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Despite the passing of a century and a half since Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina first reached the public’s bookshelves, many of its characters continue to resonate with modern times. The lessons to be drawn from their experiences informs our own, none more so than Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky, brother of the eponymous protagonist of Anna Karenina. From the onset of the novel, Stepan is portrayed as a good-natured man, loved and cared for by all who know him, save for his wife. His quarrel with her - a conflict of his own making - exposes flaws in the otherwise spotless character which he incarnates, several of which merit discussion, namely that of his approach to politics.
“Stepan Arkadyevich did not choose either his tendency or his views, as these tendencies and views came to him by themselves, in just the same way that he did not choose a style of hat or frock-coat, but plumped for the ones which other people wore.”
Despite being married to one of Moscow’s old aristocratic families and bearing the title of ‘Prince,’ it appears that he cares little for politics, picking his political views off a popular newspaper as one would food off a menu. Tolstoy implies that if the newspaper changed its views from, say, one end of the political spectrum to another, Oblonsky’s own views would not hesitate to mirror this immense change at the drop of a hat. Consequently, his approach towards politics defines itself by his lack of critical thinking and absence of interest. Whilst indifference frees one of the (at times) difficult task of having to come up with an opinion, such freedom is fleeting when one considers the effects of the lack of debate.
This debate’s scope is not one of grand scale spanning nations, or even multiple people, but rather the ‘internal debate’ happening within our own minds: that which leads to the formation of an individual opinion. Anna Karenina is a narrative that only several times crosses paths with politics, but the insights Tolstoy provides into Oblonsky’s nature reflect a certain trend through time: that people often avoid forming independent opinions on politics, effectively subscribing to ‘Oblonsky Politics’ - the approach demonstrated by this character.
Take, for example, the prevalent issues of modern politics - those which families would rather avoid by eating in silence than engage in discourse over: Brexit, the Catalan Independence, or the “Gilets Jaunes.” These are excellent examples where ‘Oblonsky Politics’ occurs due to the sheer amount of thought that would be required to adopt a decision about the stance or personal opinion regarding them. After all, one typically thinks, why should I form my own opinion? Surely there are people that know much more about it than I do and hence can discuss it for me. What gives me the authority and legitimacy to comment on it myself?
Such thoughts often come to mind when facing these subjects, heralding danger as smoke arising from a fire does; they promise disinterest and a lack of critical thinking which, when followed, leads to complacency with the world itself. Refusing to objectively analyse facts and form an independent judgment can result in ignoring matters which could impact tomorrow, in favour of the brief and undeniably temporary peace of today.
One might escape any possible confrontation by avoiding the formation of an opinion, therefore, like Oblonsky himself, wear an opinion as easily as a hat, without ever questioning or probing its assumptions and consequences. To run from the situation at hand, or seek temporary shelter from the storm, is only to invite it to further wreak havoc in one’s mind and life; it is akin to putting off work in the hopes that it may lessen in volume by some means of divine intervention.
Given the modern events which our generation faces, to willingly choose silence is not a problem in itself, but choosing to completely avoid an issue is. Answers are rarely black and white; there often is, or has to be, a grey. Rather than adhering to Oblonsky Politics, one ought to seek to inform oneself about everyday events.
To the question of why one ought to form one’s individual opinion on political matters, we should consider the possible outcome of failing to do so: being uninformed, unaware. For example, one might believe that all of the United Kingdom had voted in favour of Brexit, which would be false: Scotland and Northern Ireland did not, in fact, vote in favour of leaving the European Union. To appear and be uninformed in modern society is to handicap oneself, to present oneself as uninformed is under no circumstances a positive thing, whether socially or professionally.
Unlike Oblonsky, we cannot allow ourselves to subscribe to the opinions of just one source of information. In the world that we live in, one ought to be informed of as many points of view as possible, so as to truly grasp the situation and to form a well-informed opinion. Were one to bring up the aforementioned point of view on Brexit, for example, one would soon be criticized and called out - due to one’s lack of information and a flawed understanding of the situation. Although one would not have formed an opinion, one would have effectively followed ‘Oblonsky Politics’ in subscribing to another’s opinion without questioning it, thereby removing one’s critical thought from the matter entirely.
As for legitimacy and authority, one might never truly have it, but when the opportunity is provided - as with Brexit, the 2017 French presidential election, or the Macedonian name-change referendum on the Prespa Agreement - one ought to be well-informed. Information, after all, enables us to take the best decision possible, and to rest assured in the future that the choice we made was the one we truly believed in, that there was no better option. To overcome the discomfort today and so achieve a peaceful tomorrow. Being well-informed is not just a concern of the present, but one of the future, lest we forget our decisions’ having repercussions there too.
One might argue that there was not much Oblonsky could do within an authoritarian regime to influence the politics of his day. Yet one can also claim that if anyone could influence Russian politics in the late 19th century, it was Oblonsky’s social class, and hence that his lack of opinion was a wasted opportunity. Despite his lack of opinion being a personal choice, it is reprehensible that he - or anyone for that matter - abstained from or refused to choose it.
Ultimately, the formation of an opinion is a matter of great discomfort, requiring great pains to ensure one’s opinion is well-informed. It is far, far easier to avoid this discomfort by echoing the opinions of others, but to do so is to demonstrate an alarming lack of critical thinking. Democracy as a system of governance was based on debate, so can it truly continue when all are unwilling to debate?
Tolstoy, L. (2017). Anna Karenina. Bartlett, R. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.