The real War and Peace: how sex and excess ruled the Russian court

Historian Amanda Vickery lifts the lid on the torrid history of Russia's nobility: 'It seems to belong to Game of Thrones rather than Enlightenment Europe'

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So it’s Sunday night and a new well-upholstered costume drama is upon us. BBC1’s War and Peace opens with a soirée of nobles in a gilded salon, all empire-line dresses and tight-cut breeches. It is St Petersburg in the summer of 1805, and Napoleon is on the march.

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The screenwriter Andrew Davies, who sexed up Jane Austen in the 1990s, has chunked Tolstoy’s magisterial novel into six pacy episodes. So is this Pride and Prejudice in Russia? The familiar ballroom heartbreaks with a few battles thrown in?

For a historian of 18th-century Britain and a devotee of Jane Austen like me, so much is familiar about aristocratic Russian life, but so much is strange and even outlandish.

Britain was a tiny, compact, highly urbanised, commercial and manufacturing power, with a monarchy tempered by Parliament. But Russia was a vast rural empire stretching from the Baltic to the Bering Sea, from the Arctic Ocean to the Caspian, governed by a single dynasty of murderous autocrats – the Romanovs.

After the Romanov seizure of power in 1613, the Russian empire grew at an extraordinary rate. Victory over Sweden at the Battle of Poltava in 1709 signalled Russia’s emergence as a great European power and enabled the warlord Peter the Great to raise St Petersburg on the Neva delta, his Venice of the north.

Yet the refined elegance of St Petersburg can be deceptive. “In Russia the government is autocracy tempered by strangulation,” remarked the French bluestocking Madame de Stael.

Family rivalry proved lethal. Peter the Great had his insubordinate son Alexei tortured to death. The enlightened despot Catherine the Great rose to power in a coup d’état in 1762, overthrowing her husband Peter III, the reigning Tsar, who died eight days later. It’s thought Catherine may have had a hand in his death. And her grandson Alexander was complicit in the brutal murder of his father Tsar Paul in 1801.

Romanov debauchery seems to belong to the decadence of the Roman Empire, or even Game of Thrones, rather than Enlightenment Europe. Peter the Great was fascinated by decapitation, staged parties featuring naked female dwarves and challenged his courtiers to lethal vodka-drinking contests.

The wives of the Romanovs could still be found through bride shows – a cattle call of the prettiest, most fecund-looking daughters of nobility. Catherine trusted her former lover Potemkin as her chief of staff, while he bedded his nieces in turn. The empress engaged a parade of sexual partners, some much younger, pensioning them off when she tired of them. The bitter family feuds and adulteries of our Hanoverian monarchs look positively suburban in comparison.

The cast of War and Peace are all a cut above the likes of Mr Darcy and Emma Woodhouse. Napoleon considered the British to be a nation of shopkeepers, but Russia had no middle class or gentry, in fact few ranks at all between nobles and serfs. The real-life counterparts of Tolstoy’s heroes Prince Bolkonsky and Count Bezukhov owned tens of thousands of serfs. (Serfdom was an ancient form of forced labour on the land, a lowly state but one allowing some rights. But by the 19th century, serfs could be bought and sold, punished and married off.)

Hierarchy and servitude were ingrained and extreme; protocol was minute and stifling. For instance, no Russian aristocrat could sit in the presence of superiors. The theatres were full of junior officers hanging about in case a colonel turned up and needed a seat.

This small and snobbish aristocracy was scattered over an immense terrain. Beyond the great cities of St Petersburg and Moscow, there was very little in the way of urbanisation and only a tiny literate public. Noble manor houses have been described as tiny islands of European culture on a vast Russian peasant sea.

The Russian aristocracy took western Europe as the model – Tolstoy sneered that the mark of the elite was first-class French, well-kept nails  and “a constant expression of elegant and contemptuous ennui”. Well-born young ladies learned dancing, deportment, music, and modern languages from German and French governesses, but they had no access to the institutions open to their brothers. Empresses apart, ladies were just as constrained in Tolstoy’s Russia as in Jane Austen’s Hampshire. Wealth, rank, connections and looks dictated everything.

As in England, well-born young women on the Moscow marriage market had to maintain maidenly decorum. However, Tolstoy’s women are more erring and full-blooded than Austen’s. The ardent, virginal Natasha Rostova longs for physical love and a full life, a desire that leads to her ruin – but Tolstoy gives her a second chance. Nevertheless, men take the honours. As Catherine, sister of Tsar Alexander I, remarked in later life, “The thing I most regret is not having been a man in 1812.”

War and Peace unfolds concurrently with many of Austen’s novels, and yet the Napoleonic Wars only ever brush the edges of her writing. Military engagements happen off stage, at a safe distance. But Tolstoy’s war is thunderously present: War and Peace sees its heroes captured or mortally wounded, its heroines barely escaping the front line and the cities they danced in put to the torch. The battle reaches the ballroom; there is no separation between War and Peace.

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Amanda Vickery is a professor of early modern history at Queen Mary, University of London