Married to a Genius

The married lives of Anna Dostoevskaya and Sophia Tolstoya

The ladies Dostoevskaya and Tolstaya were most probably too young and inexperienced to judge correctly what they were in for at the moment they said “yes” to to their husbands. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were already successful and celebrated writers, and in spite of the considerable age differences, all parties involved were in love. Both ladies kept diaries during their marriages, so that we have a clear picture of what they had to endure from their husbands.

Anna Snitkina

Anna Snitkina was twenty years old when she started work as a stenographer for the forty four year old Dostoevsky. He had made a deal with a publisher on terrible conditions and with an impossible deadline in order to pay off his gambling debts. A friend had suggested that he should hire a stenographer, so that the writing would proceed faster. With Anna’s help a schedule was made and the novella The Gambler was written. But when the deadline approached, Dostoevsky realised that he would miss Anna terribly after their work was finished. Because he had no idea if she felt the same, he devised a plan: he asked her advice on a story he was working on. In this story a middle aged artist fell in love with his young assistant. Was it possible, from Anna’s female perspective, that this love was mutual? After Anna’s reply that it was very well possible, Fyodor felt confident enough to ask her and not much later they were married.

 

It soon became clear to Anna that Dostoevsky’s debts were not caused by gambling alone; he took financial care of the whole family of his deceased brother and of his spoiled stepson from his first marriage. On top of that he was legally obliged to take over the debts that his deceased brother had. As soon as any money arrived, a whole crowd stood on his doorstep, and it disappeared again in no time. To get a break from all those people, the couple travelled abroad, to Baden Baden. Where the famous casino was. And Dostoevsky started gambling again. He gambled away everything: the wedding rings, Anna’s jewellery, her clothes, their travel money, everything. Dostoevsky had to ask his publisher for an advance, and the morning it arrived, he went out to buy their things back. In the evening he came home crying: that money had been gambled away as well.

 

The saintly Anna kept forgiving and believing in her husband. The few desperate outbursts she had, were confined to the pages of her diary, and even so she found herself a bad person for giving in to them. She blamed Dostoevsky’s epilepsy for all his problems. Thanks to her practical mindset, Dostoevsky managed eventually to get rid of both his gambling addiction and his debts. Anna took on all financial affairs and dealt with the publishers herself.

 

During their marriage Dostoevsky wrote masterpieces such as The Idiot, Demons and The Brothers Karamazov.

Sophia Behrs

Sophia Behrs was the daughter of a doctor friend of Tolstoy. She was eighteen when she married the thirty four year old Tolstoy. Tolstoy was very much in love and tried to make that clear to her in a way he later described in Anna Karenina: he wrote down the first letters of the words of a long sentence and made her guess the sentence. She succeeded, and a lifetime of working out her husband’s handwriting and unpredictable character would follow.

 

Although Tolstoy clearly had the upper hand in the marriage, the first years together were really happy. Sophia played an important role in her husband’s writing: she edited and copied out his manuscripts, so that they were ready for the publisher. She helped Tolstoy with his female characters, and most importantly she gave him the peace and space he needed to write.

 

According to Tolstoy a woman’s calling was to give birth to and breastfeed children, and although Sophia had had enough of that after five children, she would give birth to another eight. With each child came more worries and her life became more confined to the nursery. From the thirteen children eight would make it to adults and she had to bury five. Later in his life Tolstoy preached sexual abstinence, even while Sophia was pregnant again, which she found terribly embarrassing.

 

Most of her married life she lived on Tolstoy’s simple, almost spartan, country estate Yasnaya Polyana. Sophia grew up in the centre of Moscow and missed the pleasures of the city. She constantly had to adjust to her husband’s latest obsession and that caused more and more friction. Tolstoy wanted to give away the rights of his novels, give up his aristocratic title, and developed a close friendship with the Tolstoyan Chertkov. Sophia became more and more jealous, sad and desperate. She felt the gap between her and her husband widening, and wanted even to take her life in a cry for attention. Eventually Tolstoy found the situation so unbearable, that he ran away from Yasnaya Polyana and Sophia, in the middle of the night, aged eighty two. He would die ten days later.

 

No doubt Sophia had imagined her life as Countess Tolstaya to be completely different.

 

During their marriage Tolstoy (to mention just a few things) wrote two of the greatest novels ever written, learned Ancient Greek in five months, learned to ride a bicycle and play tennis, got excommunicated from the church, raised a record amount of money for charity, tried to fight the widespread illiteracy, got followers called “Tolstoyans”, wrote with Gandhi about non-violent resistance and became a vegetarian.

 

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer

Tolstoy – A Russian Life, Rosamund Bartlett

Dostoevsky – A Writer in His Time, Joseph Frank

 

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64 thoughts on “Married to a Genius

  1. Wow, Elisabeth — this is a GREAT post. Beyond fascinating. Anna and Sophia had to put up with a LOT. Sounds like their husbands should have received a swift kick (metaphorically speaking) along with their royalty checks.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Wow, Dave, thank you for those kind words! Yes, the wives really didn’t have it easy, and we would be missing out on a lot of great literature without them. I hope that at least they felt too that they made a contribution to world literature 😊

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Interesting that you would choose Dostoevsky, Karen. I was thinking about it too, and I’m not sure which one I would prefer. I think Dostoevsky was at least kinder in general and kinder to women in particular. That book sounds fascinating, what’s the title? 😊

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  4. That’s what I think – Tolstoy had a really harsh, cruel side which I don’t see in Dostoevsky.

    The book is called The Wives by Alexandra Popoff, and it covers the Anna Dosteovsky, Sophia Tolstoy, Elena Bulgakov, Nadezdha Mandelstam, Vera Nabokov and Natalya Solzhenitsyn. That’s quite an impressive list, and I’m particularly interested in the Natalya S as I don’t think I know anything about her at all!

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  5. Thanks, that looks like an interesting and varied read!
    And yes, Dostoevsky was probably a better husband than Tolstoy. I wonder if any of the other husbands in The Wives were worse than these two? 🤔

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  6. Another excellent post, Elisabeth. You have opened another area of interest for me. After reading your post, I find I am more interested in the wives of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky than in these famous authors. Without the support of their wives, would we have the benefit of these author’s genius? I’m curious whether there was any suffragette movement in Russia. This quote by Tolstoy takes on new meaning: “Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”

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  7. Thank you very much, Rebecca! You’re absolutely right, without the helps of their saintly wives, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy would likely not have accomplished what they did. Tolstoy was very good at thinking up rules and inspirational quotes about how to live, but not so good at applying them to his own life. I don’t think there was a suffragette movement in Russia, but I may be wrong.
    Thanks for stopping by!

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  8. I’ve just come back for a second read. You have inspired me to enter a new area of research. Last night I was discussing your post with my 87-year-old mother – her parents were Danish and Swedish – she reflected back on her life and the life of her mother and grandmothers. Every culture has a way of viewing gender differences, each with an unique discussion of roles, responsibilities and status. There may now have been a suffragette movement per se in Russia, but I know that there was an excellent discussion over the years. Thank you again for creating an excellent blog – enjoy every post.

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  9. That’s so nice to hear, that my post inspired a conversation with your mother about your ancestors! It must have been an interesting conversation. I didn’t know that you had Scandinavian roots. Anna Dostoevskaya was half Swedish, I assume that that’s where her practical mindset came from.
    I was talking about my post with my boyfriend, and we were both in awe of these two women, taking such effort and being so devoted to their husbands. I know Sophia is often perceived as somewhat hysterical, but who could blame her after all that she went through?

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  10. Great post! I’m not a Dostoevsky fan and knew nothing about his wife, though I’ve read The Gambler. And it could not have easy for Sophia to be married to Tolstoy. I have read parts of Sophia’s diary,–not the whole thing–and it is fascinating to get her perspective, but writing for one’s husband would not be idea of fun.

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  11. Thank you, Kat! I’m with you on Dostoevsky, but his life was fascinating and his wife must have been an angel. I too have Sophia’s diary and read parts of it. I’d like to read some of her fiction too.

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  12. Like everyone else, Elisabeth, I have found this post absolutely fascinating, thank you! It is so easy to forget that creative individuals do not function in isolation of wider life (even Thoreau was not always alone at Walden Pond and had food brought to him etc). Like Becky, I would love to read more about these two remarkable women and I was pleased to see reference to a diary by Sophia – are there any further writings you would recommend?

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  13. Thank you so much, Liz. The lives of these writers and their wives were absolutely fascinating, and they give an interesting insight into that era.
    Karen recommended The Wives by Alexandra Popoff, and I enjoyed the biographies of Tolstoy by Rosamund Bartlett (I highly recommend it) and by A.N.Wilson. Sophia also wrote an autobiography and some fiction. I also read Dostoevsky’s biography by Joseph Frank. But I think that there are also memoires from Anna published.

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  14. Charlotte — this is off the top of my head. I think, from having read Henri Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy a long time ago, that Sophia lived to around the time of the 1917 revolution, or shortly thereafter. Also, that one of Tolstoy’s daughters (Alexandra?) became an ardent Tolstoyan and a friend and supporter of Tolstoy’s disciple Chertkov. This daughter, whose name I forget, became estranged from Sophia but they (Sophia and the daughter) were reconciled, if I recall correctly, shortly before Sophia’s death. The full story is told in Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy, which is a great read. There is a relatively new book out: “Tolstoy’s False Disciple: The Untold Story of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Chertkov” by Alexandra Popoff which probably tells more.

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  15. Thank you, Charlotte! Yes, without Anna Dostoevsky would have been doomed. As Roger said, Sophia did live on until after the revolution. And although some of the children were on their father’s side, I think they all reconciled with their mother before she died.

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  16. I’m sorry I had no time to comment before, when I first read your post. Since I had just a vague idea about the plights of these two women, I felt quite surprised and sad, and even annoyed of how haughty, superb, obtuse and, in fact, petty, were those writers, whatever their talent was. Dostoevsky had obvious mental issues beyond his control and I can excuse him, but Tolstoy… I’m figuring him now as perfect moron; a nuisance for any close person, and a nightmare for his poor wife. I won’t buy anymore the idea that his literary genius compensates or justifies in any way his abuse and incredibly narcissistic behaviour. Hook him :!

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  17. Oh yes, they didn’t make things easy for their wives, it seems that everything evolved around them, especially in the case of Tolstoy. He must have been extremely selfish and I’m glad that I’m not in Anna’s or Sophia’s shoes! But there were also other cases: Turgenev never married and devoted his life to a married woman instead, following Pauline Viardot around all his life, worshiping the ground that she walked on (also a bit scary perhaps 😄) and Chekhov was happily married to an actress.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Thank you for sharing this. So different husbands but so much in common. Maybe the saying ‘behind a successful man is always a even more stronger woman’ comes from that period of time to describe the life of that both ladies 🙂 .
    cheers, Markus

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  19. First applause for such amazing blog, I’ve always loved Russian Literature! From Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol to Chekhov the list is unending. I guess it’s always difficult to marry to a geniuses for their whims and wild creative sides. It’s no secret that Tolstoy grew eccentric with age and experimented with astute living and vegan eating something which drew apart the couple. Dostoevsky on the other hand was always feeble both mentally and physically as through out life he dealt with fragile mental and physical health. Terrible as it sounds the price one pays to marry geniuses, it’s a life of loneliness and I guess indifference too. Thanks for sharing amazing post!

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  20. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. It must have been difficult for their wives, because as you say, neither were the stable and dependable type. Of course they were right there with their husbands when the most brilliant books ever were written, copying, sorting notes, giving advice. I suppose that made it doable.

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  21. My pleasure, I love Russian authors, I guess artists are self indulgent and aloof and it will always be difficult predicament to be their wives. As a wife myself I seek my husband’s total attention and dedication ( 😂 lol) imagine he was to write and be eccentric like Tolstoy or a gambler like Dostoevsky, I would like Anna Karenina bored and seeking some thrill 😬😬

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  22. I’m glad I went through the archives to find this post 🙂 It’s fascinating to see how elements of the writers’ lives come out in their stories! I just finished reading “The Idiot”, and while reading this post, I kept thinking of the parallels – the never-ending line of people trying to claim money from Myshkin, the misfortune of his epilepsy, the incurable gambling habits of the old general…

    It’s kind of cute what he did at the start of their relationship, pretending to ask Anna about a story he was writing. I wonder, did he ever write a story about that?

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  23. Thank you for stopping by 😊 The original idea behind this blog was to make Russian literature come to life more, and I’m always happy to hear that I have succeeded in some way. You’re absolutely right, many of the themes in Dostoevsky’s works, like gambling, epilepsy, and debts, come from his own life and experience.
    The way he tested the water with Anna was really sweet. As far as I know, this did not appear in any of his works. I know that Lewin’s proposal to Kitty, with the letters, was very similar to how Tolstoy proposed to Sofia in real life.

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