Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 11 2010
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Quill & Quire
The revival of interest in Sophia Tolstoy doesn’t begin or end with Michael Hoffman’s 2009 film The Last Station, in which Helen Mirren portrayed Leo Tolstoy’s wife and muse. A year earlier, for instance, Cathy Porter’s translation of Sophia’s voluminous diaries was published in Britain. Now, from Alexandra Popoff, a Russian-born, Saskatchewan-based writer, comes an absorbing and accessible biography based on primary documents.
Tolstoy was a count with a huge family estate. He was 34 in 1862 when he married the teenaged Sophia. During his period of greatest creativity in the 1860s and ’70s, when he produced both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, she provided inspiration and protection and kept him organised (no easy feat). But in 1888, he renounced literature for a different kind of notoriety: that of a radical Christian holy man. Through his disciples, he began giving away his land and money to the poor. Countess Tolstoy, who was prone to nervous breakdowns, was caught in the middle.
Particularly nasty were long disputes about the rights to Tolstoy’s books. Sophia had given birth to 13 children in all. Should the income from his writings be used to support strangers instead of family members? As Popoff tells the story, Tolstoy more or less looked the other way as some of his more materialistic acolytes launched a smear campaign against Sophia that has persisted to this day.
The Tolstoyeans, as they were called, would hold her responsible for the fact that Tolstoy suddenly fled the estate in 1910, only to die in a remote rural railway station at age 82. At the very least, much of the world came to believe that the couple’s marriage was “one of the unhappiest in literary history.” (But, then again, as Sophia herself put it in a diary entry: “How dare anyone judge a man and wife?”)
Popoff’s biography shows an easy mastery of the relevant Russian-language materials, and carefully identifies scenes and persons in Tolstoy’s novels drawn from his own or Sophia’s life. It also shows how a shunned woman bravely led her family, and her husband’s memory, through the revolution and civil war that followed.
About the Author
Alexandra Popoff grew up in Moscow where she was educated at the Gorky Literary Institute and then worked as a feature writer and editor at The Literary Gazette, a major writers’ newspaper. In 1992 she emigrated to Saskatchewan, where she earned master’s degrees in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Toronto and in English Literature from the University of Saskatchewan. Her scholarly publications have appeared in the Canadian Journal of History, Slavic and East European Journal, Canadian Slavonic Papers, and Voprosy Literatury (Moscow). She presented papers on Sophia Tolstoy’s prose at the Tolstoy conference at Harvard (“The Over-Examined Life: New Perspectives on Tolstoy,” 2002) and the 2007 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Saskatoon. She lives in Canada.See all Product Description
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Popoff shows Tolstoy's beliefs to have a Christian foundation and that they were lifelong. The movie empahasized the secular effects (poverty, chastity, the commune of followers, etc.) and only chronicled the drama it caused at the end of his life. Both the movie and this book show Tolstoy as sincere in his beliefs and both show the contrast with his lifestyle. The film shows the large estate and has a bedroom scene, but the book points out more clearly, how over the course of his life, Tolstoy's wealth and marriage ran counter to his writings.
The book shows how Sophia was a necessary victim. Tolstoy had to blame someone for the disconnect between his beliefs and his comparative (not much considering the wealth in St. Petersburg) wealth and marriage. The movie shows only the end of life distress for Sophia, the book shows how she labored and suffered under Tolstoy's contradictions for a long time. He tried to keep his ultimate wishes from her - most likely - Popoff does not say - because he was ashamed, knowing she deserved better.
Tolstoy's letters and diaries show him to be cruel or oblivious to the effect of his words and actions on his wife. Their wedding night is a rape. He has a venereal disease which he reveals after the marriage and a son as well. His words show that he has little regard for the risks of childbearing, and even children. He doesn't appreciate what it takes to meet the needs of so many children, run a household and manage the business end of the estate and self publishing. His requests were many. Some needed skill and ingenuity such as getting his works uncensored or shipping 45 horses from point A to point B.
My heart went out to Sophia. Her trapped position in the marriage might not be so unusual in the 19th century, but what was unusual was her strength and ability and Tolstoy's talent, demands and idealism. I believe that were she not capable of handling so many things successfully Tolstoy a) would have had to take responsibility for his decisions or b) would have abandoned his wife entirely as did at least one disciple, whose cast off wife Sophia spoke for and sheltered.
Servants are mentioned, but how the work is distributed is unclear. What is clear is that Sophia was working very hard and like all humans, needed love. Popoff shows how Tolstoy provided criticism and humiliation along with some love and appreciation. It is hard to determine the proportions, but it is clear that his denial of emotional support and undermining of the authority necessary to her role drove her to near breaking on several occasions.
Vladimir Chertkov, Tolsoty's disciple and de facto beneficiary to the copyrights, felt no need to give away his wealth when he was among Tolstoyians or later with the communists. It is interesting that Sophia considered that Chertkov may have had a sexual relationship with her husband. For the time, this would be quite a radical thought.
This is an excellent work. Popoff fleshes out all the above and more. Reading this gave me the understanding I was looking for and it was a page turner. I read it in every available minute over two days.
Popoff takes us back in time to the 1800s, when birth control was not very common, when people died frequently of ordinary infections, and leeches were medical instruments. She carries us all the way into the 20th century... where Sophia's story was been buried under politics and war for about 100 years.
The relationship between Sophia and Lev is the heart of the book, as it was the heart of Sophia's life. She was instrumental in all of Lev's work after their marriage, and Popoff gives us many details of stories that Tolstoy lifted directly from their life to put in his work, as well as details of all of the 'grunt work' she did, from copying his scribbles, giving him advice, dealing with editors and publishers, collecting income, etc. At the end, Popoff details how Tolstoy in his later days abandoned everything 'worldly' by giving it to Sophia to worry about. She ran the estate where he lived with the money and pleasures he constantly berated her for engaging in. Popoff does not shy away from showing us Tolstoy the hypocrite. But Sophia would not shy away from that either. It is almost as if Popoff is picking up where Sophia left off... after her access to her own husbands' archives were cut off when she was in the process of writing her autobiography.
Popoff also gives us insight into Sophia as a person.. she was incredibly hard working and intellectualy curious, doing everything from making clothes, chopping wood, playing piano, rasing and educating children, doing charity work, teaching herself to paint in watercolor and oil, teaching herself photography, sculpture, dealing with the numerous visitors and 'entourages' that Tolstoy attracted, etc. This was in addition to all the work of keeping Tolstoy's affairs straight and recording and organizing his papers and correspondence. Oh, did I mention she was pregnant 16 times, most of which made her incredibly ill, sometimes almost killing her?
The 'Tolstoyans' (followers of Tolstoy's non-fiction philosophical works) do not enjoy a very good picture in the book. They are largely non-working leechers who sit around decrying property and wealth, while Sophia spends her time copying, proofreading, editing, arranging publishing deals, making clothes, chopping wood, hauling water, and giving them money to live on. Mr Chertkov especially is portrayed as a rather unpleasant fellow. I found it rather disturbing to read Popoff's account of how he introduced bias into the historical record, publishing collections of Tolstoy that denigrated Sophia and discounted her contribution to Tolstoy's work. On top of this Mr Chertkov ingratiated himself to Lenin, Stalin, and the Soviet state, helping to take God out of Tolstoy's philosophy and remake him as some kind of atheist people's hero. Even while Tolstoy's own children were being persecuted by that state, with many fleeing the country and one of Tolstoy's daughters even ending up in a GULAG.
Ms Popoff has done us a great service by scrubbing the dirt and grime off of the historical record, digging into what Sophia actually wrote, and bringing us a fuller picture of Tolstoy.... and showing us that without Sophia, there basically is no Tolstoy.
The tapestry of Popoff's narrative and Sophia's quotations is luminous, rich, and often moving.