Where new writing finds its voice

The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy

Anna Goodall

Translated by Cathy Porter
Foreword by Doris Lessing
Alma Books, 2009

It used to be said that behind every great man in history there was a great woman; nowadays it is more common to assume instead that there was an intellectually repressed, domestically tied woman who was unable to fulfil her own creative potential.

So with Sofia Tolstoy whose passionate voice rushes out to meet us from the pages of her diaries, eager to give her side of the story, to tell us how it really was. 

The Tolstoys were married in 1862; Sofia was eighteen and Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, thirty-four. Over the course of their forty-eight-year marriage Sofia would bear him thirteen children – five of whom died as babies or infants – manage the estate and all financial matters once he had renounced them for idealistic reasons, bring up and oversee the education of their children, as well as compile and organise the publishing of the volumes of his complete works, and work long hours as his faithful copyist and proofreader. 

After they were married, Tolstoy, who had previously led a dissolute life of drinking, gambling and ill-advised sexual encounters, insisted his young wife read his diaries, which in particular detailed his love affair with a peasant woman on his estate who bore him a son. Naturally these revelations devastated Sofia, and in a sense set the tone for their relations with each other, which were at times marred by deep resentment and jealousies.

By the late 1870s, Tolstoy had become an extreme rationalist and moralist, which eventually led him to renounce his property by dividing up his estate between his family many years prior to his death, and to renounce the copyright on some of his work. 

The author of War and Peace (1865–8), Anna Karenina (1874–6) and The Cossacks (1863) wrote widely about his ascetic and religious views, preaching an anarchic Christianity that urged believers to find God by ‘loving thy neighbour’ and seeking self-knowledge and self-perfection, rather than looking to the institutions of state and Church for guidance – a deeply controversial view at the time. He also preached chastity and sexual abstinence, and rejected the idea of owning property.

His teachings garnered him obsessive ‘disciples’ looking for guidance in the troubled and uneasy Russia of the late nineteenth century, and many of them would flock to Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy’s family home. These guests were mainly unwelcome to Sofia, and the whole family referred to the visitors as ‘dark ones’. Indeed, towards the end of his life, Tolstoy increasingly fell under the influence of one particular ‘dark one’, Chertov, with whom Sofia had a very hostile relationship. 

While always devoted to her husband and in complete understanding of his great genius, what makes Sofia’s journals so engaging is her honesty, her utter refusal to be blinded against her husband’s faults, and her inherent belief that despite her constant battles with despair and frustration, her voice counts for something.

As early as November 1863, still only nineteen and caring for her first child Sergei who was born in July of that year, she writes,


I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child, I am a piece of household furniture, I am a woman. I try to suppress all human feelings. When the machine is working properly it heats milk, knits a blanket, makes little requests and bustles about trying not to think – and life is tolerable. But at the moment […] everything seems insufferable.


Tolstoy’s views on women were pretty uncompromising: they were useful for intercourse, childbearing and domestic work. He was obsessed with his own carnal desires and their repression, mainly because they troubled him – and he wrote in his diaries several years before they were married, ‘I am unendurably vile in my craving for depravity’.

The couple’s lifelong practice of reading each other’s diaries, and indeed Sofia’s work in copying out his diaries for publication, meant she read his ideas about her and towards women in general. On 14th December 1890 she bitterly notes, ‘I copied Lyovochka’s [Tolstoy’s] diaries up to the part where he wrote: “There is no such thing as love, only the physical need for intercourse and the practical need for a life companion.” I only wish I had read that 29 years ago, then I would never have married him.’

She is often dryly witty about the absurdities and unreasonableness of the great man, such as when she ironically notes, ‘His lack of self-control and ignorance of hygienic matters is remarkable in one so clever’, and at a time in 1887 when he was out of sorts and complaining (not uncommon), she writes ‘… the only problem now is that he gets a mere seven hours sleep a night, which is not enough’. At this point Sofia was looking after their eight children and managing all his affairs with no practical assistance from her husband.

Yet, as is often the case with great literary figures, Tolstoy’s treatment of women in his novels is far more sympathetic than he could manage in his personal relationships, and shows an acute understanding of their plight and emotions. Indeed, Sofia notes after yet another dreadful scene in September 1891, ‘If he had one iota of the psychological understanding which fills his books, he would have understood the pain and despair I was going through’.

Of his desire to renounce material things she is particularly bitter. In August 1894 she writes,


My husband […] has loaded absolutely everything on to my shoulders: the children, the estate, the house, his books, his business affairs, and then, with selfish, critical indifference, he despises me. And what about his life? He walks and rides, writes a little, does whatever he pleases […] and exploits everything to his own advantage: the services of his daughters, the comforts of life, the flattery of others […] And fame, his insatiable greed for fame.


Indeed, in one particularly revealing entry she tells of how a ‘disciple’ of Tolstoy’s arrived at the house in 1909. After reading the Kreutzer Sonata – a book that condemns the temptations of the flesh – the disciple castrated himself, aged only eighteen, and pursued an ascetic lifestyle. Naturally enough, he was distraught to find that Tolstoy was living in luxury with servants and family attending to him.

The diaries move rapidly through births, deaths, his writing and her work for him, summer evenings on their beautiful estate, family parties, bitterly cold winters in Moscow, her endless domestic duties and management of the estate, financial affairs and the publishing of his works. Frequently she details their regular and passionate arguments about the money made from his writing and the fact that, as she sees it, he takes such little interest in his children or herself. She is often hysterically depressed and expresses her wish to die; then a few days later is rejoicing in the beauty of nature and her love for her husband.

The diaries offer fascinating insights into Tolstoy’s writing processes and also highlight the important role that Sofia played. He valued her opinion, albeit grudgingly, and she directly influenced his writing, such as her criticism of the original ending of Resurrection. She copied out his major works – apparently copying War and Peace seven times – and despite her own personal shame regarding the controversial Kreutzer Sonata, petitioned the Tsar in person to lift the ban on its publication.

There are some lovely details as well: on the 22nd October 1878 she writes that after a period of inactivity Tolstoy had started to read Martin Chuzzlewit and tells us, ‘I happen to know […] that when he turns to English novels he is about to start writing himself’; and in December 1898 writes, ‘LN [Tolstoy] read us more of the Jerome K Jerome – I haven’t seen him laugh like that for a long time’. 

As Tolstoy was so celebrated in his lifetime, Sofia is very much aware that her diaries may be read in the future, and that it is important that she tells her side of the story. She spends a lot of often painfully tiring hours copying out Tolstoy’s diaries for publication and in December 1890 notes,


Lyovchka is beginning to worry about me copying out his diary. He would like to destroy his old diaries, as he wants to appear before his children and the public as a saintly patriarchal figure. Still the same old vanity!


And after a particularly bad argument when he apologises to her for harsh words he has written about her in his diary she angrily retorts in her own journal, ‘No one saw his tears of contrition, no one knows about our life together, and in his diaries he writes only of my “crimes”!’

When you start reading the diary it is all too easy to agree with Doris Lessing in her introduction that, ‘the great Tolstoy was a bit of a monster’, and he certainly wasn’t easy. But the lasting impression is of two strong people battling against the absurdities and difficulties of life. Despite the sometimes painful nature of their relationship – the cycle of problems and frictions that the diaries document, and the fact that Tolstoy left his home and his family just before he died – it perhaps surprises the reader that what remains is love. Perhaps because Sofia is so open and frank about the man she is devoted to, her love is in her honesty. A few weeks before his death in 1910 she wrote:


Beauty, sensuality, sudden changes of emotion, the eternal search for religion and truth – that is my husband through and through. He tells me his growing indifference to me is due to my ‘lack of understanding’. But I know that what he actually dislikes is that I understand him all too well.


The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy is published by Alma Books