Excerpt from the prelude of the book
“In 1906, when Sophia had emergency surgery at the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, to remove a fibroid tumor from her womb, Tolstoy awaited the outcome in the woods. He asked to have the bell rung once if the surgery was successful and several times if it was not. He told her while she was convalescing: “You are in bed; I cannot hear your steps through the house, and I find it difficult to read or write.” While researching War and Peace in 1867, he wrote to Sophia from Moscow, “I am sitting alone in my room upstairs, having just read your letter… For God’s sake, don’t stop writing daily to me… I am a dead man without you…”
Tolstoy admired Sophia’s inexhaustible energy—he called it “the force of life.” She charged him with the emotion essential to his writing. During his brilliant literary period, when he created War and Peace and Anna Karenina, she was his muse, assistant, and first reader.
Upon marrying him at eighteen, Sophia began assisting Tolstoy in all his undertakings, even farming and social work. And there were her own duties: nursing and home schooling their thirteen children, running a large household, and managing all financial and business affairs. Like her husband, she loved work “of every kind – intellectual, artistic and physical.” Tolstoy is photographed in blouses she had sewn; her family and visitors slept under blankets she knitted.
Tolstoy’s expectation that she could handle anything inspired her energy and boldness. She copied out his voluminous novels, along with his corrections, in the days when only she could read his scrawl and they lived a solitary life, without secretaries. During the Russian famine of 1890s, she participated in a relief effort with Tolstoy and their older children. She organized fundraising, writing a passionate appeal to the nation that was carried by newspapers across the country and the world, personally received donations, purchased supplies, and hired volunteers.
Sophia was as multifaceted as her genius husband. Unlike other noble women of her day, she transcended class boundaries: she met with the Tsar on publishing business and assisted peasant women in labor. Living in the country without a doctor in the district, she practiced medicine with skills learned from her father, a court physician. She also treated her family and servants, and nursed Tolstoy through several life-threatening illnesses.
Becoming Tolstoy’s publisher in 1886, she produced eight editions of his collected works as well as individual volumes, herself handling all stages of the process. She began to collect his archive right after their marriage: the priceless drafts and manuscripts of War and Peace would not have survived without her. To this day, scholars can thank her for recording Tolstoy’s pronouncements when he intimated to her his intentions for his novels. Now these are quoted by every literary critic.
Clearly, Sophia’s contribution was great but it’s been consistently denied. It’s been written that she had published Tolstoy’s works against his will, managed their estate, hired servants, and also summoned doctors to treat him against his will. She has become known for opposing her husband, not for supporting him. Tolstoy’s marriage is still believed one of the unhappiest in literary history. She was even accused of “murdering” her husband.
To this last charge she retorted, it took her a long time to “murder” him. Tolstoy lived to eight-two, producing 90 volumes of writings, almost all of it written during the marriage. It is unlikely that the genius could have created more and that someone else would have guarded Tolstoy’s peace of mind better.
A century ago, Tolstoy’s religious followers branded Sophia evil. Their accounts depict Tolstoy as a saint whose martyrdom was suffered at home. The idea was devised by his disciple Vladimir Chertkov. In The Last Days of Tolstoy (1922) he compared Sophia’s treatment of her husband with tortures practiced during the Spanish Inquisition. Portraying Tolstoy as a martyr required making Sophia cruel. But despite the absurdity of the accusations, Chertkov’s biased book and similar biographies from the time have not been dismissed, leaving Sophia’s name to be publicly cleared.
Misconceptions about Sophia have penetrated most biographies, shaping our knowledge of Tolstoy. These all have one source: for decades, Chertkov suppressed favorable information about Sophia. He led a smear campaign against her, claiming she was responsible for Tolstoy’s flight from home at eighty two and his death. He created so much controversy around her name that even today her memoir My Life remains unpublished. Everyone who met Tolstoy, even briefly, published a book about him. His wife’s memoir is still confined to the archives.
Sophia handled more than the complexities of marriage to a genius writer. Tolstoy’s unique spiritual path led him to reject the Church and establish his own brand of religion. In the early 1880s, after his religious conversion, Tolstoy made sweeping renunciations, rejecting the entire social order. His contradictions were equally unfathomable: while he renounced marriage and sex, he continued to live with the family. All of this created unique challenges in the family’s life, making Sophia’s role with Tolstoy enormously difficult.”
From conversations with my perceptive agent, Susan Arellano:
One of the questions I have is why Sophia was so hated and maligned. I understand that the acolytes maligned her in part as a way to take control over Tolstoy’s image…. How could someone who did so much for others be treated so badly?
The acolytes, like Chertkov, needed Tolstoy as a saint and martyr. To facilitate their account Sophia had to be portrayed as evil.
She worked tirelessly as mother, wife, publisher, nurse, estate manager, secretary…
But despite all her efforts, or possibly because of her efforts, she came to be demonized by the acolytes and, at least to some extent, by Tolstoy himself – Yes? No?
Yes – Sophia is still not credited for her accomplishments. But we need to appreciate the complexity of her role beside Tolstoy to understand why he criticized her. After his religious conversion, Tolstoy renounced property and money, along with everything else he and she had believed in previously. So the harder Sophia worked as a publisher, mother, and estate manager, the more she contradicted his new beliefs.
The idea that comes through most strongly is your statement in the prelude of the book: “Tolstoy lived by choice, while her life was ruled by necessity.” It’s a statement that could be made about the life of many women but seems particularly true in Sophia’s case…
The statement, by the way, comes from Sophia’s memoir My Life. She had read parts of it to Tolstoy and earned his approval. For me, this memoir was a starting point to understand her life and to connect with it.
She had only two brief moments, it seems, in which she could live by choice – the year before her marriage and late in the marriage and these were moments in which her own creativity came to the fore…
She had a great desire to explore her own talents but never had the time. I tell about her achievement as a publisher; she was also a writer and artist. So far, she has only been recognized for her photography: it was difficult to ignore because she took pictures of Tolstoy.