Alexandra Popoff: “Sophia was central to Tolstoy’s life and creativity”

Behind the great Tolstoy was the great Sophia. It’s impossible to speak of his greatness as a writer without speaking of hers. One of the most complex marriages in history couldn’t go unharmed without his and her version. And to speak of her, we talked exclusively with the Russian writer Alexandra Popoff, author of not only Sophia Tolstoy – The Biography, but also Toltoy’s False Disciple, about the relation of the author of War and Peace and Chertkov, to the torment of Sophia – Sofia or Sonia The spelling doesn’t really matter since history … It really is a subject to get a clean slate. Part of the Tolstoy Special – 190 years. Simply a must see!

Alexandra Popoff
The history of Sophia Tolstoy by Alexandra Popoff.

FAUSTO – Was Sophia Tolstoy a heroine or a villain?
Alexandra Popoff:
Of course, she was neither a heroine nor villain. Sophia was maligned by Tolstoy’s early biographers, who were also his religious disciples and who perceived her as a shrew, an aristocrat, and a mercenary.

A superficial analysis…
In reality she was a talented and hard working woman, a mother of 13, a successful publisher, a photographer, a philantropist… Her character was completely unlike her biographical, fictional, and cinematic portrayals. Years ago, when I began researching her life, I was impressed with Sophia’s energy, intellect, artistic giftedness, and common sense.

What motivated you to write about Sophia?
Back in 2001 I discovered that Sophia’s memoir, My Life, remained unpublished. I was fortunate to receive exclusive access to Sophia’s papers, deposited at the Tolstoy State Museum in Moscow. What I learned from the couple’s correspondence, previously overlooked, and her memoir (it appeared in Russia only in 2011), changed my perspective of the woman and her marriage.

In what way?
I felt there were many things the public should know about Sophia. She handled much more than copying for Tolstoy. She was a strong woman, ahead of her day, capable of handling complex publishing and business affairs, while also raising a large family.

In the nineteenth century it was even unusual…
She published eight editions of Tolstoy’s complete collected works, herself handling many stages of the process. She practiced medicine and assisted peasants free of charge. During Russia’s widespread famine of the 1890s she helped Tolstoy organize a major relief operation. Sophia’s independent activity was little known. I wrote Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography because I was fascinated with this woman and wanted her to receive credit for her many contributions. Sophia possessed artistic talent and business acumen, a rare combination. She had inspired Tolstoy’s best literary achievement (he modeled many of his heroines on her) and was his first editor. A lot of her labor went into his novels, which made him famous. I was motivated to write her biography because I wanted to set the record straight and tell Sophia’s true story.

Did Vladimir Chertkov destroy Tolstoy’s good relationship with Sophia?
Not quite so. In the late 1870s, after completing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy suffered a profound spiritual crisis. Previously an agnostic, he became deeply religious. He worked to retranslate the Gospels and eventually made his own interpretation of Christ’s teaching. His new beliefs led him to renounce his literary vocation and former life as a family man and landowner as sinful and futile. Moreover, he became determined to practice his religious maxims while remaining with the family.

Which led to…
This put pressure on his wife and children to accept his new beliefs. His demands were extreme and extraodinary, and this strained the marriage before Chertkov came around. As Sophia explained in her diary, Tolstoy expected her to give up her traditional faith, class privilege, and the wealth she and their children possessed: “I am expected to renounce everything, all my property, all my beliefs, the education and wellbeing of my children…” Sophia believed in her God-given responsibility to care for her family.

And Tolstoy…
Tolstoy wanted to literally follow the ethical principles he believed Christ had taught. Sophia correctly regarded his new beliefs as fanatical and impossible to practice. In fact, Tolstoy did not know and did not care how his new ideals could be implemented in practical life.

For example?
He wanted the family to renounce all their property, but did not care how and to whom it would be distributed. There were also his unfathomable contradictions. Although he renounced property and money, he continued to live on his estate. Later, Vladimir Chertkov, a dogmatic man and Tolstoy’s major religious disciple, began to meddle in the marriage. His intrusion exacerbated the discord.

How was the exchange of letters between Sophia and Tolstoy? Much more gentle and loving than we know?
During the first two decades of their marriage they wrote each other daily when apart. There was a deep emotional bond between them. Sophia loved Tolstoy and his literature, and assisted him in his work.  Her moral support was indispensable to Tolstoy. In 1864, about two years into the marriage, Tolstoy wrote Sophia, only 19 at the time: “I lose my équilibre without you.” This was during his work on War and Peace, when he lost his mental balance and confidence. He constantly struggled with depression, and Sophia was able to reassure him. Tolstoy admitted that her letters affected him “like good music.”

In 1867 he wrote her from Moscow: “I’m sitting alone in my room upstairs, having just read your letter…For God’s sake, don’t stop writing daily to me… I’m a dead man without you.” In 1869, after completing War and Peace he again slipped into depression. He was traveling and wrote Sophia en route: “It’s so hard to live in the world without you… Everything seems so shallow without the best part, and the best––is you, only you, you alone, forever.”

The bonds were really strong…
The couple’s exchange reveals that they loved each other and that it was an exceptionally close marriage. They had a shared interest in Tolstoy’s creative work. Sophia’s letters and diaries helped Tolstoy to penetrate a woman’s emotional world. He used many of her experiences for his heroines in War and Peace and Anna Karenina. After 35 years together, he acknowleged her contributions in a letter to her: “You gave me and the world what you were able to give; you gave much maternal love and self-sacrifice, and it’s impossible not to appreciate you for it.” In fact, Sophia was central to Tolstoy’s life and creativity, and the couple’s exchange reveals it.

What tied Tolstoy to Chertkov so much?
Tolstoy became bound to Chertkov by love and their joint pursuit of a religious ideal. They met in 1883, during the writer’s religious phase. Tolstoy was fifty-five, Chertkov––twenty-nine, a generation his junior. A handsome man, an aristocrat, an ex-officer of the Guards, Chertkov made a strong impression on Tolstoy. During their first encounter he won Tolstoy’s trust. Chertkov expressed avid intere19st in Tolstoy’s religion and became his first serious follower.

As Tolstoy admitted, their relationship extended beyond Christian brotherly love. It was an intimate and secretive union. Tolstoy asked Chertkov to destroy some of his letters. Also, the writer  had to return Chertkov’s letters to him. As apparent from surviving correspondence and Tolstoy’s diary the relationship was homoerotic. The insignificant Chertkov became Tolstoy’s largest correspondent: the entire exchange comprises over two thousand letters. Chertkov’s part of the exchange has been long suppressed by the Russian archives.

From these letters Chertkov emerges as manipulative and corrupt. He demanded privileges and promotions, which he received because Tolstoy could never refuse him.

You wrote about it too…
My book Tolstoy’s False Disciple is a story of Tolstoy’s paradoxical union with his moral opposite. A dogmatic and domineering man, a schemer, Chertkov became the writer’s closest companion and confidante. Their relationship lasted three decades. According to contemporaries, Tolstoy loved Chertkov unconditionally and blindly. Their intimacy explains Chertkov’s rise as Tolstoy’s publishing associate. In later years, Tolstoy turned over all his publishing affairs to Chertkov, also appointing him his sole representative abroad. The relationship came to light during Tolstoy’s last year. This is when Chertkov emerged in complete control of the elderly writer.

What a story!
In 1910, Tolstoy signed a secret will, which Chertkov composed and which appointed him sole executor of the literary estate. Chertkov played a sinister role in Tolstoy’s life, also becoming responsible for the writer’s flight from his ancestral estate at 82. Chertkov urged Tolstoy to provide an example of complete material renunciation, which would validate his teaching in his disciples’ eyes. Within days of leaving home Tolstoy was dying at a small railway station in Astapovo. Chertkov stayed with him the entire time while Sophia was not admitted to see her husband. In his final letter to the children Tolstoy reminded them that Chertkov occupies “a special position in relation to me.” These words describe the strangest relationship in Tolstoy’s life.

Do you believe that Chertkov had connections with the Government and wanted only to maintain control over Tolstoy’s subversive texts?
Tolstoy’s works against the Orthodox Church and the authoritarian state made him Russia’s most prominent dissident. In 1882, one year before meeting Chertkov, Tolstoy was placed under permanent secret surveillance. Chertkov’s insistence on copying Tolstoy’s entire correspondence and personal diaries should be seen in this context. Chertkov was a conniving man. His dealings with the secret police are apparent from the documents I employ in Tolstoy’s False Disciple. He did use his influence with Tolstoy to soften his anti-government message. But there was more for Chertkov to gain from their close association. Chertkov’s reputation as Tolstoy’s friend, follower, and publishing associate opened doors in Russia and abroad. He ran Tolstoy’s publishing affairs and causes––without having to account for the money he spent. Chertkov was also collecting Tolstoy’s original manuscripts, well realizing their financial worth. Chertkov’s story is intriguing.

His aristocratic family was close to the tsars. He is believed to be an illegitimate son of Alexander II. Chertkov’s longtime friend, General Dmitry Trepov, was a chief of the gendarmes and an assistant minister of the interior. In this capacity he oversaw the secret police. A dark figure in Russian history, Trepov is best known for brutally suppressing political opposition. On one occasion Chertkov deposited Tolstoy’s papers at the private residence of General Trepov. Chertkov deceived Tolstoy many times. He ran the writer’s causes and movement, but he also betrayed some Tolstoyans to the secret police. He paid salaries to Tolstoy’s secretaries and scribes who aside from helping the writer were also spying on him.

When I watched Aronofsky’s movie Mother! I curiously thought a lot about Sophia. Did she suffer much from Tolstoy’s fame?
Sophia’s role beside Tolstoy was extraordinarily complex. She was married to a writer of genius who became a religious leader and founder of his own brand of Christianity. As such, Tolstoy distanced himself from all practical affairs. In 1883 he gave Sophia power of attorney to manage their property. She alone supported their large family with her publishing proceeds. At the same time, Tolstoy criticized her publishing activity because it made him appear contradictory. He had renounced property and money; yet, she was making a profit by selling his books. Tolstoy was hypocritical because he also asked Sophia to contribute her profit to his causes. He publicly criticized Sophia for failing to comply with his beliefs. His criticism, given his fame and moral authority, undermined her reputation in society and in her own family. During the last decade of their marriage she faced disapproval from Tolstoy and his religious followers for everything she did––as a publisher, a mother, and estate manager. Tolstoy’s position was also difficult. He faced pressure from his disciples who wanted him to practice what he preached. So, blaming Sophia for his own failure to live in accordance with his teaching became convenient. Sophia was proud of the literary fame she had helped Tolstoy achieve. She enjoyed the company of famous artists, writers, and musicians, who were drawn to their home. But during the last years of their marriage their home was besieged by Tolstoy’s religious followers. She rebelled against what she saw as Tolstoy’s insatiable love of fame, his need to be also known as a saintly man and a prophet.




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Fundadora da FAUSTO, é escritora, mestre em Ciência da Religião e autora do romance NANA.