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Is Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina a great Russian novel or the greatest Russian novel? It's hard to say (because there are a bunch of contenders for that title), but even if you've never read a word of any Russian novel, chances are that you've heard of this bad boy... er, bad girl.
Because while other Russian novels grapple with massive themes like war, peace, crime, and punishment, Anna Karenina serves up all the Big Issues with a side order of tasty, titillating and tantalizing gossip. It's the story of a high-profile affair, complete with sex, pregnancy, heartbreak, and (#spoilernotspoiler) suicide-by-train.
It's also, however, the story of the claustrophobic nightmarescape of 19th Century Russian society. And the story of Russian labor after the serfs were freed. And the story of gaining religious faith. And the story of being a political figure. And the story of family. And the story of unstable national identity. And...
To state what this Russia-sized Russian novel is "all about" is as ridiculous as saying what love, or politics, or society is "all about." It's way bigger than that. Think of it as a reverse matryoshka doll: every layer of Anna Karenina reveals a bigger story than the last. Once you get a hold of the basic premise (beautiful woman cheats on stable older husband with hawt younger office) you've only scratched the surface.
Published in installments over two years, from 1875 to 1877, in a periodical called the Russian Messenger, Anna Karenina didn't start out as the massive doorstop of a book we've come to know and admire today. It came to its readers doled out like an HBO hourly miniseries (in small chunks) until the day that the complete volume could be collected and printed for its fans... so they could binge on it the way we binge on back episodes of True Detective.
Subscribers to the Russian Messenger must have waited for each monthly edition with the same bated breath with which we currently expect new episodes of Game of Thrones... because Anna Karenina contains exactly the same intoxicating mixture of sexy shenanigans and political intrigue. This novel contains heated arguments of the major philosophical and political arguments of the day—some of the arguments, in fact, that would fuel the Russian Revolution.
So although the movie posters for Anna Karenina might make it look like some kind of Harlequin-style bodice-busting romp, don't be fooled. This ain't a feel-good rom-com. This isn't even a brooding psychosexual melodrama with a happy ending. This is a novel that tackles the romantic and the political. It addresses the philosophies that govern nations and families. It's an unhappy novel with an unhappy ending.
But, to paraphrase Tolstoy: All happy novels are alike; each unhappy novel is unhappy in its own way. And Anna Karenina is unhappy in a "one of the best novels ever written in any language, at any point in history" kind of way.
Ugh. What an insanely hard question. Why should you read one of the most famous, well-respected, and most beloved novels ever written?
Let's start easy, here. Let's start with why you shouldn't read Anna Karenina.
You shouldn't read Anna Karenina if you're looking for a novel to make you feel passionately about a fictional love affair and then set down the novel and sigh "Ah! The Beatles were right: all you need is love!"
Because if you're looking for that, please—please, we're begging you—go somewhere else. This novel will break your heart. It will make you question every adage about the warm n' fuzzy power of love. Characters in Anna Karenina don't say things like "Love is all you need." They say gut-wrenching stuff like "[...] I see no chance before us of peace for me or for you. I see a chance of despair, of wretchedness... or I see a chance of bliss, what bliss!"
What does love bring for our Anna K? It brings pitch-black despair, social ostracization that makes Mean Girls look like the It's A Small World ride at Disneyland, the loss of dignity and sense of self, and, ultimately the desire to throw herself under a dang train.
You also shouldn't read Anna Karenina if you're looking for a novel that is just about l'amour. If all you want is 24/7 kisses and sighs, go find something with Fabio on the cover. Because while Anna Karenina delivers what is (no joke) one of the greatest love stories ever written, it also delivers a bunch of other equally masterful plot lines about politics, society, labor issues and religion. That's right: this isn't a novel that's just about two people's heartbreak. It's about the turmoil and hairline fractures that plague an entire nation.
This novel contains as many chapters about: 1) a philosophizing outsider contemplating labor reform on his farm (and what it means for Mother Russia), 2) a politician trying to navigate the new ideologies of his day, and 3) military men discussing wartime maneuvers... as it does to describing the exquisite pain of romance. Yup: this novel is as full of high-stakes political intrigue as House of Cards... except that the scheming decorum of these Russian gentlemen makes Frank Underwood's charm look like amateur hour.
So: why should you read Anna Karenina? Well, how about this: read this novel if you want to know what kind of scope and power a novel can have. This novel is as massive as the country of Russia. Its depiction of society and politics is as intricate as St. Basil's Cathedral. And its insight into human nature is as piercing as a winter in Siberia.
Anna Karenina, 1935
This movie version stars Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina.
Anna Karenina, 1948
Stars Vivien Leigh in the title role.
Anna Karenina, 1977
A TV mini-series adaptation of Tolstoy's famous novel.
Anna Karenina, 1985
Another movie version of Anna Karenina, this one starring Jacqueline Bisset as Anna and Christopher Reeve as Vronsky.
Anna Karenina, 1997
Starring Sean Bean as Vronsky and Sophie Marceau as Anna.
Anna Karenina, 2000
A TV mini-series starring Kevin McKidd (Lucius from HBO's Rome and Dr. Owen Hunt from Grey's Anatomy) as Vronsky and Helen McCroy as Anna.
Translating Anna Karenina
An NPR All Things Considered interview with Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear, translators of the 2001 Penguin edition of Anna Karenina.
A free audio book provided by the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
Vivien Leigh as Anna
A photo of Leigh as Anna in the 1948 film.
The Last Days of Tolstoy
The Last Days of Tolstoy is Vladimir Chertkov's (Tolstoy's personal secretary) account of Tolstoy's last days. This site includes the full text of Chertkov's tale, plus a photo album, and other resources.
Masterpiece Theatre's guide to Anna Karenina, including some great information on Tolstoy and Russian history, turning the novel into a film, and much more.
Oprah's Book Club
Tolstoy's novel was selected for Oprah's Book Club in 2004. Check out Oprah's guide to Anna Karenina.