Tolstoy Calls Us to Aid Syrian Refugees

Hepburn as Natasa in "War and Peace" (1956)

Hepburn as Natasa in “War and Peace” (1956)


This is an overdue post on the Syrian refugee crisis, which is directly impacting Europe and adding more fuel to nativist politics around the world, including in the United States. While the Obama administration has agreed to accept 10,000 refugees for the upcoming fiscal year and has raised the ceiling to 85,000 overall, good Christians like Donald Trump and Ben Carson are against accepting anyone, with the Donald promising to send everyone back if he becomes president.

I thought about their hardness of heart this past week as I was reading the scene in War and Peace where the Rostov family is packing up their belongings to flee Moscow. The Rostovs have money problems because of the count’s generosity, but they are still well off and own a lot of carpets, paintings, furniture, and the like. The question is whether they should leave some of this behind and instead offer wounded soldiers a place in the wagons.

These soldiers are already in their house because of an invitation from the tenderhearted Natasha. The subsequent struggle is between, on the one hand, the count and Natasha and, on the other, the countess.

Generosity wins the first round. The count can’t say no to an appeal for help from one of the wounded officers:

“Count, be so good as to allow me… for God’s sake, to get into some corner of one of your carts! I have nothing here with me…. I shall be all right on a loaded cart…”

Before the officer had finished speaking the orderly made the same request on behalf of his master.

“Oh, yes, yes, yes!” said the count hastily. “I shall be very pleased, very pleased. Vasilich, you’ll see to it. Just unload one or two carts. Well, what of it… do what’s necessary…” said the count, muttering some indefinite order.

But at the same moment an expression of warm gratitude on the officer’s face had already sealed the order. The count looked around him. In the yard, at the gates, at the window of the wings, wounded officers and their orderlies were to be seen. They were all looking at the count and moving toward the porch.

“Please step into the gallery, your excellency,” said the major-domo. “What are your orders about the pictures?”

The count went into the house with him, repeating his order not to refuse the wounded who asked for a lift.

“Well, never mind, some of the things can be unloaded,” he added in a soft, confidential voice, as though afraid of being overheard.

The second round goes to the countess, who is not entirely wrong to be wary of her husband’s generosity. Then again, the Rostofs are hardly poor:

“What is this, my dear? I hear that the luggage is being unloaded.”

“You know, love, I wanted to tell you… Countess dear… an officer came to me to ask for a few carts for the wounded. After all, ours are things that can be bought but think what being left behind means to them!… Really now, in our own yard—we asked them in ourselves and there are officers among them…. You know, I think, my dear… let them be taken… where’s the hurry?”

The count spoke timidly, as he always did when talking of money matters. The countess was accustomed to this tone as a precursor of news of something detrimental to the children’s interests…

She assumed her dolefully submissive manner and said to her husband: “Listen to me, Count, you have managed matters so that we are getting nothing for the house, and now you wish to throw away all our—all the children’s property! You said yourself that we have a hundred thousand rubles’ worth of things in the house. I don’t consent, my dear, I don’t! Do as you please! It’s the government’s business to look after the wounded; they know that. Look at the Lopukhins opposite, they cleared out everything two days ago. That’s what other people do. It’s only we who are such fools. If you have no pity on me, have some for the children.”

It appears as though the countess will prevail until Natasha intervenes. Notice how shame works as a force in Tolstoy’s world whereas Trump and Carson seem impervious to it:

“Mamma, it’s impossible: see what is going on in the yard!” she cried. “They will be left!…”

“What’s the matter with you? Who are ‘they’? What do you want?”

“Why, the wounded! It’s impossible, Mamma. It’s monstrous!… No, Mamma darling, it’s not the thing. Please forgive me, darling…. Mamma, what does it matter what we take away? Only look what is going on in the yard… Mamma!… It’s impossible!”

The count stood by the window and listened without turning round. Suddenly he sniffed and put his face closer to the window.

The countess glanced at her daughter, saw her face full of shame for her mother, saw her agitation, and understood why her husband did not turn to look at her now, and she glanced round quite disconcerted.

“Oh, do as you like! Am I hindering anyone?” she said, not surrendering at once.

“Mamma, darling, forgive me!”

But the countess pushed her daughter away and went up to her husband.

“My dear, you order what is right…. You know I don’t understand about it,” said she, dropping her eyes shamefacedly.

“The eggs… the eggs are teaching the hen,” muttered the count through tears of joy, and he embraced his wife who was glad to hide her look of shame on his breast.

Once the decisions has been made to help the soldiers, the Rostovs are rewarded with the fullness of heart that comes with doing good:

The whole household, as if to atone for not having done it sooner, set eagerly to work at the new task of placing the wounded in the carts. The wounded dragged themselves out of their rooms and stood with pale but happy faces round the carts. The news that carts were to be had spread to the neighboring houses, from which wounded men began to come into the Rostovs’ yard. Many of the wounded asked them not to unload the carts but only to let them sit on the top of the things. But the work of unloading, once started, could not be arrested. It seemed not to matter whether all or only half the things were left behind. Cases full of china, bronzes, pictures, and mirrors that had been so carefully packed the night before now lay about the yard, and still they went on searching for and finding possibilities of unloading this or that and letting the wounded have another and yet another cart.

“We can take four more men,” said the steward. “They can have my trap, or else what is to become of them?”

“Let them have my wardrobe cart,” said the countess. “Dunyasha can go with me in the carriage.”

They unloaded the wardrobe cart and sent it to take wounded men from a house two doors off. The whole household, servants included, was bright and animated. Natasha was in a state of rapturous excitement such as she had not known for a long time.

The United States is the wealthiest country in the world, but you wouldn’t know it from our political discourse.

This entry was posted in Tolstoy (Leo) and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete