War And Peace, Climate Change & Citizen Responses

The pursuit of a new economics has broad implications.  Our Earth is in crisis; our communities are in crisis. At the heart of these twin issues is an economic system that treats land, air, water, and minerals—our common inheritance—as commodities to be bought and sold on the market. An economic system that distributes the income from that inheritance to a relatively few “owners,” whose wealth increases disproportionately as a result, leading to social disruption.

Schumacher Center’s founding President, Robert Swann, would add that an unjust and unsustainable economic system is also the root cause of war.  He dedicated his life to building new systems for holding land and for democratizing currency issue.

Jodie Evans, a co-founder of CODEPINK, would agree that the issues of war and peace, of climate change, of women’s rights and workers’ rights, and of the economy are all tied together.  September 21st is International Peace Day and CODEPINK is joining in the People’s Climate March in New York City.

To better understand this intersection of issues, at the Schumacher Center’s Library we have been watching and discussing the classic 1967 Russian film “War and Peace,” directed by Sergei Bondarchuk.

The film is an adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel set in the early 1800s at the time of Napoleon’s war against Russia.  As a pacifist, Tolstoy was determined to understand the cause, conduct, and nature of war in order to cultivate an informed response. “War and Peace” covers the sweeping history of a people at a time of trial for their country. It is also an intimate love story, exploring the inner struggles of a young woman and the men and women she loves and who love her.

The story contrasts Napoleon with the Russian General Kutuzov. Napoleon is convinced that the success of the French army is dependent on his brilliant strategies. Kutuzov holds that the spirit of the soldiers themselves determines the fate of the army. Counter to most military policy, Kutuzov’s sole desire is to avoid direct confrontation with the enemy. As the French army approaches Moscow, queen city of Russia, beloved by its people, Kutuzov withdraws rather than risk the lives of his soldiers. He trusts the fierceness of the Russian winter and the demoralization of an occupying army to vanquish the uninvited visitors. Time and patience are his friends. Though this decision is decried at the court of the Czar and the drawing rooms of the elite, the soldiers understand the seasoned general’s intent; he acts out of love for them and they return a natural affection for him.

Napoleon waits outside the gates of Moscow for a delegation to welcome him into the city. No delegation arrives. No battle is offered. No supplicant for mercy comes forth. He is confronted by the strength of passive resistance and is left confused and powerless. The French pillage and waste Moscow and then desperately straggle home, crossing an unforgiving Russian winter landscape that ensures their final defeat.

In the parallel story of Natasha Rostov, we watch a capricious and self-absorbed young girl blossom through the ennobling effect of romantic love and then recklessly abandon family and betrothed for a fleeting liaison. Remorseful for the harm she has done, Natasha suffers both morally and physically. Out of the suffering awakens a new quality of extra-personal love, the capacity to generously serve others.

From the egocentric child Natasha is transformed into a young woman capable of acting effectively in the panorama of events before her. As the wounded Russian soldiers enter Moscow ahead of the French army, Natasha experiences their distress as her own. She persuades her family to give up the carts that were to carry their many belongings out of Moscow. Eagerly she oversees the unloading of precious furniture, books, dinnerware, and linen, and then assists the injured into the carts for their journey out of the burning city.

In a small but wonderfully practical way, Natasha becomes a shaper of events rather than a commentator on what others are doing. On a larger scale, Kutuzov’s affection for his men determines an unexpected course of non-confrontation, leading to defeat of the French.

Bondarchuk closes his film with Tolstoy’s call for citizen action:

I say let us join hands with those who love goodness. And let there be one banner: real goodness. I want only to say that it is always the simplest ideas which lead to the greatest consequences. My idea in its entirety is that if vile people unite and constitute a force then decent people are obliged to do likewise: just that.

Long live the whole world!

–September 9th, Tolstoy’s 186th Birthday