Writers and their wives: Together in love, work and legacy

Behind every great Russian writer, as the adage goes, there is a great woman who acted as literary agent, editor and scribe: Sofia Tolstoy, Anna Dostoevsky and Vera Nabokov supported their larger-than-life husbands even during the hardest of times.


The marriage of Sophia Bers to Leo Tolstoy lasted 48 years and her support helped him produce the epics “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.” It was Sophia who encouraged him to give up the habits and addictions of his youth. Prominent writer, hero of the siege of Sevastopol, Tolstoy was also a drinker, gambler and womanizer. He confessed it all to Sophia, promising “not to have any women in our village, except for rare chances, which I would neither seek nor prevent” – a witty excuse!


The poverty of Tolstoy’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana, shocked the young Sophia. The bed was without blankets, the dinnerware was old and the rooms in disrepair. Sophia ultimately restored and maintained the rural estate, adding to the chores of wife and mother. But what gave her joy, she said, was the work she did to nurture Tolstoy’s writing.
Sophia became Tolstoy’s secretary, scribe and agent. She copied the entire text of “War and Peace” seven times, and promoted her husband’s works (she even contacted Dostoevsky’s widow for advice). "I've never felt my intellectual powers, and even all my moral powers, so free and so capable of work" – Leo Tolstoy wrote during the happiest times of their marriage.
The difficulties began much later when Tolstoy developed a new philosophy near the end of his life. Tolstoy still wrote his wife long love letters, but already began denying the concepts of family and property. “I can’t tell where we went apart, but I had no strength to follow his teaching,” Sophia wrote. Finally, depressed and in disarray, Tolstoy wandered away from his estate.
Sophia reached Leo at a small railroad station where he lay dying, only to witness her husband’s last breath. The will to finish the complete edition of Tolstoy’s works helped Sophia overcome her grief. “I hope people will be lenient with the one who may have been too weak to be a wife of a genius and a truly great man,” she wrote.
Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina Dostoyevskaya.
Dostoevsky proposed to his stenographer, 20-year old Anna Snitkina, only a month after their first meeting. It was a creative and hectic month, however. Anna helped him finish his latest commission “The Gambler” and retain the rights to all of his work, which had been claimed by a greedy publisher. “My heart was filled with pity for Dostoevsky, who survived the hell of exile. I dreamed of helping the man whose novels I adored so much,” Anna wrote in her memoirs. In her, the disillusioned 45-year old writer found a woman completely dedicated to him and his work.
Dostoevsky was a hopeless gambler. After the marriage, the family had to flee Russia because Dostoevsky’s creditors hunted him for payment. Yet he continued gambling in Europe, sometimes having to pawn his wife’s dresses and jewelry. Anna treated his passion as a disease, rather than a vice. Once she gave him the last money that the family had to support itself. According to Dostoevsky, the disarming sincerity of this act allowed him to understand that Anna was “stronger and deeper than he knew.” He lost the money, but gave his wife two promises – never to gamble again, and to make her happy. He kept both.
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