Thursday, July 23, 2009

Anna Karenina and American Presidents

Today’s New York Times included a curious piece: Serge Schmemann’s “Nixon and Khrushchev, the End of an Unscripted Era,” an Editorial Observer column about the Moscow “kitchen debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev on July 24, 1959.

The surprising part wasn’t Schmemann’s account of their exchange of words for manure. What surprised me was that Schmemann describes Nixon as “an ardent student of Russia” who wrote to Schmemann mentioning passages from Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina about Levin and his ideas for agriculture. Schmemann believes that Russian writers helped form Nixon’s interest in Russia and “played a major role in his relish to take on the Soviet leader and, I think, in the respect the Russians developed for Nixon.”

According to Elizabeth Drew’s Richard M. Nixon, at the time David Frost interviewed Nixon, Nixon gave Frost and his girlfriend a tour of his house and asked if they had read Anna Karenina. Though Drew doesn’t say whether Frost or his girlfriend read the book, she reports that Nixon called it “very romantic.”

Thinking of Nixon reading Anna Karenina reminded me that Theodore Roosevelt read the book in present-day North Dakota in 1886, while he was guarding boat thieves he and his ranch foreman had chased through the wilderness. Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt says that T.R. read AK after polishing off a volume of Matthew Arnold, and Morris writes that AK “both attracted and repelled him.”

Morris includes Roosevelt’s comments on the book, which start with “I hardly know whether to call it a very bad book or not.” Roosevelt then discusses his opinions of the characters, saying that Anna was “in a certain sense insane” because her reasoning was so unbalanced. The full text appears in this note in Nathan Miller’s Theodore Roosevelt.

Bonus: New York City Travel Tip. The combination of Theodore Roosevelt and Russian novels reminds me that Russian Bookstore No. 21 (174-176 5th Ave., Suite 200) and the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace (28 E. 20th St.) are just a few blocks away from each other. Though the house where Roosevelt was born is reconstructed, the tour was interesting, and there are many significant artifacts, including the shirt T.R. was wearing when he was shot.

P.S. The July 24, 2009, New York Times contains another, longer piece about the kitchen debate: William Safire's op-ed, "The Cold War's Hot Kitchen." Safire was at the exhibit, "as a young press agent for the American company that built the house" and offers some interesting and funny anecdotes.


  1. Interesting that Theodore Roosevelt though Anna was "in a certain sense insane." I read long ago a reference to a letter in which Tolstoy said the kernel of the story was "a woman of good standing who has completely lost her way." It's not the same thing as "lost her mind," not by a long way,. but still there's a striking echo, I think.

  2. Thank you for commenting on this, rootlesscosmo. I also found, Roosevelt's impressions of the book interesting, particularly his mention of his admiration for Tolstoy's writing.