Saturday, March 7, 2009

"War and Peace": What Russian Kids Are Supposed to Learn

Now, for something completely different... This week I looked up the Russian government learning standards for Russian literature in high school and found guidelines on what Russian schoolkids should learn when they read War and Peace. Here are some highlights, in my very casual translation. (Russian original is a long PDF available here.)

-History of the work.

-The genre uniqueness of the novel. Particularities of the composition, antithesis as the central device of composition.

-The “inner person” and the “outer person.” Characters, Tolstoy’s ideas on morality, his criteria for assessing personality/character.

-Andrei Bolkonsky, Pierre Bezukhov, and their ideological/moral quests.

-Platon Karataev and the author’s conception of “common life.” [“in common”]

-Portrayal of society.

-Lifestyles of the Rostov and Bolkonsky families.

-Natasha Rostova and Princess Mar’ia as Tolstoy’s favorites heroines.

-The role of the epilogue.

-Tolstoy’s philosophy of history. The theme of war in the novel.

-Military topics: Schengraben, Austerlitz, and Borodino (as a centerpiece of the novel), and the portrayal of the war of 1812 and partisan warfare.

-The question of national character.

-The characters Tushin, Timokhin, Shcherbatov. [And you thought they were minor!]

-The question of true and false heroism.

-Tolstoy’s portrayal of the Russian soldier.

-Kutuzov and Napoleon as polar opposites.

-Moscow and St. Petersburg in the novel.

-The psychologism of Tolstoy’s prose.

-Devices for portraying the spiritual lives of characters (“the dialectic of the soul”).

-Use of portrait, landscape, dialogue, and internal monologue.

-The meaning of the title and the poetics of the epic novel.

-Tolstoy’s artistic discoveries, and the worldwide significance of the writer’s works.  

That’s a lot to cover in the allotted 20-25 hours, but I’m sorry they left out one of the topics we discussed in depth when I studied the book: mistakes, randomness, and how planning goes awry. Of course this theme fits into some of the topics on the school list – notably, the philosophy of history – but I think it’s central to understanding the book, particularly since the form and the content of War and Peace complement each other.

I can’t help but mention two favorite episodes from this past week’s reading:

I’ve always enjoyed the scene (Book 3, Part 1, Section 19) where Pierre, after reading the Apocalypse, tries his hand at numerology and rigs the system. Both Napoleon and Pierre come out equal to the number 666, denoting Napoleon as the antichrist and, somehow, connecting Pierre with Napoleon.

A little later (Book 3, Part 2, Section 5), Tolstoy describes August heat and drought in almost Apocalyptic terms: swamps are dried up, crops are burned, and cattle are starving. A couple pages later, Prince Andrei comes across our friend Timokhin (see above!) and other soldiers at a dirty pond, swimming. Andrei sees them as naked, white bodies, meat, cannon fodder.

This brief second passage strikes me as containing layers of religious meaning: one man crosses himself before taking a running jump into the water, strengthening the feel that the men are cleansing themselves before death. Prince Andrei shudders looking at all the bodies, including his own.


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