Anna Karenina: A Conservative Morality Tale

Rick Moran
The new movie version of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina might be a bit stagy for some tastes, but any movie that--a) stars Keira Knightley and b) advances Leo Tolstoy's worldview--is surely worth watching. 

I will leave the story itself to the moviegoer, but in the novel of the same name Tolstoy describes liberalism in terms that are entirely recognizable 140 years later.  In the following passages he speaks to the character of Anna's philandering, self-important brother, Stepan Arkadyevitch, a landau liberal because it suited his life style.  Indeed, writes Tolstoy wryly, liberalism had become something of a habit for him, like smoking his cigar, "for the slight fog it diffused in
 his brain." 

The 
liberal party said that in Russia everything is wrong, and
 certainly Stepan Arkadyevitch had many debts and was decidedly 
short of money. The liberal party said that marriage is an 
institution quite out of date, and that it needs reconstruction;
 and family life certainly afforded Stepan Arkadyevitch little
 gratification, and forced him into lying and hypocrisy, which was
 so repulsive to his nature.

The liberal party said, or rather
 allowed it to be understood, that religion is only a curb to keep 
in check the barbarous classes of the people; and Stepan
 Arkadyevitch could not get through even a short service without 
his legs aching from standing up, and could never make out what
 was the object of all the terrible and high-flown language about 
another world when life might be so very amusing in this world.

Writing more than 40 years before the Russian Revolution, Tolstoy noted the myopia of one-percenters like Stepan Arkadyevitch who believed that the real danger to Russia lay "not in that fantastic
 revolutionary hydra, but in the obstinacy of traditionalism 
clogging progress." 

Curiously, the 100 or so million lives lost to that revolutionary hydra have not wised up our friends on the left.  As one prominent Kansan said famously in the pages of the New York Times, today's religious right poses a "far greater threat than the old threat of communism."  In his best court French Tolstoy just might have replied, Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


The new movie version of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina might be a bit stagy for some tastes, but any movie that--a) stars Keira Knightley and b) advances Leo Tolstoy's worldview--is surely worth watching. 

I will leave the story itself to the moviegoer, but in the novel of the same name Tolstoy describes liberalism in terms that are entirely recognizable 140 years later.  In the following passages he speaks to the character of Anna's philandering, self-important brother, Stepan Arkadyevitch, a landau liberal because it suited his life style.  Indeed, writes Tolstoy wryly, liberalism had become something of a habit for him, like smoking his cigar, "for the slight fog it diffused in
 his brain." 

The 
liberal party said that in Russia everything is wrong, and
 certainly Stepan Arkadyevitch had many debts and was decidedly 
short of money. The liberal party said that marriage is an 
institution quite out of date, and that it needs reconstruction;
 and family life certainly afforded Stepan Arkadyevitch little
 gratification, and forced him into lying and hypocrisy, which was
 so repulsive to his nature.

The liberal party said, or rather
 allowed it to be understood, that religion is only a curb to keep 
in check the barbarous classes of the people; and Stepan
 Arkadyevitch could not get through even a short service without 
his legs aching from standing up, and could never make out what
 was the object of all the terrible and high-flown language about 
another world when life might be so very amusing in this world.

Writing more than 40 years before the Russian Revolution, Tolstoy noted the myopia of one-percenters like Stepan Arkadyevitch who believed that the real danger to Russia lay "not in that fantastic
 revolutionary hydra, but in the obstinacy of traditionalism 
clogging progress." 

Curiously, the 100 or so million lives lost to that revolutionary hydra have not wised up our friends on the left.  As one prominent Kansan said famously in the pages of the New York Times, today's religious right poses a "far greater threat than the old threat of communism."  In his best court French Tolstoy just might have replied, Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.