Format Hardcover
Publication Date 08/01/12
ISBN 9781605983660
Trim Size / Pages 9.4 x 6.3 in / 400

Request a review copy or press kit

The Wives

The Women Behind Russia's Literary Giants

Alexandra Popoff

Muses and editors. Saviors and publishers. The women behind the greatest works of russian literature.

“Behind every good man is a good woman” is a common saying, but when it comes to literature, the relationship between spouses is even that much more complex. F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence used their marriages for literary inspiration and material, sometime at the expense of their spouses’ sanity. Thomas Carlyle wanted his wife to assist him, but Jane Carlyle became increasingly bitter and resentful in her new role, putting additional strain on their relationship. In Russian literary marriages, however, the wives of some of the most famous authors of all time did not resent taking a “secondary position,” although to call their position secondary does not do justice to the vital role these women played in the creation of some of the greatest literary works in history. From Sophia Tolstoy to Vera Nabokov, Elena Bulgakov, Nadezdha Mandelstam, Anna Dostevsky, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn, these women ranged from stenographers and typists to editors, researchers, translators, and even publishers. Living under restrictive regimes, many of these women battled censorship and preserved the writers’ illicit archives, often risking their own lives to do so. They established a tradition all their own, unmatched in the West. Many of these women were the writers’ intellectual companions and made invaluable contributions to the creative process. And their husbands knew it. Leo Tolstoy made no secret of Sofia’s involvement in War and Peace in his letters, and Vladimir Nabokov referred to Vera as his own “single shadow.”

Alexandra Popoff is the author of the award-winning biography Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography. She has written for Russian national newspapers and magazines in Moscow and, as an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow, published articles in The Philadelphia Inquirer and its Sunday magazine. She has also contributed to The Huffington Post and The Boston Globe. Popoff lives in Canada where she obtained post-graduate degrees in Russian and English literature.

Buy it now in print: Amazon Barnes & Noble IndieBound

Buy it now in ebook: Amazon Barnes & Noble

Endorsements & Reviews

Intriguing collection of biographies of six extraordinary women who devoted their lives to their husbands’ art. As Popoff (Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography, 2010) demonstrates, the extreme difficulty of surviving as a writer in repressive Russia reflected the formidable characters of each of these women. They fiercely adhered to the Russian philosophy that their husbands’ careers took precedence over all—even, to a point, their children. Their husbands ignored everything: government, money, survival and even family, although perhaps not Mother Russia itself. Taking in turn the wives of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Mandelstam, Nabokov, Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn, Popoff shows the nunlike devotion of these women. They took dictation, transcribed, suggested changes and even memorized their husbands’ works, and they sacrificed promising careers, gentle upbringings and even comfortable marriages to dedicate their entire being to the artists. Throughout their lives, they all suffered dictatorial suppression from the days of the revolution. Stories of papers hidden, lost and smuggled abroad indicate the massive difficulties of life in 20th-century Russia. Tolstoy decided to renounce his copyrights, forego all his properties and give everything to charity—except Yasnaya Polyana, the estate where he retired to write. At this point, his wife, Sophia, actually stood up to him. After 19 pregnancies, 3 miscarriages and 5 infant deaths, she still had children to feed and educate. While all the other wives silently suffered abject poverty, hunger and homelessness, Sophia would have none of it. For that, Tolstoy left rights to his work to another and to her only the estate. Even so, she worked the rest of her life to chronicle his works and organize his archive, devoting even her widowhood to promoting and preserving her husband’s legacy. Fascinating proof that being a writer’s wife is a profession in itself. Kirkus Reviews
“Captivating.” The New Republic