Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy; drawing by David Levine

In the fall of 1895, after reading the most recent entries in Tolstoy’s diary, his wife wrote to him:

Why do you always, when you mention my name in your diaries, speak so ill of me? Why do you want all future generations and our descendants to hold my name in contempt, as that of a frivolous, ill-tempered wife, who caused you unhappiness?…[Are you] afraid that your glory after death will be diminished unless you show me to have been your torment and yourself as a martyr, bearing a cross in the form of your wife?

Sonya Tolstoy had good cause for apprehension about how history would see her part in that “struggle to the death” (as Tolstoy called it) in which husband and wife were locked after Tolstoy’s spiritual crisis. Tolstoy’s biographers have seen her with his eyes—a devoted wife in the “heathen” sense, as he once put it, dedicated to the material welfare of her family, but devoid of the qualities which could have made her an adequate companion to one of the great visionaries of history, and fiercely resentful of the spiritual concerns which threatened to deprive her and her children of the wealth and status attendant on the family of a great writer. It is not denied that the unyielding dogmatism with which Tolstoy attempted to impose his religious views on his family caused much of the hysteria, verging on madness, with which Sonya finally drove him away; but that flight, which brought the Tolstoys’ domestic tragedy to the attention of the world, invested it with a symbolic significance which seemed to justify Tolstoy’s harshness to his wife. His death at the little station of Astapovo, surrounded by disciples whose duty it was to keep Sonya and her entreaties away from him, seemed to represent the triumphant liberation of the spirit from the stifling embraces of the flesh.

It is not surprising that Sonya’s version of the battle between the Tolstoys aroused little sympathy. When her diaries, with accounts of the ugly scenes of their later life, were published in English in 1928, the translator’s preface expressed the opinion that the reader’s sympathies would be entirely with her husband: her claim that his account of their relations was colored by vanity and hypocrisy was dismissed as evidence of the mental deterioration of her later years. Those who have read Tolstoy’s diaries over the same period would, I think, take issue with this view; but no English translation of them exists. The appearance of a biography of Sonya Tolstoy that challenges the legend that was born at Astapovo is therefore a significant event.

Anne Edwards’s study relies mainly on the extensive materials relating to the Tolstoy family—reminiscences, biographies, letters, diaries—that are available in English translations. She appears to draw on no new sources but she has produced the first balanced treatment of the Tolstoys’ relationship. She picks her way through the conflicting and emotionally charged evidence with discrimination and sensitivity. Avoiding the trap of compensating for the bias of earlier accounts by an idealization of her subject, she nevertheless establishes Sonya Tolstoy as a woman of subtle perception and considerable spiritual resources; in the process she reveals that the image which Tolstoy created of his wife was a device whereby he avoided confronting the nature of his own sensuality. For many readers, the most interesting revelation in this account of the Tolstoys’ extraordinary marriage is likely to be the fact that the man who believed and made the world believe that he loved the truth above all else could not tolerate the whole truth about himself.

When Sonya Behrs, the daughter of a physician at the imperial court, married Lev Tolstoy in 1862, she was eighteen; he was thirty-four. The sudden ardor of his courtship of her, his demand that they be married within a week of his proposal, astonished her family, with whom he had been friendly for seven years. Neither they nor Sonya knew that he had fixed on her as the instrument of his salvation. His early diaries show that he was obsessed with the conflict within him between “the cravings of the spirit and the cravings of the flesh.” Lust was the most ungovernable of his drives, and his frequent sexual encounters were followed by acute shame and self-loathing. He became convinced that the solution to his conflicts lay in marriage, where his sexual drive would be devoted to procreation with a partner who shared his thirst for a life of work in the service of good.

As the only path to inner harmony, marriage became for him, as it would be for his alter ego Levin in Anna Karenina, “the central thing of life, from which all its happiness depended.” He had frightened off one prospective bride with his vision of the married state as “toil, self-denial, and love” (in that order), when he perceived the innocence and unworldliness he sought in the pretty, high-spirited, and intelligent Sonya Behrs. She was already in love with the brilliant and distinguished count, and a week after his proposal they began their married life on Tolstoy’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana.


Tolstoy devoted himself to writing, work on his estate, and teaching at the peasant school he had established there. Sonya, despite an occasional longing for what she called the “toys” of life—the pleasures of Moscow society—cheerfully accepted the life of hard, monotonous work ordained for her by her husband. Her days were devoted to the running of a rambling, primitively furnished house, the management of a farm, and the rearing of children (six of the thirteen Tolstoy children were born in the first decade of their marriage); while a considerable portion of her nights were taken up with her most absorbing task—the copying of her husband’s manuscripts. She proudly records that they frequently discussed the novels on which he was laboring, many of whose scenes were based on her own childhood and adolescent experiences, and that he paid attention to her comments. But it was her intense love for Tolstoy rather than her admiration for his genius that made Sonya so willing to be molded into his ideal. Tragically, as Ms. Edwards shows, it was her expression of that love that led to the collapse of the ideal and the ensuing disasters.

In the first decade of his married life, Tolstoy believed that he had found the path to the reconciliation of the warring sides of man. He gave literary expression to his convictions in Levin’s glorification of the instincts enshrined in family life as infallible guides to truth. Through Levin’s defense of his “selfish” concern with the welfare of his family and of his desire to preserve the life of his ancestors, Tolstoy expressed his own belief that the way to a moral life was not through the denial of one’s nature in a conscious effort to do good, but through the instinct of self-fulfillment that linked mankind with all other living things.

But this belief was gradually eroded by the guilt aroused in him by his response to Sonya’s uninhibited passion. It began again to seem to him, as in the years of debauchery before his marriage, that man had “two natures, two wills.” He began to suspect that, far from harmonizing man’s sensual and spiritual impulses, marriage was merely “domesticated prostitution.” He tried to appease his conscience by abstention from sexual relations when they could not lead to procreation. Intercourse with a pregnant or nursing wife was, he declared, a “crime.” At these periods he could conquer his impulses only by cultivating an emotional and physical coldness toward Sonya that drove her to despair in the belief that she had lost his love. In reality, the alternations of lust and hostility in Tolstoy’s attitude signified something equally disastrous for her: her gradual transformation in his eyes from savior to demon.

In his life, if not always in his literary work, Tolstoy was inclined to see the significance of women in their function in the spiritual development of men. His belief that society trained most women for the role of temptress had allowed him before his marriage to shift a considerable portion of the guilt and disgust aroused by his sexual encounters onto the women who, as he put it on more than one occasion in his diaries, “led me astray.” The return of guilt after his marriage was accompanied by the beginnings of grotesque suspicions about the character of Sonya. On their infrequent visits to Moscow, he would watch intently for signs of flirtatiousness in her attitude to other men. He viewed her interest in clothes with grave suspicion; the purchase of a hat with ostrich feathers was a sign of spiritual corruption in his eyes, as was her inability to breast-feed her first child: he angrily accused the doctor who ordered the engagement of a wet-nurse of conniving at Sonya’s corruption by depriving her of “the only means which might have kept her from coquetry.”

No wonder that, as pregnancy followed pregnancy, Sonya often felt that she was reduced to nothing but “a useless creature with morning sickness, and a big belly,…a bad temper, a battered sense of dignity, and a love which nobody wants.” But there was much to compensate for Tolstoy’s censoriousness—his high spirits and creative excitement, and the frequent occasions when, conscious of the absurdity of his suspicions, he treated her with remorseful tenderness. These compensations ceased after Tolstoy’s spiritual crisis of the late 1870s, when he finally renounced his dream of reconciling his warring drives in favor of a rigidly dualistic ethic that declared eternal war between spirit and matter. Chastity, poverty, and simplicity were now his ideals: together with the state, government, and property, the sexual drive was condemned as a manifestation of the vilest aspects of man’s nature.


Tolstoy had taught his wife and children to idealize family life and the traditions of their caste, and to accept its privileges as their right; he now denounced the family and social privilege and demanded that his wife and children conceive an empathy with and a humble admiration for the Russian peasant as the embodiment of Christian virtue. His children were bewildered, but for Sonya the way was clear. She was not prepared to “turn like a weathercock in every direction.” She had no reason to believe that her husband’s new outlook was superior to the values that he had cultivated in her for nearly twenty years, and she remained convinced that his literary work (which he now renounced on the grounds that it had no meaning for the people) was his true vocation.

Despite the assertions of some of Tolstoy’s disciples, she was not indifferent to the plight of the masses (although her efforts to raise money for the victims of the famine of 1891 were condemned by Tolstoy on the grounds that wealth acquired by sinful means could not lead to good); but her determination to prevent her husband from surrendering his property and the rights to his works and thereby depriving their children of the education and the way of life for which he had prepared them turned the Tolstoy household into two warring camps whose divisions were illustrated by the spectacle of the “dark people”—peasants, tramps, and beggars, who slunk through the fashionable drawing room where Sonya entertained her Moscow family and friends, to the study where they were received by the unwashed sage in his peasant tunic and homemade boots.

But the bitterest encounters between husband and wife took place over sex. Visiting Tolstoy in 1901, the writer Maxim Gorky was astonished at the coarseness with which Tolstoy spoke of women:

There is nothing he likes so much as to punish them. Is it the revenge of a man who has not achieved as much happiness as he is capable of, or the hostility of the spirit toward the “humiliating impulses of the flesh”?

It was both. Tolstoy’s attempt to moralize his sexual drive through an idealization of Sonya had failed, but the ideal of chastity which he set for himself seemed impossible to attain. His “falls,” as he now referred to intercourse with Sonya, then caused him public as well as private humiliation, as each new pregnancy revealed to the world that the sage of Yasnaya Polyana was incapable of following the life he preached to others. There was only one way to lighten the intolerable burden of guilt. His suspicions of the previous decades now became certainty: woman, the seducer, was the main agent of the moral degradation of man.

From Ms. Edward’s account of the relations of Tolstoy and Sonya after his religious conversion it emerges that Tolstoy took his revenge on his wife for not accomplishing his salvation by denying her human status. He had always seen rational intelligence as an exclusively male quality; he found educated women affected, “emancipated” women obnoxious. Turgenev hardly exaggerated when he pointed out that all the good women in Tolstoy’s novels were fools. Tolstoy had wanted them to be admired for qualities of feeling, connected with the maternal instinct, which in his view complemented the rationality of the male. Now, by declaring all instincts connected with the sexual drive to be devoid of spiritual significance, he seemed to reduce women to animal status.

This made him able to vent his rage against Sonya for the feelings she aroused in him without the compunction he had once felt at wounding a sensitive human being. Having undertaken to copy out his diaries for posterity she was faced with reflections such as the following: “There is no love, there is only the physical craving for intercourse and the rational need of a life companion.” In The Kreutzer Sonata, the novel in which he expounded his ideal of chastity, he drew freely on scenes from his relationship with Sonya, despite her protest that the world would see her as the “lustful, evil wife” of the novel. To his sons he announced that “a sound, healthy woman is a wild beast,” and he congratulated two of his daughters on their good fortune at being unattractive to men and therefore unlikely to marry.

Ms. Edwards should not be suspected of giving too much emphasis to Tolstoy’s obsession. She could have quoted many more instances of his grotesque vindictiveness from his diaries. He records, for example, with smug self-righteousness how he called one of his daughters into his study to give her his views on the vile function of women. Apparently she protested at first, but Tolstoy notes with satisfaction that he succeeded in persuading her that he was right.

Degraded to the status of an exclusively sensual being, Sonya could no longer find consolation in her infrequent intercourse with her husband. Revulsion at being no more than an object of lust made her resist his advances, thereby increasing his desire and consequently her guilt in his eyes: “She provokes me, she makes it into a game.” The most repulsively condescending of Tolstoy’s references to Sonya in his letters and diaries are the passages where he reflects on the chances of Sonya’s developing the spiritual qualities that could make communion with him possible. After the death in 1895 of her youngest child Vanya, Sonya, crazed with grief, turned unsuccessfully to religion for the comfort she could no longer expect from her husband. He discussed this development hopefully with his disciple Vladimir Chertkov, but after a month he concluded in his diary that Sonya “is unable to raise [herself] to a religious level. The reason is that she has confused all her spiritual powers with the animal love for her child.”

Tolstoy’s relationship with Chertkov, who entered his life in 1883, was the most painful of the humiliations that Sonya had to bear in the last three decades of her life with her husband. This devious man, who was to become, in Ms. Edwards’s words, the business manager of tolstoyism, combined a sycophantic devotion to Tolstoy with a despotic temperament and a keen eye for his own advantage; he was later suspected of using funds from the sale of Tolstoy’s works to increase his personal fortune. As Tolstoy’s most trusted confidant, he had access to his personal diaries with their intimate details of his relationship with Sonya. With the aim of securing control of these and all Tolstoy’s other writings after his death, he systematically discredited Sonya in the eyes of her husband and children. When, in the last year of Tolstoy’s life, she demanded that the diaries which he had given into Chertkov’s care be returned to herself and her children, Tolstoy obdurately refused. After the intervention of another of his disciples, who was appalled at Chertkov’s sneering contempt for her, the diaries were returned to the family, although only after Chertkov had recopied the passages that he believed Sonya would not publish.

It was the suspicion (borne out by events) that Chertkov was plotting to induce Tolstoy to exclude her in his will from all rights to his literary as well as his propaganda works, that induced the hysterical scenes that finally drove Tolstoy from Yasnaya Polyana in November 1910. As Ms. Edwards points out, far more was at stake for Sonya than the financial security of her children. During the writing of those works she had experienced her closest communion with her husband; by transferring control of them to Chertkov he was diminishing her in the past as much as in the present.

Ms. Edwards’s account of the degradation inflicted on Sonya Tolstoy makes painful reading; it puts the hysteria and suicidal depressions so much censured by Tolstoy’s biographers in a very different light. Reflecting on the long struggle that had followed her husband’s religious conversion, she commented in her diary: “The martyrdom was mine, not his.” She felt at times that she had staked all her life on one card, her love for her husband, “and now the game was lost…. My love for him will kill…my soul. If I rid myself of this love, I shall be saved.” But this was not in her power. Tolstoy’s need for her in illness, or his tenderness to her during their rare and brief reconciliations, resurrected her past happiness; frustrated in her desire to serve him in the present, she channeled her considerable energy into a publishing enterprise that produced a collected edition of his works.

Her sense of duty to her husband as a writer prevailed over her loathing of The Kreutzer Sonata; she secured an interview with the Tsar in an attempt to persuade him to rescind his decision to forbid its publication. Although Tolstoy raged over the impropriety of her relationship in the last decade of their marriage with the composer-pianist Taneyev, this was no more than a romantic friendship with a man who treated her as an intelligent being, respected her views on music and literature, and gave her the companionship she craved after the death of Vanya. “Whomever I might love,” she wrote at that period, “there is no one else in the world I would even compare with my husband. He has held too great a place in my whole life and in my heart.”

Tolstoy’s frequent threats to leave her were calculated to put Sonya in no doubt about her place in his life; his followers were given to understand that only his heavy sense of responsibility for her prevented him from joining them in an ascetic life. But his raging jealousy over Taneyev was only one of many signs that, contrary to what Tolstoy wished to believe, he did not leave Sonya because he needed her. He frequently quoted a folktale of a Hindu who decided to renounce the life of the flesh and dedicate himself to truth. His wife sought the sage out on the bank of a sacred river and inquired what she should now do. Told to disappear from his path forever, she advanced into the river until the waters closed over her head, while her husband watched impassively.

Sonya did not take the hint, but her husband scored a moral victory. He could never concede that he needed Sonya, but by conceiving it as her duty to leave him, he turned his own weakness into yet another source of grievance against her. It was not only physical ties that bound him to her; as Ms. Edwards shows, he never lost his need for female support and sympathy. He was never close to his sons; it was to the women in his family that he turned for personal devotion and absolute intellectual allegiance. When his wife withheld the latter, he punished her by confiding in his two most malleable daughters, giving them the diaries that he now hid from Sonya, and exacting from them absolute devotion to his views.

If Tolstoy’s vanity had not been stronger than the instinct that prompted him to seek Sonya’s support, the philosophy of his later life might have had less of its repulsive dogmatism and fewer glaring contradictions. Sonya was the only one of those in close contact with Tolstoy in those years who regarded him without the reverence that made his disciples follow him with notebooks to record his every observations. She was irritated by the complaisance with which this preacher of humility accepted the role of patriarch and noted that Tolstoy, so intolerant of defects in those who did not share his views, was blind to the faults of those who, like Chertkov, gave him their obsequious devotion. She noted too that it was the most insolent, rather than the poorest, who were most likely to receive Tolstoy’s alms, and that the tolstoyans contained a large proportion of hysterical, unbalanced, domineering, and opportunistic personalities (years later her daughter Sasha, one of Tolstoy’s most fervent disciples, was to break with Chertkov’s tolstoyan colony after making the same discovery).

Aware of how Tolstoy’s dogmatism had distorted his insight into character, Sonya wrote of The Kreutzer Sonata:

Everywhere his hero keeps saying: We went in for hoggish pleasures, we felt surfeited, we, always we…. It is wrong to generalize about any emotions, even about sexual emotions, they are so different in a man to a pure woman.

What most appalled Sonya about Tolstoy’s Christianity was its joylessness. She constantly noted how much of the head, how little of the heart, there was in the religion of this “frigid Christian.” The high spirits and affection which had drawn his children to him in the past were now replaced by a censorious gloom. How, when he preached universal love, could he be so coldly indifferent to his own children? “If they belonged to some peasant woman, it would be a different story.” Reflecting on their own relations, she wrote in her diary: “Lyova, you Christian, how easily you condemn, how little love and pity there is in you!” She might have been consoled to know that once at least, Tolstoy acknowledged that she was right. Six years after his spiritual upheaval he admitted in a letter to Chertkov: “Never have I entreated her with tears to believe in the truth or told her all simply, lovingly, softly…she lies beside me and I say nothing to her, but what ought to be said to her I say to God.”

During one of the darkest periods of her life Sonya, reflecting on the character of her friend Taneyev, wrote in her diary:

A gifted man puts all his understanding and all the subtlety of his soul into his work, while his attitude to real life is dull and indifferent. It is the same with my husband, who is infinitely more gifted than Taneyev. What a wonderful understanding of human psychology there is in his books, and what an extraordinary indifference and lack of understanding in his home life.

This is the strangest of the paradoxes that any study of Tolstoy must confront, and Ms. Edwards has demonstrated that his wife’s perceptions on this subject have been grossly undervalued. Her moving study establishes beyond question that what kept Sonya with her husband for nearly fifty years of often nightmarish existence was not the thirst for wealth or reflected glory, but a quality of understanding which he would never admit she possessed. “Is there anything interesting,” she once wrote, “in Lev Nikolaevich’s life or Taneyev’s? One does not love them for their external life, but for that dream, that endless dream, which flows from their work.”

This Issue

October 22, 1981