Some things you can’t take back, or unsay. Many years ago I told the wife of a friend that I really wanted to read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. No problem there, but I pronounced the title Anna (so far, so good), Karen-ina.
Sometime in the 2000s I learned the correct pronunciation, or at least I thought I learned it. I kept hearing it pronounced Anna Kerr-renn-ninna. If that’s how everyone was pronouncing it, so would I. At which point I looked back in horror at my old pronunciation. Surely the wife of my friend thought me a philistine for so thoroughly butchering the pronunciation? I was embarrassed for the longest time, but seemingly for no reason. Why? It turns out the popular pronunciation is similarly incorrect, and arguably more flawed than the one I used initially.
Evidence supporting my claim is British writer Viv Groskop’s excellent 2018 book, The Anna Karenina Fix. A very accessible collection of essays about the most important Russian novels, Groskop alerted readers to the true pronunciation: it’s Anna “’Kar-ray-ni-na’, with the emphasis on the ‘ray.’” So there you go. Mystery solved.
Groskop (Russian literature is “not for some secret society of special people.”), work colleagues Kristina Crane and Holden Lipscomb, RealClearMarkets contributor Rob Smith, along with investor Bruce Winson all played a role in convincing me to finally open Tolstoy’s novels. Smith and Winson told me to start with Anna Karenina, Crane seemed to lean that way too, Lipscomb toward War and Peace, while Groskop’s book basically just said to pick a novel, any novel. Only for radio host John Batchelor to tilt the scales toward War and Peace. While he didn’t dismiss Anna Karenina, he observed that War and Peace is history while Anna Karenina is about a woman’s deep love for a man. No doubt it’s true what Batchelor says in a sense, but I’ll argue here that the novel is so much more. Having thought War and Peace was great, and full of insights that have perhaps been given short shrift in analyses from the past, the same could be said for Anna Karenina. While I read it for the story, I took copious notes; notes that I’ll use to inform my opinion piece writing and books for as long as I’m writing.
The simple truth is that Leo Tolstoy was much more than a novelist. His ideas on business, on work incentives for employees, on education, war, and politics more broadly are just too good. While the love story of Anna Karenina will surely be addressed toward this write-up’s end, the plan here is to write about Tolstoy the brilliant thinker. How libertarians never embraced him will forever remain a mystery to me.
For one, great liberal thinkers like John Stuart Mill are mentioned within. Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky reads “the liberal paper” in the European, free-thinking sense, and in particular reads an article in the financial section which mentioned Mill, whose book on political economy is only exceeded (if it all) by Adam Smith’s.
Except that the Mill mention is arguably a waste of words, or a digression. Consider what takes place when Anna Karenina herself enters the story in Chapter 18, at a Moscow train station. Foreshadowing, one supposes.
Anna comes to Moscow to see her brother Prince Stepan, but more specifically to help mend his cratering marriage to Princess Dairya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya or, as frequently referenced in the novel, Dolly. The fun-loving Stepan is “intimate with everyone with whom he drank champagne, and he drank champagne with everyone.” The intimacy is physical with women not Dolly, and Anna has arrived to smooth things over. Which she mostly does.
The problem is that Anna and Count Alexey Kirillovich Vronsky lay eyes on each other, and the infatuation proves mutual. The challenge is that Anna is married to a rising government official in St. Petersburg (Alexey Alexandrovich Karenin), while Vronsky is unattached. Even more challenging is that Dolly’s sister, Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (Kitty) expects Vronsky to propose to her (a good match by all accounts, including her mother’s). And while it’s apparent that Vronsky was just playing the field as is, a proposal to Kitty becomes a non-starter after the coup de foudre involving him and Anna. This all becomes very problematic in consideration of Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin’s intent to propose to Kitty, with whom he is in love. Kitty’s not so much turned off by Levin as she’s young, and wholly naïve to the ways of marriage. Expecting Vronsky’s proposal, she rejects Levin’s. From all this, numerous stories emerge. Very interesting ones. But Tolstoy is surely more interesting as a thinker.
I’m told Levin’s thoughts were those of Tolstoy himself, and this write-up will proceed as though that’s true. For now, it’s useful to turn to Kitty again as a way of speculating on how Tolstoy would react to modern events. Having turned down Levin, and having unwittingly humiliated him in the process, Kitty isn’t proposed to by Vronsky, who is desperately in love with Anna. The turn of events has reduced Kitty into a very sickly wreck. Her “inconsolable grief” wasn’t as much rooted in Vronsky having deceived her as it was “due precisely to the fact that Levin had proposed to her and she had refused him.” Kitty is a good person, and hates what she’s done to Levin, but she keeps the true source of her illness all to herself.
With her health deteriorating rapidly, the family doctor is brought in. He gives her cod-liver oil, then iron, then silver nitrate, but none of them work. The various medicines are mentioned because the read here is that Tolstoy listed them in order to shine a bright light on the obnoxious conceit of the medical profession. All this effort to fix a sick person, effort that had nothing to do with Kitty’s illness. Fear not, it gets worse. Since the medicinal non sequiturs had done nothing to improve Kitty, a “famous doctor” was called over and this eminent physician “demanded to examine the patient.” In examining Kitty, the doctor proceeded as though “nothing could be more natural than for a still relatively young man to be prodding a naked young girl all over.”
In response to all the prodding, Kitty was “dying of embarrassment.” But she had to take it. Apparently this “famous doctor had some unique special knowledge,” particularly to members of the Russian nobility, and even though he, like seemingly all doctors, had “studied at the same medical school, from exactly the same books, and had the same scientific knowledge.” The small storyline within a much bigger one signals Tolstoy’s disdain for experts and the haughty nature of “science” that was clearly expressed in War and Peace. Tolstoy is plainly of the view that the deep in thought and well trained aren’t always familiar with reality as his drawing of the “famous doctor” made very apparent. The bet here is that were he alive today, Tolstoy would have thoroughly rejected the horrid lockdown authoritarianism that came with the arrival of the coronavirus, and that was justified by hyper-educated doctors “just following the science.”
Notably, Tolstoy’s skepticism about education as the provider of knowledge doesn’t stop with medicine. He was skeptical about education in general. His expressed view through Levin is that learnedness can’t be decreed as much as it’s a consequence. Or an individual choice. These discussions came up through the individuals (“peasants”) in Levin’s employ on his farm. Levin’s highly well-read and deep in thought brother, Sergey Ivanovich, has a very positive view of peasants without having worked with them. Sergey is an intellectual, a writer, a bit of a romantic. Yet Levin, while a great boss (more on that further on), is wise to his employees. He knows that “without his oversight the peasants would cart manure to an unploughed field and dump it heaven knows where; or they would take the shares off the ploughs rather than screw them in.” More broadly, he’s “infuriated by their negligence, slovenliness, drunkenness…” They need his guidance.
Yet Sergey Ivanovich feels that schools will fix the knowledge and behavioral deficits. In his words to Levin, “Can there be any doubt about the benefits of education? If it’s good for you, it’s good for everyone.” Sergey’s view is the modern conservative view (and seemingly held by the other side too), that good schools will fix the knowledge problem, or educational problem, or behavioral. But will they? The belief here is that they’re putting the cart before the horse. That’s the view expressed by Tolstoy. He responds to Sergey with wonder about why he should construct schools “to which the peasants don’t even want to send their children, and to which I am still not convinced they ought to send them?” Tolstoy’s thinking seems to be that learnedness, conscientiousness, and sobriety (figuratively and literally) aren’t taught as much as they’re choices made by the already wise. They’re a consequence of good values that similarly can’t be taught, or that don’t need to be taught. The wise go to school as opposed to school making them wise.
Later on in the novel, Levin admits that “I’ve never been able to figure out” how “a knowledge of addition and subtraction and the catechism is going to improve their [peasantry] material position.” He goes on to assert that the notion of schools eradicating “poverty and ignorance is just as incomprehensible as why chickens on a roost might help with screaming-fits.” Levin’s point is that education is a non sequitur for the negligent, slovenly and drunk. Which means the feelings of the deep in thought have him mystified. Building schools will fix bad values? No, those with good values make schools good.
Instead of going along with the herd, Levin calls for economic growth. He yearns for “an economic structure which will enable people to be better off and have more leisure – then there will be schools.” It’s a crucial point. Is the U.S. rich because of great schools, or did great schools follow the wealth? Looked at more modernly, are great schools why Shanghai went from 12 “skyscrapers” in 1978 to 6,780 by 2006, and seemingly double the previous number in 2023? What changed for Shanghai wasn’t the education, but much greater economic freedom. Or in Tolstoy’s words, the “economic structure” changed in the very real sense that it tilted toward freedom.
Back to the U.S., it’s long been a magnet for the world’s strivers eager to taste freedom of the personal and economic variety. People willing to take the leap to the U.S. (frequently across oceans) are the picture of industrious. That these frequently uneducated (in a school sense) people thrived in a free society is a statement of the obvious, as are the amazing schools that followed. The point here is that Tolstoy was correct. Education is a beautiful consequence of prosperity, not a driver of it. Hopefully this debate can eventually happen in the U.S. It’s not happening now. It’s as though everyone thinks as Sergey Ivanovich does, while vanishingly few are willing to entertain the more skeptical or reasonable Levin view. Except that they must if they want to seriously address the education question.
Indeed, later on in the novel the by-then married Kitty and Levin travel to a hotel away from Levin’s farm at which Levin’s beloved, but shiftless third brother (Nikolay Dmitrievich) is dying. His prostitute girlfriend is with him. The hotel that Nikolay is laid up in was created with “the very best intentions of cleanliness, comfort, and even elegance, but which, due to the public which frequents them, are turned into extraordinary speed into dirty taverns.” I’m sorry, but this description could be used as a critical metaphor for vouchers and “better schools” in the present. Surely billions could be spent on public schools in Boone County (KY) and other parts of Appalachia, and surely the kids of these locales could be handed vouchers, but how long before the schools would soon embody Tolstoy’s description of Nikolay’s hotel? The educational debate has been reduced by wise members of the right to public vs. private, to competition for kids holding vouchers, and to teachers unions; most of it glossing over the much bigger drivers of good educational outcomes: conscientious students and parents. Values matter, conservatives have said as much for decades, only for them to give short shrift to values on the matter of educational outcomes.
So, while Levin isn’t one for quick, easy fixes of the educational variety, he very much wants those in his employ to succeed. That’s his view of what an “aristocrat” is: hard working and responsible, including to employees. In Levin’s words, “I consider myself and other people like me to be aristocrats, who can point to three or four honest generations going back in their family; who are in the highest degree educated (talent and intellect are another matter), who have never demeaned themselves before anyone, and never depended on anyone for anything.” Levin is well born, surely part of the aristocracy, but clearly believes he has grand responsibilities to himself and those in his employ because of his origins. The peasantry are “the main partner” with him in their shared work. Within the novel he’s even writing a book about his theories on lifting labor, and how to manage better outcomes for peasant workers. Levin rightly believes that “What’s good for the master’s good for us too.”
Yet he recognizes the corollary to “what’s good for the master.” Levin is trying to figure out how to make work good for the peasants. In his words, “I think no activity can be sound if it is not based on self-interest.” In which case he wants his employees “to have a vested interest in the work being successful.” He believes owners “will get two or three times” what they got before if they take the proceeds of farming, and “divide it equally in two and give half to the workforce.” Translated, Levin desired bonuses for work, equity, or call it what you want. Supply-side types would call it incentive economics. Again, however, all rooted in self-interest. As Levin puts it, “I benefit if the peasants work better.”
As for books on socialism that were increasingly popular among the intellectual elites whom Levin tolerated but clearly didn’t “get,” the ideas within were “unrealizable fantasies.” It was said in my review of War and Peace too, but how horrified Tolstoy would have been to see what Russia became in the 20th century. Tragic.
On the matter of gender discrimination, Tolstoy seems to be of the view that forced equality is a cruel outcome. Some people can’t do things that others can do, and they can’t because of gender. Prince Alexander Dmitrievich Shcherbatsky (father of Dolly and Kitty) comments on this strange need for equal outcomes in jobs unsuited to certain genders, that “it would be exactly as if I sought the right to be a wet nurse and took offence that women got paid while I wasn’t.”
Where it gets a little bit confusing about Tolstoy’s beliefs comes later in the novel when he talks about wealth and labor with Prince Stepan. It’s confusing because it’s hard to figure exactly where Tolstoy himself stands. While Stepan is the careless about debt, fun-loving, and female loving married man-about-Moscow, he comes off as more intelligent in this conversation than Levin. About those of substantial means, Stepan contends that “they all made their money by dint of hard work and intelligence.” Meanwhile, Levin embraces the labor theory of wealth in his seeming skepticism about the very rich and their “acquisition” of goods and services “disproportionate to the amount of work invested.” Stepan’s reply is impressive: “Yes, you feel that, but you won’t give away your estate” to those working it disproportionately. Exactly.
Whatever Levin’s occasional lapses of thought, he is drawn by Tolstoy as the common-sense thinker living and operating in the real world, all the while surrounded by those stalked by theory over on-the-ground knowledge. At one point Levin finds himself at a gathering of political types and those who aspire to be political types, and he’s mystified. He’s “exerting all his intellectual powers in a vain attempt to understand what was being said.” The important thing here is that Tolstoy is not drawing Levin as the dolt incapable of conversing with the politically attuned; instead, Levin is the wise man surrounded by those who think genius can be had merely by reading lots of books. In reality, the presumed genius of the elites is anything but. It’s babble. Just people talking to talk. Apropos of nothing lines uttered to Levin like “He’s such a blackguard! I told him, but it made no difference. It’s appalling! He couldn’t collect it in three years!”, only for the provider of the previous bit of nothingness to turn away from Levin to say apropos of nothing yet again that “Yes, it’s a dirty business, there’s no denying.” Tolstoy’s disdain for the politically connected and aspirant is very plain, and it’s confirmed in War and Peace through characters like Rostopchin, along with of course Prince Vasily and his endless vacillations at the most elite of elite salons.
It all raises a question about why Tolstoy isn’t more of a darling to the free thinkers of the libertarian world. His disdain for politics, for the people in politics, for war, combined with his belief in empowering free people to prosper, would or should make him heroic to free thinkers. Tolstoy’s books are full of insights that rate a great deal more attention. All of which brings us to the love story aspect of the novel.
While the novel’s namesake touches every character in the book literally and figuratively, it’s just as much or more about Levin. And Levin’s story is arguably more interesting. Figure that his love for Kitty was very deep too, and the fact that it was initially left unrequited arguably made it more real. Not only did he once have his feelings and deep love squashed, he also got to feel the opposite: with Kitty. As Tolstoy describes it, while Levin once felt unhappy because Kitty didn’t love him, the married Levin “now felt unhappy because she loved him too much.”
Which is arguably a good way to pivot to Vronsky. Once he and Anna were fully together as a couple, but shunned (at least Anna) societally, Vronsky “felt desires for desires.” Precisely. Vronsky’s position was in no way really harmed by what had taken place. There was something “attractive and mysterious” to society about an unmarried man pursuing a married woman. Looking into the future, “nothing gave the finishing touch to a brilliant young man quite like a high-society liason,” but for the “fallen woman” in Anna, her peers “were already gathering their little lumps of mud to sling at her when the time came.” In Anna’s words, “he has all the rights, while I have none.” Anna is stuck, but Vronsky isn’t. The economics of this were clearly bad. Vronsky always had an out, while Anna would, by 19th century societal rules, forever be on the outs. Which meant her focus became Vronsky. She felt she “could hold onto him with love and physical attraction.” What a terrible position to be in as Vronsky’s “desires for desires” made plain.
Which means Anna was slowly going mad. Perceptive as all women are, she knew well the imbalance in their relationship. No matter what happened, Anna was societally finished. Yet she “cherished” her former position. And while Vronsky can eventually marry her if Alexey Alexandrovich will grant her a divorce, the latter would come at the cost of her giving up seeing the son Seryozha whom she loves deeply. She and Vronsky have produced a child, but wanting to remain physically attractive to Vronsky (see above), more aren’t in the cards. Worse, she can’t even look after their own with interest. Increasingly medicated due to her realization of just how impossible her situation is, she’s not functioning normally.
Only for the imbalance between her and Vronsky to continue to assert itself. Anna quite simply cannot be out and about, after which most women and many men won’t associate with her in private. On the other hand, Vronsky not only can be out and about, he wants to be. He’s got political interests, he’s very good at business, plus he’s got societal interests. Which means he’s not always around, and his not being around leads to arguments that further accent the imbalance. Worse, she blames a reasonably sympathetic Vronsky (Tolstoy describes the character positively throughout) “for everything” that is “difficult about her situation.” The latter is bad enough, not to mention that she’s locked away at home or at their country estate at all times, drugged, plus in being alone, Anna is constantly paranoid about the legally un-attached and attractive Vronsky ending up with someone else. Here’s where the love story read as so real. Love is obviously so crazy on its own, and imagine what it feels like if you’re powerlessly stashed away at home, and similarly powerless to do anything about your situation.
It all leads to a spoiler alert, which really isn’t a spoiler. If you’re reading this, you likely already know what happens. A desperate and crazed Anna ultimately concludes that death would “revive the love for her in his heart, punish him…” Readers know the rest. Where it became confusing to me concerns the state of Vronsky’s feelings before the train station incident. Mis-communication is what eventually tips the scales in favor of tragedy, and Vronsky is written as plainly devastated in the aftermath. What was unclear is how Tolstoy meant to convey the character’s feelings beforehand. Was he still desperately in love, or was he increasingly frustrated in a search for desires, but also with Anna herself? Are we to believe that Anna’s death “revive[d] the love for her in his heart,” or had it never dimmed? This reader hopes other readers will explain.
Anna Karenina is a very interesting novel about humanity, love, the politics or strategies or contractual aspects of love, plus it’s a great story. And it’s very readable; as in don’t buy the hype about Tolstoy as difficult to get through. Not at all. Still, what was most interesting to me were Tolstoy’s bigger observations about policy and progress, and how people progress. Yes, this is so much more than a love story.