Read The Wives: The Women Behind Russia's Literary Giants Online

Authors: Alexandra Popoff

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Literary

The Wives: The Women Behind Russia's Literary Giants

BOOK: The Wives: The Women Behind Russia's Literary Giants
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To My Parents

A Note on Russian Names

In the Russian language, a formal address requires the use of first name and patronymic (derived from the father’s first name). In the text I use only first names as this is more familiar to a Western reader; the index provides a list of full names.

With few exceptions, I use the masculine form of family names (e.g., Anna Dostoevsky, Sophia Tolstoy, Véra Nabokov, Elena Bulgakov, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn). In Russian, these names have feminine endings: Dostoevskaya, Tolstaya, Nabokova, Bulgakova, and Solzhenitsyna. Nadezhda Mandelstam’s name has the same ending in both English and Russian.

The names Anna Karenina, Natasha Rostova, Anna Akhmatova, and Marina Tsvetaeva are familiar to the reader and appear unchanged in the text.

Among family and friends, a diminutive of the first name is commonly used; for example, Tanya for Tatyana, Masha for Maria, Sasha for Alexandra, Fedya for Fyodor, and Vanya (or Vanechka) for Ivan.

Lev is also frequently used interchangeably with Leo.


grew up in Moscow in the family of a writer and used to believe that every writer’s wife was involved in her husband’s creative work as much as my mother was. She collaborated with my father from the moment his novel was conceived till its completion. She was a natural storyteller and, at my father’s request, talked about her childhood in Kiev during Stalin’s mass purges of the 1930s. My grandfather had a job in a ministry as a speechwriter, and his family lived in an apartment house populated with government officials. During the height of the purges, my mother had witnessed the arrests in their building. Every night, she listened to the sound of the “black marias” stopping at their entrance. In the morning, some of their neighbors’ doors were sealed; the adults had disappeared in prisons or camps and their children sent to orphanages. My grandmother kept a razor under her pillow to escape such a fate: there was at least personal choice in suicide. Fortunately, my grandfather was transferred to a different bureaucracy in Moscow where, because of the sweeping arrests, Soviet secret police lost track of him; then the war started.

In the fall of 1941, my mother saw gulag inmates at a railway station, a sight she would never forget: men in prison clothes were
forced to kneel on the snow-covered platform while guards counted them, like cattle. This was just one of my mother’s stories employed in my father’s novel
July 1941
, among the first anti-Stalinist works published in the Soviet Union.
The railway scene later became a bone of contention between my parents: mother claimed the scene as “hers,” while father insisted he had other sources.

My mother was her husband’s first reader, editor, and literary adviser. She routinely discussed the scenes from his novels, and when she proofread, she lived his fiction again. In childhood I used to believe that there was nothing unusual about my parents’ collaboration and that, in fact, a writer’s wife was a profession itself.

This was not incorrect: literary wives in Russia traditionally performed a variety of tasks as stenographers, editors, typists, researchers, translators, and publishers. Russian writers married women with good literary taste who were profoundly absorbed with their art and felt comfortable in secondary roles. Living under restrictive regimes, the women battled censorship and preserved the writers’ illicit archives, often putting themselves at risk. They established a tradition of their own, unmatched in the West.

Ithaca, September 1958: An evocative photograph shows Véra Nabokov at her typewriter and a mirror-reflected image of the writer himself, dictating. Throughout their marriage of fifty-two years, Véra was Vladimir Nabokov’s assistant and inspiration for his best thoughts, as he said. In 1965, Nabokov described their work together in an interview:

Well … my very kind and patient wife … sits down at her typewriter and I, I dictate, I dictate off the cards to her, making some changes and very often, very often discussing this or that.

She might say, ‘Oh, you don’t say that, you can’t say that.’

‘Well, let’s see, perhaps, I can change it.’

Nabokov’s marriage was central to his writing: Véra contributed ideas, assisted with research, edited manuscripts, read proofs, translated his works, conducted his correspondence, and when he taught at Cornell assisted in preparing his lectures and marked students’ papers. As Saul Steinberg remarked, “It would be difficult to write about Véra without mentioning Vladimir. But it would be impossible to write about Vladimir without mentioning Véra.”

Although Véra worked alongside Nabokov, she remained discreet about her involvement and, as she told an interviewer, would even panic when finding her name in his footnotes. Her concern for Nabokov’s reputation was paramount and she preferred to remain in his shadow, reluctant to share private information.

The truth is, in their country of origin, the Nabokovs’ close literary marriage was not unusual. Véra was simply following in the path of her great predecessors, Sophia Tolstoy and Anna Dostoevsky, their husbands’ indispensable aides and collaborators. To use Nabokov’s expression, these women formed “a single shadow” with the writers.

When Leo Tolstoy first met Dostoevskys’ widow, he exclaimed, “How astonishing that our writers’ wives look so much like their husbands!” Tolstoy was referring to a particular bond between the writers and their muses. In her reminiscences, Anna Dostoevsky describes the episode with a mild irony, inherent in her style:

“Do you really think I look like Fyodor Mikhailovich?” I asked happily.

“Extraordinarily like! It was just precisely someone like you that I’ve been picturing as Dostoevskys’ wife!”

Tolstoy’s reaction when he saw Anna was both amusing and noteworthy: he had never met Dostoevsky, so it was certainly not
a physical resemblance that he had in mind. Upon meeting Anna, Tolstoy sensed an aura, which belonged specifically to Dostoevskys’ fictional world and which his widow was now bearing.

Years later, when Tolstoy died, Boris Pasternak observed Sophia at the funeral. He describes his feeling of awe before the woman who had assisted the great novelist and was a model for his heroines; she seemed inseparable from Tolstoy’s creations:

In the room lay a mountain like Elbrus, and she was one of its large, detached crags; the room was filled by a storm cloud the size of half the sky, and she was one of its separate lightnings.

Sophia admired Tolstoy’s writing while still a girl, when they first met. Upon marrying him at eighteen, she settled with Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, then an isolated estate and ideally suited for the writer. She was always eager to assist him by copying his works and contributing her diaries and letters, which gave him a deeper insight into the female psyche. Sophia would copy his manuscripts overnight: their growing family demanded her attention during the day. This work was never a burden: she was artistically gifted and Tolstoy’s writing fascinated her:

As I copy I experience a whole new world of emotions, thoughts and impressions. Nothing touches me so deeply as his ideas, his genius … I write very quickly, so I can follow the story and catch the mood, but slowly enough to be able to stop, reflect upon each new idea and discuss it with him later. He and I often talk about the novel together, and for some reason he listens to what I have to say (which makes me very proud) and trusts my opinions.

In 1865, during
War and Peace
, a visitor to their estate called Sophia “the perfect wife for a writer” and “the nursemaid” of her husband’s talent.
Tolstoy’s most celebrated novels were created
during their first two decades of marriage—and these works draw closely from their family life. During the following decades, Sophia continued to inspire Tolstoy and contribute to him as his publisher, translator, photographer, and biographer.

Although the Tolstoys’ marriage has been described many times, it remains little understood. Sophia did not receive credit for her many contributions to the writer. Instead, she became widely criticized for not supporting Tolstoy during his religious phase when he renounced his copyright and property. When Tolstoy fled their estate at the age of eighty-two, the world around Sophia turned into a courtroom where she stood accused. Regardless of the fact that Tolstoy himself chose to flee because he wanted to live out his days as a simple pilgrim and die a simple death, Sophia was blamed for his departure. She was prevented from entering Tolstoy’s room in a stationmaster’s house at Astapovo where he lay dying, and so the great man died surrounded by his disciples.

The Russian public treated their writers as prophets and gave little personal sympathy to their wives; the latters’ dedication was taken for granted. After Fyodor Dostoevskys’ death, Anna received delegations from across the country that, to her annoyance, came to speak about her late husband’s importance for the national literature, about the “great loss Russia had suffered.” When someone finally expressed consideration for her personally, she seized the stranger’s hand and kissed it in gratitude.

Anna was a twenty-year-old stenographer when she received an assignment to take dictation from Dostoevsky. The circumstances of their encounter were dramatic: in 1866, the writer was trapped in an impossible contract, which forced him to produce a full-length novel in just four weeks. Should he fail to meet the obligation, he would lose the rights to all his work.

For twenty-six days, Anna took his dictation and transcribed her notes at home; due to her perseverance, Dostoevsky escaped catastrophe. When the novel
The Gambler
was completed, he realized he could no longer write without his collaborator: dictating became
his preferred way of composition. He told Anna of an insightful dream, that he found a sparkling diamond among his papers. The writer did indeed find his prize.

Dostoevsky proposed to Anna through a thinly disguised story about an elderly, sick, and debt-ridden artist, in love with an exuberant girl. Would the girl marry the artist, or would that be too much of a sacrifice? For Anna, who had been “enraptured” with Dostoevskys’ novels since childhood, the idea of helping him in his work and caring for him was attractive.

My love was entirely cerebral.… It was more like adoration and reverence for a man of such talent and such noble qualities of spirit…. The dream of becoming his life companion, of sharing his labors and lightening his existence, of giving him happiness—this was what took hold of my imagination; and Fyodor Mikhailovich
became my god, my idol.

Her attitude to Dostoevsky did not change during fourteen years of marriage filled with financial uncertainty; despite privations, she considered her life to “have been one of exceptional happiness.”
Anna had committed to paper many of his novels, including his most celebrated,
Crime and Punishment
The Brothers Karamazov
. Dostoevsky called her his collaborator and guardian angel: she nursed him through his gambling addiction and his epileptic attacks, and helped him return to writing, time and time again. Eventually, Anna paid off Dostoevskys’ debts by bringing out his books and managing his business affairs. But as she remarked in her memoir, it was not only for profit that she became a publisher—she found an interesting occupation for herself.

Dostoevsky remained her idol after he died: Anna collaborated with his biographers and established his museums. In the same way, Sophia during her widowhood continued to work for Tolstoy: she prepared his letters for publication, collected everything about him that appeared in print, catalogued his library, and toured visitors around their estate, which she preserved intact.

BOOK: The Wives: The Women Behind Russia's Literary Giants
10.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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