mack. Others appear repeatedly; their shadow sort of hanging over the principal characters. Two such great men stand out, and both are dialectically contrasted with each other: The French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Russian field marshal Mikhail Kutuzov.
Napoleon’s depiction in the novel varies. When first introduced via discussion at Anna Pavlovna’s party, the Russian aristocracy is very much against the murderer and barbarous character of Napoleon. They do not give him his titles and paint him in the language of negativity. He is called a “murderer and villain” during the court. Only the naïve Pierre defends Napoleon by way of sleight of hand or red herring. As Pierre defends Napoleon and the French Revolution, “I am talking about ideas,” he informs his Russian counterparts. (This is a major theme discussed by Tolstoy: The distinction between the realm of fantasy and ideas and the realm of the concrete and the living.) After peace between Russia and France at Tilsit (1807), Napoleon is referred to as emperor and a legitimate ruler; only to be again referred to as the “anti-Christ” and a murderous villain in his invasion of Russia in 1812.
Kutuzov, by contrast, is not depicted as the great hero as much as he is depicted as being human. The specter of Napoleon haunts the story and drives the plot’s externality. Napoleon’s invasion of the Holy Roman Empire and Austria brings the Russian army to Austerlitz where Pierre is wounded. Napoleon’s invasion of Prussia brings the Russian army, and Nikolai, to defeat in 1807 (merely mentioned in the story). And Napoleon’s invasion of Russia is the culmination of all the plotlines and characters of the story bringing about the death of Prince Andrei. But where Napoleon looms over characters as a dark shadow, Kutuzov is a very real, flesh and blood, officer. While Kutuzov is only depicted alongside Pierre, for the most part, we see a contrast between the two “great leaders.” Kutuzov is a humane person, a caring and compassionate officer, and interested in the best for his soldiers and his country.
On the eve of the Battle of Borodino, the Russian Orthodox priests are processing an icon of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God. The soldiers rush to the procession to kneel and cross themselves before their “Protectress.” So too, does Kutuzov. Kutuzov’s kneeling and crossing himself among the common soldiers shows himself to be no different than the common soldier. In fact, Tolstoy recounts that while some soldiers recognized the general as he kneeled and prayed with them, most didn’t take notice at all. It is a very humane and human moment. But this human moment was already known to readers from earlier encounters with Kutuzov. Andrei, having been his aide, had several discussions with the great general who spoke and treated Andrei as a friend rather than an instrument of military and political vainglory.
During the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon’s only moment of humanity is in observing the carnage of the battlefield. Looking over the thousands of dead, including officers he knew, Napoleon was overcome with a moment of sadness. In that moment his aura of invincible conqueror-general was broken and, like Kutuzov before the Theotokos, showed his humanity. “At that minute he felt no longing for Moscow, for victory or for glory,” Tolstoy writes of the brief event before Napoleon was snapped back into robotic battle mode upon further news of the development of the battle.
Wherever Napoleon goes, death follows. Wherever Kutuzov goes, humanity and face-to-face conversation manifests itself. The nihilistic grandeur of Napoleon is precisely that—an empty grandeur with nothing on the inside. The great monuments and armies means nothing to the interiority of the soul. Kutuzov, then, is the only truly “great man” in the Carlylean sense. Of the great kings, emperors, and generals, it is Kutuzov who shines as an image of love and humanity in a world scarred by mud, horror, and war.