The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants

  • Alexandra Popoff
  • Pegasus Books
  • 332 pp.

Through their devotion and supreme managerial skills, the six spouses in this absorbing book “spoke to the world through their husbands’genius.”

Reviewed by Roberta Rubenstein

The truism that “behind every great man stands a great woman” has no better illustration than Alexandra Popoff’s absorbing The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants. Anna Dostoevsky, Sophia Tolstoy, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Véra Nabokov, Elena Bulgakov and Natalya Solzhenitsyn were devoted to the point of selflessness to their husbands’ literary careers and artistic posterity, even “commonly [using] the word ‘we’ to describe the progress of their husbands’ work.” Popoff persuades us that the oeuvres of these six writers exist in large part because of the vital collaborative and protective roles played by their wives: Each succored her husband’s literary talents and secured his legacy, often at considerable personal sacrifice and risk.

As a group, the wives provided unconditional moral, emotional and practical support for writer-husbands who faced challenges ranging from debt, penury and homelessness to censorship, political and religious persecution, poisoning, banishment and imprisonment. By necessity, they developed essential editorial and managerial skills. Yet, perhaps because a tradition of women writers never developed in Russia, they willingly subordinated their talents to their husbands’, serving as stenographers, copyists, editors and nurturers of creative genius. Although The Wives is made up primarily of individual biographies, one can discern through these narratives important strands in the history of literature in 19th-century Russia and its tragic turn in the Soviet Union during the 20th.

The six literary helpmeets had in common several important qualities and abilities, including intelligence, resourcefulness and practical skills. The first professional assignment (as a stenographer) of the woman who would marry Dostoevsky literally saved his career, for the writer’s failure to deliver the draft of his novella, The Gambler, to an unscrupulous editor by the contracted deadline would have cost  Dostoevsky rights to his work for nine years. Later, Anna Dostoevsky (like Sophia Tolstoy) created a publishing business to promote her spouse’s works. Anna, only 35 when Dostoevsky died at the age of 60, spent the 37 years of her widowhood assembling and disseminating her husband’s literary oeuvre.

Several wives persevered despite husbands who were — or who became — difficult to live with, whether as a result of temperament, illness or adverse external circumstances. Anna Dostoevsky contended not only with Fyodor’s gambling addiction and debts but also with his irritable temperament, depression and epilepsy. Early in the Tolstoy marriage, Sophia found creative fulfillment as her husband’s partner and editor: Her work on War and Peace, which included copying multiple drafts and offering Leo editorial suggestions, united her with her husband and gave her a sense of purpose. Later, however, she regretted so completely subordinating her own talents and interests in music, painting, photography and languages to Tolstoy’s literary career. Bitterly, she confided to her diary: “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 — a longing for education, a love of music and the arts. … And time and again I have crushed and smothered all these longings. …” Over the course of the marriage, she also endured 16 pregnancies and suffered the loss of five children. Yet she organized charity events for famine relief, managed the large Tolstoy estate and nursed her husband through serious illnesses. Her reward for such contributions and sacrifices was repudiation by her husband, who also disavowed his own literary works.

With the exception of Sophia Tolstoy, the challenge of living with financial adversity is a common thread in the lives of these literary wives. Dostoevsky’s debts and gambling addiction were so pressing that at one point Anna pawned her dowry and Dostoevsky even pawned his wedding ring in exchange for cash to gamble. Of the four Soviet-era writers and their wives, only the Nabokovs, who fled from the Soviet Union in 1940, escaped financial hardship and political intimidation. Nabokov became a celebrated professor of Russian literature at Cornell University; his wife and most ardent supporter, Véra sat in the front row of his classes, critiquing his lectures and grading student exams. Perhaps Véra’s most important literary contribution was to stop her husband from burning drafts of Lolita. When Véra died in 1991, 14 years after her husband, her ashes were added to Nabokov’s cremation urn, one more illustration of the way these wives became the literal extensions of their writer-husbands.

For their creative independence, the other Soviet-era writers were punished to a greater or lesser degree by Communist Party officials and even by Stalin himself, with penalties ranging from the banning of their works to political incarceration. Osip Mandelstam’s fiercely honest poetry rankled Soviet officials, leading to humiliation, penury, exile, torture and, ultimately, death in the monstrous gulag. Nadezhda, his wife, recognized that her most important task was the preservation of Osip’s work, which she achieved by committing all of his poems to memory and securing his literary papers by stuffing them in a suitcase that she alternately carried with her or  hid with trusted friends. After his death at the age of 47 — his body tossed into a “common burial pit” — Nadezhda pursued a degree in philology while surreptitiously preparing Mandelstam’s literary oeuvre for publication. By the time she died in1980 at the age of 80, Nadezhda — whose name ironically means “hope” in Russian — had not only preserved her husband’s entire body of work but had published two memoirs of her own: Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned.

Though the playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov escaped the gulag, his career was equally crushed by Soviet repression. All but one of 16 works that he wrote during the 1930s were “banned for political reasons.” With the devotion and encouragement of his wife, Elena — model for the mystical character, Marguerita, in The Master and Marguerita — he completed that novel before he died, spiritually broken, at the age of 48. Elena preserved the drafts and struggled for decades to get it into print. Finally, the novel appeared to international acclaim in 1967 and is now regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century Russian literature.

Like Nadezhda Mandelstam, Natalya Solzhenitsyn typed, copied and hid her husband’s manuscripts, but her efforts went further. She was “instrumental in arranging a steady circle of allies with channels to the West,” through which her husband’s novels eventually achieved European publication. Alexander Solzhenitzyn served time in the gulag and later survived the injection of a poisonous substance by a KGB operative but his international fame — he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, to Soviet embarrassment — somewhat mitigated further political reprisals. However, when The Gulag Archipelago was published in Europe during the 1970s, Solzhenitsyn was summarily punished by deportation. He and Natalya lived as recluses in Vermont until, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he was rehabilitated and they returned permanently to Russia. Following Alexander’s death in 2008, Natalya, “Russia’s most powerful literary widow,” continued, and continues, to edit his collected works.

The author of The Wives, herself the daughter of a Russian novelist and author of an award-winning biography of Sophia Tolstoy, writes with verve and clarity. Popoff’s engrossing stories of these six indomitable women who “spoke to the world through their husbands’ genius” is deeply engaging and a pleasure to read. The book is enhanced by eight pages of black-and-white photos of the wives and their writers.

Roberta Rubenstein, professor of literature at American University in Washington D.C., is the author of Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). She has published two other scholarly studies and more than 30 articles and book chapters on modern and contemporary women writers, including Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Drabble, Barbara Kingsolver and others.

comments powered by Disqus