For him she was an unlikely bride, 17-year-old, romantic, clever, pretty and virginal, Sophia Behrs had been brought up to be the dutiful wife of a conventional Russian aristocrat but instead she got Leo Tolstoy. He was a genius and a visionary, madman and bastard, idealist and hypocrite. When she married him he had no teeth (not uncommon in the 19th century, but still not particularly sexy), had been around, had caught a few venereal diseases and had slept with more than a few women. Tolstoy, ostensibly progressive, made sure young Sophia was made aware of his sordid past before they married, and for some reason, she married him anyway. (“Tolstoy: Kind of a Dick”:

Things were pretty good at first. They preoccupied themselves with making babies, writing Great Russian Novels, and wholesome country living. It wasn’t all roses. Tolstoy insisted that Sophia breastfeed their children, even though she suffered from painful, cracked, bleeding nipples because he thought it was “natural“. He was only dissauded when Sophia’s father, a court physician, told him off and arranged for a wetnurse. In fact, Tolstoy even makes mention of Dolly Oblonskaya’s “bleeding nipples” in Anna Karenina. Tolstoy had the strange ability to write sensitively accurately about the plight of women and combine it with a profound if oblique misogyny, much like Gustave Flaubert did in “Madame Bovary”.

Then gradually, Tolstoy starts moving away from novels and embraces a brand of Christianity in opposition to the organized church. Today, it is called Christian Anarchism. Tolstoy believe that Christ called his followers to truly “turn the other cheek” and committ themselves to pacifism. His philosophy also included vegetarianism, sexual abstinence, and voluntary poverty, things which Tolstoy was good at making proclamations about, but not things that he was good at actually doing. Sophia was flabberghasted. Like Michael Corleone in the Godfather, he starts drawing  a circle of cohorts and sycophants closer and closer to him, gradually cutting her off, denigrating her and isolating her.

He was granola crunchy before it was cool. He grew his beard long and dressed like a peasant. Then, he insisted that he should live like a peasant too and give away his worldly possessions. This included his lucrative royalties to his early novels like “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”. This was beyond the pale. She fought him and ended up eventually controlling the printing rights to his novels. She managed household accounts, and she did everything she could to secure the futures of her eight living children, trying to secure military careers for her sons and decent marriages for her daughters. When Tolstoy objected, she tried as best as she could to ignore him and go on living her life.

Tatyana Samoilova as Anna Karenina in the 1967 Russian adaptation

Sophia has been at best ignored and at worst maligned by mainstream scholars until about 30 years ago. Her diaries were published in the 80s and really give a comprehensive portrait of life at Yasnaya Polyana. Her diaries show her as a tough, intelligent, passionate and above all, industrious woman. They also show the depths of her misery and helplessness. She lost 6 children, she contemplated suicide more than once, was stuck with a husband who mentally abused her but still insisted on sex, and she tried to induce an abortion during her 12th pregnancy by taking scalding baths, but to no avail. When she went to a midwife to get her to perform an abortion, the midwife refused, afraid of the reprecussions of performing an abortion on such a prominent personnage as Countess Tolstaya.

Her saving grace was that she eventually outlived him, surviving the Revolution in part because the lingering respect for her late husband. She died in relative peace and comfort in 1919. Tolstoy’s acolyte Vladimir Chertkov ran off with the literary rights, but Sophia finally had the satisfaction of ultimately being relieved of his presence and living out her remaining years in tranquility