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Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography

by Alexandra Popoff

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.