Anna Karenina was published in serial form from 1873-1877. It created a great stir in society?reports from the time claim that everyone in Russian Society was discussing the book and waiting eagerly for the next installment to appear. The critical reaction was mostly positive and, like the novel itself, passionate. It was published on the heels of Tolstoy's great opus, War and Peace (1863-1869) and solidified his reputation as one of Russia's most important 19th-century writers. This was quite a feat, given that his contemporaries included Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Gogol and Lermontov.
Great changes were taking place during the mid-1870s in Russia. The serfs had been liberated in 1861. This was a long-overdue economic change in Russian society, but unfortunately it was not matched with land reform. As a result, most former serfs continued to work on the large farms as "free" peasants. The "land question," also known as the "peasant question," was a major political issue in Russia at the time of Anna Karenina. Tolstoy weighs in on this issue in many parts of the book, especially Part Three.
At the same time, Russia was slowly and painfully undergoing a process of modernization. Western Europe had already completed many stages of industrialization, and Russia was far behind. Many of the new changes that were happening within Russia were in response to the changes in Europe. Western thought about democracy, liberalism, and social change accompanied the technological innovations that were imported throughout the mid-1870s and later 19th century. While many intellectuals and members of society saw this phenomenon in a positive light, others, like Tolstoy, were horrified by the negative aspects of Western "progress"?the rise of the urban center, the emergence of capitalism, decadent living, and the disconnection of people from the land.
Some of Tolstoy's horror was well-placed: not all Western innovations would work in Russia. For all of its backwardness, Russia was not Europe, and few ideas or technological innovations would change that fact. The scene in which Levin attempts to implement a new agricultural theory on his farm and meets with resistance from his peasants, for example, has a basis in reality.
A great deal of the spiritual underpinnings of Anna Karenina, especially Levin's struggle to find the Lord, are based on Tolstoy's own life. One critic has called Anna Karenina a "spiritual autobiography." Tolstoy went through many religious crises in his life and struggled to find a way of living religiously that fought against the hypocrises and greed of the Greek Orthodox Church. Though the Church is not addressed specifically in this novel?indeed, Tolstoy was excommunicated a few years after its publication and was probably being careful not to upset them with any commentary in Anna Karenina?it is vital to think about Tolstoy's own spiritual questions when reading this book.
Although the critical reaction to Anna Karenina was favorable and the public was shaken by the strength of both the story and Tolstoy's prose, Tolstoy himself was dissatisfied with the novel. He called it "scribblings," and had a great deal of trouble writing it. He was in the midst of several religious crises and soon became more interested in publishing didactic pamphlets and instructions than he was in writing novels. Indeed, with the exceptions of the great short story The Death of Ivan Ilyich and another novel, Resurrection, he spent the rest of his life writing didactic material about Christianity, education, and politics.