Patriotism is often most strongly defined when placed in opposition with something. This is the case in Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace, set at the time of the Russian War of 1812. Tolstoy imbued his novel with a strong patriotic theme because he was frustrated with the Russian aristocracy’s love of the French during a time when Napoleon was invading their country. By ridiculing the Russian aristocracy’s imitation of the French and creating strong Russian protagonists Tolstoy created a feeling of Russian pride in War and Peace to show both that Russia would triumph over Napoleon in 1812 and that Russian culture was respectable on its own, equal to or better than that of Western Europe.
The important families in the novel each take sides in the cultural dispute. The Kuragin family religiously adheres to French culture and customs to the extent that they continue their devotion to the French as Napoleon invades Moscow. Meanwhile, the Bolkonski and Rostov families follow traditional Russian customs and practices. Tolstoy urges us to sympathize with the Russians, portraying the adherents of French culture as shallow, scheming, and cowardly, while the Russians are patriotic and heroic. Tolstoy despises the idea that French culture is somehow superior to Russian. Therefore he ridicules members of the Russian aristocracy, such as the Kuragins, who only know French and cannot even speak Russian, suggesting that by speaking another country’s language at the expense of their own, they are implying that their culture is inferior. This is why Tolstoy’s protagonists have such strong Russian characteristics: they reflect the author’s own patriotism.
As his protagonists vehemently oppose Napoleon and adhere to traditional Russian culture, Tolstoy supports his view that Russia’s culture is worth more than that of France. The strong sense of nationality apparent in the Bolkonski and Rostov families coupled with their numerous virtues make them characters that the audience can easily identify with. By setting Russian culture against French in the form of the War of 1812 and declaring Russia the winner, Tolstoy sets Russia above France and the rest of Europe on an intellectual and cultural level. In this way the theme of patriotism serves to praise Russian culture and to criticize those who abandon the traditions of their homeland.