Crimea through the eyes of Leo Tolstoy


by Dr. Siri Galhenage

The recent 'annexation' of Crimea by Russia raises the spectre of the Crimean War of the mid-nineteenth century. The current crisis is the result of the undemocratic removal, by a coup d'etat, of the democratically elected pro-Russian government of Ukraine with the tacit support of the West. The Russian-speaking people of Crimea, who form the majority in the peninsular district of Ukraine, opted to secede and join their 'Fatherland', attracting the wrath of the West, raising the potential for a perilous escalation of the conflict. A century and a half ago, an alliance of the British, French and Ottoman forces invaded the Crimean peninsula of the then Russian Empire, capturing the strategic Black Sea port of Sevastopol which provides access to the Mediterranean through the Bosporus. What appears to be at stake now, as it was then, is the strategic significance of the region under focus, both to the East and the West, in keeping each other at bay.

My attention was drawn to a recent statement made by Samantha Power, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. that 'Russia's assertions regarding Crimea are as creative as the works of Tolstoy and Chekov!' [I may not have quoted the exact words]. Her epithet, obviously designed to draw a punch at the Russians, made me review 'Sevastopol Sketches' by Leo Tolstoy who himself was a young soldier in the Crimean War and wrote this literary piece through direct experience!

I am not qualified to enter into a political discourse about the current crisis in Crimea. But let me allow the ghost of the Russian literary genius to echo his own words as expressed in his Sevastopol Sketches.

"...But it is a comfort to think that it was not we who began this war, that we are only defending our country, our Fatherland. The white flags have been hauled in, and again the weapons of death and suffering are shrieking; again innocent blood is shed, and groans and curses are audible."

"The hero of my tale, whom I love with all the strength of my soul, whom I have tried to set forth in all his beauty, and who has been, is, and always will be most beautiful, is - The Truth."

[Sevastopol in May 1855]


Sevastopol Sketches [Also spelt Sebastopol] is a collection of three short narratives that reflect the author's perception of the Allied invasion of Sevastopol and the Russian defence of the beleaguered city during the months of December 1854, and May and August 1855.

Sevastopol in December 1854 is regarded as a fine piece of literary art with its portrayal of a city under siege and the changing emotional tone of its inhabitants and its defenders, with 'cinematic precision'. 'At Sebastopol, more remarkably, there was a camera with intelligence called Tolstoy. His incomparable Sebastopol Sketches are cinema verite of the very highest quality'. Reflecting his own patriotic fervour, Tolstoy highlighted the valour of the Russian forces in this first narrative, published in 'The Contemporary', much to the delight of the Tsar. '....amid conditions of continual toll, lack of sleep, and dirt, there must be some other motive power'. The writer gained acclaim as the first war correspondent.

There was a turn in the tide of reportage in the second sketch -- Sevastopol in May 1855 - in which the author expressed an altered attitude towards the war as the bloody hostilities unfolded. He abandoned the ideas of glory and glamour that came through in his first despatch. Accompanying the reader to the theatre of war, he was in the midst of 'the roar of the cannon', 'bombs tearing up the earth', 'trampling hoofs of horses', 'streets splattered with blood', 'groans of wounded men', 'footsteps and voices of stretcher bearers', 'hundreds of bodies freshly smeared with blood', 'dead carried in carts' and 'the odour of dead bodies filling the air', 'frightened inhabitants' and 'prayers in the chapel'. '...and the angel of death never ceased to hover over them'. The experience of living through the horror of war helped him capture a plethora of emotions in the faces and in the hearts of both the civilians and the combatants alike - melancholy, cowardice, terror, hatred and even an admiration for the enemy. He brilliantly captured a rather poignant moment when, during a brief truce to gather the dead, the ordinary Russian and French soldiers were conversing with each other and exchanging pleasantries! He exposed the corrupt practices of the aristocratic military offices, who, beneath a facade of patriotism acted with self-interest. Their sole aim, he wrote, was to gratify their ambitions by elevating themselves in rank or gaining reward. '...vanity everywhere, even on the brink of the grave, and among men ready to die for the highest convictions'. The seed of 'futility of war' was planted in his mind, taking root for a lifelong doctrine of 'pacifism'. 'The question unresolved by the diplomats, has still not been solved by powder and blood', he wrote.

The manuscript of the May despatch was condemned by the Censor, denouncing it for ridiculing the 'brave defenders of Sevastopol'. The Editor of The Contemporary, aggrieved by the above reaction of the Censor, refused to print the altered version under Tolstoy's name; instead he published it anonymously as A Night in the Spring of 1855 in Sebastopol! Writing to young Tolstoy afterwards, the Editor said, 'Your work, of course, will not be will always remain as proof of a strength that was able to speak such profound and sober truth in circumstances amid which few men would have retained are right to value that side of your gifts most of all. Truth - in the form that you have introduced it into our literature - is something entirely new among us'.

The third narrative, Sevastopol in August 1855, includes the characterisation of two brothers and an exploration of their thoughts and feelings, and their interaction with their fellow-combatants, as the war reaches its crescendo. The Crimean port city on the Black Sea falls to the Allied Forces. The Russians flee with their 'dead under their feet' and with profound emotion in their hearts. 'Almost every soldier, as he gazed on abandoned Sevastopol from the northern shore, sighed with inexpressible bitterness of heart, and menaced the foe'. They left their beloved city veiled in smoke.


Leo Tolstoy was more than a creative writer. He was a master of realism. He was a thinker, a philosopher, a moral crusader, a 'psychologist' and a critic of history. He believed that knowledge and moral content should transcend entertainment in a novel. He had a remarkable gift of presenting reality in a lyrical art form.

As discussed in his magnum opus - War and Peace - Tolstoy had an extreme view of history. According to him, events in history are not determined by great personages, but by the cumulative and precipitate impact of a multitude of decisions made by ordinary men and women - what he called 'unconscious universal swarm life of humanity'.

A shallow epithet ignores such depth of understanding.

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