Alexandra Popoff – Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography

Alexandra Popoff – Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography
New York Free Press, 2010

Based on previously unavailable archival materials, this biography changes the negative perception of Leo Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia. Her life has been long misinterpreted, so my goal was to provide accurate
information and tell her true story.

In 2002, when I began my research for Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography, I discovered that a memoir by Leo Tolstoy‘s wife remained unpublished. It was almost unbelievable — and I wanted to understand why this happened. I was fortunate to receive access to Sophia’s file and spent six years researching and writing her biography. What I learned from Sophia’s memoir, letters, and other prose, changed my perspective of this woman and her marriage.

The popular view of Sophia Tolstoy
The myth of Sophia as a shrew, perennially at war with Tolstoy, is a century old. She is still perceived mainly as a spoilt aristocrat and mercenary. When I watched The Last Station I thought that Helen Mirren created an interesting character, but it’s strikingly different from what Sophia was like.

Ironically, the marriage that yielded such great works as War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Kreutzer Sonata became known as one of the unhappiest in literary history.

Why was Sophia maligned?
Sophia was judged by her final year with Tolstoy and by people hostile to her — the great man’s disciples, particularly Vladimir Chertkov, a vain man who wanted to establish himself as the person closest to Tolstoy. He led a smear campaign against Sophia and described Tolstoy’s marriage as martyrdom.

To understand why there are still many misconceptions about Sophia and her role we need to know that for most of the twentieth century it was impossible to publish essential documents in her favor.

What’s the most surprising thing about Sophia that you discovered?
The character of this remarkable woman was unlike the portrayals. She handled Tolstoy’s publishing affairs and their family’s business affairs, while also raising a large family. I was impressed with her capacity for hard work: a mother of 13, who herself nursed and educated their children, she was also a successful publisher, translator, and photographer. A lot of her labor went into Tolstoy’s novels, which she copied and produced. She also worked alongside Tolstoy during the famine relief.

What impact did Sophia have on Tolstoy’s writing?
Sophia loved Tolstoy’s art and inspired his best achievement. When using her as a model in War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy projected his ideal of family happiness. He continued to model his heroines on Sophia in his late fiction, most memorably in The Kreutzer Sonata, but then his ideal changed to another extreme.

As Sophia remarked, Tolstoy put her at the center of all his fantasies. She was central to his creativity and it is impossible to imagine his life and works without her.