Sunday, August 23, 2015
THE TSAR in "Anna Karenina"
(27) Appearances of Tsar Aleksandr II in "Anna Karenina"
In the famous steeplechase scene (Part II, Ch. 22-29) Tolstoy repeatedly emphasizes the presence of the Sovereign and the court at the races [all page references here are to the Marian Schwartz translation, 2014]. P. 177: "he [Vronsky] would arrive when the entire court was already there." P. 182: "The big barrier was directly in front of the tsar's pavilion. The sovereign, the entire court, and the crowds of people--everyone was looking at them [the riders]." P. 186-87: "Alexei Aleksandrovich [Karenin]. . . had decided he would proceed straight from an early dinner to the dacha to see his wife and from there to the races, where the entire court would be present..." P. 193: "The race was unlucky, and of the seventeen men, more than half fell and were badly hurt. By the end of the race everyone was upset, a feeling magnified even more by the fact that the sovereign was not pleased." P. 194: "an officer galloped up and reported something to the sovereign. Anna strained forward, listening."
The emperor is mentioned several times in the novel, once even by name: P. 733: [Lyovin speaking] "Have you heard, Mikhailych, about the war?" He turned to him. "What was that they read in church? What do you think? Should we be fighting for the Christians?
"What's for us to think? Aleksandr Nikolaevich, our emperor, he's thought it over for us; he thinks everything over for us. He knows best."
With Lyovin's [and his own] opposition to sending Russian volunteers to help Serbia in its war against the Turks, Tolstoy, at this point in the novel, obviously is hinting that the sovereign does NOT know best. But there are other, more important reasons why Tolstoy introduces the emperor as a character in his novel.
The main theme of the novel is marriage and family. The main mover of the plot is adultery, that of Anna and Vronsky. Modern readers unaware of Russian history will be unaware how neatly Tsar Aleksandr II fits into those major themes. Aleksandr Nikolaevich first met Ekaterina Mikhailovna Dolgorukova when she was twelve. When he was forty-eight years old he fell in love with her (she was seventeen). Their first sexual contact came in July, 1866, and for the whole rest of his life (he died in 1881, assassinated) he was obsessed with Ekaterina Mikhailovna.
The tsar apparently had had many mistresses in the past, and his wife the tsarina had always looked the other way. She looked the other way this time too, but this time it was different. Ekaterina Mikhailovna became, in effect, a second wife for him, and she bore him three children. In July, 1880, after the death of the tsarina he married EM, and issued a decree, declaring that she would be given the title Serene Princess and that the three children would have all rights of legitimacy. The marriage, of course, was morganatic: none of the children had any right of succession to the throne.
Almost from the beginning the second illegal wife and family were an open secret in court circles. Tolstoy, along with most of the Russian aristocracy, surely knew this secret, and he neatly incorporated the adulterer Aleksandr into his novel on family and adultery. You wonder if the tsar ever read the novel, or if any of his advisors ever dared mention to him his role in it.
For details on the second, illegal family of the tsar, see, e.g., Edvard Radzinsky, Alexander II, the Last Great Tsar.