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Leo Tolstoy’s Marriage Diaries: Afterthoughts

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” is one of Leo Tolstoy’s (and world literature’s) best-known quotes.


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Angela Yurchenko

4 months ago | 5 min read
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On love, lust, and genius

Leo and Sophia Tolstoy (far right) with family and friends circa 1905. Public domain image via Wikipedia

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” is one of Leo Tolstoy’s (and world literature’s) best-known quotes.

Many of us are familiar with Anna Karenina which birthed it, we may have gotten (or not) through the epos of War and Peace, or read some of Tolstoy’s short stories — but then, there are Tolstoy’s diaries, a rare and precious reading.

The reading that reveals the dark side of the moon for Tolstoy biographers and a whole new context for that resounding “happy families are all alike…”.

Why Tolstoy’s (and his wife’s, but to that just a bit later) diaries are striking is because we here meet frankly two people — one, who surprises with his ability to create genius from scratch, an expert and sensitive psychologist, the other — a human being trying to come to senses with his personal intersection of love, lust, and genius.

It is in the diaries that we encounter the raw Tolstoy as a human being that is (like most humans are) at painful controversy with the great creator.

A great poet had said,

“A writer’s works have the power to enlighten their author greater than any reader.”

If this is true — and I find it is, because anything written comes from an overflowing abundance of our mental search for truth — then should we hold as high a moral standard for the author as his writings raise?

The answer has been debated for a long time, especially concerning such ‘morally upright’ authors like Tolstoy.

Count Leo Tolstoy outpoured his marriage and family views into many of his novels — in the greatest way in Anna Karenina, where Levin and Kitty are very closely modeled after himself and his wife, Countess Sophia Tolstoy.

In his diaries, Tolstoy recounts that all the usual symptoms of love which he used to make fun of, presently, after falling in love with Sophia, hold him completely a slave.

They got married only a month after their real acquaintance, though Tolstoy, being much older had known Sophia since childhood as a family friend.

However, despite this happiness of love completely reciprocated and untainted with any hardships as of yet, there was from the very beginning a mistrust of something in the way he approached his love. Instead of taking the time which alone shows us right or wrong, he rather insisted on holding the wedding the next week after the proposal.

Moreover, being in doubt himself, he did everything to plant worse doubts in her, giving his bride his bachelorhood diaries to read the day before their wedding, including the details of his latest love affair with a peasant who bore him a child and to whom he once felt no longer the instincts of a hunter but feelings of a man towards his wife.

This story stayed with Sophia for a long time and she recounted that what she had read left a lifelong mark on her married life although she never doubted that following their marriage Tolstoy had remained completely faithful to her.

However, no one wants faithfulness resembling morbid sacrifice. And sometimes, it feels that Tolstoy wanted, or after a time, started to make something of sacrifice out of his family life.

Sophia Tolstoy with daughter Alexandra Tolstoy. Painting by Nikolai Ge. Public domain image via Wikipedia

Knowing Tolstoy’s serious philosophical and social interests at that time some may think that a young girl, still a teenager, could not have shared these, which may, in turn, have been responsible for plenty of the misunderstandings and unbalance that found its way into the happy beginnings of their family life.

However, Tolstoy was the one who chose precisely the already family-oriented (despite her youth), charming, but far from raw philosophy-minded Sophia Berts, and not Elizabeth, the older serious sister whom everyone considered the probable object-to-be of his attentions.

It’s arguable that had Sophia been less family-centered and more intellect-centered, their marriage would not have lasted long.

Sophia’s own father and mother were the warm example she later often came back to in thought.

Having an age difference of eighteen years which didn’t hinder their family life, and being parents to 13 children, of which 8 survived (Sophia and Lev Tolstoy had also 13 children, of which 9 survived) they preserved a family the example of which, Sophia both cherished and saw inapplicable to her situation.

As Sophia later noted, despite her mother’s proud claims to have kept the family in exact order so long, she herself realized that it matters not how hard a woman tries to keep the family, how good a wife and mother she is — all her rightful efforts will be useless if a man does not hold the same capacity of love and tenderness within the family.

Precisely tenderness was what Tolstoy lacked. Not only towards Sophia but their children as well. She recounts how strangely he looked down on her very first pregnancy, “As if I were to blame for being in this condition,” how happy he was to spend social company with her younger, unmarried and carefree sister, and then how little fatherly feelings he showed towards their firstborn, whose tiny red body he compared to “a piece of raw meat”.

As to herself, Sophia writes of how often she wished for tenderness and affection in her married life but received only wild passion in return, followed by bouts of coolness and indifference.

Passion and sex were precisely what Tolstoy cursed in later years, blaming physical lust for all men’s evils.

Tolstoy explored the doom of passion most strikingly in The Kreutzer Sonata. However, he offered no antidote.

He simply stated that all sexual acts were to blame, and advised abstaining from marriage altogether or living in it as brother and sister. In reply, Sophia wrote her own “supplement” to the Kreutzer Sonata — a story entitled ‘Whose Fault’ portraying the frightful animalistic lust of the main character.

This story is presently published together with ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ as ‘The Kreutzer Sonata Variations’.

Why could Tolstoy not address lust directly? Perhaps because that would be admitting that his own wild passions were also a form of lust because any wildness is?

And if his were, then what advice could Count Tolstoy give to others who were less of a genius, less intelligent, and less aristocratic?

As usual in these cases, he took the human side of polar opposites. It’s easier to fast than eat mindfully. It’s easier to curse all women as temptresses than be on the watchful lookout for where your own love ends and lust begins.

Perhaps Sophia’s womanly wisdom was on to something much more philosophical than any philosophical thesis. Love cannot exist without tenderness. But lust easily goes without both.

Discover both Leo Tolstoy’s and Sophia Tolstoy’s Diaries in your online bookstore.

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Angela Yurchenko

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Bilingual pianist & business journalist. Writing about the Human Experience.


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