The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy

The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy
Translated by Cathy Porter


by Doris Lessing

It makes me laugh to read my diary. What a lot of contradictions—as though I were the unhappiest of women! But who could be happier? Could any marriage be more happy and harmonious than ours? When I am alone in my room I sometimes laugh for joy and cross myself and pray to God for many, many more years of happiness. I always write my diary when we quarrel…


Sofia Tolstoy wrote the above in 1868, after six years of marriage. Many of her later diary entries also seem to have been written after quarrels.

This collection of Sofia's diary entries is witness not only to her thoughts, but also to public events and to Lev Tolstoy's work—in the period covered by the collection, he wrote
War and Peace, Anna Karenina
and many other books. At the same time, we see the hard work of Sofia: she is an involved mother, though there are nursemaids and all kinds of help. She copies, and copies again, her husband's work.

…why am I not happy? Is it my fault? I know all the reasons for my spiritual suffering: firstly it grieves me that my children are not as happy as I would wish. And then I am actually very lonely. My husband is not my friend: he has been my passionate lover at times, especially as he grows older, but all my life I have felt lonely with him. He doesn't go for walks with me, he prefers to ponder in solitude over his writing. He has never taken any interest in my children, for he finds this difficult and dull

Sofia longs for new landscapes, intellectual development, art, contact with people: “To each his fate. Mine was to be the auxiliary to my husband…”

When the Tolstoys were first married, they read each other's diaries, as a part of their plan to preserve perfect intimacy between them, but later they might easily create two diaries, one for the other to read, one to remain private.

Sofia had thirteen children with Lev. Some of them died while still babies—one little boy in particular, Vanechka, who was adored by both parents. In
War and Peace
, Tolstoy writes painfully about the sufferings of parents who know how easily some small illness may snatch away their children.

Like most women at the time, Sofia was at the mercy of her reproductive system—the advent of the pill was still almost a century away.

There is an interesting episode in
Anna Karenina
relating to this predicament of nineteenth-century women. Anna is in exile from society due to her adultery, so she is staying in the country. She is visited by Dolly, her sister-in-law. Anna tells Dolly about the birth-control methods of the time. Dolly reacts to the information not with delight, as Anna had expected, but with revulsion—the idea of women refusing to bear children, their traditional role in life, is simply unacceptable to her. On her way back from Anna, Dolly hears a peasant woman giving thanks to God, who has rescued her by “taking” one of her children, leaving more food for the rest. Dolly is sorry for the peasant, but not shocked. This episode illustrates women's views towards contraception at the time—Anna, the one person who accepts its use, is placed outside spheres of acceptable social behaviour, while Dolly, representing social norms, is shocked at the very idea; however, she is not shocked by the peasant woman's more traditional means of birth control. In another episode in the novel, Dolly waits for a visit from her husband Stepan, which is likely to leave her pregnant, and even more worried about money than she already is. “What a scamp,” she muses about Stepan. In this, we see how accepted the burdens of childbirth were for women at the time.

Another factor in the Tolstoys' marital circumstances which proved difficult for Sofia—as it emerges from her diaries—was Lev's relationship with Vladimir Grigorevich Chertkov. Chertkov was Lev's secretary. He became one of Lev's closest friends and confidants, and the founder of “Tolstoyanism”—the school of thought of those who followed Tolstoy's religious views. He was also a singularly unpleasant version of Lev himself. Lev became in thrall to Chertkov. Chertkov loathed Sofia, intriguing against her in every way he could.

Tolstoy once said that he had been more in love with men than he had ever been with women.
The Kreutzer Sonata
, which poor Sofia had to copy, though she hated it, seems to me a classic description of male homosexuality. There was a great scandal over this novel, which describes the murder of a supposed lover by the husband.

In defending this novel, which he did in another treatise, Tolstoy returned to his ways of describing real women as being like doves, pure and innocent. Had he ever met any real women? When it comes to the figure of Tolstoy himself, he is a sea of contradictions. He was an ideologue, he preached at people, he was always in the right, and yet he took his stand on a number of different and sometimes opposing platforms.

He was also a bad husband, inconsiderate sexually, and in other ways. For instance, he insisted on his poor wife breastfeeding the infants, though her nipples cracked and it was painful for her. She wanted to use wet nurses. The truth was, the great Tolstoy was a bit of a monster.

Sofia Tolstoy must have divided her later years into “before Chertkov” and “after Chertkov”. We have had plenty of opportunities to study the activities of ideologues, but Vladimir Chertkov was a newish phenomenon, and probably Sofia's inability to cope with this man was partly because of the difficulty in categorizing him: was he religious?—oh yes, dedicated to the good, a fanatic in fact. But Chertkov wanted just one thing—to dominate Tolstoy, and in this he succeeded. And there was not only Chertkov, but all the fans who turned up from everywhere in the world, expecting to be housed, fed and advised by the Master. They turned servants out of their beds, slept in the corridors, were under everyone's feet.

Sofia was not well: it was said then, and is still said now, that she was demented. I am not surprised if she was. Tolstoy was threatening to leave her, leave the family, which meant to be with Chertkov. Sofia rushed out, distraught, into a pond. They saved her. “I want to leave the dreadful agony of this life…I can see no hope, even if L.N. does at some point return…”

In the end the whole world watched as Tolstoy fled his home for the little house near the railway where he died. Sofia was forbidden to go to her dying husband by Chertkov until the very last moment.

Sofia Tolstoy lived for many long years as Tolstoy's widow. She sometimes went to visit his grave, where she begged forgiveness from him for her failings.

The diary entries in these pages bear witness to a remarkable life: the life of an exceptional woman, married to one of the most exceptional men of the time, with all her passions and difficulties laid bare. This is a book which is interesting for what it says about the predicament of women in the past, and how that compares to their present circumstances. While reading it, I was so enthralled that
I found myself dreaming about Sofia, about speaking to her myself, desperately wanting to reach out to her and offer her words of comfort for her pain. Perhaps, hopefully, this record of her struggles will be a comfort and inspiration to present and future generations.


by Cathy Porter

Sofia Andreevna Tolstoy started keeping a diary at the age of sixteen. But it was two years later, in 1862, shortly before her marriage to the great writer, that she embarked in earnest on the diaries she would keep until just a month before her death in 1919, at the age of seventy-five. In this new edited version of their first complete English translation, she gives us a candid and detailed chronicle of the daily events of family life: conversations and card games, walks and picnics, musical evenings and readings aloud, birthdays and Christmases; the births, deaths, marriages, illnesses and love affairs of her thirteen children, her numerous grandchildren and her many relatives and friends; friendships and quarrels with some of Russia's best-known writers, musicians and politicians; and the comings and goings of the countless Tolstoyan “disciples” who frequented the Tolstoys' homes in Yasnaya Polyana and Moscow. She records the state of the writer's stomach and the progress of his work, and she describes the fierce and painful arguments that would eventually divide the couple for ever. All this is in the foreground. In the distant and muted background are some of the most turbulent events of Russian history; the social and political upheavals that marked the transition from feudal to industrial Russia; three major international wars, three revolutions and the post-1917 Civil War.

But it is as Countess Tolstoy's own life story, the story of one woman's private experience, that these diaries are so valuable and so very moving. Half a million words long, they are her best friend, her life's work and the counterpart to her life and marriage.

Indeed throughout the Tolstoys' forty-eight-year marriage diaries were the very currency of their relationship, and they wrote them in order that the other should read them. In the early days she tried desperately to hide her troubled moods from him, recording them instead in her diary. When he expected her to merge with him and become his shadow, she stood out for her independence—in her diary. When he insisted on revealing to her all the ghosts of his past, demanding “truth” and confessions from her at every turn, she would
keep silent and record her wretchedness in her diary, and communicate it to him in this way. And as time went on, and communication between them became more difficult, it was increasingly to her diary that she confided her worst fears, her deepest anxieties and her tormented desires for revenge—in the hope that he might see them there. The happy periods—and there were many of them—were rarely recorded.

In 1847, at the age of nineteen, Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy became master of the 4,000-acre estate of Yasnaya Polyana and the 330 serfs living on it. He was a restless and changeable young man. An enthusiastic maker and breaker of good resolutions, he dreamt of social equality while enjoying to the full his aristocratic privileges (“serfdom is an evil, but a very pleasant one!”). Yearning for purity yet craving fame and women, he was constantly lured from his peaceful country existence with his beloved Aunt Tatyana to the brothels and gypsy cabarets of Moscow and Tula, where he would drink, gamble and sow his wild oats.

At the age of twenty-three he decided it was time he brought some order to this aimless life and, kissing his aunt goodbye, he moved to Moscow. His purpose there, spelt out in his diary, was: 1) to gamble, 2) to find a position and 3) to marry. The first two resolutions he pursued enthusiastically enough. As for the third, although he did for a while entertain dreams of the woman he would marry, and fell rapidly in and out of love in search of a wife, his hunger for gypsy and peasant women soon got the better of him and after a few months he gave up Moscow as a bad job and left with the army for the Caucasus.

There it was that he started to write. By the time he left to serve in the Crimean War, his
Childhood, Boyhood
had been published, and his reputation as a writer was assured. His experiences as a cavalry officer during the bloody siege of Sevastopol provided yet more inspiration, and by the time he returned to Moscow in 1856 his name as the author of the
Sevastopol Tales
had preceded him.

But now it was the simple peasant life he wanted. On his return to Yasnaya Polyana he wore a peasant shirt, let his beard grow, abandoned writing for the plough and opened a school for peasant children based on Rousseauesque principles. He also fell deeply in love with a peasant woman named Axinya, who in the summer of 1858 gave birth to their son, Timofei. He longed increasingly now for a respectable wife to save him from sin. “I must get married this year or never!” he wrote in his diary on New Year's Day, 1859. “A wife! A wife at any price! A family and children!” he wrote the following
year. But he was still a bachelor when in the summer of 1862 he fled to Moscow.

By then he was thirty-four. His books had made him famous, he had travelled widely in Russia and Europe and he was more than ready to settle down. He had no one particularly in mind, but he was determined to marry someone of his own aristocratic class, and to choose a young girl. Property-owner, womanizer, hunter and gambler, he was a rake ready to be reformed.

Sofia Behrs was eighteen at the time, the daughter of his old childhood friend Lyubov Behrs, in whose crowded, hospitable apartment in the Kremlin Tolstoy was a regular visitor. Lyubov was the daughter of an illegal marriage, and though she was of an ancient aristocratic family her name had been changed at birth. At the age of sixteen she had married Andrei Evstafovich Behrs, a distinguished doctor eighteen years her senior, who was attached to the court. (Although as the grandson of a German military instructor who had settled in Russia in the eighteenth century, he was definitely not of the aristocracy, and the Russian aristocracy tended anyway to look down on the medical profession.)

Between 1843 and 1861 Lyubov Behrs bore eight children, three of them girls: Liza, her eldest child, clever and rather distant, Sofia, a year younger, poetic and graceful, and Tanya, a lively laughing tomboy. The Behrs watched strictly over their daughters, but they had fairly progressive ideas on girls' education, and they arranged for them to take lessons in foreign languages and literature, music, painting and dancing, so that by the time she was seventeen Sofia had received her teacher's certificate. She and her sisters were also taught to keep accounts, make dresses and sew and cook, in preparation for marriage—for it was on this that all three girls' thoughts were focused. And in 1862 all three of them were of marriageable age.

Tolstoy, who had never had any proper family life of his own, was drawn again and again to the Behrses' warm and unaffected family circle, and he would later use them as his model for the Rostovs in
War and Peace
. As for the girls, he found them all enchanting. But by the time he left Moscow that summer for his estate he knew that Sofia was the one he wanted. They were in many ways very similar: impetuous, changeable, wildly jealous, romantic, high-minded and passionate. And they both idealized family life. When Tolstoy met Sofia again later that summer, he had become the centre of her thoughts, and—though she was barely old enough to know what she wanted—the wedding was fixed for 23rd September.

But not before he had insisted (with her parents' permission) on showing her his bachelor diaries (and insisting that she keep one too). Sofia was a very childish eighteen-year-old who, although her family had had its share of scandals, had led an extremely sheltered life, and what she read shattered her. For his diaries were one long catalogue of lurid, guilt-racked confessions: of casual flirtations with society women, loveless copulations with peasants, his passionate affair with Axinya, who now lived on his estate with their son, professions of homosexual love, disgusted diatribes against women, himself and the world in general—not to mention a desperate round of gambling sessions and drunken orgies. Sofia had dreamt of the man she would love as “completely whole, new,
”. She never forgave him for thus shattering her dreams and assaulting her innocence, and forty-seven years later she was still referring bitterly to Axinya.

Youthful promiscuity and gambling were not in fact so uncommon amongst young Russian aristocrats, but even so Tolstoy and his family had a reputation for fast living. His brother Dmitry had bought a prostitute from a brothel and died in her arms at the age of twenty-nine. His brother Sergei lived with a gypsy woman by whom he had eleven children. And his sister Maria left her despotic husband and lived in sin with a Swedish count, by whom she had a daughter. Sofia's family did not live this way—and Tolstoy would always apply a double standard when dealing with his wife and with the world at large (including his own family). She could never really forget his sordid, loveless past, and was deeply scarred by the episode, to which she would refer again and again in her diaries.

At their magnificent wedding in the Kremlin, she couldn't stop weeping for the family she was leaving. She wept all the way to her new home. And she wept when, crushed and terrified by Tolstoy's clumsy attempts to embrace her, they finally arrived at Yasnaya Polyana, where she would spend the next fifty-seven years of her life.

Waiting for them on the steps of the large white-painted wooden house were Tolstoy's old aunt, Tatyana Ergolskaya, holding an icon of the Holy Virgin, and his brother Sergei, bearing the traditional welcome of bread and salt. Sofia bowed to the ground, embraced her relatives and kissed the icon. (She would be guided to the end of her life by the simple rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church.) Then Aunt Tatyana handed her new mistress the keys of the house, and these she hung on her waist and carried there until the day she died.

The house, cold, spartanly furnished and infested with rats and mice, had been Tolstoy's home all his life. There was a large farm,
with cattle, sheep, pigs and bees, and until the 1880s Tolstoy took a keen interest in its management. But he was not a successful farmer. The pigs kept dying of hunger, the sheep proved unprofitable and the cows were thin and didn't give enough milk. The only profit came from the apple orchards, but even so the estate was always running at a loss. Yasnaya Polyana's greatest asset was its forests (“my daughters' dowry”, Sofia would call them), but these too were neglected. Tolstoy's other estate, in Nikolskoe, was even more dilapidated and even more forested, and in these forests, inhabited only by wolves and birds, Tolstoy loved to hunt, for until the 1880s he was a passionate sportsman.

Sofia was determined to like her new home and to be a good wife. She took over the accounts, organized the housekeeping and marshalled the small army of dependants and domestics living there who comprised her new family. There was Aunt Tatyana, with her personal maid and companion Natalya Petrovna; there was Maria Arbuzova, Tolstoy's old nanny, with her two sons, one of whom was Tolstoy's personal servant; there was Agafya Mikhailovna, who had been Tolstoy's grandmother's maid and was now the “dog's governess”. There was Nikolai the cook, Pelageya the laundress, and many, many others who came and went, and lived either in the house or in the village of Yasnaya Polyana.

Tolstoy's young bride was a stern mistress. Tolstoy never lost his temper with the servants; she was constantly doing so, for she lacked his authority. She was also desperately worried he would resume his old passion for teaching the peasants. She thought it improper for a count to associate so closely with the common people, and feared they might take him from her. Had his diaries not revealed to her just how ruthlessly he had exercised his power over the women on his estate?

But of course she didn't talk to him of such things, and remained for many weeks very much in awe of her new husband, always addressing him in the formal “you”. She supervised all the domestic work. She sewed everything, including his trousers and jackets. She attended to all the peasants' medical needs (for which she had quite a talent). She was supported, to be sure, by a large staff of servants, but her upbringing had taught her to be self-reliant, and she washed, boiled, gardened, pickled and sewed all day in the eager desire to serve her husband.

The revelations in his diaries had badly shaken her sexual confidence. She yearned for tenderness and was shocked by his coarse
ness, hurt by his outbursts of passion followed by coldness and withdrawal. But she submitted uncomplainingly to his fierce embraces. Since he believed sexual intercourse should be for purely procreative purposes, they used no form of contraception. She became pregnant almost immediately, and her diary for this first year of their marriage established the regular cycle of pregnancies and births that would fill her life. (She bore thirteen children in all, of whom nine lived.) Lev Tolstoy, who held that sex during pregnancy was “both swinish and unnatural”, kept out of her way as much as possible at these times, and she grew increasingly desperate.

Her mother, uncomplainingly bearing her eight children and tending her home, had provided her with an excellent model of the selfless role women were traditionally expected to play in marriage. Orthodox religion had for centuries endowed women with this special capacity for self-sacrifice, and Sofia would throughout her life look to the Church, with its emphasis on suffering, selflessness and humility, to give dignity to her wifely role. But by the mid-1860s attitudes to women and the family were already undergoing a profound change, and Sofia too in this first year of marriage felt the stirrings of change in her.

Alexander II's emancipation of the serfs in 1861 had spelt the end of the old feudal Russia and the orthodox religious values underpinning it, and the start of a process that would affect every area of people's lives. Thousands of women, forced to make themselves financially independent of husbands and fathers, left their families for good to find work and education in the cities. Conservative men jeered at them as “nihilists”, but among the men of the intelligentsia there was now a new and serious commitment to treat women as equals and support their desire for education and autonomy. Debates raged about women's social role and the future of marriage and the family. More radical women would go so far as to reject love and marriage altogether, since to them marriage meant inevitably being trapped in endless domestic chores, while sexual relations, in the absence of reliable contraception, led to endless pregnancies. But even respectably married women were now claiming that husband and children were no longer enough to fill their lives, and that only through work could they find the emotional and economic independence they longed for. The “woman” question was the burning issue of the day, and for Sofia it meant the discovery of a wholly unexpected dissatisfaction with her new life. Despite her endless labours for Tolstoy, toiling in the house and caring for him body and soul, she felt she was merely his
toy. “If I don't interest him, if he sees me as a doll, merely his
, not a human being, then I will not and cannot live like that,” she writes in her diary. “I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child, I am a piece of household furniture, I am a
.” She longed to find her own interests outside the house and, feeling increasingly inadequate, she alternately toyed with thoughts of suicide and nursed murderous feelings for Axinya and her son. Pregnant and wretched, she was even jealous of Tolstoy's feelings for her beloved younger sister Tanya.

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