Years of war and (little) peace: the stormy Tolstoy marriage


THE paradox of the great artist whose works seem to embody humanity's noblest aspirations, but whose real-life behavior inflicts untold damage on his nearest and dearest emerges with particular force in the case of Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910).

For many years, Tolstoy was seen as the saintly, long-suffering victim of a shrewish wife who did not understand his exalted aims and whose controlling and hysterical behavior finally drove the 82-year-old patriarch to flee their home at Yasnaya Polyana in 1910, shortly before his death. More recently, with the publication of Countess Tolstoy's diaries, there has been increased sympathy for her difficult position: In her husband's own words, she was ``a kind and faithful wife and mother,'' who had the misfortune to be married to a man with his soul set on loftier goals than the happiness of his family.

There have been many books on Tolstoy, including two recent biographies (by Henri Troyat and A.N. Wilson), a life of Sonya Tolstoy, and memoirs of several of the Tolstoy children. But ``Love and Hatred: The Troubled Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy,'' by the late William L. Shirer, is among the few to focus exclusively on Tolstoy's 48-year marriage. Shirer, author of ``Berlin Diary,'' ``The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,'' and other esteemed nonfiction, completed the book in his 89th year, aided in this ambitious endeavor by his Russian-born wife, who translated the diaries for him. Drawing on these and other sources, Shirer has constructed a vividly close-up, year-by-year, sometimes day-by-day, account of a marriage that was a lot more like war than peace.

While most Tolstoy authorities, including the Tolstoy children, date the deterioration of the marriage to Tolstoy's midlife religious conversion in the late 1870s, Shirer detects signs of future trouble in the earliest days of the couple's courtship. Even before the 33-year-old Tolstoy began wooing 17-year-old Sofya Behrs (whom he addressed by the affectionate nickname Sonya), he had a history of conflicted attitudes toward women.

Valerya Arsenyev, whom he'd previously thought of marrying, evoked this set of responses, recorded in his diary: ``Valerya is ... ignorant if not stupid.'' Two days later: ``Valerya is a wonderful girl, but I definitely don't like her.'' Six weeks later: ``Valerya and I talked of marriage; she's not stupid and is unusually kind.'' A couple of months after that: ``She's grown terribly stout and I definitely have no feelings for her.''

His courtship of Sonya was similarly fraught. At one point, he claimed he'd shoot himself if he couldn't have her. His suit accepted, however, the prospective groom had the same last-minute urge to back out that he later gave to his character Levin in ``Anna Karenina.'' But this was just the beginning.

In the interests of total honesty, Tolstoy had shown his fiancee his diaries, recording his now-repented history of womanizing, drinking, and gambling. Sonya was inflamed with jealousy of her husband's former conquests (including a peasant on the family estate who'd borne him a son). Anxiety about his faithfulness continued to torment her.

STILL, there were joyful and loving times that the couple shared. Sonya bore him 13 children and served as his aman-uensis during the composition of his masterpieces, ``War and Peace'' and ``Anna Karenina,'' diligently recopying tens of thousands of manuscript pages. She also offered valuable suggestions, advising him to focus less on the grand historical scenes in ``War and Peace,'' more on the psychological and personal elements.

Sonya understandably saw herself as custodian of her husband's literary estate, particularly after he decided, in the wake of his religious conversion, not to sully his hands with business dealings. Believing he had progressed beyond the narrow, selfish worries of providing for himself and his family, he allowed his wife to manage his financial affairs and see to the children's education, at the same time castigating her for her inability to share his ascetic outlook.

As is painfully evident from the diary extracts of both husband and wife presented here, things got to the point where nothing Sonya did was right in Leo's eyes. If she urged him to continue his literary vocation, he poured scorn on the frivolity of art. (In typically egomaniacal fashion, Tolstoy decided he might well be the greatest writer ever, greater even than Pushkin or Shakespeare, but that mere literature was far less important than his newfound role of preacher.) If she lavished her love on her children, he pronounced her maternal feelings mere ``animal love'' of a lower order than his high-minded love of humanity. When she sought an outlet for affections in a platonic friendship with an unprepossessing composer, he jealously ordered her to put an end to it.

In Sonya's eyes, Tolstoy's idealistic preachings looked like hypocritical posturings: Why couldn't he realize that his plans to give away his copyrights - far from benefiting ``the people'' - would only further enrich the publishers? How could this man, who kept her almost continually pregnant, publicly declare that sexual union - even between husband and wife for procreative purposes - was a degrading act?

In later years, by her own admission Sonya was driven nearly insane with jealousy of Tolstoy's most powerful and cunning disciple, Vladimir Chertkov, whom she correctly suspected of plotting to gain custodianship of the master's works. She regularly threatened to poison herself with opium, drown herself in a pond, or throw herself under a train, like Anna Karenina.

But, if Tolstoy's coldness and stubborness had driven his wife crazy, her behavior finally drove her husband to run away from home, dying several days later in the cottage of a railway stationmaster, with hordes of journalists on hand to record the horrific last stage of this family tragedy.

Shirer's absorbing account of this embattled marriage does not devote more than passing attention to the splendors of Tolstoy's novels or the worldwide impact of his pacifist ideals. This, however, is not a serious drawback. For, whether or not one would agree he was greater than Shakespeare, or even if one happens to prefer his titanic contemporary Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy's colossal genius is beyond dispute. Sadly, while his arguments with himself produced great literature, his arguments with his wife brought only misery for them both.

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