Anna Karenina | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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Anna Karenina | Context


Slavic Movement

Pan-Slavism (or the Slavic movement) swept Russia in the 19th century and was an attempt to bring the Slav peoples of eastern and central Europe together politically, as well as celebrate their common cultural heritage. The Russian Pan-Slavists also took the position that Russia was far superior, both spiritually and culturally, to Western Europe. Some of the anti-Western sentiment was a reaction to the forced Westernization of Russia that began with Peter the Great and flowered in the era of Catherine the Great. Peter the Great (1672–1725) undertook a series of reforms to bring Russia into the modern era. For example, he built a navy, reorganized the army, and secularized the schools. Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia in the late 18th century, was responsible for making knowledge of the French language and culture a prerequisite for those in the aristocratic class. Russians who supported the Pan-Slavist return to Russian roots also supported the liberation of other Slavs from domination by non-Slav powers. This is why Russian Pan-Slav enthusiasts sign up to fight against the Ottoman Empire in solidarity with the Serbian Christians in Anna Karenina.

Critique of Religious Movements

Anna Karenina features two religious fads of Tolstoy's day that deviate from traditional Russian Orthodox Christianity. The first is practiced by Varenka and her guardian, Madame Stahl, whom Prince Shcherbatsky calls Pietists. Pietism was a mystical trend, popular among members of the upper classes, that practiced internal prayer and introspection.

The second is a form of Radstockism practiced by Countess Lydia Ivanovna, whom Tolstoy surrounds with scorn and situational irony. The Petersburg aristocrats became enamored of the teachings of Lord Radstock, an Englishman who brought his unorthodox Christianity to Russia in 1874 and whose followers founded the Society for the Encouragement of Spiritual and Ethical Reading. Tolstoy was in the throes of his own religious crisis while writing Anna Karenina, and in 1877 he briefly tried to revive his Orthodoxy, an attempt that may have inspired his parody of Radstockism: he portrays Countess Lydia, leader of the Conscience of St. Petersburg Society, teaching Karenin that it is not necessary to imitate Christ or do good deeds but that only faith in Christ's death on the cross is necessary for atonement and salvation. Tolstoy believed that such notions do not encourage people to lead a moral life. Lydia is an example of a fake Christian who hides evil under the cloak of religion. One of the cruelest acts in the novel is Karenin's refusal to let Anna see her son after he is instructed by Lydia.


The rigid class structure of Russia, which existed unimpeded up until the Russian Revolution of 1917, severely oppressed the majority of the people and gave unlimited wealth and privilege to a small aristocratic class. The Industrial Revolution had swept through Europe in the late 18th century, but Russia remained largely agrarian until the 20th century. A small percentage of aristocrats owned the land and the peasants who lived on it. In 1861, the year that the serfs were freed, more than 80 percent of the population in Russia were peasants—agricultural workers—and about half of them were serfs. The upper classes (including the nobles and high clergy) accounted for about 12 percent of the population, and the rest of the people were either businessmen, bureaucrats, or professionals of the middle class; or soldiers, artisans, and laborers in the working class.

Aristocratic Privilege

The most privileged of the aristocracy, to which Tolstoy and his main characters belonged, were a tiny percentage of the population. The sexual behavior Tolstoy depicts among the hypocrites of Anna's set is probably a milder version of what actually went on among people used to pleasing themselves. In practice, the aristocrats lived outside religious and moral codes, and both married men and women freely took lovers. Society, however, demanded that women keep up the appearance of propriety, while men could openly engage in extramarital affairs without experiencing public scorn or humiliation.

Emancipation of the Serfs

Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs (peasant farmers bound to serve their landowners) in 1861 to help stimulate the economy. If people were no longer bound to the land and could move around freely, then they could hire themselves out as laborers, either on a farm or in a factory. The tsar also anticipated that freed serfs with more incentives might make improvements in farming. However, it was hard for serfs to benefit from freedom. First, they had to buy the land they would farm from landowners if they wanted to be independent. The landowners reserved the best portions of their lands and ceded the least desirable, and they were compensated by the government for what they gave up. Thus, in the novel, Tolstoy shows how freeing the serfs was not widely beneficial.

The Role of the Zemstvo

After the emancipation of the serfs, the tsarist government set up local governing bodies called zemstvo, charged with educating the serfs, building hospitals, schools, and infrastructure, and even lending money. The government paid for these activities with taxes from property owners, who then served as representatives to the councils. Unfortunately, while some of the Russian peasants prospered with help, most simply worked for their new masters—called kulaks. These were a new class of peasants who owned their own land. Additional problems arose over time with these governing bodies, and the government eventually stepped in and took away their power. In Anna Karenina, Levin's reformist brother, Sergei Ivanovich, believes that the zemstvo has the ability to significantly change the lives of the peasants, while Levin himself finds the zemstvo to be useless. The two brothers argue about the extent to which reform can be brought about.

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