A marriage of war and peace: the tumultuous world of Lev and Sonya Tolstoy

Andrew Donskov's Tolstoy and Tolstaya charts the couple's life in letters.

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The 2009 film The Last Station, based on a fine book by Jay Parini and featuring Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, made the story of Lev Tolstoy’s last days accessible to many who had not read the biographies. It is a dramatic narrative. Commentators have observed that the episode seems like one of the more lurid passages from Tolstoy’s great rival, Dostoevsky. The tensions of a long (48-year), complicated marital history finally boiled over in a chaos of recrimination and misery, and Tolstoy, at the age of 82, fled the family home at night, accompanied by one of his daughters.

Already frail and ill, Tolstoy collapsed under the rigours of a winter journey and died at the stationmaster’s house in Astapovo in November 1910. His wife rushed to his side as he lay dying, and was briefly admitted to see him, but he was unconscious by then. Incredibly, there exists a Pathé newsreel showing her peering through the window of the little house and turning away; the 24-hour news cycle was already beginning, and Pathé had sent cameramen to Astapovo to capture the private tragedy of someone they recognised as a global celebrity – future media habits casting their shadow.

What lay behind this tragic end? Tolstoy’s disciples, who had in the last decade of his life driven his wife to the limit of her endurance, had a clear story to tell. Sonya Tolstaya was a narrow, unintelligent, materialistic woman, concerned only to defend her comfortable lifestyle and to secure an inheritance for her huge brood of children (nine out of 13 survived early childhood); she sought to resist and belittle Tolstoy’s spiritual and political radicalism, and drove him away by her jealousy, her obsessional anxieties and her obstinately limited horizons.

But the Countess has at last had her day in court in recent years. The publication and translation of her diary and her autobiography, as well as some of her own short stories, have shown ample evidence that she was articulate, witty and serious, neither a harridan nor a doormat. The evidence for her contribution to Tolstoy’s greatest literary works is clear; he invited her comments and consulted her about details – and of course she played a unique role as the main copyist of his earlier novels, and as manager of the immense project of publishing his collected works and dealing with the legal and administrative issues that this entailed.

This selection from both sides of their correspondence confirms, if confirmation were needed, her energy and capacity, practical and intellectual. As a relatively new bride (she was only 18 when they married), she proudly and self-consciously describes her tours of the country estate, making sage observations on the condition of the livestock: “I told her to tie up the milk-feeding bull-calves so that they would stay away from the hay.”

Much later, in the early 1890s, she discusses with complete confidence the various initiatives she is organising for famine relief, ordering her husband (who is gathering information about it on the ground for the international press, and administering some of the aid coming in) to “keep a strict tally of what is bought with this money and where, who is fed, in what places” so as to reassure her donors – a very contemporary note.

She describes philosophical lectures she has heard in Moscow, delivers a damning verdict on a Wagner concert (“annoying, self-absorbed Germans singing off-key”), pesters the Tsar and the ecclesiastical authorities to prevent hostile censorship of her husband’s work, and offers astringent comments on her husband’s drafts. Does the world really need another pamphlet from him on the evils of modern society? Will the impact of another book or essay actually be greater than the impact of a life of sensible, pragmatic charity and generous patience with the stupidity of others?

You can tell that by the time she wrote this, Sonya’s patience was wearing thin. She had been left in the country for months at a time to bring up her family single-handedly, while Tolstoy travelled for his health or stayed in Moscow to concentrate on his writing. She breastfed all her children, and one of the more harrowing letters describes the physical agony this caused when nursing their youngest child. She felt that she was increasingly, after the early 1880s, being judged and found wanting, simply because she put her family’s interests before her husband’s abstract ideals.

Poignantly, she asks why it is that people who write so eloquently about universal love and the possibility of simple, selfless communal life create such emotional havoc around them. And she excoriates the hangers-on – the “dark people”, as she calls them – who work their way into her husband’s confidence and, as she sees it, travel on the coat-tails of his fame. The rather sinister Vladimir Chertkov, who was Tolstoy’s closest associate in the last years of his life, comes in for particularly furious denunciation: the Countess writes of him – with the deliberate desire to shock – as if he were a sexual rival for her husband’s attention: “You have abandoned me for Chertkov… be healthy and happy in your Christian love for Chertkov.” She knows very well that there is an adultery of the spirit in which something perhaps even more important than physical fidelity is at stake.

Tolstoy’s responses combine lordly dismissal and moral chastisement with confused defensiveness and an agonised recognition that he is indeed responsible for creating deeper and deeper incompatibility: “I cannot and do not blame you.” He wavers between hostile judgements of his wife’s spiritual condition and patient acknowledgement that she has been a pillar of loyalty, and that not everyone finds the same spiritual path.

In the middle of increasingly bitter and painful exchanges, there are moments when the depth of habitual domestic affection, shared jokes and enthusiasms, comes through. But the knot is pulled tighter all the time, and Sonya is as tormentingly aware as Lev that she is behaving badly, that she is being hysterical and unreasonable and is exacerbating the situation with a hundred minor and not so minor irritants (including an intense romantic friendship with the family’s music teacher). Both thought of leaving the marriage at various points. Both kept on giving it another chance. Some of the children were co-opted into the battle, increasing still more the resentment and pain.

The final crisis, the “last station” of this particular crucifixion, seems to have been the result of some unusually intense quarrelling over Chertkov’s influence (he was determined to get Tolstoy’s copyrights out of Sonya’s hands), Sonya’s ill-judged attempts to keep her husband under what he felt was hostile surveillance (including reading his private papers), and what may have been the beginning of some kind of breakdown in Tolstoy’s mental health – obsessive behaviour, suspicion, mood-swings and so on.

Most of this is not to be read in these letters, since the couple were living together for most of the last months of the novelist’s life. But few readers of these letters would conclude either that the marriage had in effect died long before, or that Sonya was systematically out to resist and even destroy her husband. It is extraordinary that she should, only a few years before this final crisis, have taken the real risk of approaching the highest authorities in an unsympathetic and suspicious state to defend the uncensored publication of Lev’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata, knowing that it was a feverish denunciation of marriage, whose central female figure was a bruisingly hurtful caricature of herself (she produced her own reply in the form of two short stories told from the woman’s point of view).

But her question remains an unsettling one: how do we make sense of a spiritual vision for human reconciliation that apparently can’t deliver at the most immediate domestic level? Sonya presses unmercifully and unhelpfully on this nerve; and she also recognises the ambiguity surrounding high-profile radicalism where a global reputation effectively protects the radical from the consequences that might follow for ordinary mortals – for good and ill.

Is Lev exploiting his celebrity, daring the state and the church to condemn or punish him? The church in Russia called his bluff by excommunicating him in 1901; the devoutly Orthodox Sonya was furious with the hierarchy and protested very publicly. And who exactly is he putting at risk by his being so outspoken? Sonya’s response to Lev’s request that she intercede on behalf of a young Tolstoyan conscientious objector in deep trouble with a militaristic and autocratic government is somewhat acidic: this is what happens when people who can’t protect themselves as well as you can take your ideas seriously.

Did her husband recognise the genuine moral tangle here, the tangle that arises in the life of any conscientious dissident and especially any high-profile dissident? Sonya is certainly not just being cynical (well, only a little); “Who pays for your conscience?” is a fair question, even if it should never be allowed to silence or belittle the pressure of conscience. What is interesting is that Tolstoy, in a late and not very well known novella, Father Sergius, addresses one aspect of his wife’s challenge in depicting a central figure whose spectacular spiritual heroism proves, when put to the test, to be empty.

At the end of the story, we meet the (anti)hero again, a failed monk who has fled his monastery but is now walking the roads of Russia as a penniless pilgrim: Tolstoy very subtly indicates that the obsessive self-regard, the determination to be the best at whatever he sets himself to do, which has clouded his vision throughout, is still holding Father Sergius in its grip. He now has to be the very best at being a penniless pilgrim, as once he had to be the best at conventional monastic asceticism. Great artists know more than they think they know. This compassionate but unsparing picture of spiritual confusion suggests, in the light of Sonya’s probing, some awareness on Tolstoy’s part of just the ambiguities in his personality that his wife had underlined.

These letters do not offer any drastically new perspectives or information on Sonya or on the Tolstoy marriage – except in laying bare the reality of decades of routine intimacy and fellow-feeling. If the reader is tempted to impatience with the overwhelming mass of domestic detail (who came to tea when, which horses are to be sold, has Seryozha got over his cold?), it is helpful to remember that we cannot expect to understand any person or any relationship without immersion in the “prose” of their lives: it is one of the things that makes Tolstoy’s greatest fiction what it is.

Touchingly, in a letter of 1893, Sonya mentions to Lev that she is looking through proofs of a new edition of War and Peace, living “in the same old world…in which I find great pleasure” – the world of those unforgettably realised characters, but also the world she shared with her husband in the heady days of its composition, when the marriage was most deeply happy and their collaboration most active and fruitful.

The translation is generally good and fluent, though it sometimes betrays the hand of a non-native speaker of English (thus “a battle for death” should surely be “a fight to the death”). One or more of the translators clearly knows very little about the language and ritual of the Orthodox Church, as there are a few glaring errors (what is “daytime mass”?), but the notes reflect a heroic effort to identify everyone who ever passed the time of day with the Tolstoys.

One last image to treasure: a letter of 1894 describes a day out in Moscow which Sonya shared with Anna Dostoevskaya and her daughter. They had been in touch a good deal, to discuss the management of their respective husbands’ literary businesses; and the picture of Countess Tolstoy and the second Mrs Dostoevsky (a shorthand secretary by training), comparing notes about their husbands over tea and cakes, calls for the pen of a Tom Stoppard or Michael Frayn. A summer project for someone? 

Rowan Williams' books include “Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction”  (Continuum)

Tolstoy and Tolstaya: A Portrait of a Life in Letters
Edited by Andrew Donskov. Translated by John Woodsworth, Arkadi Klioutchanski, Liudmila Gladkova
University of Ottowa Press, 430pp, £48

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue