Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel—featuring hundreds of characters, numerous plot threads, and a battle sequence that lasts more than 20 chapters—is the literary equivalent of a marathon. Here are a few facts about the author, his struggles to bring War and Peace to life, and the lasting impact the work has had in Russia and beyond.
1. War and Peace wasn’t the novel’s original title.
The first installment of Tolstoy’s work—“The Year 1805”—appeared in the journal Russian Messenger in February 1865. Serializing a work of fiction was common for writers at the time, and a way for Tolstoy to support himself as he continued working on the novel. The stark title indicated the year in which his story—and the rumblings of revolution—begins, and it’s one Tolstoy always saw as a placeholder. Tolstoy considered other provisional titles as he continued working on the story, including, for a short time, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
2. Leo Tolstoy was inspired by the Decembrists’ revolt of 1825.
The Russian count’s original plan for War and Peace was nothing like the end product. Tolstoy envisioned a trilogy that centered on the attempted overthrow of Tsar Nicolas I by a group of military officers who became known as The Decembrists.
The first book would examine the officers’ lives and ideological development during the Napoleonic Wars. The second book would focus on their failed uprising, with a third book following the officers during their exile and eventual return from Siberia. Tolstoy saw the uprising as a seminal moment in Russian history—a turning point for the nation when Western ideals clashed with traditionally Russian ideals. As Tolstoy began writing, he was so taken with the time period surrounding the Napoleonic Wars that he decided to make it his sole focus.
3. He had issues writing the opening of the novel.
The book’s opening scene did not come to Tolstoy in a flash. In fact, it took almost a full year for the author to write an introduction that he was happy with. During that time, according to Tolstoy scholar Kathryn B. Feuer, he wrote 15 beginnings, elaborating on two of them, as well as four introductions and a preface to the novel. Tolstoy, a perfectionist, insisted on getting the introduction right before moving on; thankfully for him, the rest of the novel came out at a faster pace.
4. Tolstoy’s wife was invaluable to his writing process.
Tolstoy would often insist that his wife Sofya sit with him while he wrote. She also served as her husband’s first reader, cleaning up his copy and noting changes she thought he should make. At Sofya’s insistence, Tolstoy axed a particularly racy scene from Pierre Bezukhov’s wedding night. Sofya would also copy her husband’s drafts into a more legible form for his publishers. As Rosamund Bartlett writes in Tolstoy: A Russian Life, her deciphering of Tolstoy’s “execrable handwriting, and then preparing a legible final draft of the manuscript was a gargantuan task.”
5. Sofya Tolstoy was also shrewd about the business side.
Tolstoy was pleased to see “The Year 1805” in serial form. The story was a hit with readers, and the publishers of Russian Messenger paid him well. But Sofya urged her husband to publish the work in book form, arguing that he could earn more money and reach a wider audience. This led to the 1867 novel War and Peace, which was only half the final novel. The book’s success inspired him to speed up his writing, which had begun to lag, and the complete novel was published in 1869.
6. The book has a massive cast of characters.
For readers who have trouble keeping track of who’s who in a book, it might be a good idea to keep a notebook handy while reading War and Peace. The novel introduces a total of 559 characters from beginning to end, with approximately 200 of those names being real-life historical figures.
7. Leo Tolstoy based many of his characters on family members.
While visiting family in Moscow in 1864, Tolstoy read his relatives sections of his work in progress. The family was surprised to hear numerous similarities between themselves and the characters. In a novel with as many characters as War and Peace, this was, perhaps, inevitable.
It also added shades of authenticity, since some of Tolstoy’s family members, including his distant cousin Prince Sergey Volkonsky, had actually fought in the Napoleonic Wars. (As the name similarity might indicate, Tolstoy’s relatives inspired numerous members of the fictional Bolkonsky relatives.) According to Bartlett, though, this was a common practice for Tolstoy. “Throughout his writing career, Tolstoy pillaged his family history for creative material,” she writes.
8. Tolstoy’s friends and family helped with his research.
A historical novel as long and involved as War and Peace required exhaustive research. Tolstoy read as many books about the Napoleonic Wars as he could. He also conducted interviews with veterans and visited battlefields like Borodino. But being one man, he didn’t have time to research everything himself. So he called on his father-in-law, Andrey Bers, who clipped old newspaper articles for Tolstoy and reminisced about his childhood in the early 1800s. Tolstoy also turned to historian friends for help, carrying on lengthy correspondences and even bringing some of them to his estate of Yasnaya Polyana. The most important asset in Tolstoy’s research may have been Moscow’s first public libraries, which opened in the 1860s as part of the cultural awakening that swept through the city.
9. Tolstoy was constantly revising War and Peace.
Scholars note that Tolstoy’s progress on War and Peace frequently stalled as the author reworked portions of the book again and again. The constant churn could be frustrating to the author, who would often clear his head with hunting excursions on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana. Even after the six volumes of War and Peace were completed, Tolstoy went back and revised. He cut out pages and pages of commentary, eventually whittling the work down to four volumes.
10. Tolstoy fought for a big pay day—and got it.
When he had previously published in Russian Messenger, Tolstoy received 50 rubles for each printer’s sheet. For Tolstoy’s war epic, publisher Mikhail Katkov wanted to continue paying the author at this rate. But according to Bartlett, Tolstoy knew he was worth more than that, and demanded 300 rubles per sheet. After hours of tense negotiations, Katkov agreed to the rate, and Tolstoy received 3000 rubles for the 10 sheets that made up the first installment of “1805.” Consider that the average monthly wage for a Russian worker was 10 rubles, and you get some idea of just how much money Tolstoy was bringing in.
11. War and Peace appeared in Russian Messenger at the same time as another Russian masterpiece.
In 1866, as the last installments of Tolstoy’s “1805” were being published, another story appeared in Russian Messenger that generated considerable buzz: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Appearing in monthly installments, the story (alongside “1805”) made Russian Messenger one of the most significant literary journals in history. The significance may have been lost on Katkov, who, in addition to paying through the nose to Tolstoy, had to deal with the fact that Dostoevsky “struggled to meet the deadlines for each of the monthly installments of Crime and Punishment,” according to Bartlett.
12. A major scene in War and Peace hinges on a comet.
At a turning point in the novel, Pierre reveals his longstanding romantic feelings for Natasha, though she is in love with another man. He steps outside to collect his thoughts and looks up in the starlit sky: “Surrounded on every side by stars, but distinguished from all the rest by its nearness to earth, and by its white light, and by its long, curling tail, stood the tremendous brilliant comet of 1812, the very comet which men thought presaged all manner of woes and the end of the world. But in Pierre, this brilliant luminary, with its long train of light, awoke no terror.”
The comet’s appearance was a real event in 1811 (and was visible with the naked eye into January 1812). Reportedly, the tail appeared as long as 50 full moons. It remained visible for 260 nights—enough time for people to assign all kinds of meaning to it. Napoleon saw it as a good omen for his invasion of Russia, which Tolstoy echoed in War and Peace.
13. Critics were bewildered by War and Peace.
“What genre are we supposed to file it into?” a reviewer in the journal Golos asked. “Where is fiction in it, and where is history?” The question reflected a common sentiment among critics upon reading a novel that told of real events, re-created real battles, and included real people like Napoleon Bonaparte and Tsar Alexander I. Was War and Peace fiction, or was it non-fiction? The truth, of course, is that it was both.
In dramatizing history with such scope and detail, Tolstoy had taken a massive leap towards the modern historical novel. History, Tolstoy believed, is the chronicle of individual lives, and fiction is the best way to reveal those lives. Many readers were on board, and War and Peace became a smash success. “It is the epic, the history novel and the vast picture of the whole nation’s life,” novelist Ivan Turgenev wrote.
14. War and Peace presented a revolution in narrative perspective.
Tolstoy wasn’t the first author to utilize internal monologue (or the internal thoughts of characters), but many scholars credit him with revolutionizing its use. According to Feuer, the author mastered the art of presenting a character’s internal response to external objects and events.
She also noted, as others have, Tolstoy’s seamless use of multiple perspectives, from sweeping battle scenes that situate the reader high above the mayhem, to the intimate goings-on within the minds of Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova, and other characters.
15. Tolstoy wrote a defense of War and Peace.
Despite an overwhelmingly positive response to War and Peace from readers and critics, Tolstoy wanted to address those who criticized the work’s genre ambiguity. In the journal Russian Archive, Tolstoy wrote an essay titled “A Few Words About the Novel War and Peace” (which, because it was written by Tolstoy, was much more than a few words).
He made clear his apathy toward European literary forms, famously claiming that War and Peace was not, in fact, a novel: “What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, still less a [narrative] poem, and even less an historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted to and could express in the form in which it was expressed.”
16. War and Peace took a toll on Leo Tolstoy’s health.
The six years Tolstoy toiled away on War and Peace taxed both his mind and body. Toward the end of the writing process, he developed migraines, which he often tried to work through but which would sometimes stop him in his tracks. After finishing the work, he came down with a severe case of the flu that left him feeling drained for weeks. The author took a prolonged hiatus from writing, focusing instead on learning Greek and building a schoolhouse for the children who lived at Yasnaya Polyana.
17. Military minds praised War and Peace’s battle scenes.
Tolstoy was no stranger to war: He served as an artillery officer during the Crimean War, where he witnessed the bloody orchestra of battle at places like Sevastopol. Tolstoy channeled his experiences into the battle sequences of War and Peace. The Battle of Borodino, in particular, which comprises more than 20 chapters of the book, is widely praised as the finest battle sequence ever written. Russian military commanders offered glowing praise for the novel’s descriptive powers of battle and one former general even wrote that it should be required reading for all Russian Army officers.
18. Tolstoy wasn’t much of a War and Peace fan.
Maybe it was all the time he spent with the story and all of its characters, or maybe the development of his sensibilities as an artist, but Tolstoy became disenchanted with his seminal work shortly after finishing it. He wrote to a friend that he hoped to never again write something as bloated as War and Peace. In his diary, he wrote, “People love me for the trifles—War and Peace and so on—that they think are so important.”
18. The Soviet film adaptation of War and Peace was appropriately epic.
When American audiences think of grand, costly films, the likes of Gone with the Wind (1939), Cleopatra (1963), and Titanic (1997) typically come to mind. But Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966 adaptation of War and Peace has them all beat. Filmed over six years—the same time it took Tolstoy to write the novel—and lasting six hours, the film supposedly had all the resources of the Soviet Union at its disposal. This included more than 120,000 extras, many of them Red Army soldiers, used to film the movie’s staggering battle sequences, and a budget that ballooned to more than $100 million.
But talking to National Geographic in 1986, Bondarchuk said that these numbers largely weren’t real: it was actually eight hours (“some tradesman in America cut it without my knowledge”) and the 120,000 extras was an exaggeration and “all I had was 12,000.”
The movie, shown to audiences in two parts, was intended to bolster patriotism and to showcase the strength of the Soviet film industry. That it also balances action with strong performances and odd, intimate moments, like a soldier demanding a commendation in the middle of a battle, is a testament to Bondarchuk’s artistry. “You are never, ever going to see anything equal to it,” wrote Roger Ebert.
19. Russia held a 60-hour-long live reading of War and Peace in 2015.
In 2015, Russian state television aired a unique live reading of War and Peace. Over the course of 60 hours, more than 1000 Russians from all over the world read the book in three-minute increments. One by one, readers from Washington, Paris, Beijing, Nepal, and numerous other locations took their turn. Cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, situated aboard the International Space Station, even read an excerpt. The event was organized by Leo Tolstoy’s great-great granddaughter, and included family members reading from Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate.
20. War and Peace isn’t the longest book ever written—not even close.
War and Peace is regularly used a punch line when discussing the longest books ever written, but it doesn’t even come close to earning that title. While its first published edition was 1225 pages long, its English version (owing to translation changes) puts it at about 587,287 words total. Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel A Suitable Boy, on the other hand, comes in at more than 590,000 words; Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is about 645,000 words; Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is 655,478 words; and American author Madison Cooper’s 1952 tome Sironia, Texas contains a whopping 840,000 words (albeit in two volumes). Guinness World Records considers the longest novel ever published to be Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which has nearly 1.9 million words and a character count (including spaces) of 9,609,000.
21. In 1918, War and Peace got a little shorter.
In 1918, the Russian alphabet got a bit of a makeover in order to get rid of several underutilized letters, which included the letter ъ. Its removal from War and Peace supposedly led to the book becoming 11 pages shorter.
22. War and Peace inspired a musical.
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is based on 70 pages of War and Peace—specifically, Volume Two, Part Five (chapters three through five were omitted). Composer and lyricist Dave Malloy was working on a cruise ship when he read the novel; he told Radio Boston that he was “swept away” by how the section had the “perfect structure” for a musical, thanks to its narrative drive and elements like Natasha’s fall from grace and Pierre’s mid-life crisis. The Great Comet of 1812 debuted on Broadway in 2016 with Josh Groban as Pierre and Denée Benton as Natasha; it won two Tony Awards.
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2023.