Sophia Tolstoy, a Biography by Alexandra Popoff FREE PRESS, ©2010 by Alexandra Popoff, 354 pp
The content of this biography is so compelling I am having difficulty reviewing the book itself. I find myself wanting to dive into the story, address myself to the life of Sophia (Sonya) Tolstoy, her marriage to Leo (Lev), the tragedy of its ending, the psychology of marriage to a man renowned in his own day and still in ours as a genius, and by some as a saint; the psychology of that man himself which both intrigues and repels me. I want to talk about how much can be learned from the story of this marriage and the way it was recorded in history. I want to talk about marriage in general and my marriage in particular (I won’t!). And much more.
But finally I realize that if this is true, if Alexandra Popoff’s book has stirred all this in me, then the book review is already done; I need only say that it is an excellent book, so well researched, so well documented, that the only possible criticism I could make is that its author is sometimes too intent on delivering this message: that it is not true that Sophia Andreevna Behrs Tolstoy was “evil”; it is absolutely not true that her treatment of her husband was like “acts of torture practised during the Spanish Inquisition”; that those words, and many others like them, were a tragic assassination of her character perpetrated mainly by Vladimir Chertkov, a conniving, greedy sycophant of Tolstoy’s religious cult, and that this lie has been perpetuated for more than a hundred years even by literary scholars who may have feared that the truth would sully the reverence for the most highly esteemed Russian treasure, the author of “War and Peace”, “Anna Karenina”, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, “The Kreutzer Sonata”, and many other stories and works of profound importance to his country and the world,, some of which were, at the time, censored or banned.
And even this criticism of the book dissolves when I realize that it is not Ms. Popoff’s interpretation of the facts that is hammered home too diligently, it is the words of the principals and others quoted from letters, diaries, and the books they wrote, some of which were published (his) and some of which were hidden away in the archives only to be published within the last year or two (hers).
Until I heard Alexandra Popoff on the radio talking about this incredibly misunderstood marriage, I had never heard of her subject at all. Tolstoy’s wife? Oh? Of course I had heard of Leo Tolstoy’s work. Everyone has heard of “War and Peace”, though perhaps not read it. Sonya read it – not just read it – she “copied” every word of every draft. (Published in English, it generally runs to almost 1400 pages.) From the day she married him when she was 18 years old and he was 34, she was his scribe, his “typewriter”, his editor, and in later years she was his publisher as well. This voluminous novel, which he began shortly after their marriage, took him seven years to write. During those years, while Sonya was either pregnant or nursing an infant, she copied every page of every draft every day, often by candle light. She had five children in those seven years, eight more over the next seventeen. and three miscarriages during all those years. She was pregnant sixteen times by her husband who aspired to chastity and sainthood and thought she was disgusting for giving any consideration whatsoever to her doctor’s suggestion that she try to prevent conception against the will of God.
Tolstoy had been a friend of Sonya’s family long before her birth. From his earliest days he had been a playmate of her mother who was only two years older than himself. He loved Sonya’s family for its “family-ness” – besides the mother, there was the father, a court physician 18 years older than the mother, and there was a houseful of children. Tolstoy’s own mother had died when he was very young – he barely remembered her, and his father had died not long after. Raised by an aunt, his siblings were older and distant.
The book jacket of the novel, “The Last Station” by Jay Parini, published in 1990 (and since then made into a film starring Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren) calls “Tolstoy’s marriage to Sofya Andreevna, one of the most infamous mismatches in history….”. an assessment which offends me profoundly. “Mismatched”, perhaps; “infamous” has a sordid ring which is not deserved. The couple’s hundred’s of letters, their diaries, which each permitted the other to read, are as generous with expressions of their deep love as they were with soulful complaints of hurts and injustices. I was convinced that this marriage was loving – and yet tortured as well.
How could this be? The more I read, the more I needed to read. I have, beside my desk, twelve pounds of books written by Madame Tolstoy. “My Life” weighs in at almost seven pounds. The remaining weight is divided between her diaries, one in English and the other in French. Ms Popoff’s biography is not included in this measure, nor is one called “Whose Fault Is It?” by Sophia Tolstoy which I haven’t seen (although I note the library has a copy), nor is a stunning book called “Song Without Words -The Photographs and Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy” by Leah Bendavid-Val. Yes, Sonya , in the last half of the 19th Century, was a remarkable photographer.
Reading more, going deeper, has not made it easier to understand this marriage. Others have written about it in the past but Alexandra Popoff’s biography of Sophia Tolstoy has convinced me that they could not have been impartial because they could not have read what was hidden from view. I want to tell you what I know “so far”:
In the summer of 1862 when Sonya was seventeen, newly finished with her formal education and enjoying a feeling of being young and free, the dear old family friend, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, who was assumed to be interested in her older sister Liza, on several occasions flirted with Sonya. (Actually, I would say “he came on to her.”) She was flattered, puzzled, and thrilled. He was a man already recognized as an accomplished writer – she had read his early works as part of her education – and, besides, she had had “a childish love” for him all her life.
As his intentions grew more obvious – he seemed to be following her, paying her particular attention, ignoring Liza’s crushing disappointment - Sonya began to feel more attracted to him, and more confused. There was a much younger man, innocent like herself, to whom she was mildly committed for some time in the future. She cautiously whispered her growing attachment for Tolstoy to Tanya, her younger sister, who responded with anger, and when she later confided to her mother, “mother got angry and started yelling at me. ‘She’s always imagining that everyone’s in love with her’, she threw at me. ‘Go on, get out of here, and don’t be so silly.’” Worse, Sonya’s father, always jealous of his much younger beautiful wife, was convinced Lev was courting her (his wife) when he should have been proposing to Liza, and he was very angry.
Tolstoy was well aware of all this. He played games with Sonya, asking her to decipher certain mystery messages. One she carefully unraveled read: “Your family has the wrong picture of me and your sister Liza. You and Tanechka (Tanya) defend me! “ He even went so far as to write: “I hate Liza.” Sonya was the one he wanted. She was bright, energetic, well-read, pretty, and she wrote stories too. And he wanted her right now. On the 16th of September, three weeks after her 18th birthday, he presented her with a letter he had been carrying around for several days but hadn’t had the courage to give her, in part, he acknowledged, because he was “an old man” (34). It was a proposal of marriage – to which she replied “YES.”
He was anxious to have the wedding as soon as possible, and in spite of objections from Sonya’s mother, he had his way. The wedding was set for 7 pm on September 23rd, one week later, in the church near her family home in Moscow. Because the groom had already packed all his clean shirts in the travel chests waiting at the bride’s home to be packed into the carriage that would carry the newlyweds to his family estate, 150 miles away, the wedding was delayed more than an hour while a servant fetched a shirt (an event he would later fictionalize in “Anna Karenina”). The ceremony, which has been described as “opulent” in one of those books beside my desk, was not attended by her father who was ill nor her mother who did not want to leave her father. Afterwards the couple and their guests returned to Sonya’s family home for “fruit, sweets, champagne and tea”, and finally for the heart-rending goodbyes.
Sonya realizes she is about to leave the beloved family from which she has never been parted. Everyone is crying. Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy declares impatiently, “It sounds like you’re burying her!”
Reading this first in Ms. Popoff’s excellent biography, later in one of the principal’s own words, I began to question my calculations of the time-line: say the ceremony started at 8 pm or 8:30 and finished by 9’ish, and then the supper back at the house finished at 10, and then they leave for Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate, by horse and carriage and it is some 150 miles away?? And in the carriage, it is implied by Ms. Popoff delicately, the marriage is consummated?
In a diary entry dated October 8, 1862, the first of thousands she would write in her new life, just two weeks after the wedding she writes, “My diary again. It’s sad to be going back to old habits I gave up since I got married. I used to write when I felt depressed – now I suppose it is for the same reason….”
The buoyant young “society girl” of the summer, sheltered, innocent, pure, and idealistic, had suffered a shock in the days following her engagement. Her betrothed, not wanting to hide anything from her, gave her his diary to read. “…this was a mistake” Sonya flatly declares in “My Life”, which she wrote some 40 years later. “In his diary he described his liaison with a Yasnaya Polyana woman…I was horrified at the thought that I was supposed to live there, right there where this woman was. I cried terribly, and this filth of a male bachelor life which I was learning about for the first time, left an impression on me that I have never forgotten my whole life.” (She refers to visits he had made to various “houses” and to women who had come to him to sell their bodies.)
The carriage indeed is where “the torments began which every young wife must go through. Not to mention the terrible physical pains, and just think of the shame!…Again and again, the whole night the same trials, the same sufferings.” Yet even as she recalls that night, there is no blame. Considering his age, she reflects, his sexual experience was appropriate. “In this area everything came easy to him”, she writes. What happened in the carriage for Lev “was an unfamiliar phenomenon, something new, this communication with a society girl.”
This particular “society girl” had had a rather strict Lutheran upbringing which taught the virtues of hard work and family duty. For her these, along with love and devotion, went hand in hand and would fill her entire life. She gave birth to 13 children, nursed them from her breasts, often with cracked and bleeding nipples, and in her lifetime buried six of them, three infants, one young child, and two adult children. She home-schooled them, she sewed their clothing and knit their blankets (she did her husband’s as well); she was her husband’s muse, his secretary, his lover; she managed the 4000 acre family estate, she planted trees and took care of the gardens, she was the chief financial officer who dutifully passed along portions of the family fortune (which he, in his religious conversion to poverty, scorned) for whatever reason, to whomever he named – including his closest cohort in the religious sect that grew up around him, Vladimir Chertkov, the man who was himself profiting from Tolstoy’s works and who was the most outspoken author of the branding of Sophia Tolstoy evil.
I faintly criticized Alexandra Popoff, the author, for her relentless insistence on how unjust that characterization was. And now, I have been relentless as well. Leo Tolstoy was the love of Sonya’s life as she was of his, he told her so time and time again. And yet, nothing can make one crazier than being told repeatedly of that great love and then, intermittently being told that you are terrible , which he also did – either to her face, in letters, or even in the diaries she was permitted to read until very close to the end of their marriage when Leo Tolstoy at the age of 82 ran away from home in the dead of night riding on horseback to the train to end up sick and dying in the stationmaster’s cabin at Astapovo, the last station, from which Sonya, learning finally where he was from the editors of RUSSIAN WORLD and rushing to be by his side, would be barred. “They did not let me in to see Lev Nik. They held me by force, they locked the door, they tormented my heart.”
Indeed, who is to blame? Both of them had ideas of love which were impossible, perhaps delusional. She “always dreamt of the man I would love as a completely whole, new, pure person…I imagined that this man would always be with me, that I would know his slightest thought and feeling, that he would love nobody but me as long as he lived…” (diary entry October 8, 1862) Leo Tolstoy may not have betrayed her with other women (she believes he did not), but as with most people who have a life-long devotion to their “work”, for which they may be praised, admired and loved, he did have another love, in fact two – his writing and his inhuman religious principles, and both were more important, more consuming, than any other – family included. His idea of love, which he mentions to her in a letter even before their marriage, is, in fact, impossible: “I make terrible, impossible demands on marriage. I demand that I be loved the way I am capable of loving. But that is impossible.” Indeed, he never states what “way” that is. Perhaps the words escaped him.
I cannot say whether Sophia knew or not, but she tried her best – and ultimately failed – to accommodate him. She couldn’t do enough.
Alexandra Popoff’s biography of Sophia Tolstoy skillfully defines the story of a marriage characterized by both love and pain. It plunged this reader into an ocean of words written by husband and wife and several family members, and then required her to swim even further into the burgeoning bibliography. There I also found a river of words written by observers, close up and far removed. Those I will not read.
I, too, am an observer. I have my own view seen from the distance of time and experience, a long life, a long marriage. I know that swimming in the ocean one cannot help but feel the temperature of the water, the fury or the solace of the waves, and once you’re in the depths, you cannot choose among them.
©Elaine A. Zimbel 2012