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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

War and Peace in the Tolstoy Home

Brak, the Russian word for marriage, has a secondary definition; it can also mean "waste" or "rejected thing." The irony of this double meaning must not have been lost on either Leo or Sonya Tolstoy as they contemplated their strife-ridden union of 48 years and its pitiful conclusion on a railway platform in 1910.


The story of the octogenarian Leo Tolstoy's mid-winter flight from his wife, and subsequent death from pneumonia in the humble stationmaster's house at Astapovo, is a familiar one. But it was a tale that came to haunt William L. Shirer, the distinguished American historian and biographer. So much so that he spent the last years of his life struggling to master Russian so as to read the diaries and correspondence of the couple in the original. He wanted to understand how their marriage could have become, in Leo Tolstoy's words, "a struggle to the death."


"Love and Hatred" is the posthumous result of this long labor, and it is an intimate, even-handed examination of the relationship between one of Russia's greatest novelists and his talented, neurotic spouse. It makes compelling, if emotionally exhausting reading.


Leo Tolstoy always had contradictory feelings about women. As a young man he preferred to satisfy his indefatigable libido in what he called "wenching." His diaries catalogue his regular visits to prostitutes, his frequent attacks of the clap and his great sexual passion for Axinya Bazykina, a married serf whose robust strength excited him, and who bore his first child. But outside the bedroom Tolstoy had little time for women, remarking that he "regard[ed] the society of women as a necessary unpleasantness of social life, and avoid[ed] it as much as possible."


His marriage to Sofya Andreyevna Behrs, or Sonya, as he would always call her, began inauspiciously enough. Tolstoy initially courted the oldest Behrs daughter before focusing his attention, to all the family's confusion, on Sonya. At 18, this inteliigent, strong-willed girl was almost half his age. His insistence that the wedding preparations be made in frantic haste did nothing to still his doubts. The wedding scene in "Anna Karenina," with Levin's unscheduled, angst-ridden visit to Kitty on the wedding day and long delay in arriving at church, was modeled accurately on the couple's own experience.


But more destructive yet was Tolstoy's insistence, four days before the wedding, that Sonya read all his bachelor diaries so that there would be no secrets between them. He could hardly have guessed at the effect that these revelations of debauchery would have had on the unworldly and pathologically jealous Sonya. But from that day on diaries, which both of them kept for the vast majority of their life together, were to play an increasingly pivotal role in their relationship.


From the very beginning it was their favored method of communication. And each would read the other's increasingly brutally frank catalog of dissatisfaction, anger and longing for escape. Less than two weeks after the wedding Sonya wrote: "Little by little I shall withdraw completely from him and poison his life." It turned out to be a frighteningly accurate prediction. And, as Tolstoy neared death, control of the diaries, "his holy of holies," and the key to posterity's image of both individuals, became an obsessive battle between Sonya and Tolstoy's chief acolyte, Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov. So deep was the conflict between the couple that former biographers have generally sided with one or the other, as indeed most of the Tolstoy children felt compelled to do during their parents' lifetime.


But Shirer is careful to tell both sides of the story, and this is one of the book's primary strengths. He looks elsewhere for the villain of the piece and finds him in the form of Chertkov. It was Chertkov whose autocratic temperament and malign influence was irreparably to damage the already shaky foundations of the Tolstoy union and Sonya's mental stability, in Shirer's view.


However, Chertkov simply exacerbated what had become an existential conflict with the onset of Tolstoy's mid-life spiritual crisis in 1878. Denouncing the novels that had made him rich as well as world-famous, Tolstoy desired to renounce all his property, sexual congress and the copyright to his work in order to live a simple life on the land. But Sonya was determined to protect the inheritance of her ever-increasing family, to let them eat white bread, as she put it. And the more Tolstoy compromised his principles in order to humor Sonya, the more she accused him of hypocrisy and vanity. When the intense sexual side of their relationship finally subsided it took with it any hope of reconciliation or understanding.


"Love and Hatred" provides a fascinating insight into the intolerable demands and malevolent machinations of a bad marriage. While the reader may, in the end, conclude that it is as difficult to be married to an obsessive neurotic as to an egocentric genius, Sonya's final plea for understanding remains hauntingly eloquent. Three years after Leo's death, she begged the indulgence of posterity in her diaries toward a woman who had the boundless love, but lacked the selfless strength, to live with a genius.





"Love and Hatred," subtitled "The Stormy Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy," by William L. Shirer, Aurum Press, 371 pages, ?16.95.