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Lev (Leo) Nikolaevich Tolstoy was born into a large and wealthy Russian landowning family in 1828, on the family estate of Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy’s mother died when he was only two years old, and he idealized her memory throughout his life. Some critics speculate that the early loss of his mother colors Tolstoy’s portrayal of the young Seryozha in Anna Karenina. When Tolstoy was nine, the family moved to Moscow. Shortly afterward his father died, murdered while traveling. Being orphaned before the age of ten, albeit without financial worries, left Tolstoy with an acute awareness of the power of death—an idea central to all his great works and especially evident in the strong association of the character of Anna Karenina with mortality.
Though an intelligent child, Tolstoy had little interest in academics. His aunt had to work hard to persuade him to go to university, and he failed his entrance exam on his first attempt. Eventually matriculating at Kazan University at the age of sixteen, Tolstoy studied law and Oriental languages. He showed interest in the grand heroic cultures of Persia, Turkey, and the Caucasus—an interest that persisted throughout his life. He was not popular at the university, and was self-conscious about his large nose and thick eyebrows. Ultimately, Tolstoy was dissatisfied with his education, and he left in 1847 without a degree. The social awkwardness of Konstantin Levin at the beginning of Anna Karenina reflects Tolstoy’s own discomfort in fancy social surroudings at this time in his life.
In 1851, Tolstoy visited his brother in the Russian army and then decided to enlist shortly afterward. He served in the Crimean War (1854–1856) and recorded his experience in his Sevastopol Stories (1855). Tolstoy was able to write during his time in the army, producing a well-received autobiographical novel, Childhood (1852), followed by two others, Boyhood (1854) and Youth (1857). He ultimately evolved antimilitaristic feelings that can be seen in his implicit criticism of enthusiasm for the Slavic war in the final section of Anna Karenina.
In 1862, Tolstoy married Sofya Andreevna Behrs. He devoted most of the next two decades to raising a large family, managing his estate, and writing his two greatest novels, War and Peace (1865–1869) and Anna Karenina (1875–1877). Levin’s courtship of Kitty Shcherbatskaya in Anna Karenina was modeled on Tolstoy’s own courtship of Sofya Andreevna, down to details such as the forgotten shirt that delays Levin’s wedding.
In the years just prior to his marriage, Tolstoy had visited western Europe, partly to observe educational methods abroad. Upon returning, he founded and taught at schools for his peasants. His contact with his peasants led to a heightened appreciation for their morality, camaraderie, and enjoyment of life. Indeed, Tolstoy became quite critical of the superficiality of upper-class Russians, as we can see in Levin’s discomfort with urban high society in Anna Karenina. Ultimately, Tolstoy developed a desire to seek spiritual regeneration by renouncing his family’s possessions, much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife.
Tolstoy’s life spanned a period of intense development for his home country. By the time of Tolstoy’s death in 1910, Russia had transformed from a backward agricultural economy into a major industrialized world power. This period witnessed major debates between two intellectual groups in Russia: the Slavophiles, who believed Russian culture and institutions to be exceptional and superior to European culture, and the Westernizers, who believed that Russia needed to follow more liberal, Western modes of thought and government. We see traces of this debate about the destiny of Russia—whether it should join Europe in its march toward secular values and scientific thought or reject modernization and cherish the traditional, Asiatic elements of its culture—in Anna Karenina. Levin’s peasants’ preference for simple wooden plows over more efficient, modern agricultural tools symbolizes Russia’s rejection of the West. We also see this cultural clash in the novel’s portrait of the highly rational and ultra-Western bureaucrat Alexei Karenin—cool and efficient but also passionless.
During this time, Russia was also undergoing a crisis of political thought, with a series of authoritarian tsars provoking liberal and radical intellectuals who demanded European constitutional rights—or even revolution—in Russia. Tolstoy’s ambivalent portrayal of the local elections in Anna Karenina demonstrates his uncertainty about the potential for democracy in Russia: the vote evokes much enthusiasm among the noblemen, but it also appears ineffectual and even pointless.
Tolstoy’s eventual turn to religion in his own life left an imprint on all his later writings. Works such as A Confession (1882) and The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1893) focused on the biblical Gospels’ ideals of brotherly love and nonresistance to evil. Anna Karenina is often viewed as the turning point in Tolstoy’s career, the point at which he shifted away from fiction and toward faith. The tug-of-war between these two forces helps create the rich portrait of Anna, whom Tolstoy both disapproves of and loves. Levin emerges as the voice of faith in the novel, with his final statement of the meaning of life corresponding closely to Tolstoy’s own philosophy.
By the 1890s, Tolstoy’s reputation as a prophet of social thought attracted disciples to his estate at Yasnaya Polyana seeking his wisdom. In 1898, Tolstoy published a radical essay called What Is Art?, in which he argued that the sole aim of great art must be moral instruction, and that on these grounds Shakespeare’s plays and even Tolstoy’s own novels are artistic failures. Frustrated by the disparity between his personal moral philosophy and his wealth, and by his frequent quarrels with his wife, Tolstoy secretly left home in November 1910, at the age of eighty-two. He fell ill with pneumonia along the way and died several days later in a faraway railway station. Tolstoy was mourned by admirers and followers around the world, and to this day is regarded as one of the greatest novelists in history.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Anna Karenina!