Since its inception, literature has been pervaded with conflict; according to Aristotle, in order to maintain one’s interest, the hero must have at least a single conflict.[1] Literature in itself is a form of propaganda, political in scope, with varying motives such as the normative, or indeed anarchy, chaos and confusion. In the Russian masterpieces War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, conflict makes itself visible in its varying constructions: internal and moral conflict; the writing of the book itself as a controversial statement or propaganda tool; and indeed subjects that produce conflict as a by-product; religion, philosophy, and the unsolvable. Ultimately, conflict is inescapable within literature; it is salient to the growth of plot and character, and it almost always used as a tool by the author to express a wider concern.

Internal conflict is imbued within characters in both We and War and Peace. The character of Anna Pavlovna in Tolstoy’s epic summarises how this leads to a crisis: “How can one be well… when one suffers morally?” Indeed, internal suffering is what contributes to the overriding pathos in Zamyatin’s protagonist, D-503; he cannot proselytise his old, indoctrinated views of OneState into the teachings of the alluring 1-330 without thinking that he is “sick.” The notion of sickness encompasses many seemingly normal human reflexes – dreams, sexual attraction, and imagination – yet within the dystopia, “sick and not normal are the same thing.” It is the inextricable connection to his totalitarian norm which results in him “lack[ing] the firm contact of reality which would enable a true enlightenment”[2] and his subsequent internal conflict. Tolstoy himself seems to have an inner conflict between two distinct sets of values – a public system and a private one – which is apparent in War and Peace and the contrast between experiences of free will and historical determinism. Some see his deprecation of greatness as illogical – perhaps stemming psychologically from a private set of values – yet the moral conflict between Prince Andrew and Pierre Bezukhov reflects an important phase of the inner struggle for Tolstoy. The passage on the ferry whereby Andrew, embittered by disappointments in his pursuit of fame and glory and conscience-stricken over the death of his young wife in childbirth, reflects how he sees no further purpose in life.

“What is bad? What is good? What should one love, what hate? Why live, and what am I? What is life, what is death? What power rules over everything?” he asked himself. And there was no answer to any of these questions except one, which was not logical and was not at all an answer to these questions. This answer was: “You will die–and everything will end. You will die and learn everything–or stop asking.”

The philosophical undertones of the novel reflect how internal and moral conflict are salient to the novel’s understanding. Indeed, parts of the epilogue morph into philosophical treatises, discussing not only myths of history – like the idea that it is formed by the actions of “Great Men” – but also questions such as how should one live a moral life in an ethically imperfect world.

Both Tolstoy and Zamyatin and their novels help explore how literature represents conflict through the representation of literature as a form of propaganda. Indeed, We was the first work banned in 1921 by Goskomizdat, the new Soviet censorship bureau, reflecting the perceived notion that literature is dangerous. Zamyatin’s work attacked the notion of human perfectibility, rationalism, determinism and materialism – the concepts that find themselves within Marxist theory and Bolshevik agenda. The symbolic title “We” suggests the main theme of the novel: the struggle to preserve the individual “I” against the pressures to conform represented by the collective “We.” Many maintain that “the reception of Zamyatin’s fable has always been far more political than the work itself,” [3] and its dystopian genre reflects this. Tolstoy’s own controversial views are apparent in War and Peace; he ridicules almost every alien nation’s soldiers, generals and tacticians; only simple Russian peasants, partisans, Field Marshal Kutuzov and the occasional commander were exempt from the author’s scorn. By the end of his life, Tolstoy professed radical Christian anarchism and pacifism, preaching nonviolent resistance and urging young men to oppose the military draft. War and Peace’s composition is controversial as well; categorised as both a historical novel and romance novel, with philosophical and psychological undertones, it fits into no solid category – “What could this possibly be? What kind of genre are we supposed to file it to? Where is fiction in it, and where is real history?”[4] – reflecting how Russia in the mid-19th century was exploring and debating its position and how literature and culture should play its part. One must then look at the question posed by Heart and Hartman[5] – “how deeply can literature involve itself in the world, in history, in politics, in culture, before it loses its own voice, its space, its specificity?” Zamyatin was clear in his views concerning books as propaganda – “There are books of the same chemical composition as dynamite. The only difference is that a piece of dynamite explodes once, whereas a book explodes a thousand times.”[6] This explosivity is emulated in many controversial plot twists included in Tolstoy’s epic; one, concerning Hélène Bezukhova, symbolised the dark and sexual aspects of human nature. When she dies unexpectedly, Pierre is free to marry Natasha Rostova – yet Tolstoy suggests that Hélène dies as a result of a failed abortion. Recent adaptations have emphasised the sexualised nature of the novel, the BBC’s 2015 television adaptation in particular, where “sexual drama veered towards raunchy titillation.”[7] Both War and Peace and We discuss sexual themes, controversial at the time, and perhaps then make a damning statement.

For D-503, and within the wider context of We, mathematics, logic and its potential insolvability are a source of conflict. In the science-oriented dystopia, mathematical figures are a source of logic yet when this goes against the norm, it creates a crisis. D-503’s inability to comprehend the square root of -1 encapsulates this; it results in an imaginary number, and imagination is forbidden within OneState; “Now I no longer live in our clear, rational world; I live in the ancient nightmare world, the world of square root of minus one.” Conflict in War and Peace also stems from issues of logic and reason; the Battle of Borodino, generously overlaid with Tolstoy’s philosophy of history and free will, comes to embody the conflict between two very different conceptions of human life and action. The French ostensibly obey reason and strategy and are confident due to logical advantages such as manpower and supplies, yet the Russians follow more instinctive and less rational principles and fight spiritually under the leadership of Kutuzov – “It’s all God’s will: you can die in your sleep, and God can spare you in battle.” Religion is an enigmatic force, then, in both texts, and encapsulates the notion of the unsolvable and illogical, and indeed conflict. In We, 1-330 plays the part of Eve, the seductress who corrupts Adam: D-503. By rebelling against OneState by joining the Mephi cause, both encounter a downfall; it is damning in representing Communism as an evil force and despite having been a prominent Old Bolshevik, Zamyatin was deeply disturbed by the policies pursued by the CPSU following the October Revolution. Rachel Fogley states that “the condemnation of I-330 […] integrates popular Christian themes of sacrifice and suffering into the novel;”[8] Tolstoy, in War and Peace, hints at the waste of life as a result of war and pointless suffering, and there is subtle conflict between his views of religious and personal determinism. Andrew D. Kaufman writes that:

“As a rational thinker […] Tolstoy was a determinist. He believed that life is ultimately circumscribed by objective laws. But, as an artist, Tolstoy shows that […] there also exists the possibility for creative self-expression and some degree of moral freedom.”[9]

In this way, then, conflict arises when one cannot come to conclusions regarding determinism and free will.

To conclude, both Tolstoy and Zamyatin’s novels, yet varied in length, genre and purpose, contain and represent conflicts that facilitate a greater understanding and analysis of them. Without knowing about We’s original censorship, for example, we would have perhaps appreciated less D-503’s struggle against the stifling, totalitarian OneState; Tolstoy’s inner conflicts about public and private values also help us better understand the character of Pierre, and why he went against the norm established by his peers.  Ultimately, literature is conflict; it is inescapable from the written word, and this inextricable link is manipulated by Tolstoy and Zamyatin to create two powerful and potent novels.


[1] Abbott, H. Porter (7 April 2008). The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge University Press. p. 55.

[2] Andrew Barratt. (July 1985). The X-Factor in Zamyatin’s “We”. The Modern Language Review. Vol. 80 (No. 3), p.665

[3] Yevgeny Zamyatin, trans. Clarence Brown. (1993). Introduction: Zamyatin and the Rooster. In: We. .Penguin Classics; New Ed edition.

[4] Opulskaya, L.D. War and Peace: the Epic. L.N. Tolstoy. Works in 12 volumes. War and Peace. Commentaries. Vol.7. Moscow, Khudozhesstvennaya Literatura. 1974. pp. 363-389

[5] Kevin Hart and Geoffrey H. Hartman (eds). The Power of Contestation: Perspectives on Maurice Blanchot. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004. ISBN: 0-8018-7962-0

[6] A Soviet Heretic: Essays (1 Oct 1991). Yevgeny Zamyatin. .: Quartet Books.

[7] Christopher Stevens. (3rd January 2016). Beeb’s sexed up War and Peace is so lavish even Napoleon would be dazzled: CHRISTOPHER STEVENS hails adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic as a masterpiece. Available: Last accessed 5th January 2016.

[8] Rachel Fogley. (2011). I-330: Counterpart of Christ in Zamyatin’s We.WR: Journal of the CAS Writing Program. Issue 1

[9] Andrew D. Kaufman. (Autumn, 1999). Microcosm and Macrocosm in War and Peace: The Interrelationship of Poetics and Metaphysics. The Slavic and East European Journal. Vol 43 (No. 3), pp. 496.