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Sophia Tolstoy: Not the Woman You Thought She Was

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Years ago, beginning my archival research for Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography, I discovered that a memoir by Leo Tolstoy's wife remained unpublished. What I learned from Sophia's memoir, letters, and other prose, previously inaccessible, changed my perspective of this woman and her marriage.

Sophia has been maligned by historians and has not been credited for her contribution to the writer. Ironically, the marriage that yielded such great works as War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Kreutzer Sonata is still described as one of the unhappiest in literary history. Sophia's life has been long misinterpreted, so my goal was to provide accurate information and tell her true story.

It is unfortunate that 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. The dramatic events of Tolstoy's final year -- the signing of his secret will and his flight from Yasnaya Polyana at eighty-two have fascinated biographers and the public. But essential documents have been well-suppressed and these events have not been accurately depicted. The account that has become prevalent was concocted by Chertkov, the mastermind of Tolstoy's secret will and later the sole executor.

Chertkov portrayed Sophia as Tolstoy's evil wife and publicly blamed her for her husband's departure. But in fact, he anticipated Tolstoy's flight, discussed it with him, and rejoiced when it took place: "I cannot express in words the joy I feel in hearing that you have gone away." The disciples demanded an example of renunciation from Tolstoy and his flight created a great legend.

In 1910, Tolstoy wrote in his farewell letter to Sophia that he no longer could stand living in "these conditions of luxury." But these famous words should be interpreted figuratively: the family never lived in luxury. An American explorer, George Kennan, thus described their Yasnaya Polyana house: "It would be hard to imagine a simpler, barer, less pretentious building." It was unlike the noble mansion with a white balustrade shown in The Last Station: the family lived like the English middle class of the time.

To understand why there are still misconceptions about Sophia and her role we need to know that Chertkov and his successors suppressed evidence in her favour. In fact, for most of the twentieth century it was impossible to publish essential documents challenging Chertkov's account of Tolstoy's flight and his marriage, which was described as martyrdom.

The character of this remarkable woman was so unlike the portrayals. Reading the couple's correspondence, which had been overlooked by biographers, I was impressed with her sincerity, intellect, artistic giftedness, and common sense. But Sophia is still perceived mainly as a shrew, a spoilt aristocrat, and a mercenary. When I watched The Last Station I thought that Helen Mirren created a convincing and complex character, but it's strikingly different from what Sophia was like. Tolstoy's wife was capable of handling 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 also was a successful publisher, Tolstoy's translator, and a photographer. She worked alongside Tolstoy during the famine relief. Unlike what was written about her, she profoundly understood Tolstoy as a writer and a man and was supportive of him.

Sophia has been credited for copying Tolstoy's novels, but her involvement was far greater. During War and Peace Tolstoy told many people how his marriage changed him: "I've never felt my intellectual powers, and even all my moral powers, so free and so capable of work..." A visitor to Yasnaya Polyana during this time called Sophia "the perfect wife for a writer" and a nursemaid of her husband's talent. She loved Tolstoy's art and inspired his best achievement. Her emotional support was indispensable to the writer who constantly struggled with depression. After 35 years together, he wrote her: "You gave me and the world what you were able to give..." Sophia was Tolstoy's muse, model, and active assistant and a lot of her labour went into his novels, which she also published.

When using her as a model in War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy projected his ultimate ideal of family happiness. He continued to model his heroines on Sophia in his late fiction, most memorably in The Kreutzer Sonata, but by then his ideal had shifted to another extreme. Tolstoy made Sophia the example of what he had renounced for the sake of serving God and humanity. As Sophia remarked, Tolstoy put her at the center of all his fantasies.

Sophia was central to Tolstoy's creativity and it is impossible to imagine his life and works without her.

Alexandra Popoff, author of Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography
www.sophiatolstoy.com

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