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The Wives

The six Russian literary wives profiled in this book went well beyond the call of duty to help their adored author-husbands.

By Bob Blaisdell / July 30, 2012

The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants By Alexandra Popoff Pegasus Books 336 pp.

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The latest book from Alexandra Popoff – author of the recent good biography of Sophia Tolstoy – is comprised of six short biographies of great Russian writers, from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the wives who stood behind them, women who did an awful lot of work to present, promote, and preserve their husbands’ work. The women profiled in The Wives all admired their author-husbands before they married them, and for a few of them – Anna Dostoevsky, Elena Bulgakov, Nadezhda Mandelstam – the marriages occurred after their devoted work for the authors had already begun.

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The key word is “devotion,” in that the women, for the most part – let’s exempt Sophia Tolstoy and Nadezhda Mandelstam – almost completely gave up their own interests and subsumed their lives to their husbands’. The only living subject – and the only one whom Popoff was able to interview – Natalya Solzhenitsyn, criticized Sophia Tolstoy’s independent streak: “’She should have followed him and lived in a hut, as he had asked.’ 'If Sophia loved Tolstoy, she had to go along; if she stopped loving him ‘she had to step aside.’” I would like to forgive Ms. Solzhenitsyn’s condemnation of a woman who gave birth to and cared for many children, who lived remarkably modestly considering her social status, and who gave 48 years of love and care to her husband while copying his manuscripts and publishing his work. Sophia Tolstoy’s admiration of her husband’s fiction justified, to her, some of her many labor-intensive tasks: “As I copy I experience a whole new world of emotions, thoughts and impressions....” When in the 1880s Tolstoy begrudged fiction his attention, she begged him (as the world did) to go back to it. Popoff’s presentation of the Tolstoys’ marriage is excellent.

Natalya Solzhenitsyn’s rebuke aside, all the women in Popoff’s collection went way beyond the call of duty, far beyond, as the author reminds us, what most 19th- and 20th-century British and American literary wives did and would have done for their writer husbands: “[L]iterary wives in Russia traditionally performed a variety of tasks as stenographers, editors, typists, researchers, translators, and publishers. Russian writers married women with good literary taste who were profoundly absorbed with their art and felt comfortable in secondary roles.... They established a tradition of their own, unmatched in the West.”

But it’s not as if all Russian wives devoted their lives to their husbands. The women Popoff writes of are rare birds, even if only bred in Russia, and I wish Popoff had at least let herself veer into that territory, of the “wives behind Russia’s literary giants” who did not do much secretarial or promotional work for them. So we don’t meet Natalia Pushkin, whose husband died in a duel over her, or the lively actress Olga Knipper, who married Chekhov, or Dostoevsky’s very unhappy first and second wives, or the bachelor Turgenev’s long-time French mistress, or Solzhenitsyn’s first wife, who renounced and divorced him while he served time in the Gulag, or even Gogol’s non-wife, as he never married (though Tomasso Landolfi created one for him in a famous 20th-century comic short story that Popoff doesn’t mention).

It’s clear that Anna Dostoevsky, much younger than her husband, was the angel he needed to save him from himself in the last 14 years of his life. He agonized over the suffering he caused her and praised her (as she deserved) to the skies: “You are a rare woman.... You manage not only the entire household, not only my affairs, but you pilot all of us capricious and bothersome people, beginning with me.... If you were made a queen and given a whole kingdom, I swear to you that you would rule it like no one – so much intelligence, common sense, heart and ability to manage do you have.”  Anna stuck by him through thick and thin and her patience and faith paid off, as he conquered his addiction to gambling; became a loving father; wrote "The Brothers Karamazov," the second greatest Russian novel ever; and lived on as one of World Literature’s idols. In the midst of this mini-biography, however, since Popoff focuses on the facts of his and Anna’s relationship, we continually have to remind ourselves (as Anna had to remind herself) that Dostoevsky’s conspicuous personal faults need to be considered in the light of his stupendous works.

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