The narrator tells us that the historical accounts of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia are oversimplified and false. Napoleon did not rationally calculate the risk of invading Russia, but went in unaware of the dangers of a Russian winter. By the same token, Tsar Alexander did not lure the French into the Russian heartland, but on the contrary wished to keep them out. History has been written after the fact to lend a rational and intentional character to what originally were almost random events.
At Bald Hills, Mary endures her father’s blame for his quarrel with Andrew. She has only a vague understanding of the wars, and fears for her brother’s life. Her father still insists that Russia is safe, ignoring news that the French have already crossed Russian borders, and dismissing Andrew’s letter warning that their position at Bald Hills is dangerous. Increasingly grouchy and senile, the old prince occupies himself with his garden, construction on his estate, and his will and testament. Meanwhile, the prince’s servant Alpatych goes to the city of Smolensk to ask the governor about the risks of staying at Bald Hills. Gunfire is heard near Smolensk, indicating that the French are very close. The governor’s official report claims that Smolensk is safe, but, off the record, the governor recommends that the Bolkonskis go to Moscow. On the streets, people flee in terror, and the townspeople set Smolensk on fire to thwart the invaders.
By chance, Alpatych encounters Andrew, who writes a letter to Bald Hills telling his father and sister that it is urgent they flee to Moscow immediately. Andrew leads his regiment in retreat in the midst of a drought, his worldview altered by the abandonment and burning of Smolensk. He visits Bald Hills, now abandoned. The ruined fields and empty house deeply move him, and the sight of his soldiers bathing naked in a dirty pond—as cannon fodder—depresses and disgusts him.
In St. Petersburg, Helene’s and Anna Pavlovna’s salons continue almost unaffected by Napoleon’s invasion, with each salon holding a different opinion of the war. When Kutuzov is made commander in chief to heighten Russian military unity, he earns great praise, whereas earlier he had been criticized.
Napoleon, meanwhile, prepares to march upon Moscow. The narrator writes that historians overestimate the rationality behind Napoleon’s decision to march and his cunning use of a Cossack informer, Lavrushka, who, in reality, was a drunken looter.
The old prince and Mary are not in Moscow, but rather at Andrew’s estate at Bogucharovo, where the prince has been taken after a paralytic attack. He is too ill to travel, but Mary fears for his safety as the French approach. Tearfully, the prince finally expresses gratitude to his daughter for her lifetime of devotion to him. A local official arrives to tell Mary that she must leave, and she returns to the bedroom to find her father has died. Meanwhile, Bagration writes to the Minister of War to present the debacle in Smolensk in the best possible light. Alpatych tries unsuccessfully to force the local Bogucharovo peasants to relocate to Moscow.