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Tolstoy's War with Love
by David Laskin

Leo Tolstoy waited until he was 34 years old to marry, but once he had settled on 17-year-old Sofia Behrs, "Sonya," as his bride, he saw that events moved very quickly. At his insistence, but a single week elapsed between his proposal and their wedding on September 23, 1862 -- and in the course of that week Tolstoy asked, really required, his fiancée to read the intimate diaries he had kept for much of his life.

Sonya, the middle daughter of the Tsar's court physician, had grown up in the sheltered, innocent circumstances typical of girls of her class and time, and she had scant knowledge of men, including the man she had agreed to marry, beyond mild flirtation and adolescent fantasy. But now, days before her wedding, she found herself plunged into the sexual autobiography of a vigorous man in early middle age -- page after unsparing page recounting his initiation by a whore when he was 14, the string of impulsive, guilt-ridden erotic adventures with parlor maids, gypsies, and married women, the repeated bouts with venereal disease, and finally, and most recently, the deeply satisfying love affair with a peasant woman, with whom he had fathered a son just a few months before proposing to Sonya.

"I don't think I ever recovered from the shock of reading the diaries when I was engaged to him," Sonya wrote nearly 30 years later. "I can still remember the agonizing pangs of jealousy, the horror of that first appalling experience of male depravity."

It's telling that Tolstoy inserted this incident practically intact into Levin's courtship of Kitty in Anna Karenina, though in the novel he focused on Kitty's angelic ability to forgive her husband. In life, however, the diary incident set up an emotional dynamic that would ultimately destroy his and Sonya's happiness. Tolstoy, though he loved and desired Sonya, thought nothing of sacrificing her delicate feelings, indeed her peace of mind, to his need to enforce his own truth. He wanted to confess his sins, whether his wife wanted to know them or not, and begin marriage in a state of absolute purity. It was neither the first nor the last time he would make an idol of his own truth in this way.

Sonya, on her side, felt bound to comply with her husband's wishes, though she could not suppress her outrage at what he asked of her. It's telling, too, that it was Tolstoy's writing that brought on this crisis. Throughout the marriage, Sonya was spellbound by the power of her husband's prose. She needed to read and to share in his literary creation, whether as first reader, secretary, model, or sounding board. As long as her husband included her in his literary endeavors, Sonya could stand any assault on her character or beliefs. In a sense they were partners in both life and art, in an epic that encompassed joy, passionate attachment, and a harmonious division of labor, but also disappointment, bitterness, rage, and betrayal.

The violence did not surface at once. Indeed, the first years had a measure of stability, even bliss. The two of them worked closely on the creation of War and Peace between 1863 and 1869, Sonya patiently copying over each day's outpouring of prose and reveling in Leo's genius. They read each other's diaries, and Sonya used her own diary to comment on and respond to her husband's. Their sex life was robust and fruitful, with 13 children born in the first 26 years of the marriage. But sex and child-rearing became part of the problem. Sonya was, from the first, dispassionate about the physical act of love, while Tolstoy was, in Nabokov's words, a sensualist with a "supersensitive conscience." He craved sexual pleasure, yet hated himself after every surrender to "temptation" and hated the woman who had tempted him. Sonya found Tolstoy's cycle of uncontrollable lust and revulsion more and more of a burden, especially as the inevitable result was yet another dreaded pregnancy. "With each new child," she wrote, "one sacrifices a little more of one's life."

It was during the composition of Anna Karenina that their differences began to tear them apart. Between 1873 and 1875 the couple lost three children -- a son who died of a croup at 14 months, a daughter born dead the following year, another infant killed by meningitis the year after that -- and these tragedies helped precipitate a moral and emotional crisis. As he struggled with the novel, Tolstoy began to work out the tenets of a new personal philosophy grounded in love of humanity, sacrifice of personal pleasure and wealth, vegetarianism, and literal adherence to the teachings of Christ. This spiritual "rebirth," as he termed it, ultimately led Tolstoy to reject not only art, but financial security, comfort, pleasure, the happiness and well-being of his family -- in short, everything Sonya stood for and valued most. The worst blow of all was that he no longer asked her to copy over his work. "It was my joy," she wrote in despair. "He is systematically killing me, cutting me off from his personal life, and it hurts me dreadfully."

Sonya was not a frivolous society lady -- indeed, she brought considerable energy and skill to her management of the family's finances and estates -- but neither was she able to endure the growing numbers of disciples who flocked to their estate at Yasnaya Polyana to sit at the feet of the master and imbibe the new gospel. Intimate knowledge of her husband's moods, appetites, and proclivities only exacerbated her skepticism about the sincerity of his beliefs. It disgusted her to see Tolstoy, dressed in peasant's smock and belt, preach to the world about universal love, while at home he neglected his children, berated his wife, and exploded in rage at their refusal to submit to his will. Tolstoy for his part was convinced that Sonya was bent on ridiculing and destroying him. As he wrote her on December 21, 1884: "I tell you there can be no understanding or love between us until you have reached the same point as I have. By some tragic misunderstanding you failed to realize the depth of the crisis that has altered my entire life, and you responded to it with open hostility." In his diary from this period he howled: "Living with a woman who is a stranger to your soul is horrible!... Until the day I die she will be a stone around my neck and the necks of my children."

And so, as he approached his 60s and she moved through her 40s, there raged a conflict that both of them spoke of as "a fight to the finish." Sonya, moving to protect the interests of herself and her children, secured from her husband the right to manage his copyrights and property. She embarked on a profitable venture to reissue his complete works -- an undertaking that disgusted Tolstoy. After Anna Karenina he all but ceased writing fiction, with the notable exceptions of the novel Resurrection and the masterful stories "The Death of Ivan Ilich" and "Kreutzer Sonata." Instead, he poured his energy into religious-philosophical tracts like What I Believe; Where Love Is, God Is; and What Then Must We Do? Equally important, or so he insisted, was his attempt to master the craft of boot-making -- an endeavor that Sonya (and most of his literary friends) found absurd. There were wrenching arguments, midnight departures, furious letters, painful reconciliations, and, incredibly, the births of three more children between 1881 and 1888.

In Sonya's eyes the ultimate affront was "Kreutzer Sonata," a story Tolstoy wrote in 1889 about a man driven by hatred, jealousy, and sexual disgust to murder his wife. Aside from the murder, it was an exact transcription of his feelings about her and the state of their marriage. At the heart of "Kreutzer Sonata" is a savage indictment of marriage as "legalized prostitution," of women as vengeful sirens bent on seducing and controlling men, and of human sexuality itself. For Sonya it was as if Tolstoy had hauled her naked onto a vast public stage and proceeded to sermonize about her moral and physical hideousness. And on top of everything, after railing against the act of love as "perfidious" and piglike, he continued to force himself on her sexually. To her, it was a betrayal worse than adultery.

Had they been characters in a novel, this would have been the end -- the trigger for suicide, murder, or divorce. But in real life, Tolstoy and Sonya dragged on together for another 21 years. Sonya became increasingly jealous of the disciples who never left her husband's side -- especially Vladimir Chertkov, a fellow aristocrat and former army officer who all but worshipped Tolstoy, moved close to the family estate, and dedicated himself to getting control of the great man's papers and altering his will. The constant presence of Chertkov drove Sonya to fits of jealous rage and paranoia that bordered on madness, and she made several suicide attempts. By 1909, ill and mentally unstable, she required constant medical care.

As he grew older, Tolstoy vacillated between guilt and remorse over Sonya's unhappiness, concern about his own well-being, and self-loathing at falling so woefully short of his lofty ideals. Terror of death and the meaningless of life had always been the driving force behind his spirituality, and this terror did not abate in the last years of his life. Sonya never understood this side of her husband and never wanted to. For her, the abyss was not fear of the void but fear of losing her husband. Tragically, she expressed this fear by abjectly begging for forgiveness whenever Tolstoy tried to push her away and then attacking him as soon as he returned to her.

On October 28, 1910, at the age of 82, Tolstoy fled from his home in the middle of the night accompanied by his doctor and one of his daughters. "My position in the house is becoming -- has already become -- intolerable," he wrote in a letter to Sonya. "I am doing what people of my age very often do: giving up the world, in order to spend my last days alone and in silence." Tolstoy made it as far as the train station at Astapovo, where he collapsed. On his deathbed in the stationmaster's house he received Chertkov, a few disciples, and some of his children -- all of whom agreed that Sonya should not be permitted to see him. Finally, after he had lost consciousness, they relented, and Sonya knelt by the bed as her husband died. "I was not allowed to say good-bye to my husband," she wrote in her diary. "Cruel people."

Sonya outlived her husband by nine years, remaining at Yasnaya Polyana even after the Bolsheviks took control of Russia. She hoped to be buried by Tolstoy's side on the estate where they had lived for most of the 48 years of their marriage, but this wish was not respected. Sonya was laid to rest in November 1919 in the cemetery at Kochaky, two miles from her husband's grave.

David Laskin is the author of Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals (Simon & Schuster, 2000), among other titles.

Essays + Interviews:
The Roots of the Story | The Making of Anna Karenina
Tolstoy's War with Love | The Woman Question

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