Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography
Sophia Tolstoy spent a lifetime striving to be her husband’s keeper.
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Sophia Tolstoy, a new biography of the Countess Tolstoy by Alexandra Popoff, a native Russian living in Canada and writing in a clunky, uncomfortable English, often mistakes advocacy for understanding: Sophia’s “selflessness was the bane of her life.” Sophia’s “selflessness” was her lifelong purpose, which she never tired of reminding her family. Sophia was a remarkable person – especially when she wasn’t complaining about not being appreciated or worrying about how she would look in history: “I feel I am a total zero, everyone is against me, and everything I used to believe good, fair, and useful is now being destroyed.”Skip to next paragraph
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When Tolstoy lost his way after “Anna Karenina,” giving up his title belt of undisputed world champion novel-writer to assume the mantle of moral prophet, Sophia rued the literary loss. Popoff puts it well: “His literature gave her purpose and joy; without it, there was a void.” For the next 30 years, she encouraged her husband’s occasional flights back into fiction, but she lost a good portion of him when he denounced his own supreme art. No one was strong enough to curb Tolstoy’s intellectual appetites and passions, and after he took up religion and do-gooding, Sophia became not only disappointed by but jealous of the emotional support he received from his weaselly disciple Vladimir Chertkov. (Chertkov was an aristocrat so oily he survived the Russian Revolution and found himself exactly where he’d wanted, in charge of the Tolstoy publishing industry that Sophia had worked all her married life to create and maintain.)
Once Popoff assembles enough quotations from the Tolstoys’ letters, memoirs, and writings, we gain a reasonably accurate composite picture of Sophia. A better way to discover her, however, is through any fat biography of the author himself (apart from A.N. Wilson’s contemptuous one) or the remarkable “Song Without Words: The Photographs & Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy” by Leah Bendavid-Val.
Was Sophia a bit of a drama queen? Sure, but she loved her husband; she loved being the helpmate of the world’s greatest novelist. (“She was ... the wife I needed,” Tolstoy reflected after a fight with Sophia over his diaries.) Sometimes her husband appreciated her and sometimes she drove him nuts. “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” as Tolstoy reminds us in “Anna Karenina,” where, after all, we can get to know young Sophia through following the self-conscious and busy Kitty. Being fictionally depicted by Tolstoy is even more illuminating than being played by Helen Mirren.
Bob Blaisdell edited “Tolstoy as Teacher: Leo Tolstoy’s Writings on Education.”