“All happy families are alike, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.”
The opening words of Anna Karenina are profound in their understanding of dysfunctional families. One might wonder: to what extent was the family life of its writer, Leo Tolstoy, dysfunctional? Tolstoy was a man who has heralded a reputation as being one of the greatest literary figures in Russian literature and one of the voices of dissent against the Tsarist regime. But he led a tumultuous family life that has been veiled by the magnanimity of his works.
How did Tolstoy achieve this tremendous success? As the old cliche goes, “behind every successful man is a woman.” In his case, it was his wife, Sofia Tolstoy.
Leo Tolstoy married Sophia Behrs in 1862. It was a union with an age difference of 16 years (he was her senior) and resulted in 13 children. Though his name precedes hers today, she was a woman with literary inclinations of her own. She was a diarist. She was a photographer who took about a thousand photos chronicling her family life. She acted as copywriter and editor for his magnum opus, War and Peace. She wrote and rewrote the manuscript from end to end, from cover to cover six times. She did so after dark when the children were asleep and domestic responsibilities had been taken care of. Turkish writer Elif Shafak writes in her Black Milk that Sofia “inspired, indulged and assisted” Leo.
When they got married, she internalized much of his identity: his name became hers. His passions reigned through her. Her artistic premise was based on his artistic creation. And in her diaries, she wrote mostly about him. So how did a relationship so ideal turn so sour?
Alexandra Popoff, a biographer of Sofia Tolstoy said: “It was not she or the family who changed. It was Tolstoy who changed. It was he who walked away from them. The family instead of being an ideal had become an obstacle.”
Tolstoy’s ideological and spiritual quest alienated him from his own family. His increasing empathy for the Serfs of rural Russia paralleled his detachment from his family. The pulses of the marriage fluctuated with his mood. Towards the end of his marriage, the couple began to quarrel over what to do with the family estate, as Tolstoy intended to give all his wealth away. While one may adore his philanthropic attitude, it is important to view it in light of Sofia’s sacrifices. Before exalting him as a great socialist, one must explore her thoughts.
Excerpt from Sophia’s diary:
26th August 1892
“It was 20 years ago when I was young and happy that I started writing about my love for Leo Tolstoy in these diaries. There is virtually nothing but love in them in fact. Here I am sitting up all night on my own reading and mourning its loss. For the first time in our life, he ran off to sleep alone in the study. We were quarreling over such silly things. I accused him of taking no interest in the children and not helping me look after Elia who is sick. Today he shouted at the top of his voice that his dearest wish was to leave his family. I shall carry the memory of that heartfelt heart-rending cry to my grave. I pray for death. For without his love I can not survive. I knew this the moment his love for me died. “
So why did a man who would plow in the fields to empathize with peasants not empathize with his wife’s burden at home? His selective empathy bore no fruit for Sophia Tolstoy. With his family, he remained as distant as ever. Sophia Tolstoy lost three of her thirteen children while Anna Karenina was being written. Maybe that is why she felt the need to protect her children’s inheritance. He had distributed books freely in order to democratize literature. But where was this altruism when it came to his wife, who stood by him all these years?
Perhaps this is the luxury “great” men are afforded. The luxury of obsessing over grand political ideas while their personal lives can take a back seat.
And with this privilege comes some artistic indulgence.
While Tolstoy took the liberty to immortalize himself by crafting Anna and Levin as surrogates or proxies of himself, Sophia had no such space to garner fame. Her space was denied by time, by logistics, and by her body which for a large portion of her life was spent giving birth or nursing. Tolstoy became a great philosopher, a great writer by breathing his existential plight into his characters. And Sophia Tolstoy became a bitter woman, paranoid and insecure about her future. She became the ostracized countess of an eccentric man when he was excommunicated from the Catholic church in 1901.
Without Sofia, Tolstoy wouldn’t have written the literary masterpieces we remember him for. The debt of her contribution to will never be repaid.
In Sofia’s diaries, it is also found that Tolstoy told Sophia not to “nag” him, not to let the children disturb him. And the mutual resentment grew. In return, he granted her a tiny space in Anna Karenina. She became the blueprint for the character of Dolly as he wrote:
“Looking back over her fifteen years of married life, nothing but pregnancy, sickness, mind dulled and indifferent to everything and, most of all — the disfigurement. the births, the agony… the hideous agonies that last a moment, and then nursing the baby. The fearful pains- Dolly shuddered at the fearful recollection of the pains she’d endured from sore nipples she’d suffered from almost every baby. Then, the children’s illnesses, the everlasting misery. And on top of it all, the death of those children, the cruel memory that never ceased to tear the mother’s heart.”
In these few words, Tolstoy inadvertently conveyed the extent of Sophia’s grief, loss, and resilience. Yet somehow, many years later, he denounced his aristocratic status and fled from home to die in solitude, away from his wife’s “incessant nagging”.
The debt of her contribution to his literary legacy was never repaid. He left behind a woman with many unrealized dreams who will forever remain overshadowed by her husband’s lofty ambition.
It was only recently that her personal diaries have been dug up and published. But still, this was done not to understand her domestic plight, but to get a glimpse into Tolstoy’s personal life. This just makes me wonder: how many women, how many wives with suppressed passions are forgotten in history only to be rediscovered later in personal mementos?
Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!
As The Tempest editors, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll love, too. Just so you know, The Tempest may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. Heads up — prices are accurate and items in stock as of the time of publication.