Modern Russian history begins in the eighteenth-century with Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725), an imposing seven-foot-tall man who sometimes settled political disagreements by hitting his opponents in the head with a club. He just as brazenly attempted to transform his economically and politically backward country into a powerful modern empire by Westernizing all aspects of Russian society. A century later, Count Leo Tolstoy, a French-speaking nobleman, would become the proud beneficiary of the modern society Tsar Peter created. But Tolstoy also would be tormented by the fact that his social power and financial comfort were built on the backs of Russia’s underprivileged serfs, who constituted 90 percent of the population.
Tolstoy’s ambivalence about the modernization of Russia deepened when the Great Reforms of Alexander II, in the 1860s, introduced Western-style political and social freedoms even more extensive than those of Peter the Great. Moreover, an industrial revolution similar to that of Victorian England now took place. Young people of all classes began migrating from the peaceful countryside to the bustling new cities in search of professional opportunities. Many families that once lived together in rural Russia became spread out, and the close relationship between the serfs and their aristocratic masters dissolved.
While many thinkers and writers greeted these changes enthusiastically, others, such as Tolstoy, were deeply concerned about the breakdown of the traditional Russian social fabric. Tolstoy observed the rise of a new class of professional merchants, lawyers, and doctors, who embodied the Western values of materialism and individualism at the expense of the traditional Russian ideals of community and compassion.
It is no wonder Tolstoy loved the British writer Charles Dickens, whom he considered a kindred spirit in the fight to raise people’s awareness about the human costs of modern “progress.” Tolstoy believed that only by vigorously casting off the internalized falsehoods of modern society could Russians—or any human beings—return to their original state of natural goodness. Tolstoy’s fiction, such as Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, depicts a broken world headed for moral disaster, unless honest introspection and spiritual transformation begin to occur.
“The goal of the artist is not to solve a question irrefutably, but to force people to love life in all its innumerable, inexhaustible manifestations.”
—Leo Tolstoy, from an 1865 letter
A popular pastime in 19th century Russia, bridge and whist were especially prevalent among upper-class men. In his twenties, Tolstoy obsessively played cards, and a substantial gambling debt even forced him to sell his family home when he was 27. In an 1890 polemical essay "Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?", Tolstoy wrote: "For people of dull, limited moral feeling, the external diversions are often quite sufficient to blind them to the indications conscience gives of the wrongness of their lives."
Tolstoy described card-playing in his fiction not only to heighten the sense of social reality but also to make psychological observations about his characters. For Ivan Ilyich card-playing is, like almost everything else he does, an empty, soul-numbing habit, a culturally acceptable excuse to avoid honest introspection and genuine intimacy with other people.