By Chet Yarbrough
By Leo Tolstoy
Narrated by Nadia May
This is the second time “Anna Karenina” has been picked up by this reviewer. The first time is soon after reading “War and Peace” which sets an expectation that seems unmet by “Anna Karenina” because “…Karenina” sounds or reads like a regurgitation of the “peace” parts of “War and Peace”and has nothing more to say about Russia and the world than Tolstoy’s earlier masterpiece. “
However, it is necessary to go beyond the first several chapters of “Anna Karenina” to understand the importance of Tolstoy’s contribution to world literature. “Anna Karenina” peers into the heart of a part of the male-human’ soul while describing the unique circumstances of mid-19th century Russia. This unique circumstance is, in many ways, being repeated in the 21st century; not only in Russia but in China, India, and–yes, the United States.
Social inequality, exacerbated by unregulated capitalism, is creating national instability with a widening gap between rich and poor that can only be surmounted by a concerted effort to offer freedom and equal opportunity to all. Aristocracy of privilege in 19th century Russia is replaced by Aristocracy of wealth in the 21st century. The consequence is the same; i.e. social inequality caused by unequal access to education, health services, and employment that artificially increases the gap between a privileged minority and a general population.
Tolstoy’s aristocratic background gives credibility to his description of Russian aristocracy of that time. His ability, like all great writers, to observe and detail a social class and culture; in this case, the well-born male, often rich (sometimes super-rich), and the clash between haves and have-nots, gives life to Russian’ history. “Anna Karenina” is an exploration of individual human passion, inequality, and cruelty within a nation struggling with social change.
“Anna Karenina” is a masterpiece of human relationship told through the eyes of a man. It is an imperfect picture of women because women are only shown as strong within the boundaries of a male dominated culture but the power and control shown by women is clearly evident in the uncontrollable passions of Anna Karenina, a married woman, for Count Vronsky and the changes in personality of aristocrat, Konstantin Levin because of Kitty, his future wife. Social conversation is created to argue equal rights for women but Tolstoy skewers academic conversation with the reality of Anna Karenina’s existence.
Tolstoy presages Russia’s 1905 and 1917 revolutions in “Anna Karenina”. One can hear the roar of the rising bear in Tolstoy’s characters which give “…Karenina” a classics’ reputation that resonates in today’s and yesterday’s world. Russia is at the beginning of great social upheaval in Tolstoy’s picture of the mid-century.
Tolstoy’s recognition of the early signs of revolution is primarily from an upper-class perspective; i.e. he tends to idealize the lives and lots of the peasantry. Reality is that passions, cruelties, and dis-function exist in every human being, aristocrat or peasant; rich or poor. Tolstoy has insight to the value of self-interest in all social classes as a fundamental criteria for growth but undermines his insight with characterization of Levin’s peasant workers as Luddites that have no self-interest. In “Anne Karenina”, universal human nature is displayed through aristocratic sensibility; i.e. when Prince Oblonsky cheats on his wife, Dolly, or when Count Vronsky and Anna make a cuckold of Count Karenin, they are exhibiting the same emotions, and vulnerabilities of all human beings, regardless of social class.
The great value of “Anna Karenina” is in its vivid picture of mid-19th century Russia and the lessons it may hold for nation-states that suppress freedom and exacerbate inequality of opportunity.
If interested, the following is a video of the last years of Tolstoy’s life: