Applying Tolstoy to Today’s Rush to War

Rushing to war – justified by half-truths and propaganda – is a story as old as written history and the topic of great novelists like Leo Tolstoy, whose Anna Karenina offers lessons for today’s stampede toward WWIII, says Gilbert Doctorow.

Gilbert Doctorow

Russian literature is too important to be left to professors of Comp Lit or to Slavic Departments at our universities, as is so often the case with the novel that I propose to examine here, Leo Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina. Great literature is great precisely because of its multi-layered construction and the timelessness of the issues and considerations that constitute its substance.

Like War and Peace, Karenina has been the subject of many films going back to 1911, running through the 1930s with two classic versions featuring the legendary Greta Garbo and right up to time present and the widely discussed version released in 2012.

The novel has a core triangle, the relations between the heroine, her unloved and unloving husband who is 20 years her senior, Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, and her lover, Prince Alexei Vronsky, for whom she gives up everything but does not find happiness or inner peace, seeing instead that her only way out is suicide. It is about love and passion, about the basic building block of all societies, the family.

This side of Anna Karenina has been especially highlighted in the film versions, being universally appealing and not tedious in the least. Indeed, the first (silent) Garbo film was entitled Love. The novel’s basic narrative is also about the relations between the sexes. The issues surrounding feminism, aired at length throughout the development of the core plot, speak to our present day with perfect clarity notwithstanding the passage of 140 years from the time the words were written.

It is easy to understand the feeling of any film director taking in hand this magnificent novel with its splendid story line and turning literature into cinema. However, what Tolstoy produced may also be described as a piece of documentary film-making as we understand the profession today. The side plots, the relief to the main plot, are not just ballast. They are the result of the author’s going through salons and clubs in Moscow and St. Petersburg, going through the meetings of the nobility among themselves in corpore at their assemblies and individually over tea at their country estates, going through the interchanges between these landlords and their peasants over how to use the new farm machinery they have introduced and how to split up the profits, these and many other topics of the day as if with a team of cameramen and sound operators who record every word.

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