Lindsey German reveals the resonant social context of Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina, in which a decaying elite struggles to deal with modern realities

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1878, various translations and editions)

I started rereading Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina to coincide with the new film, directed by Joe Wright, which came out in September. The film came and went, seemed to make little impact despite some good performances, but it took me some weeks to finish the 900 pages of my paperback edition (my old Penguin literally fell apart page by yellowing page). I guess I have read the novel five or six times in my life and each time it has a different impact on me. It is a truly remarkable novel at many levels. In a way it is hardly surprising that any normal feature length film cannot do it justice.

Tolstoy’s novel is the parallel story of two characters: Anna Karenina, the beautiful aristocrat whose life ends in tragedy, and Constantine Levin, the landowner whose concerns, about the peasantry, about morality and decency and about what will happen to Russia, mirror many of those of the author. It is a story of the rottenness at the heart of this society.

The book opens with adultery: Prince Oblonsky, Anna’s brother Stiva and the husband of Dolly, (Princess Darya Sherbatsky), has been discovered having an affair with their children’s French governess. Anna is summoned by her brother to mediate and prevent Dolly ending her marriage. Her train journey from St Petersburg to Moscow leads to her first meeting with the handsome cavalry officer, Count Vronsky, who later becomes her lover. Their meeting coincides with the death of a railway worker under a train, which mirrors Anna’s own death some years later.

In the intervening eight hundred pages Tolstoy tells a story which encompasses a huge number of characters, from high society in Moscow and St Petersburg to peasant life in the countryside and the miserable existence in the slums. The various plots are fairly simple: they tell of the ups and downs of several relationships. The secondary plot is of Constantine and his beloved Kitty (once in love with Vronsky) but the main one is Anna’s developing relationship with Vronsky and its impact on her marriage to Karenin. There is nothing brief or superficial about this: we see Karenin’s suspicions, then her confirmation to him that she hates him and loves Vronsky, then her pregnancy and near death. We see her and Vronsky move to Italy to escape the scandal of their adulterous relationship; then their return to his country estate; and then the final deterioration of their relationship and her death.

Tolstoy was himself an aristocrat and landowner. He knew the details of Russian aristocratic society and that knowledge is brought into focus as he shows Anna’s descent from respectable wife into social pariah. The scope of his novel allows him to show this in incredible detail. One event, the disastrous horse race where Vronsky’s mare is killed, has 47 pages devoted to it. It is a tremendous piece of writing, which makes you feel sorry for Anna, Vronsky, Karenin and even the horse in turn as the wretchedness of the whole event unfolds.

Anna falls for Vronsky and cannot give him up; Karenin would be prepared for their liaison to continue while outward appearances are maintained, and he repeatedly refuses her a divorce. This leaves her in a kind of limbo, living openly with Vronsky but increasingly barred to ‘polite’ aristocratic society. The couple are extremely rich but find their lives unsatisfying. Anna is stuck in the country without much company (the extensive numbers of servants don’t count); when she returns to the city and attends the opera she is cruelly snubbed and humiliated.

Scott Fitzgerald wrote of Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby that they were ‘careless’: their wealth allowed them to treat others with disdain or lack of feeling. This is true of Anna and Vronsky. They cannot develop real or meaningful lives. Anna is nonetheless an extremely attractive character as Tolstoy surely intended her to be: she is beautiful and clever and sensitive (apart from towards her husband) but her social position decrees that she can be nothing else, and in the end these qualities are not enough. Indeed as she grows older and unhappier, she relies more on her superficial charms to boost her self esteem even as she feels Vronsky slipping away from her.

Whereas Tolstoy set his other great novel, War and Peace, in the past during the Napoleonic wars, Anna Karenina is contemporary. Written in the 1870s, it portrays an already changing Russia. Tolstoy is deeply affected by this change. In 1861, just a decade before the novel is set, there took place the emancipation of the serfs in Russia. This made huge changes to the land and to the free movement of the peasants. It coincided with the beginning of industrial development in Russia. The country is caught between the relics of the past, traditions and inequalities which have continued unchanged for hundreds of years, and the impact of modernisation.

The railways, which play such an important part in the book, open up the vast country; Vronsky’s country estate is full of English goods and inventions, a sign of modernity and progress. The aristocracy is caught too between those who want reform and change and who want to make agriculture more efficient, like Levin, and those who live idle and pampered lives in the two main cities.

This is an epic story of a dying society and a dying culture. The thousands of princes and princesses, fawned on by tens of thousands of servants, so despise their own language that they address one another in French and employ foreign governesses for their children. Tolstoy in his literature and in his life tried to find a philosophy which could point to an alternative to this decay, and only partly succeeded.  He became a Christian anarchist, and was a critic of Russian society, although that critique consisted of harking back to a previous age.

When Tolstoy died in 1910 students rallied and demonstrated at memorial meetings for him. There were even strikes in memory of Tolstoy among workers in Moscow and St Petersburg, radicalised by the events of the previous decade. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote in an obituary: ‘Tolstoy did not know or show the way out of the hell of bourgeois culture. But with irresistible force he posed the question that only scientific socialism can answer.’

Anna Karenina demonstrates that so well. She is the symbol of a society which cannot survive and which less than half a century later had disappeared for good. The opening line of the book is famously quoted, but Tolstoy’s lines when Anna throws herself under the train are almost prescient:

‘The candle, by the light of which she had been reading that book filled with anxieties, deceptions, grief and evil, flared up with a brighter light, lit up for her all that had before been dark, crackled, began to flicker, and went out for ever.’

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.