My Life...in 1,125 Pages. Suivez-Moi
Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya Wedding Portrait, 1862In 2010 I learned that Sofia Tolstoy’s writings called My Life had finally been published. I knew it existed in Russian archives, but it had never been translated and published. What puzzled me in 2010 was why it wasn’t turning up in any local libraries so that I could read it. …and that would be Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya for my Russian friends.
My fascination with Russian culture began as a teen, and I still have most of the books I started gathering then. A copy of Anna Karenina that I probably read first at 16 or 17. Then, I strongly identified with the character of Kitty who was based strongly on Sofia Tolstoy when she was a teen. I would read the book at the start of any snowfall in subsequent years; always with Anna visiting her wayward brother Stefan, trying to make peace in his family with his wife. As I re-read, and matured, I grew to identify with all of the characters. Multiple copies of War and Peace, books on history, on politics, my old Russian grammar books…
I should tuck in here that I don’t think there has ever been a successful version of Anna Karenina on either film on television. Keira Knightley, the latest, is grossly miscast as Anna. Anna is a sensualist. Keira is all teeth, jaw and angles. Too brittle.
This year I finally started tackling my 26 page reading list, most of the books having to be acquired by intralibrary loans. It was by this means I finally acquired a copy of My Life, and upon receiving it, I can see why most libraries wouldn’t have it. It was published by the University of Ottawa. It weighs a ton. Not the sort of volume you want propped on your chest for bedtime reading. It runs 1,125 pages. That would stop most in their tracks.
The writings reflect back to her childhood, living within the Kremlin walls, into her teen years and throughout her married life. Leo (Lev Nikolaevich) Tolstoy was a family friend, many years older than Sofia. Her older sister Liza had thought Leo would marry her, so there was a great deal of discord within the family when he proposed to Sofia. She writes with an honesty that is painful, including what she viewed as a rape in the marriage carriage on their way to Tolstroy’s country estate, Yasnaya Polyana.
In those few years where she entered society, prior to her young marriage, she speaks of the freedom she feels within herself, that spreading of wings that most teens experience in some degree. She loved the city, she loved culture, she loved learning, and she loved her finery. That is what I wanted to focus on now.
The year before she was married, she was trying to remove her presence from Tolstoy by leaving the house before he was expected, trying to give her sister Liza a chance at winning his love. When Tolstoy would discover that Sofia wasn’t present, he would sometimes storm off, which, as you can imagine, created even greater familial problems.
Sofia writes about one of Lev’s visits where she was wearing a white and purple barège dress. (Barege is defined as a “light silky gauze fabric made of wool.”) On the shoulders were “bright purple bows from which long ribbons hung down called Suivez moi. (Follow me.) From a book called Mode and Manners of the Nineteenth Century I learned that in 1853, a fashion was introduced where hats, chignons, or dresses were adorned with two long narrow ribbons (often velvet) that hung all the way down the back to the ground and were called “Flirtation ribbons” or in Paris “Suivez moi” or “Jeune homme.” (young men).
The "Anna Karenina" ring that Tolstoy had made in Moscow for Sofia of diamonds and a ruby--for her sacrifice and multiple copyings of Anna Karenina
Seeing her with her ribbons, Tolstoy said, “I’m disappointed that you didn’t dress up this fancy at Auntie’s." He was smiling. “And you’re not dancing?” I asked. “No, what’s the sense?” he replied. “I’m too old.” If only she had heeded that comment. Sofia knew, from the time she was a teen, that she loved being in a large city, that she loved gorgeous clothes and she loved "sparkle." When Tolstoy wrote his farewell letter to her in 1910 he stated “I can no longer stand living in these conditions of luxury.” Yet, he returned to those conditions after his pilgrimages and wheat cuttings with the peasants time and again.
She said about her husband, “Everyone asks: ‘But why should a worthless woman like you need an intellectual, artistic life?’ To this I can only reply: ‘I don’t know, but eternally suppressing it to serve a genius is a great misfortune.”
Suivez moi? I’m up to page 472, Sofia. There have been many births and several deaths of children. Ultimately you bore him 13 children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. You could write. You could paint. You could play music. You sewed almost all of your family’s clothing.
And just in the past few pages, I learned your husband (feeling pressured) dumped the entire business of your family into your hands: the estate, the multiple properties, the hiring and firing of employees, his book deals and publishing rites. You would even travel to Moscow to choose the paper for the book while squeezing in pleas to the government for people your husband felt should be pardoned. I don’t know how you did it and kept your voice, or your mind.
Sofia's bedroom at Yasnaya Polyana. Her writing desk is in the far right of the photograph.