top of page

"Tolstoy 2.0" by Yelena Furman

Anna Karenina didn’t die under a train. She divorced her husband and lives with Vronsky and their daughter, Annie, in St. Petersburg. She and her ex have joint custody of Serezha, who is a fantastic big brother and goes on vacations with his new family to Italy, where Anna and Vronsky know the art scene thanks to Vronsky’s post-military occupation as a collector. He and Anna don’t see much of his cousin, Betsy, because Anna can’t forgive the hypocrisy. When Anna went public about her relationship with Vronsky – and how could she not, after they all went on a carousel ride and, as the only one sober because she was pregnant, she rushed to him in front of everyone when he got his leg stuck trying to dismount – Betsy broke off their friendship and badmouthed her to mutual friends. One of them insulted her and stormed out when Anna ran into her at the opera. Anna will never understand why these people think it’s fine to cheat on your spouse discreetly, but unforgivable to bring your affair into the open because you want an honest life. She’d hoped for a more enlightened attitude; it’s the late nineteenth century, after all.

At this point, though, she’s done worrying about public opinion. Also, she’s busy. She’s worked her way up to head librarian in their local library, because, far from the emotional wreck people mistake her for, she has a logical mind and solid organizational skills. Due to her efforts, this library boasts the city’s largest collection of English novels. She also recently finished her children’s book, which a publisher quickly bought because there is a growing need for material to help kids navigate their parents’ divorces. Of course, Vronsky’s mother doesn’t miss an opportunity to criticize her for hiring a nanny and working outside the home, but Anna just keeps sending her journal articles on the woman question.

She and Vronsky have talked about getting married, but with her experience, she has no desire to do it again. She’s filled with unmitigated rage each time she remembers having to sneak back into her own house to bring Serezha his birthday presents after her husband decided she wasn’t a good mother because she fell in love with somebody else and liked having sex with him. (She does really like it, and laughs at herself for that scene she made the first time, babbling about sin and forgiveness while Vronsky felt like he’d murdered her, a display fitting for moralistic novels but absurd in real life). From what she hears, her bureaucrat ex is dating that psychics-obsessed psychopath who lied to Serezha about his mother being dead, but Anna stipulated in the divorce agreement that the woman is not allowed to be with him unsupervised, and at least the ex and his weirdly shaped ears are now someone else’s problem. She and Vronsky fight less because she knows there’s no one to be jealous of, the nightmares and need for drugs are gone, and she stopped feeling suicidal once she decided she wasn’t going to let any man write her out of the narrative.

Dolly, Anna’s sister-in-law, is also doing well. She has finally separated from her philandering husband, Stiva, who, as if flings with French governesses weren’t enough, had the gall to ask her to sell her share of her family’s estate to cover his debts. She’d always blamed herself for the state of their marriage: he felt neglected because she was too wrapped up in their six (6) children; she was too drab and disfigured by pregnancy for him to want her. Growing up, she was conditioned by family members and male novelists to believe that women’s calling was marriage and motherhood and that if you had problems in the former, you still had to dissolve yourself in the latter. Angry and embarrassed, she recalls how she understood nothing of her son’s math and Latin lessons but was an expert on bassinette design.

And then she went to visit Anna and Vronsky and there was Anna, who didn’t know how many teeth Annie had, didn’t breastfeed and used birth control, and was busy helping Vronsky build a local hospital; not only did the world not stop spinning, but it moved more brightly in her direction. Dolly understood that it’s the unhappy families that resemble each other because the wives are all miserable; happiness, on the other hand, was individual, and she needed to find hers. She is deeply grateful to Anna for taking her side while being Stiva’s sister because Anna knew what it was like being stuck in an unworkable marriage; she is also grateful to Anna for introducing her to skin creams and hairdressers. Following her sister-in-law’s example, Dolly put her younger kids into childcare and is turning her forcibly acquired life skill into a profession by training wet nurses and organizing for their improved working conditions. Whenever Stiva begs her to come back and she feels herself weakening, she reminds herself that her road to fulfillment does not consist of analyzing the contents of her children’s diapers.

Unlike her older sister, Kitty is depressed. She adores baby Mitia, but she’s exhausted from having to take care of him by herself, including the never-ending breastfeeds. She wishes Kostia was as concerned about her now as when she was pregnant. If she hears one more time, “Remember how I didn’t warm up to our son until I found you standing with him in that rainstorm, while you bonded with him right away because women are naturally maternal,” she will start pelting him with the glass baby bottles she got for the surreptitious formula feeds.

She’s had to face the painful truth about her marriage. She convinced herself she loved Kostia because Vronsky dumped her. She curses having gone to that party and watching Anna and Vronsky fall in love on the dance floor, although she gives Anna credit for feeling guilty and asking Dolly to pass on her apologies. She realizes the game they played where one of them wrote the first letter and the other had to guess the word screwed them up because they mistook their seamless communication for love when it was just good friends’ familiarity with each other’s thoughts. She will also never stop kicking herself for playing this game instead of standing up for women’s rights in the all-male discussion that was happening simultaneously.

Still, the wedding was lovely, and she thinks things could have worked out with her dependable but unexciting husband if he hadn’t turned out to be so impossible to live with; having got over his fear of death, he’s now killing her.

The virtue that everyone admires in him is in reality an insufferable blend of religious fervor – he had an epiphany and found God – and a self-righteousness that makes her want to throw herself under the nearest train. He’s forced them to live in the countryside and has become obsessed with best farming practices, although she’s put her foot down at having to hunt their food or spending hours making jam. There’s also his incessant lawn mowing, which he claims makes him one with nature and all creation. Meanwhile, they have no grass left.

And then there’s the sexual imbalance. She was a virgin when she got married, becoming a mother soon after, without any opportunity to explore what it means to be her own woman. But she was well aware that Kostia had done plenty of exploring. She feels like throwing up whenever she recalls how he made her read his diary before their wedding. At the time, she consoled herself that his idea of not wanting any secrets between them was noble, even if his execution was deeply flawed. But now she just wants to rage, because who the hell does that? She’s admitted to herself that her jealousy wasn’t about the women he’d slept with, but because he’d gotten to sleep with other people and she hadn’t. When she realized that, she spent a week polishing off the contents of their wine cellar and binge-reading Wollstonecraft and George Sand. She badly needs to talk to someone, but she’s embarrassed to bring sex up with her sister, and her best friend, Varenka, has little experience. Kitty decides that tomorrow, when Mitia is napping, she will write to the one woman she knows who can help: Masha, Kostia’s late brother’s girlfriend, who used to be in the profession. And then she will talk to Dolly and Varenka, including reminding the latter not to spend her life taking care of everyone but herself. For Mitia’s sake, she hopes things with Kostia will work out, but just in case, she’s pre-ordering Anna’s children’s book.

Female protagonists aren’t the only ones on strike. Sofia Behrs, who as a widow is using her own last name again, has written a tell-all book about life at Yasnaya Polyana, putting forth her own story because she’s more than the copyist of her husband’s drafts. Unlike her memoir and diary, which were genuflecting homages intended to soften her reputation as a hysterical shrew who made Lev’s life a living hell, Sofia paints a vivid picture of him as a tyrant demanding total allegiance to his unattainable demands and blaming her for everything, when she was simply trying to stop him giving away their estate. In passages that prompt her rage all over again, she describes her thirteen pregnancies and his diktat on breastfeeding, including when she had mastitis, her raising the eight surviving children single-handedly while he was busy reaching his daily word count, his inability to comfort her when her beloved Vania and the others died, and his disregard for her exhaustion in demanding sex which, given his stance on abstinence, is as hypocritical as high society in Anna Karenina. She admits to throwing fits and attempting to kill herself because, as she reminds her readers, you try living with that death-obsessed moralist, not to mention a vegetarian in Russia. In contrast to the image of her husband as an inherent genius in her previous writings, he emerges here as a man with the time and energy to devote himself to art, ponder God and death, and playact as a peasant because she took care of his every need. The chapter about how he snuck out of Yasnaya Polyana in the middle of the night to escape her after she’d sacrificed herself for him and their children required several bottles to write. She doesn’t hold back in her hatred for the con artist Chertkov, who was responsible for the fiasco by bamboozling her husband with all the disciple talk and turning him against her. When Lev was dying shortly after – at a train station, how ironic – Chertkov wouldn’t even let her see him, although as she explains, she was so fed up by then, she could care less. She was nervous when the book came out, but the reviews have been favorable, and she regularly receives warm letters from female readers, as well as invitations to speak at woman question events.

Encouraged by the book’s success, she is at work on a long-germinating project. As much as she loves Anna Karenina as a novel, she hates that her husband used their dysfunctional relationship as material for Kitty and Levin, presenting this marriage as aspirational while pushing the woman who refused to fit into his domestic straitjacket under a train. She is impressed with Chekhov’s “Lady with a Little Dog,” which allows that Anna to have an affair without endless authorial moralizing or transportation incidents. She is working on her own variant, in which the female characters get to explore life and love on their own terms. She hopes such rewritings will give women an alternate way of seeing themselves in literature, which might be one piece among many that helps them write their own differently imagined texts and live differently unfolding lives. It does, and they do.

Yelena Furman lives in Los Angeles and teaches Russian literature at UCLA. Her fiction has previously appeared in Narrative and The Willesden Herald. She co-runs Punctured Lines, a feminist blog on post-Soviet and diaspora literatures.


bottom of page