Author Leo Tolstoy spent a lifetime looking for patterns of meaning in life and struggling with how to express them, both in his writing and his actions. The story behind Anna Karenina is a prime example of this search.
In 1870, after the successful publication of War and Peace, Tolstoy began imagining a story about a high-born society woman who destroys her life by having an adulterous affair. Tolstoy's problem, he told his wife Sonya (who recorded it in her diary), was how "to present this woman as not guilty but merely pitiful." An adulteress as a sympathetic character was in those days most rare. In doing so, Tolstoy aimed to expose injustices in such Russian institutions as government, urban aristocratic society, and the Russian Orthodox Church. He also intended to portray his own ideal of a meaningful life.
Tolstoy didn't start right away. Between 1870 and 1873, he opened a school for peasant children at his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, and bought another estate in Samara Province (east of the Volga), which he turned into a stud farm. Also during this time, he wrote his famous textbook, Azbuka (ABC), began a second book for schoolchildren, andworked on a novel about Peter the Great, ultimately growing weary of the subject.
In March 1873, Tolstoy began reading a book of stories by the great Russian author Alexander Pushkin, and was suddenly inspired by an opening sentence: "The guests were getting ready to leave for the country house." He told his wife excitedly, "That's the way for us to write! Anyone else would start by describing the guests, the rooms, but he jumped straight into the action." Tolstoy began Anna Karenina that night.
In twelve months, Tolstoy had a thick manuscript with Part I in final draft. He spent much time reworking each part five or six times, with Sonya copying out the final versions. On December 21, 1874, Tolstoy sent Katkov, the editor of the Russky Vestnik (Russian Messenger), the first pages of Anna Karenina. Katkov serialized the novel from 1874 through 1877, receiving new and reworked sections from Tolstoy throughout this time.
After his initial push on the novel, Tolstoy slowed down, greatly affected by several deaths in his family, including three children, a niece, and two aunts. He was also distracted by other pursuits. Sonya complained to her father that Tolstoy was obsessed with the educational needs of his peasants, much to the detriment of finishing Anna Karenina.
But there was something else that slowed Tolstoy. In this period he began to experience his "conversion," in which he denounced Russian society and the Russian Orthodox Church in favor of a more humble and just existence. Tolstoy now took to heart Christ's words on nonresistance, believing all violence to be evil. He also felt that the only life worth living was an ascetic one, and he eventually gave up all property, became a vegetarian, and practiced celibacy. Anna's story, one of aristocracy, became worthless to him. In November 1875, Tolstoy wrote to his friend N. N. Strakhov: "My God, if only someone would finish Anna Karenina for me. Unbearably repulsive."
Tolstoy's pacifist views are evident in the last few pages of the novel, where he condemns the Turkish-Serbian-Russian war. His editor saw these views as unpatriotic and therefore unpublishable. Katkov asked for changes; Tolstoy refused. In the end, Katkov finished serialization by publishing only a summary of the last part of the book. Tolstoy later published the last part in a separate edition of the novel.
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