‘A midnight plunge into a freezing pond’ – The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy

Sofia Tolstoy’s diaries span some 57 years; raising my head 600 pages later, I felt that it had taken me at least that long to read them.  It’s not that the contents are especially dull – in fact, they span a particularly turbulent time-period in Russian history, and there’s always the inherent literary fascination of a sneaky glimpse into the household of Leo, or Lev, Tolstoy – it’s more that Sofia’s life was so dominated by her husband’s career, her household responsibilities, and the management of the Count’s estate and affairs, that the diaries record a pressure-cooker environment of stress and unhappiness that increases in intensity as each year passes.  It makes for an uncomfortable read.

Although she had kept a diary since childhood, this volume begins in 1962 with Sofia’s wedding to Count Tolstoy (already by then a well-regarded novelist), and continues until days before her death in 1919.  Much of her life was spent on the family’s country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, where Sofia bore her husband thirteen children, eight of whom survived childhood, and  only six of whom outlived their mother.  The diaries reveal Sofia’s conflicted feelings about her role as a wife and mother: although she loved her children and had indeed longed to start a family, she says in 1863, only a year after her marriage, “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 the milk […] and bustles about trying not to think – and life is tolerable.”  She does admit that she tends to write in her diary only when she is feeling miserable; in 1895 she says, “I am afraid I cannot resist complaining about Lev Nikolaevich whenever I write my diary.  But I must complain, for all the things he preaches for the happiness of humanity only complicate life to the point where It becomes harder and harder for me to live.”  Elsewhere, “They ebb and flow like waves, these times when I realise how lonely I am and want only to cry…”  The physical side of their relationship was a constant bone of contention – Lev demanded sexual relations and refused to use birth control, while Sofia insisted on the ideal of a spiritual connection and friendship.  In 1890, she is furious to read in the Count’s diaries, “There is no such thing as love, only the physical need for intercourse and the practical need for a life companion.”  In her own diary, the next year, she writes, “Horribly dissatisfied with myself.  Lyovochka woke me this morning with passionate kisses… […] I have succumbed to the most unforgivable debauchery – and at my age too!”

Lev Tolstoy’s turn to religion in middle-age, and his accompanying renunciation of wealth and worldly goods, meant that Sofia alone had to take on the role of estate manager and literary executor for her husband. She says, “Being expected to manage the estate and the household ‘in a Christian spirit’ is like being gripped in a vice, with no possible escape; it is a heavy cross to bear.” She ran the household and arbitrated with the peasants who lived on the land; she took charge of her children’s education; copied, proofed and published her husband’s works, and battled continuously on his behalf with the Russian censors. Tolstoy wanted to relinquish copyright on all his later works, while Sofia begged to retain the profits to secure their children’s future. She longed, she says, to study music, and yet she must negotiate with villagers about firewood. An endless stream of Tolstoy’s disciples visited the estate; Sofia resented the incursions on her privacy and that of her family. In 1890: “I have to endure a sad time in my old age. Lyovochka has surrounded himself with the most peculiar circle of friends, who call themselves his disciples…” She is particularly repulsed by Tolstoy’s dark-skinned and Jewish visitors, whom she refers to as ‘dark ones’. She says, in 1890, “To think that these people are the great man’s disciples – these wretched specimens of human society, windbags with nothing to do, wastrels with no education.” In 1895, referring to her eldest daughter, she says “I don’t love Tanya quite as much as I used to, as I feel she has become contaminated by the love of the ‘dark ones’.” Her diaries reveal a cloistered, narrow life; despite her eminence as wife to one of Russia’s greatest cultural figures, and as a  member of the titled aristocracy, Sofia rarely travelled beyond Yasnaya Polyana and Moscow, and she was never abroad.

Her marriage, always turbulent, became increasingly fraught as the couple aged. She tried to kill herself numerous times – she is constantly flinging herself into ponds and ditches and wandering about in the Russian winter in only her nightdress after fights with her husband. There’s a question of authenticity here – the couple had always shared their diaries, and so I wonder if the accusations and fury in the entries might not have a performative element, meant for Lev’s eyes, rather than an honest appraisal of her feelings. The tone of the diaries is energetic and passionate; as she grows old, and her marriage deteriorates, the emotional intensity of the entries increases. When Tolstoy develops a strong friendship with his colleague and admirer – and Sofia’s rival in publishing his works – Vladimir Chertkov, Sofia’s jealousy reaches a hysterical pitch. Lev finally leaves her, travelling with his doctor, his youngest daughter Sasha, and Chertkov to a tiny railway station called Astapovo. Here he dies, and Sofia is kept from his deathbed until the very last moment. The diaries after this point are muted and perfunctory; without Lev, her life is diminished.

As well as the diaries themselves, the collection also includes Sofia’s essay on her courtship and marriage, another on the premature death of her youngest child, and several transcription of remarks made by her husband on his own writing. The notes on the text are exhaustive, and the introduction gives the biographical context. It’s a dense and informative volume, and it gives the reader a very claustrophobic view of Sofia’s life.

Any Cop?: Well, I couldn’t call it enjoyable, but it’s definitely interesting. As a historical document, it’s tremendously revealing – I’d read it for the insight into the medical practices alone. (Coffee, champagne, opium and liver massage are useful remedies for all manner of illnesses.) It undeniably redresses the balance of public opinion on Tolstoy’s wife – rather than a neurotic harridan, she’s revealed as an intelligent victim of circumstance. It’s a long read, and certainly not an uplifting one, but it’s absorbing if you’re a fan of Tolstoy or Russian history. I’d suggest dipping in and out, though; a straight-through read might leave you wanting to join Sofia in a midnight plunge into a freezing pond.

Valerie O’Riordan

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