The BBC last adapted War and Peace for television in 1972, when Anthony Hopkins (sporting an impressive amount of facial hair) played Pierre Bezukhov. Back then, filming in Soviet Russia wasn’t an option, so the epic battle scenes were shot in Yugoslavia, where the 1,000 extras sweated in 35-degree heat in summer and froze during the winter scenes.
This time round, the BBC did decamp to St Petersburg to film inside Catherine Palace – the summer residence of the tsars – and Yusupov Palace. You’ll also spy the majestic, mint-green façade of the Winter Palace, which is now the world-famous Hermitage Museum (pictured above).
Catherine Place, south of St Petersburg
Yet even with access to St Petersburg’s sumptuous palaces, filming Tolstoy’s epic tome was no mean feat.
There are over 100 speaking parts and a further 600 extras. Each of his five aristocratic families own three mansions apiece: their St Petersburg home, Moscow home and summer home. Nothing of medieval Moscow remains because of the 1812 French invasion that the novel chronicles. Last but not least, there are the epic battles and the crucial part played by the Russian climate: the snowy winter, the baking summers.
In fact, most of the snow you’ll see on screen is Lithuanian, not Russian. The southernmost of the Baltic states has a starring role in this adaptation, while neighbouring Latvia also has a cameo.
“My starting point with a period drama is film it where it’s set,” explains producer Julia Stannard. “We filmed what we could in Russia but we couldn’t have done the battles there because it is more expensive and there isn’t the infrastructure.
“So you then look at: where is the closest place? You want to still be working in Eastern Europe because of the architecture. And because we needed hundreds of extras and people do look different in Eastern Europe. Also, they have a better understanding of the text because they grow up with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, so we were very keen to tap into that.”
During the five-month shoot, the cast and crew visited dozens of palaces, stately homes, museums and even a university. Below, Julia Stannard takes us on a behind-the-scenes tour…
“Our very first shot on our first day in Russia was of a sleigh outside the Winter Palace – just as it began snowing,” explains Stannard. “Five months later, we finished the shoot in St Petersburg because of course the city looks completely different in summer.
Filming outside the grand entrance to Catherine Palace, St Petersburg
“The gold ballroom where Natasha Rostov first dances with Prince Andrei is the mirrored ballroom at Catherine Palace, which is named after the second wife of St Peter the Great. We also filmed inside Yusupov Palace, which is the home of a very famous wealthy Russian family of the same name. It’s where [the last tsar’s trusted advisor] Rasputin was killed in 1916. So all these places just oozed with history.
“Naked flames were a complete no-no. Of course we wanted candlelight because that’s how rooms were lit, so we had to create special bulbs that looked like flickering candlelight. And everybody had to wear shoe-covers – there was a tricky moment where I thought they were going to make our cast wear them, which obviously wouldn’t have looked very good with 19th century ball gowns!”
Essentials: The State Hermitage Museum – as the Winter Palace is now known – is in the city centre and houses a vast collection of art. Catherine Palace is located around 25km south of the city and is an easy day trip by train or metro. Yusupov Palace is also in the city centre, on the Moika River. See their websites for ticket prices and opening times: State Hermitage Museum, Catherine Palace, Yusupov Palace.
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“Novgorod is one of the oldest towns in Russia and a world-heritage site full of wonderful medieval monuments and churches,” says Stannard. “Our Voronezh is actually the beautiful white buildings in Novgorod and we filmed the approach to Moscow in the surrounding countryside.”
Essentials: Novgorod is 180km from St Petersburg and a popular weekend getaway. Most visitors catch the regular trains, which take 2 ½ hours or 4 ½ from Moscow.
“We shot the streets of Moscow in the old town of Lithuania’s capital because the architecture is very close to Russian architecture. They let us close down whole areas of the city centre, put our snow down and bring in flames and smoke. Things that would be a lot more difficult in other capital cities around the world!”
Look out for the arresting Gothic exterior of St Nikolai’s Church and the red tower of Gediminas Castle, which are both open to the public.
Vilnius’ old town
“An hour’s drive from Vilnius is this extraordinary open-air museum that replicates how Lithuanians lived in the 18th and 19th century. So there are these wonderful wooden houses where we filmed the dwelling places of the officers during the war campaign: Kutuzov’s quarters, Andrei’s quarters and a lot of the scenes where you see the soldiers marching across Russia.”
Essentials: Rumsiskes is open year-round, but is best visited between May and September when craft demonstrations take place in many of the ‘villages’. It’s situated next to the Vilnius-Kaunas highway, and some buses will drop off visitors if asked to do so. See the website for ticket prices and opening times.
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The battle scenes were also shot in Lithuania – on farmland in the countryside around Vilnius. “We had to find three different areas because the Battle of Austerlitz is in Austria, so we needed to make that look different from the battle of Schongrabern, which is in Russia,” explains Stannard. “So we filmed one on a sheep farm, one on a horse farm. You’re always trying to be as authentic as you can be.”
“We had about 300 soldiers who were all local boys, many of whom had had no acting experience. We trained them in how to handle weapons, load cannons and march.
Filming a battle scene in the farmland around Vilnius, Lithuania
“Russia is a massive country and the only way of showing those snowy wastes is by shooting it when the snow is there. When we recced it was minus 23 – the air burnt your throat when you breathed. It was only minus 16 when we were actually filming but it was still tough. We had to have heated tents and just keep giving people hot drinks and soup. I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of pounds we spent on thermal underwear and blankets!
“That’s another reason we wanted to film in Eastern Europe: people associate it with freezing winters but actually it’s really hot in the summers. So when they were fighting the battle of Borodino, there’s searing heat and dust and of course that plays a large part in the war itself: how the soldiers cope with those adverse circumstances. Climate, weather and the part of the world you’re in play immense roles in this story.”
“In Latvia, there’s an amazing palace called Rundale in Bauska, which doubles incredibly well as a Russian palace because the same architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli, also designed the Winter Palace and Catherine Palace.
Rundale Palace, Latvia
“We filmed there for two weeks. The opening scene – Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s soirée – was filmed in the Golden Room there. Because it looks like St Petersburg, we were able to film the Rostov’s home and some of the Bezukhov’s home there. We also made the most of the beautiful grounds.”
Essentials: Rundale Palace is an easy day trip from Riga, Latvia’s capital, and is most easily accessed by road. See the website for ticket prices and opening times.
War and Peace continues on Sundays on BBC1 at 9pm
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