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Tolstoy, Sonya (1844–1919)

Tolstoy, Sonya (1844–1919)

Russian wife of Leo Tolstoy. Name variations: Countess Tolstoy or Tolstoi; Sonia, Sophie, Sofya, Sofia, Sofiya, Sofie Anreevna; Sophie Behrs. Born Sophia Andreyevna Behrs in 1844; died in 1919; daughter of Lyubov Alexandrovna Behrs (who was the illegitimate daughter of Princess Kozlovsky) and a Dr. Behrs; married

Count Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy (the novelist and social and moral philosopher), on September 23, 1862; children: thirteen (six died young), Sergei or Sergey Lvovich (1863–1947); Tatyana Tolstoy Sukhotina (1864–1950); Ilya (1866–1933, whose daughter Vera Tolstoy [1903–1999] worked for the Voice of America); Lev (1869–1945); Marya (1871–1906); Pyotr (1872–1873); Nikolai (1874–1875); Varvara (1875–1875); Andrei (1877–1916); Mikhail (1879–1944); Alexei (1881–1886); Alexandra Tolstoy (1884–1979); Ivan (1888–1895).

When 18-year-old Sonya Behrs wed Count Leo Tolstoy, he was almost twice her age and brought to the marriage a hard-lived soldier's past, one mistress, and an illegitimate son. They were both deeply in love, but, within two months of the ceremony, Sonya began to confide in a diary her inability to comprehend her moody husband and accept his previous life. "Today I suddenly felt that we would gradually drift apart and each live our own lives," she wrote on October 8, 1862, "that I would create my own sad world for myself, and he a world full of work and doubt. And this relationship struck me as vulgar. I have stopped believing in his love. When he kisses me, I think to myself: 'Well, I'm not the first woman.'" Bored, jealous, depressed, and longing for a deeper intimacy, Sonya was obsessed with Tolstoy and would remain obsessed. "When he is away or working, I always think of him, listening for his footsteps, and when he is here I keep watching his face."

She spent the first years of their lives together paying homage to his genius, copying his manuscripts, serving as his business manager, and bearing their children, and the last years begging to be recognized as her own person, with her own wants and needs. Thwarted in an attempt to become his literary companion, exhausted by the births of 13 children, Sonya became quarrelsome and self-pitying. The tension in the household grew worse when Leo turned away from fiction toward social and philosophical causes. With Sonya mystified by his new interests, the gap widened and their views polarized. His interest in Christianity sent her running to the arms of Russian Orthodoxy. Sonya found her husband's advocacy of ascetism and sexual abstinence hypocritical in light of his aristocratic existence and her continued pregnancies.

Sonya's need for her husband, and her need to understand and be understood by her husband, eventually took a toll on her mental health, though she often had enough clarity to assess her own behavior. She wrote in December 1890: "It is sad that my emotional dependence on the man I love should have killed so much of my energy and ability; there was certainly once a great deal of energy in me." At age 82, in 1910, Leo fled Sonya and Yasnaya Polyana; ten days later, he died of pneumonia at an isolated railway station.


Edwards, Anne. Sonya: The Life of Countess Tolstoy. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

Shirer, William L. Love and Hatred: The Troubled Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

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