Sophia Behrs was born on 22 August 1844, one of a large family. Her father was a physician at the Russian court; her mother was nearly 20 years his junior. Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, already a well-known author in his 30s, became a regular visitor to the Behrs’ household, and, in September 1862 when Sofia was just 18, the couple married. They lived prosperously, on a large estate, at Yasnaya Polyana (200km from Moscow) with many serfs, and had 13 children, eight of whom survived childhood.
Sophia (Sofia, Sophie) was largely a devoted wife, managing her busy household and helping her husband with his manuscripts. The marriage lasted nearly 50 years, but a few days before his death, Tolstoy left the family home after an argument over a desire to give away his property. Sophia continued living on the estate, survived the Russian revolution in relative peace, and died in 1919. Further biographical information can be found at Internet Archive in The Autobiography of Sophie Tolstoi as published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at The Hogarth Press, Paradise Road, Richmond in 1922. Otherwise, see Wikipedia, or Alexandra Popoff’s Sophia Tolstoy: a biography (Free Press in 2010) on Googlebooks, or reviews of the same book (see The New York Times, for example, or The Huffington Post).
Sophia kept a diary all her life - writing half a million words. For long periods, however, she only made intermittent entries: the most complete, but edited, version in English contains no entry, or just one entry, for 16 of the 48 calendar years. The fact that Tolstoy gave his teenage fiancée his diaries to read so as to conceal nothing from her - even his liaisons with servant girls, and his child by a woman who lived on his estate - is one of the most well known of literary diary stories. He bid her to keep a diary, and, thereafter, they wrote their diaries in order that the other should read them. Sophia, indeed, would try and communicate her anger and anxieties about their relationship to him through her diary; when happy, though, she would often fail to record anything.
Extracts from Sophia’s diary were first published in English in 1928 by Gollancz as The Diary of Tolstoy’s wife, 1860-1891 (translated by A. Werth), with a sequel - The Countess Tolstoy’s Later Diary 1891-1897 - the following year. In 1936, Allen & Unwin, published The Final Struggle, being Countess Tolstoy’s diary for 1910: With extracts from Leo Tolstoy’s diary of the same period (translated by A. Maude). More recently, in 1985, Cape published The Diaries of Sofia Tolstaya, as translated by Cathy Porter and edited by O. A. Golinenko. It was re-published in 1989 by Alma Books with a foreword by Doris Lessing (an informative review can be read on The Guardian website, and a few extracts can be found on the National Public Radio website).
The publisher’s advertising blurb for this latter edition states: ‘Sofia’s life was not an easy one: she idealized her husband, but was tormented by him; even her many children were not an unmitigated blessing. In the background of her life was one of the most turbulent periods of Russian history: the transition from old feudal Russia to the three revolutions and three major international wars. Yet it is as Sofia Tolstoy’s own life story, the study of one woman’s private experience, that the diaries are most valuable and moving. They are a testament to a woman of tremendous vital energy and poetic sensibility who, in the face of provocation and suffering, continued to strive for the higher things in life and to remain indomitable. From the state of the great writer’s stomach and the progress of his work, to the fierce and painful arguments that would eventually divide the couple for ever, Sofia’s Diaries are both compelling and extraordinarily revealing.’
The following extracts are taken from the Alma Books edition. (NB: the dates correspond to the old (Julian) calendar, i.e. 12 days behind the Western (Gregorian) calendar in the 19th century, and 13 days behind it in the 20th century.)
8 October 1862
‘My diary again. It’s sad to be going back to old habits I gave up since I got married. I used to write when I felt depressed - now I suppose it’s for the same reason.
Relations with my husband have been so simple these past two weeks and I felt so happy with him; he was my diary and I had nothing to hide from him.
But ever since yesterday, when he told me he didn’t trust my love, I have been feeling terrible. I know why he doesn’t trust me, but I don’t think I shall ever be able to say or write what I really think. I always dreamt of the man I would love as a completely whole, new, pure person. In these childish dreams, which I find hard to give up, I imagined that this man would always be with me, that I would know his slightest thought and feeling, that he would love nobody but me as long as he lived, and that he, like me and unlike others, would not have to sow his wild oats before becoming a respectable person.
Since I married I have had to recognize how foolish these dreams were, yet I cannot renounce them. The whole of my husband’s past is so ghastly that I don’t think I shall ever be able to accept it.’ [Before their marriage, Tolstoy had given Sophia all his old diaries to read because he did not want to conceal anything of his past. The diaries, apparently, made a terrible impression on the 18 year old.]
31 July 1868 [this is the only entry for 1868 in the published diaries]
‘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. There are still days when we quarrel, but this is because of various subtle emotional reasons, and we wouldn’t quarrel if we didn’t love each other. I have been married six years now, but I love him more and more. He often says it isn’t really love, but we have grown so used to each other we cannot be separated. But I still love him with the same poetic, fevered, jealous love, and his composure occasionally irritates me.’
4 June 1910
‘Too many visitors. Lev Nikolaevich is distraught because the Circassian guard has brought Prokofy in for stealing a beam, and he is an old man who once worked for him. Oh, I’ve had enough of the estate!’
28 October 1910
‘Lev Nik. has left! My God! He left a letter telling me not to look for him as he had gone for good, to live out his old age in peace. The moment I read those words I rushed outside in a frenzy of despair and jumped into the pond, where I swallowed a lot of water, Sasha and Bulgakov dragged me out with the help of Vanya Shuraev. Utter despair. Why did they save me?’
29 October 1910
‘All the children have come, apart from Lyova, who is abroad. They are so kind and attentive, but they can’t help or comfort me. Mitasha Obolensky has come. Seryozha, Ilya and Misha have left. Vanya discovered that L. Nik. had gone to Belev - maybe to see his sister Maria Nikolaevna.’
30 October 1910
‘I cry day and night and suffer dreadfully. It’s more painful and terrible than anything I could have imagined. Lev Nik. did visit his sister in Shamordino, then travelled beyond Gorbachevo - who knows where. What unspeakable cruelty.’
31 October 1910
‘I haven’t eaten or drunk anything for four days, I ache all over, my heart is bad. Why? What is happening? Nothing to write about - nothing but groans and tears. Berkenheim came with some stupid doctor called Rastorguev, and a young lady fresh from medical school. These outsiders make it much more difficult, but the children don’t want to take responsibility. What for? My life? I want to leave the dreadful agony of this life . . . I can see no hope, even if L. N. does at some point return. Things will never be as they were, after all he has made me suffer. We can never be straightforward with each other again, we can never love each other, we shall always fear each other. And I fear for his health and strength too.’
4 November 1910
‘Lev Nik. is worse. I wait in agony outside the little house where he is lying. We are sleeping in the train.’
5 November 1910
‘There is evidently little hope. I am tormented by remorse, the painful anticipation of his end, and the impossibility of seeing my beloved husband.’
7 November 1910
‘At 6 o’clock in the morning Lev Nikol. died. I was allowed in only as he drew his last breath. They wouldn’t let me take leave of my husband. Cruel people.’
22 August 1914
‘My sister Tanya arrived this morning, and her husband came for dinner. Today is my birthday; I am 70.’
7 September 1914
‘I wandered about aimlessly; I can’t do anything with this frightful war on, and my grief and worry for Tanya, my sons and Dora, who is due to give birth any day. I raked up piles of leaves for cattle bedding, gave the day-labourers their receipts and spent the evening doing accounts with Nina.’
27 September 1914
‘My sister is distraught because he son Mitya has also volunteered for the war, as an orderly. Incomprehensible hypnotism! We read aloud Matovitsky’s memoirs.’
30 September 1914
‘I did some typing for my sister. This evening Bulgakov read us his article protesting against the war. It is very good.’
2 October 1914
‘My sister Tanya has left. A beautiful still bright day. I went out and wandered around the estate. People have planted apple trees, gathered up brushwood, raked the dead leaves and swept them into four piles. We read papers. There were six visitors today - some officers and army doctors and two women. They looked round the drawing room and Lev Nik.’s rooms.’
18 October 1914
‘The American consulate has informed me that my grandson Misha has been taken prisoner in Milevic, in Bohemia.’