A marriage for the ages: New book reveals the inner lives of Leo and Sofia Tolstoy

The Tolstoys at the dinner table in the family estate at Yasnaya Polyana. Leo and Sofya are at far right.

Leo Tolstoy: Despite good cause for it, I have never stopped loving you.

Sofia Tolstoy: Of course

Leo Tolstoy: But God knows you don’t make it easy

Sofia Tolstoy: Why should it be easy? I am the work of your life, you are the work of mine. That’s what love is.

This imagined exchange from the film The Last Station about the final days of the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace and Anna Karenina) speaks to a relationship that passed the test of time in longevity — they were were married for 48 years — and in intensity.

The Tolstoys had things to say — to each other and to the world. And because that communication was written down in the form of letters to each other, it is possible to compile their thoughts into a book.

Which is what Andrew Donskov has done in Tolstoy and Tolstaya — A Portrait of A Life in Letters (University of Ottawa Press). Published this past fall, Donskov edited the book with translation by John Woodsworth, Arkadi Klioutchanski and Liudmila Gladkova. It is a companion book to his earlier, highly regarded collection of Sofia Tolstoy’s memoirs called My Life, published in 2010. Donskov is a distinguished professor of languages at the University of Ottawa and a respected expert on Tolstoy and his wife.

Both Tolstoys were prolific letter writers. He wrote about 10,000 over the course of his long life — 840 to his wife. She wrote him more than 600 letters. After his death, she published his letters to her, but not her replies. That’s where this edition comes in. The book includes a foreword by Vladimir Il’ich Tolstoy (the Tolstoys great-great-grandson) and 11 unpublished letters from Sofia, who acted as literary assistant, translator, transcriber and editor for her husband. The bulk of the book involves a selection of letters exchanged between the two and they illustrate their lives together, Donskov says.

Over 30 years of writing and studying the legendary Russian writer and thinker, Donskov has established a good relationship with Russian institutes of higher learning especially the L.N. Tolstoy Museum in Moscow and the museum at Tolstoy’s famous estate Yasnaya Polyana, which means Clear Meadow in English.

“We developed a relationship to such an extent that they gave us copies of Tolstoya’s My Life which had not been published until our translation of it. We received that in 2008. It took us two years to get that in print. We beat the Russians by a whole year. That was a big thing.”

They also obtained a collection of the letters.

The interesting thing about the letters in this volume, Donskov says, is not that they haven’t been published, they have. Everything that Tolstoy wrote is published in a 90-volume edition put together during the Soviet period.

Many of the letters, however, have not been translated into English and also they have not been put together. Now they have.

“This becomes a real correspondence because now the letters are integrated. Tolstoy wrote to her and she wrote back to him,” Donskov said in an interview.

These letters illustrate and illuminate the journey of their lives together, he says. The 11 unpublished letters included in this volume are part of a stash of about 200 unpublished letters from Sofia Tolstoy, that Donskov has also been given access to. The rest of these will be published at a later date, he says, once they are properly annotated.

The film shows Tolstoy and his wife at a bitter stage in their lives together but is that the full story?

“Scholars usually look at this and say that in the first 15 years or so, they were happy. I generally agree with this. However both of them were exceedingly difficult characters, there is no question about it,” Donskov says.

“As an academic I have to remain as objective as possible but that’s my reading of the whole thing after many years of study. And it’s not that, as many scholars say, Tolstoy made her like that,” he says.

“Sofia’s father said of her when she was 16, ‘I feel sorry for poor Sophie she seems so unhappy and cross.’ But so was Tolstoy. He was demanding, imperious and convinced he was right about everything.

“She gave him 13 kids and had three miscarriages. Eight children lived to adulthood. And he wanted everything naturally. He wanted her to breastfeed her children even when she was suffering from mastitis.”

This is the kind of thing that is revealed in the letters which range from the political to the personal, he says.

“We tried to show their every day life and also to show where they co-operated and collaborated as a Russian family.  She really helped Tolstoy,” he said.

“On the intellectual level, she was a smart person,” Donskov says.

He finds her perceptive and critical. There are passages of his book Resurrection, for example, that she didn’t like.

She told him he had ceased to be an artist, Donskov says, and she encouraged him to return to the writing style of his younger self, especially in the early trilogy Childhood, Boyhood and Youth.

Donskov says she contributed stories which he published under his name. And she often transcribed his works.

“He trusted her a great deal. He would ask her advice on passages that described a ball or a social evening.

She was, he says, his muse in the first part of their lives together but not through the entire life.

However, he says, “it’s a misnomer to say that they ceased loving each other. There was love at all times.”

The letters have helped Donskov rediscover “Tolstoy’s commitment to the truth. He was a seeker, there is no question about that, until the very end of his life. Almost his last words were ‘To seek, to seek, always to seek.

“Tolstoy was never satisfied. He was really concerned about this. There is also a certain humanity and a realization that he’s not always right. He was able to criticize himself.

“She is a very smart woman. She was a fantastic photographer. She was a sculptor. She loved music. It was a fascinating household with all the visitors. She had business acumen. Tolstoy never wanted to bother selling his books or editing them. She did all that.”

Donskov believes she didn’t get credit for all this work. During her time, she was probably criticized more than prized by her contemporaries, he added.

And “in the Soviet period, Tolstoy was idolized and she was quite forthright and open in her feelings about her husband. She shot straight from the hip. There are a lot of passages in the letters and in the memoir where she is critical of Tolstoy. She said of him ‘You want to change the world and yet you don’t spend enough time with your children’.”

She gave a lot of her life to him, he says, and therein lies the tragedy of her life.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.