Many readers may know that such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence used their marriages for literary inspiration and material. In Russian literary marriages, these women 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 Sofia Tolstoy to Vera Nabokov and Elena Mandelshtam 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, like Vera and Sofia, were the writers’ intellectual companions and willingly contributed to the creative process—they commonly used the word “we” to describe the progress of their husbands’ work. And their husbands knew it too. Leo Tolstoy made no secret of Sofia’s involvement in War and Peace, 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.