Denisov, the good guy from War and Peace

The writer Boris Akunin once said in an interview that Tolstoy’s characters are as real to him as, and sometimes even more real than, real people. I absolutely agree, and I enjoy exploring the various characters. So for those who also agree, here’s yet another War and Peace blog post. About Denisov this time. A favorite of many readers, and one of those characters who one would have liked to have had a bigger part.

The opposite of Dolokhov

Denisov is the complete opposite of Dolokhov. Where Dolokhov is described as handsome, with piercing blue eyes and without moustache, Denisov is hairy, with a disheveled moustache, and eyes as black as coal. Dolokhov usually wins when playing cards (albeit cheating) and Denisov usually loses.

Their personalties couldn’t be more opposed either: although Tolstoy describes a rogue who drinks heavily and curses heartily when he introduces Denisov, from the way his eyes light up when he sees Nicholay it is immediately clear that he is a good guy.

Denisov has some endearing characteristics: he can’t pronounce the letter ‘r’. Everyone in the army calls him ‘Waska’, a rather childish diminutive of Wasili. He only makes an effort with his appearance when going into battle or in the company of ladies, making it clear where his priorities lie. Although we never find out much about Denisov’s background, he has an uncle with a high rank and that’s all, he is clearly from the same background as Nicholay, and has for instance had dancing lessons at the same place as all of the young Rostovs. Although he is short, he looks like a fine fellow on horseback and when dancing.

Denisov’s mazurka

There are four epic dance scenes in War and Peace: the old count Rostov, dancing like an ‘eagle’; Natasha’s Russian dance at Uncle’s house; Natasha’s dance with Andrey and then there is Denisov’s mazurka. He dances such a dazzling mazurka with Natasha, that she nearly falls in love with him. But she is only fifteen then, and Denisov is at least ten years older, practically an old man!

Denisov is, as he puts it himself, bewitched by Natasha and adores the whole family. When he proposes to Natasha, he doesn’t just propose to her, but to her whole family. Dolokhov takes revenge on Nicholay after Sonya has refused him; Denisov loves Nicholay more after Natasha’s refusal. At some point we can hear him mutter with a choked voice “Ah, what a mad bweed you Wostovs are!”. And when he finds Petya Rostov dead, bystanders can hear a yelp like of a dog coming from him.

A heart of gold

Denisov is driven by his care for others. He would give his life twice for any of the Rostovs and risks serious repercussions when he steals a food supply for his starving soldiers. His soldiers in turn like him, and show it by building him an extra nice ‘house’ during their exploits. He gets gloomy when bored and almost depressed when in hospital, but when he goes into action he is clearly in his element. His bravery does not require recognition from superiors, he would rather be respected by his equals and subordinates. The ones that are lucky enough to be loved by him, can count on his (albeit somewhat sentimental) devotion.

Beneath his rough exterior, but not very deep beneath it, Denisov has a heart of gold.

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2019

Book: War and Peace – Tolstoy – the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation

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33 thoughts on “Denisov, the good guy from War and Peace

  1. Oh really? I think the love for Russian literature is a lifelong thing. You will always return and find new understandings and pleasures. 💙📘🖌

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  2. I adore Denisov! And what a contrast to Dolokhov. Denisov is brave and goofy. And it’s so sad when Nikkolai visits him in the hospital, where he is apparently ruined and utterly obsessed with his documents. He was absolutely right to steal food for his starving men. I have to go back and check, but is that the last time we see Denisov? Time to reread War and Peace.

    On Thu, Mar 28, 2019 at 2:34 PM A Russian Affair wrote:

    > elisabethm posted: ” The writer Boris Akunin once said in an interview > that Tolstoy’s characters are as real to him as, and sometimes even more > real than, real people. I absolutely agree, and I enjoy exploring the > various characters. So for those who also agree, here’s yet ” >

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  3. I so agree with you! The hospital scene is really sad, and even though he went there voluntarily, to escape the repercussions of stealing the food supply, Denisov appears to be depressed there. Probably not surprising, in such circumstances. Nicholay also finds it difficult to see (and smell). We do see him again after that scene, luckily!

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  4. Oh, thank God he comes back! Now I get to reread W&P, because I’m obviously losing touch with the details. So all is good, your post, and my need to reread! (Plus I have a new Oxford hardcover edition, just what I need, right?)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Writers have the ability to recognize and ignite a profound longing in readers to seek a deeper life experience. I am delighted that we have connected.

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  6. Thanks, Elena, for your comment. Actually you made me think about this, and there are many interesting secondary characters in Tolstoy’s work indeed. Yes, Tolstoy is wonderful 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wonderful article, Elisabeth! Denisov is indeed a breath a fresh air 🙂 Tolstoy showcased a whole collection of characters describing them so masterfully.

    Liked by 1 person

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