Sophia Tolstoy: A Biographyby Alexandra Popoff
As Leo Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia Tolstoy experienced both glory and condemnation during their forty-eight-year marriage. She was admired as the muse and literary assistant to one of the world’s most celebrated novelists. But when in later years Tolstoy became a towering public figure and founded a new brand of religion, she was scorned for her disagreements with him. And it is this version of Sophia—malicious, shrill, perennially at war with Tolstoy—that has gone down in the historical record.
Drawing on newly available archival material, including Sophia’s unpublished memoir, Alexandra Popoff presents a dramatically different and accurate portrait of the woman and the marriage. This lively, well-researched biography demonstrates that, contrary to popular belief, Sophia was remarkably supportive of Tolstoy and was, in fact, key to his fame.
Gifted and versatile, Sophia assisted Tolstoy during the writing of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Having modeled his most memorable female characters on her, Tolstoy admired his wife’s boundless energy, which he called “the force of life.” Sophia’s letters, never before translated, illuminate the couple’s true relationship and provide insights into Tolstoy’s creative laboratory. Although long portrayed as an elitist and hysterical countess, Sophia was in reality a practical, independent-minded, generous, and talented woman who shared Tolstoy’s important values and his capacity for work. Mother of thirteen, she participated in Tolstoy’s causes and managed all business a airs.
Popoff describes in haunting detail the intrusion into their marriage by Tolstoy’s religious disciple Vladimir Chertkov, who controlled Tolstoy at the end of his life and led a smear campaign against Sophia, branding her evil and mad. She is still judged by Chertkov’s false accounts, which dismissed her valuable achievements and contributions.
During his later religious phase, Tolstoy renounced his property and copyright, and Sophia had to become the breadwinner. She published Tolstoy’s collected works and supported their large family. Despite the pressures of her demanding life, she realized her own talents as a writer, photographer, translator, and aspiring artist.
This vigorous, engrossing biography presents in fascinating depth and detail the many ways in which Sophia Tolstoy enriched the life and work of one of the world’s most revered authors.
The New York Times
- Free Press
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Read an Excerpt
SOPHIA KNEW TOLSTOY her entire life: he was her mother’s childhood friend. But the relationship between the two families went back even further. Sophia’s maternal grandfather, Alexander Islenev, was a neighbor and hunting companion of Tolstoy’s father, Nicholas, who lived on the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, near Tula. The Islenevs and the Tolstoys visited each other during holidays, name days, and birthdays, attended by a throng of servants, cooks, and lackeys.1 In his first novel, Childhood, which brought him recognition, Tolstoy portrayed both families.
Sophia’s maternal grandmother was the daughter of a well-known statesman, Peter Zavadovsky, a favorite of Catherine the Great. The empress showered Zavadovsky with promotions and awards, appointing him minister of education, senator, and count of the Holy Roman Empire. Zavadovsky’s palace, Lyalichi at Ekaterinodar,2 in southern Russia, was designed on the empress’s orders by a renowned Italian architect.3 Zavadovsky’s palace, comprising 250 rooms, was a desolate place: he complained it felt like an aviary for crows. He asked Catherine’s permission to marry Countess Vera Apraksina, later appointed a lady-in-waiting. The couple’s only surviving daughter was Countess Sophia Zavadovsky.
The countess’s story was often heard in the family: in her teens she was first married off to Prince Kozlovsky, soon discovering he was an alcoholic. A divorce was unfeasible, but she left her husband for a common-law union with Islenev, whose estate neighbored the Tolstoys’. The countess secretly married Islenev in a parish church, but the bigamy was discovered and the couple’s six children were declared illegitimate. They received the improvised name Islavin and were assigned to the merchant class. Lyubov Alexandrovna Islavin, Sophia’s mother, was one of the children. She danced with Tolstoy on his birthdays and was his sister’s best friend. In Childhood Tolstoy described something akin to first love toward the girl who would become his mother-in-law. He once pushed her from a low balcony for talking to another boy; the fall nearly crippled her. When Tolstoy became a celebrated writer, Lyubochka,4 as he called her, still talked down to him even though she was only two years his senior.
Like all the Islavin children, Lyubov Alexandrovna was painfully aware of her illegitimacy and semiaristocratic origin. At sixteen, she married a physician of German descent, Andrei Yevstafievich Behrs, twenty years her senior. The marriage was seen by her family as a misalliance: the nobility looked down on the medical profession, equating it with that of musicians, the very bottom.
Although Sophia’s parents met under adverse circumstances, these proved ideal for romance. Her mother was dangerously ill when Behrs, a Moscow physician stopping in the provincial city of Tula, was summoned to examine her. Behrs was actually heading to Turgenev’s estate in the neighboring Oryol when he treated Lyubochka and proposed to her. The meeting was destined to link two of the greatest novelists, Tolstoy and Turgenev.
Sophia’s ancestors on her father’s side were German Lutherans. Her great-grandfather Ivan Behrs (Johann Bärs), a cavalry captain in the Austrian army, was invited to Russia as a military instructor by Empress Elizabeth I. He died shortly after, in 1758. Behrs’s immediate family knew little about his wife, Maria. Their only son, Evstafy, raised and educated by a German foster family, became a successful apothecary. By the time he married Elizaveta Wulfert, a descendant of Westphalian nobility, Evstafy owned two stone houses in Moscow. The couple’s sons, Alexander and Andrei,5 born in 1807 and 1808, were baptized Evangelical Lutheran.
Sophia’s father, Andrei Behrs, was four when Napoleon invaded and his family fled the burning Moscow. Evstafy stayed behind hoping to save his property but could only helplessly watch the destruction of his drugstore and the stone houses. Fleeing in disguise, with a servant and two pistols, he was captured by the French but managed to escape; these events were later woven into War and Peace.
After the war, Evstafy reopened a drugstore, but things were never the same. He entered government service and his wife embroidered purses, all to make ends meet. The couple’s two sons were educated as charity boys in a private boarding school. Brilliant and ambitious, Alexander and Andrei entered the medical school at Moscow University, aged fifteen and fourteen. The careers of Sophia’s uncle and father were similar: both attained high rank in the civil service, earning them hereditary noble titles and identical promotions and awards.
While still a medical student, Andrei Behrs was invited to accompany the Turgenev family on a journey abroad. His family knew Varvara Petrovna Turgenev, née Lutovinova, heiress to an enormous fortune.6 Behrs would later reminisce about their travel through Europe, medical lectures, and performances of the Italian opera in Paris featuring the legendary Maria Malibran.7
According to Tolstoy, Behrs was “a very straightforward, honest and quick-tempered man” and “a big womanizer.”8 As a bachelor, he sired several children and had a daughter by Varvara Turgenev in 1833.9 In childhood, Sophia met Lizanka René, her father’s daughter by a French governess, and fearing that she also might be illegitimate, she compelled Behrs to produce her birth certificate.10
After his marriage to Lyubov Alexandrovna in 1842, Behrs, already court physician, was also appointed a supernumerary doctor of Moscow theaters. Behrs was rarely seen at home, juggling two jobs, a private practice, and an extensive social life. The children inherited his deep sense of duty and almost religious devotion to work, attributed to his Lutheran upbringing. For Sophia, daily toil was essential; to feel virtuous she would list a multitude of chores to be performed during the day.
The family lived in a Kremlin apartment, adjacent to the ancient Poteshny (Amusement) Palace, a three-story mansion of white stone with carved jambs. Originally used as a court theater by the first Romanov tsars, the palace was later utilized as an ordnance house in the mid-nineteenth century and was remodeled to accommodate apartments for Kremlin staff. The rooms were modest, like those of rank-and-file officials. The windows faced the Troitsky Tower by the main entrance to Red Square. Illuminated at night, it glowed “from top to bottom, as if made of diamonds.”
Every summer, the family retreated to their government dacha, or country house, in Pokrovskoe-Streshnevo, near Moscow. In her novella “Song without Words” Sophia depicts the beginning of the summer season and the exodus from Moscow, then a provincial city:
A procession of carts laden with furniture, featherbeds, baby carriages, plants, and trunks; cows tied by their horns; the belongings of city residents moving to the dachas stretched along the Moscow streets to the city gates.11
Sophia was born at the dacha on August 22, 1844, the second of thirteen children, five of whom died in infancy. The four older children, born a year apart, were Liza, Sophia, Tanya, and brother Sasha. After an interval came four younger boys, Petya, Vladimir, Stepan, and Vyacheslav, still a baby when Sophia married. Her happiest memories were of the summers at the dacha and of her freedom there, enjoyed to the full when compared with their more restricted city life. In Moscow, the girls had to be escorted on their walks by their father’s batman, in military uniform and helmet.
Much of the summer was spent with their father’s hunting dogs, black setters and white pointers with reddish yellow spots. Behrs trained the valuable setter pups and sent them as gifts to his friends and to the tsar. By then, their father was an old man: the children remembered him as “tall and erect, with large blue eyes and a long grey beard.” At the dacha, he drove in his charabanc or walked with a gun over his shoulder and a setter by his side.12
Their dachas were built on land that had belonged to the old Streshnev clan for more than two centuries. The last heir, an old, semiparalyzed man, permitted the Behrs children to raid his garden and roam in the woods. From their second-floor bedroom window, the girls had a view of the old noble mansion and its ponds, the winding road, and the Pokrovskoe church with its green cupolas. Tolstoy would later remember how he used to drive along this winding road to Sophia’s dacha after he had fallen in love with her. The two of them would also drive on the same road at the sundown of their lives, taking their youngest son to the cemetery.
Sophia’s uncle Konstantin Islavin, a childhood friend of Tolstoy and a frequent guest at their dacha, sparked her interest in music. A talented pianist, Islavin impressed Nikolai Rubinstein, founder of the Moscow Conservatory, with his interpretation of Chopin; yet he failed his examination. As an illegitimate son, he had neither property nor a family of his own; his insecurity became an obstacle to a career of any kind. He lived through the charity of relatives. In childhood, his stays were a delight for Sophia and her siblings: “He introduced us to all the arts and for the rest of my life I maintained … a strong desire for learning, eager to understand every type of creativity.” They danced to his piano improvisations. “I remember the delight I experienced in childhood when Uncle Kostya played Chopin on the piano, and my mother sang in her high soprano, with a pleasant timbre, Alyab´ev’s ‘The Nightingale’ or a gypsy song ‘Aren’t You My Soul, Fair Maiden.’” Once, he called at their dacha with Tolstoy, when the cook was having his midday nap. Sophia and her sister Liza heated up the stove and made dinner for their guests. Tolstoy praised them: “What sweet girls … How well they fed us.”
Turgenev also visited her family whenever he was in Russia. At dinners he told of his hunting adventures, describing masterfully “the beautiful scenery, the setting of the sun, or a wise hunting dog.”13 He was very tall and Sophia, nearsighted, could only see his face when he bent over to pick her up. “He would lift us into the air with his large hands, give us a kiss, and always tell something interesting.”
The Behrs lived in the part of Moscow that had witnessed the Napoleon invasion. In War and Peace, which Sophia would later copy out, Napoleon looks through his binoculars at the Kremlin towers, expecting a delegation with the keys to the city. Those medieval towers could be seen from her window and she dreamt of an excursion through them and the Wall Walk, a fighting platform atop the walls.
Behrs obtained special permission for his children to go on a tour of the towers, with two grenadiers as guides. Troitsky Tower, the closest to their home, was known for its notorious prison cells. They examined the mysterious passages and the narrow stone staircases, and heard stories of how the criminals were walled up there. As they climbed the staircase of the Spassky Tower to see the mechanism of the big clock, it began to hiss, roar, and ring; “the sound was deafening.”
When Nicholas I drove by their Kremlin home, the Behrs children bowed from their windows; he smiled and saluted back. As children of a court official, they did gymnastics in the Great Kremlin Palace and amused themselves by running through the corridors, which were adorned with paintings by Bacciarelli, Titian, Rubens, and others. While standing on the balcony overlooking his chamber, they watched the new emperor Alexander II dine, and once heard him rebuke his lackey, “Fool! I ordered you to bring me beer!”
Despite their noble upbringing, the Behrs children were assigned chores, took turns in the kitchen, sewed, and taught their younger siblings. Their Petersburg cousins, the children of Uncle Alexander and his Scottish wife, Rebecca Pinkerton, were raised the same way. Sophia and her siblings were told that they would have to earn their living because they had no fortune and the family was large. She was eager to help with various chores, becoming her mother’s right hand: “If something had to be lifted, moved, carried … or my father’s or mother’s room had to be tidied up—they would choose me as the healthiest, strongest girl who didn’t care much for learning.”
The Behrs were lavishly hospitable: their relatives and friends came to stay for months. The house staff, consisting of ten or twelve, also lived in the apartment. The coachman and the housekeeper, Stepanida Trifonovna, with whom Tolstoy would stop to talk, were treated as part of the family. The housekeeper, in charge of all holiday baking and preparations, was remembered for her enormous Easter cakes.
The family attended services at the Church of the Virgin Birth, the chapel for the grand dukes and tsaritzas. The church’s main entrance had been walled up and could only be entered through the winter garden, adjacent to the Great Kremlin Palace. At Easter, the sisters ran through the palace corridors and the garden, anticipating the magnificent choir and the whooping toll from the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, answered by festive pealing across Moscow. Orthodox services in the Kremlin were solemn and beautiful, inspiring a mood for prayer and tears of ecstasy. At home, Sophia liked to pray in solitude, kneeling for hours before an icon. The stable world of her childhood, with its ancient faith and customs, remained a stronghold through the many trials of her marriage. Her memory would bring her back to the world that had inspired her belief “in the importance of life.”14
Her father’s German Lutheran culture influenced her less, although her grandmother Elizaveta Wulfert lived with the family. Every Sunday, the girls went to her bedroom to play with the fabulous dolls she ordered from Petersburg, along with garments and toy furniture. Sophia, however, preferred musical toys, which she herself assembled. She was also a passionate collector of stones and herbaria, a hobby she would resume in old age.
Sophia’s sister Liza, diligent and bookish, was nicknamed “the professor” in the family. She was in charge of policing her siblings, which made her unpopular. Tanya, the youngest and everyone’s favorite, was Sophia’s confidante. She would describe Sophia as a spirited girl with red cheeks, dark braids, and dark eyes with a “touch of sentimentality which easily changed into sadness.”15
Sophia believed she inherited her father’s quick temper and her mother’s good looks. Lyubov Alexandrovna was attractive and serene, with a noble bearing. Alien to her husband’s broad circle of acquaintances, she was always at home, nursing a baby, or helping the older children with their homework. Their first foreign language was German; French was introduced by their mother.
I can see, as if today, a notebook with French words, written in her hand and beginning with God—dieu, father—le père, mother—la mère, etc. Most distinctly I imagine my mother either teaching us, or lying down on a short divan with a book to hear our homework. The divan was of quilted cherry-colored satin. I remember feeling sorry for her when she gazed at me with her large, black, weary eyes, swallowing small pieces of coal. Perhaps it was during her pregnancies … These pieces I collected for her in the stoves where I could fit my little body, inspecting curiously its inner walls and passages.
When governesses took over supervising the children’s studies and Sophia neglected her assignments, she was caned. Lyubov Alexandrovna administered the punishment in Grandmother Wulfert’s bedroom. “I took off my clothes and crossed myself. Clasping my bare arms above the elbow, my mother began to hit me with a rod. I jumped, screamed, and trembled of cold.” That Sophia was caned for laziness in her childhood is surprising; in adult life her energy was unmatched.
Tolstoy, a casual guest, would do gymnastics with the children and participate in their charades. Once, he composed a mini-opera. It had a conventional plot: a jealous husband suspects a knight of courting his wife and kills him in a duel. Sophia and her siblings had to think up their own lines. The words had to sound Italian, he directed, but the meaning could be compromised. Tolstoy’s intent was to poke fun at libretti, although he always found the theme of jealousy compelling. It would reemerge in Anna Karenina and in The Kreutzer Sonata, a novella about a husband who kills his wife. Later, Sophia would receive prominent roles in his fiction. But in childhood, when he conducted his mini-opera, she was simply part of the choir.
At Christmas, Sophia and the other children played various games. One involved baking a pie with a small bean in it. The guest who found the bean would become tsar and choose a tsarina. Then they would sit on makeshift thrones to perform their roles. When Sophia was chosen tsarina, she was a natural, giving orders to her loyal subjects. One summer, she played the game with her siblings when Tolstoy visited the family’s dacha.
I remember we were once feeling very happy and playful, and I kept repeating the same foolish sentence: “When I am Tsarina I’ll do such and such,” or “When I am Tsarina I’ll order such and such.” Just beneath the balcony stood my father’s cabriolet, from which the horse had been unhitched. I hopped inside and shouted, “When I am Tsarina I’ll drive around in a cabriolet like this!” Lev Nikolaevich immediately stepped into the horse’s place, seized the shafts and pulled me along at a brisk trot. “And I’m going to take my Tsarina for a drive!” he said … “Do stop, please! It’s much too heavy for you!” I cried, but I was loving it, and was delighted to see how strong Lev Nikolaevich was, and to have him pull me around.16
When in the winter of 1854 Tolstoy left for the Crimean War, Sophia was ten. His departure upset her and she decided that she would join him at the front as a nurse. After Tolstoy went to the Crimea, Sophia read his novel Childhood and cried over it, memorizing the passage, “What times could be better than the times in which the two highest virtues, innocent gaiety and boundless need for love, were the sole impulses in life?”17 Later, as Tolstoy’s publisher, Sophia would read the novel numerous times; yet her first emotional response to it never lessened.
When she was eleven, several major events took place. Her German grandmother died in Petersburg during a cholera epidemic. The emperor died. The Crimean War continued and the sisters had to wear mourning dresses and gray jackets, nicknamed “patriotic coats.” They were the color of soldiers’ uniforms and had brass buttons with imperial eagles. Everyone read Tolstoy’s Sebastopol Stories, his realistic accounts from the battlefield: he was Russia’s first war correspondent. The children also felt patriotic. They attended Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar, as it was their mother’s favorite. Sophia knew the score by heart and played it at home on the piano.
In August 1856, the Kremlin was preparing for the coronation of Alexander II. Sophia and Liza were given tickets by a wealthy patient of their father’s and watched the ceremony from the balcony overlooking Uspensky Cathedral, where tsars were anointed. They saw the new emperor and his empress, Maria Alexandrovna,18 wearing ermine-lined mantles under a baldachin of gold brocade:
The moment was tremendously celebratory. Through the loud cheers of the crowd, the canon shots, the orchestra played “God, Save the Tsar” … I was choking of excitement, prepared to do anything for the tsar, to give my life for him.
The royal parade along the central Tverskaya Street became etched in her memory as “a vivid picture of gold, uniforms, beautiful carriages, dresses, sounds of music, drums, and people shouting ‘hurrah.’” Impressive in his gold-embroidered uniform, the youthful heir, about Sophia’s age, was riding by the emperor’s side. Decades later, as Tolstoy’s publisher, she would be granted an audience by Alexander III.
From her early teens, Sophia participated in amateur theatricals, popular at the time. The family staged vaudevilles, with their mother directing. Sophia got a male role as a social climber in A Crow in Peacock Feathers19and sang her couplets dashingly: “That’s what wealth does, that’s what a million does.” In one theatrical, Mitrofan Polivanov, her brother Sasha’s friend from the cadet corps, had the role of Sophia’s husband. Polivanov was a tall and phlegmatic youth, two years Sophia’s senior. They were “childishly in love with each other” and agreed to get married when Polivanov made a career. He graduated from the military academy and was eventually promoted to the general staff; Sophia broke her word by marrying Tolstoy.
In 1860, Sophia and Liza prepared for university exams, which would certify them as governesses. Sophia studied at the home of a friend, a daughter of the Moscow University inspector Zaikovsky. In the evenings, students gathered there to discuss Turgenev’s recent novel Fathers and Sons, the nihilists, and the woman’s question. As other girls of the sixties, Sophia dreamt of dedicating herself to a cause larger than family: “I longed to live for others: I yearned with all my soul for the joys of renunciation, even asceticism.”20 It was also a time of great expectations, dreams about liberty and Russia’s future. During the winter of 1861, Alexander II signed the long-awaited Emancipation Act. Slavery was abolished.
The student discussions at the Zaikovskys were followed by troika rides and dancing. The night before her exam in divine law, Sophia danced at the house of the dean of medicine. She got an excellent mark, while Liza, despite preparation, failed her exam. Sophia’s essay on music was the best of the year. When she was already married, her professor told Tolstoy she had “a great flair for literature … That’s just the wife you need.”
Completion of exams marked the end of Sophia’s and Liza’s home education and girlhood: their daily schedule was removed from the classroom wall.21 The sisters were given watches, allowed to plan their leisure, tailor long dresses, and put up their braids. The interval between Sophia’s childhood and marriage lasted only one year, a time marked by intense introspection: “That brilliant light that illuminated the world for me would dim later on … And how good it felt! The world seemed boundless.” She read a great deal and engaged herself in writing, painting, music, and photography, forms of creativity that fascinated her for the rest of her life.
There would be no time for art instruction later on, but at the age of seventeen she took drawing lessons, learning to work with pencil and India ink. The lessons ended before she moved on to watercolors. Still, on her own, she copied paintings from an album of reproductions from the Dresden and Berlin galleries. Curious about photography, she learned the craft from a Greek student named Kurkuli, a strange, taciturn boy and friend of her brother Sasha. It was with his camera that Sophia took her first pictures on a walk along the Moscow River. She would resume this hobby in midlife, becoming an expert photographer.
At sixteen, she had written a novella titled “Natasha,” about three sisters and their falling in love. She read chapters to Tanya, who was delighted to recognize herself in Natasha, the youngest character. The novella did not survive: Sophia burned it along with her youthful diaries before her wedding. She would regret it later because Tolstoy used the story as an inspiration for War and Peace: “When Lev Nikolaevich depicted [Natasha Rostova] in War and Peace he drew on my novella and borrowed the name for his heroine … he read it a month before our wedding and praised me for pure demands on love.”
Tolstoy recognized himself in her character Prince Dublitsky, a seasoned bachelor, whose name implied duplicity: “I read it all without a sinking heart … but ‘unusually unattractive appearance’ and ‘fickleness of opinions’ touched me on the raw.” When Sophia asked Tolstoy about her story, he said that he had skimmed through it; however, in his diary he admitted: “She gave me a story to read. What force of truth and simplicity!”22
In the novella, Prince Dublitsky marries the eldest sister, just as Tolstoy was expected to marry Liza. His attraction to the middle sister, in whom Sophia portrayed herself, is implied. The middle sister marries an ideal young man, like Polivanov. As Tanya observed, Sophia’s novella “pictured the conflict in her own heart.”23
Sophia was moved to write it after a revelation by her older cousin Lyuba Behrs, who told her about the “mysteries of matrimony.” Information on sexual love would, it was believed, corrupt a virgin, and was therefore kept secret. Obtaining the knowledge surreptitiously from her cousin made Sophia feel guilty: “I became hysterical, flung myself on the bed and sobbed until my mother came in running.” The ideal of chastity became rooted in her heart after Tolstoy read aloud Turgenev’s novella First Love at their house. The sisters were impressed with his comment that the feeling of the sixteen-year-old youth was pure and genuine, while his father’s physical passion was “an abomination and a perversion.” She decided that if she would ever marry “it must be only with a man equally chaste as I. My novella described such pure first feelings between my hero and heroine.”
During Sophia’s last winter at home, her family lived through a crisis. At night, Behrs would burst into Lyubov Alexandrovna’s bedroom and make jealous scenes. Waking to their mother’s pleas for help, the sisters had to sit in her bedroom. Behrs, forgetting himself, shouted at his wife and daughters. By morning, worn out, he kissed their hands, cried, and asked for forgiveness. “This perpetual expectation of our father’s nocturnal visits to our mother’s bedroom … darkened our young souls. We loved our mother a great deal … and felt extremely sorry for her.” In her own marriage, Sophia would experience Tolstoy’s jealousy and recall these haunting nights of her youth.
In the spring, as the family packed for their dacha, Tolstoy visited Behrs, asking him to examine his lungs, as he feared consumption. Tolstoy also asked Behrs whether he believed he was healthy enough to marry. He had already mentioned to his sister, Maria Nikolaevna, that he liked the Behrs family particularly well, and “if I ever marry, I will only marry in that family.”24 As Tolstoy would imply in Anna Karenina, when depicting himself in Levin, Sophia’s family had replaced his own:
Strange as it may seem, Konstantin Levin was in love precisely with the house, the family, especially the female side of it. He did not remember his own mother, and his only sister was older than he, so that in the Shcherbatskys’ house he saw for the first time the milieu of an old, noble, educated and honorable family, of which he had been deprived by the death of his father and mother.”25
Over the summer, Lyubov Alexandrovna took the girls to their grandfather’s estate and the neighboring Yasnaya Polyana. For the first time, Sophia visited her grandmother’s grave, saw the parish church where she married Islenev, and even met the priest who had wed them secretly. Standing by her tombstone, Sophia imagined “what misery she must have endured with her first husband, Kozlovsky, a drunkard, to whom she was married against her will, then with her unlawful second husband, Alexander Mikhailovich Islenev, my grandfather, living in this country place, bearing an endless annual succession of children.” Despite fear of inheriting her grandmother’s fate as well as her name, she found the story irresistible: “Everything seemed fantastic, full of beauty and magic.”26
At Yasnaya Polyana, Sophia visited the house she would soon enter as mistress. The Behrs sisters and their maid were lodged in the vaulted room downstairs, a former larder, where the furniture consisted of a few sofas and a chaise longue. Just as they were getting the beds ready, Tolstoy walked in. He helped arrange a bed for Sophia, pushing a stool against the chaise longue, and covered it with a sheet. “I felt embarrassed but there was also something lovely and intimate about making up the beds together.” Later that evening, Tolstoy joined Sophia on the balcony.
I shall never forget that mood I was in … I don’t know if it was the effect of nature, real untamed nature and wide open spaces; or a premonition of what would happen a month and a half later … perhaps it was simply a farewell to my girlhood freedom; perhaps it was all these things, I don’t know. But there was something so significant about my mood that evening, and I felt such happiness and such an extraordinary sense of boundlessness. The others were all going in to supper and Lev Nikolaevich came out to call me too … I just remember him saying to me: “How simple and serene you are,” which pleased me very much. I had such a good sleep in the long chair which Lev Nikolaevich had made up for me … I fell asleep with a new feeling of joy in my young soul.27
At Ivitsy, their grandfather’s estate, Tolstoy unexpectedly turned up during a dance. When the guests were leaving, he asked Sophia to stay with him on the terrace and read what he would write. “He brushed the games scores off the card table, took a piece of chalk and began writing. We were both very serious and excited. I followed his big red hand, and could feel all my powers of concentration and feeling focus on that bit of chalk and the hand that held it. We said nothing.”28 He only initialed the words of his long sentences but she readily deciphered them: “Your youth and need for happiness too vividly remind me of my age and incapacity for happiness.” Tolstoy also wrote that her family was wrong about his intention to marry Liza, the eldest. “Our elation was such that we soared high above the world and nothing could possibly surprise us.” In Anna Karenina,Tolstoy would recount this episode as a proposal scene, though he did not actually propose to Sophia at Ivitsy.
When the sisters returned to their parents’ dacha, Tolstoy visited frequently and took her for walks. “Those last days of my girlhood were extraordinarily intense, lit by a dazzling brightness and a sudden awakening of the soul … ‘Mad nights!’ Lev Nikolaevich would say as we sat on the balcony or strolled about the garden. There were no romantic scenes or confessions. We had known each other for so long. Our friendship was so simple and easy. And I was in a hurry to end my wonderful, free, serene, uncomplicated girlhood. Everything was wonderfully simple, I had no ambitions, no desires for the future.”29
On August 28, 1862, Sophia congratulated Tolstoy on his thirty-fourth birthday: “When I am tsarina, I’ll issue a benevolent decree, but as I am a simple mortal, I simply congratulate you on having seen God’s world on one beautiful morning, and I wish you see it as long as possible, the way you see it now.”30 Liza wrote that she expected something important to happen on the twenty-eighth. Whenever Tolstoy came for dinner Liza would be seated next to him. In his diary, Tolstoy admitted he was “beginning to hate Liza as well as pity her.”31
Upon their return to Moscow, Tolstoy continued to visit, carrying a proposal letter in his pocket. He gave it to Sophia on September 16, the day before her and her mother’s name day, celebrated together. Tolstoy awaited her reply in her mother’s bedroom. “I flew up the stairs on wings … Lev Nikolaevich stood in the corner, leaning against the wall, waiting for me. I went up to him and he seized both my hands. ‘Well, what’s the answer?’ he asked. ‘Yes—of course,’ I replied.”32
On the name day, Sophia and Liza, dressed identically, in light mauve and white barège gowns, greeted guests. When Lyubov Alexandrovna announced her daughter’s engagement, everyone assumed that Liza was the bride. Their former French tutor later remarked that he was disappointed Tolstoy did not propose to Liza: she was a better student.
The betrothal lasted only one week (in Anna Karenina Tolstoy changes it to a month, to make it more believable). Sophia was entering a mad pace of life, which she would maintain for forty-eight years. During that frantic week, Tolstoy visited daily but their meetings were no longer a joy: “I felt crushed.” Out of an excess of honesty, Tolstoy gave her his bachelor diaries, informing her of his sexual past and his liaison with the peasant Aksinya, by whom he had a son. The first diary opened with an entry at nineteen when he was treated for gonorrhea, contracted from a prostitute. “I remember how shattered I was by these diaries … It was very wrong of him to do this; I wept when I saw what his past had been.”33 Tolstoy was disappointed with her reaction, expecting understanding from his bride.
A few days before the wedding they drove to the Bolshoi Theatre to see Othello. A famous tragedian of the day, the black American actor Ira Aldridge, was on tour in Russia and his performance in Moscow was not to be missed. (Aldridge was the first black actor in the world to play Othello.)34 Lyubov Alexandrovna, already at the theater with her other daughters, sent a carriage for Tolstoy and Sophia. On the way, Tolstoy was ominously silent and Sophia “a bit afraid of him.”
© 2010 Alexandra Popoff
Meet the Author
Alexandra Popoff is the award-winning author of literary biographies Sophia Tolstoy (2010), The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants (2012), and Tolstoy’s False Disciple: The Untold Story of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Chertkov (2014). Her book The Wives became a Wall Street Journal “Best Book of the Year.” Popoff taught Russian literature and history at the University of Saskatchewan before turning to literary biography. She has contributed to Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, The Globe and Mail, National Post, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Born and raised in Moscow, she now lives in Canada.
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This is an excellent book about Sophia Tolstoy and the incredible contributions she made to the success of her husband. Not only did she carry 13 of his children, she hand copied every word of every novel he wrote while doing many other activities that all women will understand. This truly provides an enlightening insight into an incredible woman who has been so unfairly maligned. I highly recommend it.
Sophia Tolstoy has interested me since I visited the Tolstoy Moscow home several years ago. I had never forgotten her publishing business in a small building in the back of their house, as well as hearing that Tolstoy had abandoned Sophia and their children before he died. I was so happy to read this book, which is based largely on heretofore unseen documents, so that I now know an enormous amount more about this amazing woman. On the other hand, it was difficult to read about the personality of the Russian genius, Leo Tolstoy. I felt sympathetic for both of them (I believe that he was enormously egocentric, but also apparently emotionally or mentally ill). I am particularly glad to know that Sophia's reputation, ruined mostly by her husband's follower Chertkov, has been restored. She was an amazing woman who did more work in one day than most of us do in a month; she kept her husband writing as long as she could, enabling him to deliver his writing gifts to the world; she worked to remain solvent for the benefit of her children. Brava!