In our opinion, the danger lies not in the imaginary hydra of revolution, but in the stubborn traditionalism which holds up progress.

At the beginning of the novel, Stiva reads a passage in a liberal newspaper that expresses the opinion that a violent revolution is unlikely to happen, and that politics should focus on steady progress and stamping out traditional ways of life that hold back Russia’s economic growth and the well-being of its general populace. Considering that Anna Karenina takes place in the 1860s and 70s, there are still many decades to go before the Russian Revolution, which began in 1917. However, we can see that the rumblings of revolution have already begun. Modern readers can appreciate the irony of seeing how many of the novel’s noble characters are generally unconcerned about revolution, not knowing that it will in fact happen, and will bring with it the complete destruction of the aristocracy. Tolstoy himself would die only a few years before the communist revolution, although, by his time of death, the instability of the Russian state and its imminent collapse would have been abundantly clear.

The French custom for parents to decide the fate of their children was not accepted and was condemned. The English custom of giving girls complete freedom was also not accepted and was impossible in Russian society. The Russian custom of matchmaking was considered abominable in some way, and was laughed at by everyone, including the Princess herself. But how a girl should marry or be given in marriage no one knew.

The progress and rights of women are major concerns in Anna Karenina, to the point that many historical and modern critics agree that the novel was Tolstoy’s way of adding his voice to the conversation. Women in the 1800s lacked autonomy and independence, and marriage was essentially the most important thing they could accomplish, as it cemented their financial stability and social status. However, Russian society was torn between matchmaking and allowing women to choose their own mates. The novel exhibits how a marriage made solely through matchmaking—Anna and Alexei Karenin’s—ends badly for everyone, while Kitty’s marriage to Levin, where she has the last word on whether she will accept the proposal, is healthier and more loving. As women’s rights progressed, matchmaking decreased, as did women’s general dependence on men and marriage.

That relic of barbarism, the primitive commune with its principle of mutual responsibility, is falling apart by itself, serfdom has been abolished, free labor is what remains, and its forms are defined and ready, and we must accept them. The hired worker, the day laborer, the farmhand – you can’t get away from that.

Russia and its individual landowners, like Levin, struggle to adapt to the new status of the peasantry. The country previously operated via serfdom, in which unpaid farmers were bound to cultivate their noble lord’s greater lands in exchange for being allowed to live and farm on a small plot of land for their own personal use. While serfs were not technically slaves, their freedoms were severely restricted, and they were beholden to their lords. With the abolishment of serfdom, Russian nobles were unable to exert the same level of power over paid laborers, and agricultural progress was affected as a result. Knowing that they must adapt to their current reality, Levin is interested in creating a new system of farming that is satisfactory to both nobles and peasants.

Agriculture and, above all, the situation of the peasantry, must completely change in all respects. Instead of poverty there should be general prosperity and contentment; instead of enmity there should be harmony and shared interests. In short, a bloodless revolution, but a mighty revolution.

Again, Levin sees the need for a new system of farming and country life that allows nobles to make money, peasants to live happily and out of poverty, and the agricultural economy to run smoothly. He foresees that, should he create such a system, it would begin in small, localized farming communities and slowly branch out to larger and larger communities until finding its way to major cities such as Moscow. Thus, the revolutionary system would eventually be put in place without any need for the use of force or violence. Despite his general apathy toward the well-being of the peasantry, Levin does foresee the need to increase their quality of life. However, Levin’s bloodless revolution clearly does not come to pass, as poverty and the discontentment of the lower classes would only continue to increase as Russia grew closer to its communist revolution.

Inequality in marriage lay in the fact that a wife’s infidelity and a husband’s infidelity were not punished equally, either by the law or by public opinion.

The inequality in marriage is one of the driving political themes of Anna Karenina, and it is established through Anna, Karenin, and Vronsky’s storyline as well as Stiva and Dolly’s storyline. Women are unfairly punished for infidelity, both legally and by society. While Anna becomes a social pariah and is kept from seeing her son after engaging in an affair with Vronsky, Vronsky is able to continue his career as he sees fit and maintain a respectable position in society. Furthermore, Karenin retains complete legal power over their son, and even has legal rights to Anna and Vronsky’s daughter despite having no blood relation to her. Meanwhile, Stiva openly cheats on Dolly constantly and is still a beloved friend to Levin and a respected professional figure in Moscow and Petersburg.