Fun Facts Friday: The Marriage of Leo & Sofya Tolstoy

September 23, 2011

September 23, 1862 marks the wedding anniversary of one of them the most tumultuous couples in literary history (and there were many) when Leo Tolstoy married Sophie Andreyevna Behrs. The couple not only had 16 years of difference in their ages, but also had different values, goals and clashing personalities.

Tolstoy maintained that the problems started about 14 years into their marriage, he wrote in 1894:

“It began that time fourteen years ago, when the string snapped and I became aware of my loneliness.”

But in his 1994 book “Love and Hatred: The Troubled Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy”, journalist William L. Shirer (Amazon Page) wrote:

“In truth, their diaries show, it began at the very outset of their marriage.”

1 ) Leo and Sofya’s mothers were childhood friends.

2 ) Leo decided that if Sofya’s sister, Tanya, sang the last high note of a song well it would be a sign from G-d to propose.
Tanya sang.
Leo proposed.
Sofya accepted.

Leo, a writer through and through, proposed through a letter:

“Sofya Andreyevna, the situation has become intolerable to me. Every day for three weeks I have sworn to myself: today I shall speak; and every day I leave you with the same anguish, the same regret, the same terror, the same joy in my heart … I am bringing this letter with me, to give to you in case I lack the opportunity, or the courage to speak … Tell me, tell me truthfully, do you want to be my wife? But do not answer yes unless you can do so fearlessly, from the bottom of your heart. If you cannot, if you have the shadow of a doubt, then it is better to answer no. For the love of God, be certain! If you say no, it will be awful for me, but I am expecting it and shall find strength to bear it. For if I were your husband and were not loved as much as I love, it would be more awful still.”

Source: Henri Troyat. “Tolstoy“. pg. 245.

3 ) They were married within a week.

4) Many details of the Tolstoys courtship appear in Levin and Kitty’s romance in “Anna Karenina”.

Source: “A Tolstoy Timeline.”

5 ) The Tolstoys had 13 children, 10 survived infancy while eight survived to adulthood.

6 ) Besides infidelity, the Tolstoys argued about almost anything sex, money, finances, jealousy, parenting, ethics and even what to do with Leo’s stuff after he died.

7 ) Even though they had many issues Sofya was devoted to Leo’s literary work.

8 ) Sofya copied the manuscript for “War and Peaceseven times while acting as Leo’s copyist.

9 ) Leo and Sofya’s life are documented through thousands of photographs that Sofya took (a new art form at the time).

10) The straw that broke the camel’s back in the Tolstoy household was Leo’s desire to give away all his private property. Abruptly, Leo left Sofya in 1910 at age 82.
He died 10 days later.

Books Mentioned in this Post:

Zohar – Man of la Book

Shirer, W. (1994). Love and hatred: the troubled marriage of leo and sonya tolstoy. New York: Simon & Schuster
Sophia tolstaya. (2011, August 12). Retrieved from
Stritof, C., & Stritof, B. (n.d.). The courtship of leo and sofya tolstoy. Retrieved from
Troyat, H. (2001). Tolstoy. New York: Grove Press.


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  • Stephanie @ Read in a Single Sitting September 23, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Egads, imagine writing out War and Peace seven times by hand. And I’ve heard that Tolstoy’s writing was close to illegible. Poor Sophya!

  • Booklover Book Reviews October 6, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Melodrama in fiction is compelling ( I thoroughly enjoyed Anna Karenina), but melodrama in a husband in real life? Painful. 😉

    • zohar October 6, 2011 at 8:51 pm

      I agree, I wouldn’t want to live out the drama which is played out in books.

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