Friday, 26 February 2010

Whatever Happened to Sofia Tolstoy's Pens?

"I have served a genius for almost forty years. Hundreds of times I have felt my intellectual energy stir within me, and all sorts of desires - for education, a love of music and the arts . . . and time and time again I have crushed and smothered these longings".
Victimizing herself? Perhaps. The master of Russian literature was also Sofia Tolstoy's master and she served him dutifully over the years rearing his 13 children, cooking his meals, transcribing his manuscripts, enduring his infidelities, and more. Her diaries were not deemed suitable reading material for the 1970s Russian public - and with good reason. Sofia Tolstoy's writings subverted the venerated persona of Leo Tolstoy and this would not do.

 Whose history, whose story survives? Leo Tolstoy told his-story in his books and in his letters and diaries. His dip pens, his ink stand, his famous electric pen were preserved like sacred relics to feed the fans appetite for historical fetishes: writing instruments once touched by the hand of genius; ink willed to form words by the mind of genius; a chair with shortened legs custom-made to accommodate the genius' holy posterior at the right height; a desk, the holy tabernacle that once hosted the genius' bodily presence - one could imagine the creative mind aethereal juices hovering above it, the white-bearded ascetic face leaning over papers and pens.

Tolstoy's study in Yasnaya Polyana

For every great story that is preserved there is another untold. And for every pen and inkstand displayed there is another destined to obscurity. The contributions of Sofia Tolstoy were consumables for the most part: breast milk, meals, clothes. Devoured, munched, worn, disposed of. When the era of venerated geniuses passed, the diaries of Sofia Tolstoy came to light again to tell their alternative story. Whatever happened to Sofia Tolstoy's pens?

The drawing room in Tolstoy's house where Sofia Tolstoy 
did her needlework, taught her children 
and copied her husband's manuscripts. Tolstoy House in Yasnaya Polyana

Sofia Tolstoy Diaries are published by Alma Books. Helen Mirren is Sofia Tolstoy in Jay Parini's The Last Station, released 19 February 2010.

Sofia Tolstoy by Nikolay Gay

See the interior of Leo Tolstoy's house in Yasnaya Polyana on Memorial collection: The Tolstoy House.
On the Sofia Tolstoy Diaries see Alison Flood, "Sofia Tolstoy's diaries paint bleak portrait of marriage to Leo" in The Guardian, 2 June 2009; my Historical Sources for Biography Essays: The Sofia Tolstoy Diaries on Suite101.


  1. While Sofia's pens may be lost forever, her Kodak camera and 13 by 18 cm. glass plates are preserved, as well as a wonderful collection of photographs that she took with that camera. If you're interested, you should look at "Songs Without Words" by Leah Bendavid-Val.

    Thinking about it now, the title "Songs Without Words" is a haunting refrain of Sofia's missing pens, and long-censored words.

    Great blog!

  2. I would love to see Sofia's camera and the photos she took.
    M, thank you for your comments and your suggestions.