Anna Karenina L'va Tolstogo: Comics as Culture or Culture as Comics

Irina Makoveeva, University of Pittsburgh

My presentation examines the fascinating transformation of Lev Tolstoj’s novel Anna Karenina into the comic book Anna Karenina L'va Tolstogo, released in 2000 by the publishing house “World of New Russians.” Within the ample corpus of Anna Karenina visual adaptations, this is the first attempt to recast Tolstoj’s narrative (significantly reduced in the comics’ version, as in the 1935 Anglophone film by Clarence Brown) in a post-Soviet temporal and cultural setting. The publication’s numerous references to the new capitalist reality (e.g., Western cars, chic interiors, designer clothes, credit cards), modern visual culture (e.g., cult films such as Pulp Fiction, Titanic, the cartoon Simpsons), and virtual reality (e.g., the scene of the race is depicted as a computer game) qualify the new version of Anna Karenina as a postmodernist remake-adaptation. Popular culture in this instance refurbishes a high-culture product.

The publisher’s choice of the comic book as the adaptation-medium is hardly accidental. Though non-existent as a genre in the Soviet era, this visual-cum-verbal genre may trace its antecedents to such early cultural phenomena as the Russian lubok, and thus claim national cultural legitimacy. Moreover, like the Gzhel’ and Palekh items in the “World of the New Russians” store on the Arbat, the choice of a revered nineteenth-century literary text as the “model” for the contemporary revision lends cultural authentication to the New Russian enterprise of inscribing its identity in the “museum” of Russian culture.

On the one hand, Anna Karenina L'va Tolstogo elevates and legitimizes the only quasi-class to have emerged in post-Soviet Russia, and, on the other, it popularizes through radical, irreverent revision one of the cornerstones of what is traditionally perceived as “true” Russian Culture. This “double function” and straddling of genres make for a potentially subversive originality. Located at the cutting edge of experimentation, this exclusive edition of a comic book Anna Karenina, unlike traditional comics, targets an elite audience. Its ironical sophistication and high price make the slim volume accessible only to New Russians, uncharacteristically well-to-do Russian intellectuals, and Western readers familiar with Russian reality. For those reasons from the very outset it disqualifies itself from the possibility of becoming a “best-seller,” though selling and buying are, arguably, the chief occupations of the New Russians.  Ultimately, then, Anna Karenina L’va Tolstogo goes against the grain of most adaptations, which are undertaken with the hope of reaching “best-seller” status and the financial rewards that status normally promises.