The Thinking 

Lev and Sofya Tolstoy

September 21, 2009


Sofya Tolstoy peers into the station master's house where her husband lies dying

As part of my ongoing look at Famous Couples,  I examine the extraordinarily fertile and volatile marriage of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy and his wife, Sofya Andreyevna. In his final decades, Tolstoy largely abandoned his literary work and became a preacher of universal love and forgiveness. This prophet of peace, who had produced the greatest novel about marriage ever written, also fashioned a domestic hell on earth. 


It’s one of the more tragic photographs in the annals of matrimony. Sofya Tolstoy peers into the station master’s house at Astapovo, a small town in Central Russia. Inside is her husband of 48 years, the literary genius, religious guru and social prophet Count Lev Tolstoy. He is desperately ill. Surrounded by disciples, some of his eight surviving children, and Orthodox priests attempting to wrest a last-minute reconciliation from the famous heretic, Tolstoy is in this remote spot in the year 1910 because he has finally done what he has been threatening to do for almost a decade. He has fled his wife. When Sofya heard the news, she jumped in a pond in a half-hearted attempt to commit suicide. Then she followed him here from their country estate Yasnaya Polyana.

Both Sofiya and Leo are half-mad, demented by old age and the searing disputes that have wrecked their final years. Hundreds of onlookers have gathered at the station. Word has quickly spread that the 82-year-old Tolstoy, a national celebrity of immense proportions, is on the run. Monsieur Pathé, the originator of newsreel movies, sent this cable to his cameraman: TAKE STATION, TRY TO GET CLOSEUP, STATION NAME. TAKE FAMILY, WELL-KNOWN FIGURES, CAR THEY ARE SLEEPING IN…

Sofya would spend no more than ten minutes with her husband during the time he lay in the station master’s house. “Forgive me! Forgive me!” she wept as she finally knelt by his bed. “I have never loved anyone but you.” A few moments later, he was dead. The genius was gone. A marriage between two of the most remarkable figures of the 19th century was over.

They had had 13 children and lost five of them. They had experienced years of domestic harmony, a settled peace that had enabled Tolstoy to create his great masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, as well as many lesser works.  Sofya had been married since she was 18. Outside her life with Tolstoy, there was only her childhood. She had copied seven revised versions of War and Peace by hand; had been his steadfast muse and amanuensis; had run their large country properties while he was absorbed in literary or political work; had welcomed hundreds of his followers, many scrubby peasants, dissidents and rebels, into their home; had nursed her children herself; had nursed him through several serious and life-threatening illnesses; and had privately appeared before the Tsar to plead against censorship of Tolstoy’s work. Together, they had set up hundreds of soup kitchens to feed peasants during the famines of the 1890s.

She was a highly emotional woman, prone to overstating and dramatizing differences between them. Sofya Andreyevna left behind a diary that intimately recounts the daily ups-and-downs of her apprehensions, hysterics, anger, melancholies and confusion. She was humourless by most accounts and deeply religious. When Tolstoy’s disciples, followers of his religion of peace, took over his life later and attempted to force her out of any influential role and divest her of his copyrights, she put up a heroic, bitter and ugly struggle. This was no ordinary domestic dispute. It was an ideological battle, a war between two extremely divergent views of life. Few marriages so boldly exemplify the truth that marriage is not just a union of personalities, but a conjoining of ideas, than does the pairing of Lev and Sofya Tolstoy.

Sofya Andreyevna Behrs was born in August, 1844 near Moscow to an aristocratic family. Her father was a Moscow doctor who worked for a time as court physician at the Kremlin. Her family was acquainted with the Tolstoysthroughout her childhood though the families did not see much of each other. Tolstoy was also from an aristocratic family, with an estate 130 miles from Moscow. Both his parents died in his childhood.

There is a touching scene recounted in Sofya’s diaries that was the basis for the marriage proposal between Lev and Kitty in Anna Karenina. According to Sofya, this was a scene between her and Tolstoy, a former army officer who was 34 at the time, that occurred a short time before he asked her to marry him:

 Just as I was going to the door, Lev Nikolayevich called to me.
‘Wait a moment, Sofya Andreyevna.’
‘What is it?’
‘Will you read what I am going to write?’
‘Very well.’
‘I am only going to write the initials. You must guess the words.’
‘How can I do that? It’s impossible! Oh, well go on.”
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.
[He wrote these letters:] ‘y.y.&n.f.h.t.v.r.m.o.m.a.&i.f.h.’
‘Your youth and need for happiness too vividly remind me of my age and incapacity for happiness,’ I read out. My heart was pounding, my temples were throbbing, my face was flushed – I was beyond all sense of time and reality; at that moment I felt capable of anything, of understanding everything, imagining the unimaginable. [From The Diaries of Sophia Tolstoy, Translated by Cathy Porter]

It is highly unlikely this sense is accurate as such heights of telepathy are virtually impossible. Nevertheless, it is charming. A few weeks later he proposed and they were married within a week. The strange thing was, as is noted in Tolstoy  by A.N. Wilson, they barely knew each other and had spent little time together. As Wilson put it, “Apart from flirtatious conversations and silences in company over the last month, and one journey by coach, the bridal pair had had no time together. They were not even sufficiently well acquainted to know whether they liked  each other.”

A few days before their marriage, Tolstoy did something extraordinary. He presented his diaries, the vivid, unsparing account of the years he had spent as a sexual libertine and recreational gambler, to Sofya. They included the news that he had fathered a child by a peasant woman who still lived at his estate and who would be there when Sofya arrived as a new bride. Sofya never quite recovered from the shocking revelations, which stole her romantic illusions. It was a cruel act and the starting point for their famous diary wars. Tolstoy frequently showed Sofya his diaries and Sofya, often in a spirit of retaliation, kept her own detailed account of their life.

They had what appeared to be remarkably happy years as their children came one after another.  Tolstoy was producing his finest work. But, he was a deeply divided man. When Anna Karenina was finished, his creative peak was over and he developed a new quasi-fictitious persona for himself. He embraced a fanatically literal reading of New Testament ethical teachings, espousing poverty, pacifism, vegetarianism, distrust of civil government, and sexual restraint. He grew a long beard and adopted peasant dress. He made his own shoes and mowed hay with the peasants. Though he wanted to run off and become a monk at times, he had a large family. He also had a very strong sexual appetite. Despite his beliefs, he was forced to continue to lead the life of a country squire. He despised these contradictions and took out his anger on his wife and children. For his wife, it was not possible or desirable to live by his teachings. She continued to believe in the Orthodox Church and in normalcy, seeing no inherent evil in their genteel existence.

The most crushing blow to her came with the death of their son, Ivan, their thirteenth child and a gifted boy who died at the age of six of scarlet fever. By then, Tolstoy was deep into his cult of simplicity and there was an unbridgeable divide between them. She wrote in her diary:

When genuine love exists between a genius and his wife, as there used to be between Lev Nikolaevich and me, she does not need a great mind to understand him, she needs only her loving feelings and the instincts of her heart, and everything will be clear and they will both be happy, as we used to be. I never minded spending my entire life labouring and serving my genius husband, until I read his diaries and saw that he had always blamed me for his being so famous. (He had somehow to justify his life of comparative luxury with me.) This happened in the year of my Vanechka’s death, when I clung to my husband with my grief-stricken soul – and was cruelly disappointed in my feelings for him.

Tolstoy was a figure who radiated moral authority. He knew Russia was a land of desperation and in need of reform. That was the source of his greatness at the end of his life. Even though he was an insufferable prig and monumental egotist, he drew the heartfelt love and devotion of the peasants, people who would never read his great works. He is and always will be one of the most compelling figures in history. As he tried on the different masks of his own self-created characters – great novelist, religious sage, social dissident, libertine, landed squire – his wife remained through the years remarkably the same. Their life together was one of the greatest stories he ever wrote.




 —————————– Comments ————————————

Michael S. writes:

“Their life together was one of the greatest stories he ever wrote.”

Really? That’s not the conclusion I draw from your essay. The conclusion I draw from your essay is: “Don’t be like Leo Tolstoy.”


1. Don’t live a life such that priests (Roman-rite Catholic, in my case) have to hover over your deathbed hoping to wrangle a reconciliation!

2. Don’t provoke a “diary war” with your wife.

3. Don’t run away from your wife two years short of your 50th anniversary (especially since, in my case, I’d be 87 years old!).

4. Don’t let your deathbed be in a TRAIN STATION, with your wife standing OUTSIDE LOOKING IN.

So… how are they a great couple?  I missed that.

And I don’t mean to be snarky.  I really don’t get it.  Please spell it out for me.  Wife sacrifices a lot, husband takes her for granted and ultimately treats her like garbage.  Where’s the greatness in that?

OK, so you said “famous” couples, not “great” couples.  But is that true?  How many of these couples are famous as such?  When I hear the phrase “famous couples” I think… Antony and Cleopatra… Napoleon and Josephine… Macbeth and Lady Macbeth… Adam and Eve… Richard and Cosima…

Perhaps you should re-title your series “Infamous (i.e., Famously Off-the-Rails) Couples.” You are candid about the failings of Jon and Kate, but curiously merely descriptive about the Tolstoy train wreck.

Laura writes:

Do you think a great story is necessarily a happy story? I don’t. The Tolstoy marriage is fascinating, not least because it involves Tolstoy himself who for all his failings was a man of colossal achievement.
This is the third couple I have profiled in brief. The first was Adam and Eve. The second was Winston and Clementine Churchill. If the Tolstoys do not meet your definition of famous, do they? But, I think the profound lessons you learned justified this particular article. Where else would you have acquired them?
I do not think calling Tolstoy a monumental egotist and insufferable prig qualifies as merely descriptive language.  I also specifically pointed to the irony of Tolstoy’s teachings of universal love and his “domestic hell on earth.” These seemed judgmental to me.
You say, “Wife sacrifices a lot, husband takes her for granted and ultimately treats her like garbage.  Where’s the greatness in that?”
Again, I said the story was great, not the marriage. And, they did have many happy and productive years. Tolstoy did not only treat his wife like garbage. He also passionately loved her and thanked her at times for all she did. He had a complicated, Byzantine personality, which is not surprising given his remarkable ability to put himself in the shoes of others and to imagine the inner lives of a vast range of characters that included peasants, small children, an adulterous woman, Orthodox priests, Cossacks, businessmen, indolent aristocrats, a woman in childbirth, and military generals in the field. This was a short piece. I recommend Tolstoy,  by A.N. Wilson and Porter’s Diaries of Sophia Tolstoy. 
Also, War and Peace and Anna Karenina are both highly autobiographical. Without the marriage of Lev and Sofya, these books would not exist. A love of these works has led many to an absorbing interest in the real marriage.
Michael S. replies:
When I started writing, I was confusing “famous” with “great.”  My error.
But on that note, I would say that “great” and “famous” are two different things, and that perhaps there’s an overlap between the two called “monumental.”  On second thought, though, perhaps not.  Perhaps it is possible to be monumental without being “great.”  To my mind, greatness seems to include some kind of goodness, and final success.  (Or is that not necessary?  What is greatness, anyway?)  But you’re not talking about great couples, per se… merely famous ones.
As far as monumental egotists go, I can only handle one at a time.  Wagner is more interesting than Tolstoy (to me, anyway — I can handle monumentally long operas; not sure if I’m ready for monumentally long novels, even if they’re outnumbered 6 to 2 by the operas).  Of course, Wagner’s marriages were not, on the whole, worthy of emulation.  But then, whose are, on the whole?  Perhaps that’s part of the point.
Now I’m talking in figure-eights.
Perhaps I should take up essay writing rather than correspondence!
Laura writes:
Michael raises a very important issue: fame vs. greatness. Fame involves widespread recognition. You can be famous without being great. (Bill Clinton and Martha Stewart come to mind.) Greatness is an entirely different thing, and I would agree with Michael. Greatness of necessity includes some kind of goodness. A great athlete or great artist or great military leader – they all display superiority in at least one area that rises far above the normally superior. The important thing is this: Greatness is not wholly good. It is earthly and human, always intermixed or tainted with something inferior. In very great people, goodness often, though not always, seems to come with a measure of spectacular badness or evil, as if the two were destined for balance.
Can a person be great without being famous? Interesting question. I would say rarely. Greatness is such that it inevitably attracts notice.
I called Sofya and Lev Tolstoy a famous couple. But they are great as well. Tolstoy was undeniably a great man and his greatness called forth superior qualities in his wife.
HIs spectacular flaws diminish his greatness, but in one sense seem irrelevant to it. He failed in areas that were different from his main field of activity. Nothing he did in his private life or his political work or his pseudo-religious teaching could alter his artistic achievement.
What was the nature of Tolstoy’s artistic greatness?
My 16-year-old son is reading War and Peace for his school work this year. He asked me just the other day, “How will I feel when I finish War and Peace?
I said, “You will feel sad. It will be as if a part of your life is over.”
Tolstoy gives us more than one life to live. In placing us so vividly and firmly in the place of other human beings – an accomplishment that is inseparable from the enormous length of his greatest books – he expands our moral horizons. We have made the choices and suffered the consequences of others. We are elevated. We are spared clumsy mistakes. We are granted awareness of those we have already committed. In short, we are less alone. Tolstoy helps us live. He will never make us rich. He will not impress our friends and acquaintances. He will merely prove to us that we are free. Our everyday consciousness; our sense of the exquisite beauty that lies in the most ephemeral of phenomena; our choices, often made alone and without the counsel or wisdom of others – all are filled with the highest significance and dizzying freedom.
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