Napoleon’s invasion brings civil war to Russia’s high society as two competing factions emerge on either side of the social fault line the belligerent Corsican’s advance exposes. We can call these the Russian faction and the French faction. Anna Pavlovna assumes a leadership role in the Russian faction and headquarters their group at her salons and soirees. Helene Bezukhova, on the other hand, hosts the French faction. Most of Petersburg chooses between the two. Some, however, seeking to split the difference and angle for position in whatever faction wins the day, tend to both. Our old friend Prince Vasili, duplicitous conniver that he is, is one of these.
The double role proves difficult for him to perform. Like an unprepared understudy, he consistently confuses his lines. He speaks in favor of the French while visiting Anna Pavlovna, and, conversely, with great patriotism while at Helene’s salons. At one point, as the salons fill with talk of the possibility of a general being appointed to the Russian army, he criticizes Kutuzov’s ability to fulfill that role. Vasili declares the old army man blind and decrepit. When Kutuzov, mere weeks later, is appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army, however, Vasili totally changes his tune. Now he’s all praise for Kutuzov. He’s ridiculed, deservedly, for this blatantly opportunistic shift in allegiance and opinion.
We’ve seen Prince Vasili is a similar situation before. Think way back to when he aligned himself with Catiche against Pierre in the battle for the Bezukhov fortune. Vasili lost that battle. His obvious inconsistencies and low character are on full display here as well. It does his soul no benefit to act so perversely. It’d be much better if he were to find some model of behavior to pattern himself after. He just might then be able to avoid these embarrassing situations.
When you are going to meet anyone, and particularly someone who is held in high regard, put the question to yourself, ‘what would Socrates or Zeno have done in this situation?’, and you will not be at a loss to make a proper use of the occasion.