Consummate Bureaucrats in “Anna Karenina” and “Petersburg”

Bely’s Drawing of Senator Ableukov.  Source:

By Avery Comar

Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg (1913), in both language and content, is very much engaged in conversation with Russian literature that preceded it. The interaction of Bely’s novel with its realist predecessors is particularly apparent in his portrayal of Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, who bears an unmistakable resemblance to Aleksey Aleksandrovich Karenin in Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878).

            On the most basic level, the characters of Ableukhov and Karenin are cast in the same mold. Both are high-ranking political officials in late Tsarist Russia, perfectly exemplifying the prototypical consummate bureaucrat: they are creatures of habit (obsessed with process and routine) and overly absorbed in the mundanities of their work and rituals of their everyday lives. Both are married to a woman named Anna (and both wives have affairs with more romantic figures). Finally, both have poor relationships with their sons; if they are not openly antagonistic, they are at least critical, demanding, and lacking of paternal warmth.

In addition to these fundamental similarities between the two characters, there are distinct parallels in the ways that Ableukhov and Karenin are represented by Bely and Tolstoy, respectively. Most obviously, both authors emphasize the ears of the two characters early on in their novels. When the reader first encounters Karenin in the train station, Anna thinks “‘Great heavens! What has happened to his ears?’,” which were “gristly,” and “pressed against the rim of his hat” (95). Bely’s narrator also points out Ableukhov’s enormous ears, which were depicted in a political cartoon as “…completely green [and]…enlarged to massive dimensions… against the blood red background of a burning Russia” (8). From their first introduction to the plot, the physical descriptions of Karenin and Ableukhov bear a striking resemblance.

Aside from their physical similarities, the two characters mirror one another in their mannerisms. Both are particular: Tolstoy tells us that “Every moment of [Karenin’s] life was filled up and apportioned… he observed the strictest regularity” (100). Though Bely gives us no such definite statement of Ableukhov’s character, Ableukhov’s affinity for regularity is demonstrated in a description of his morning routine: his staff is able to predict when he’ll come downstairs by observing when he puts on his cologne; he takes his coffee at “exactly half past nine”; and at ten o’clock, he leaves for work (7).

In both characters, love of routine is accompanied by a fear of that which defies rationalization: the messy realm of emotion and the real world. In the case of Karenin, this fear is demonstrated as he struggles to cope with the realization that his wife is not merely a cog in the well-oiled machine that is his life. As he considers the idea that Anna may be in love with another man, he is wrenched out of his neatly categorized world in the same manner as a person who is “quietly crossing a bridge over an abyss, [and] suddenly sees that the bridge is falling to pieces and that he is facing the abyss” (130). In Petersburg, Ableukhov is forced to confront his fear of reality as he watches the masses walk the streets of Petersburg from the inside of his carriage. The chaos that he sees in the eyes of a passing raznochinet cause him to suffer dilation of the heart. In this way, Ableukhov and Karenin are fundamentally similar characters; they are adept bureaucrats, comfortable with the rational and routine — but upon being confronted with that which they cannot rationalize, they are horrified and turn away.

Avery Comar is a junior majoring in History and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

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