Stepan Arkadyevitch, one who "was born in the midst of those who has been and are the powerful ones of this world" is president of a government board in Moscow, part of a department in the ministry where his brother-in-law, Alexey Alexandrovitch Karenin, holds one of the most prominent positions. Stiva's kindliness and good humor have won him the respect and liking of all his subordinates as well as his superiors. Despite excellent abilities, Stiva did poorly at school for he was idle and mischievous. Yet he does a good job at the office; never getting carried away with his work, his indifference to the business at hand increases his objectivity and accuracy.
During his busy morning, Stiva receives the unexpected visit of his childhood comrade, Konstantin Levin, an intense, thoughtful man of the same age. Levin, modeled after Tolstoy himself, cares deeply for farming, raising livestock, and managing his ancestral estate. He despises town life for being superficial and frivolous, while Stiva considers Levin's affairs as trifling. Despite their differences, the two men have remained close friends. Levin's love for Dolly's youngest sister, Kitty Shtcherbatsky, also reinforces their friendship.
Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin has come to Moscow specifically to make an offer to the Princess Shtcherbatsky. He regards Kitty as a perfect creature and feels unworthy beside her. Though he believes she deserved better than an ugly, ordinary man like himself, he feels he could not have a moment's rest until he made her an offer.
When Levin arrives at Moscow, he puts up at the house of his elder half-brother, Koznyshev. Sergey Ivanitch Koznyshev, a famous thinker and writer, concerned with intellectual problems and immersing himself in the political trends of Russia, is of an entirely different temperament than Levin. Rather than ask his brother's advice on his personal problem, Levin tells Koznyshev of his disenchantment with his local Zemstvo organization and they talk about provincial self-government in general. (Zemstvos are representative county councils founded in 1864 by Alexander II.)
Sergey Ivanitch remarks that their brother Nicolai had turned up in Moscow and shows Levin a hostile note he received. Nicolai, after Koznyshev had covered an I.O.U. for him, writes that the only favors he wishes of his brothers is that they leave him in peace. Half-brother to Koznyshev, and elder brother to Konstantin, Nicolai has dissipated the greater part of his fortune, quarrelled with his brothers, and lives in the strangest and lowest company. Levin at once wants to visit his ruined brother, but first drives to the place where he might meet Kitty.
Arriving at the Zoological gardens' skating rink, Kitty's presence dominates his thoughts and he sees no one but her. The expression of her eyes — soft, serene, thoughtful — and her smile transports him and he feels softened and tender as in his early childhood. An excellent skater, Levin works off some of his nervousness by executing a daring leap down the coffee house steps. While he and Kitty skate together, Levin responds so meaningfully to her casual questions that he constantly blushes. She asks how long he intends to stay in Moscow. "It depends on you," Levin says, and is horrorstruck at his inadvertent confession. Kitty stumbles, then hurries away from him toward her parents. Her mother, having higher hopes for her child, gives Levin a cold greeting but invites him to call on them. To offset her mother's coolness, Kitty bids him a friendly farewell and her smile throws Levin into ecstasy.
Stiva now arrives. After greeting his in-laws, he draws Levin off to dinner, intently planning their menu while they drive to the restaurant. Oblonsky is perfectly at home among the bronzes, starchy tablecloths, mirrors, obsequious waiters. In their private dining room, he selects their wines and courses with elaborate care. Levin feels almost sullied in this luxurious atmosphere. After the freshness of skating and his delight in the innocence and truthfulness of Kitty, his present setting seems stale and artificial. People in the country, he tells Stiva, order their lives around the goal of work, not idleness. City people, having lost touch with the functional aspects of life, are only prepared to seek pleasure. "Why yes," answers Stiva good-naturedly, "That's just the aim of civilization — to make everything a source of pleasure." Oblonsky, guessing why Levin returned to Moscow, declares he would be delighted to have him as a brother-in-law. He wonders if Levin knows Count Vronsky, for this handsome aide-de-camp is also in love with Kitty. Alexey Kirillovitch Vronsky, rich, brilliant, and well connected, is, according to Stiva "one of the finest specimens of the gilded youth of Petersburg." Levin pales at this news. He feels that Stiva's counsels and talk of rivalry profane his great feeling for Kitty.
Oblonsky tells Levin of his own domestic problems and Konstantin cannot understand that a man would go "straight to the bakeshop and steal a roll" when he has just dined on plenty. Fiercely monogamous, Levin says he has "a loathing for fallen women" but then recollects his own sins. Stiva points out that life does not consist of clear-cut principles: Its variety, charm, and beauty is made up of "light and shadow" and that Levin is wrong to believe that one's work, one's relationships, one's thoughts must always correspond to a defined aim in life.
After dinner, the two friends part. Levin looks forward to his evening at the Shtcherbatskys where his fate will be decided.
Levin enters the novel in a customary outburst of frankness and intense conviction. He tells Stiva he no longer participates in the Zemstvo, derides Oblonsky's bureaucratic job as a sinecure, and mentions Kitty. Immediately we learn of his main impulses: his quest for rural reform, his rejection of town life, and his passion for Kitty. Levin's character becomes further defined by a comparison to that of Koznyshev and Nicolai, and during his behavior in the episodes at the skating rink. The discussion between Levin and Stiva as they dine concentrates other themes of Anna Karenina which Tolstoy later defines, especially that of the conflict between monogamy and sexual freedom. Defending the undivided family, Levin cuts himself short as he recalls his own lapses. This moment keynotes the inconsistencies between personal ideals and personal behavior, a problem which Levin (and Tolstoy) struggles with and a problem which Stiva overlooks and rationalizes by his hedonism.