Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography

Sophia Tolstoy spent a lifetime striving to be her husband’s keeper.

Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography Alexandra Popoff Free Press 352 pp., $27

Sophia Tolstoy, the daughter of a Moscow doctor, was 18 when she married the 35-year-old Leo Tolstoy, already a famous author. Sophia worshiped her husband, devoted herself to him, mothered him and their many children, became the publisher of his work, squabbled with his disciples, nursed him through illnesses and depressions, occasionally drove him up the wall, and, spurned by him in his last week of life in 1910, survived him and continued preserving his works and ancestral estate for the world.

The marvelous Helen Mirren played Sophia in the movie of Jay Parini’s novel about Tolstoy’s last year, “The Last Station,” and I believe the real Sophia would’ve liked the portrayal of herself: bold, high-strung, efficiently busy, and attractive. Amid her duties and joys (she exulted in her importance as Tolstoy’s sounding board and copier of his drafts of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”), she seemed never to tire, but often felt unappreciated for her constant service and domestic management.

“In our family, Lev Nikolaevich lived by personal choice; as for me,” Sophia complained in her memoirs, “I only lived by necessity, while yearning for a spiritual and serene life.” She became pregnant 16 times, with eight of them surviving to adulthood.

She was always on call for her family and always taking up or developing one personal hobby or another. She wrote, she painted, she documented her and her family’s life with beautiful and idiosyncratic photographs. She outlived her husband by nine years: “And what good was my life with this celebrity? Work, work, and work.”

It’s possible to know more about the Tolstoy marriage than most of us know about our own. Do you and your spouse keep diaries? Does your spouse happen to be the world’s greatest novelist who converts the daily occurrences of your life into unforgettable literary scenes? Do you have hordes of visitors who write down or recollect what you and your spouse say and do? Are future biographers analyzing your domestic dramas? Are several of your children going to write books about you?

Well, me neither. But here we are, unable to avert our eyes from anything connected to Tolstoy, drawn in to act as literary game-show Marriage Refs. (Leo’s regret, after a honeymoon fight: “I was sad that we behave just the same as other people.”)

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.”

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.”

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