Sofia Tolstoy: The Overlooked Photographer and Writer in Tolstoy's Shadow

Explore the life and works of Sofia Andreyevna Behrs, the multi-talented wife of Russian author Leo Tolstoy. Find out why, despite what society says, she loves photography, writing, and more in this detailed summary.

Sofia Tolstoy: The Overlooked Photographer and Writer in Tolstoy's Shadow
Sofia Andreyevna Behrs. Credit: Wikipedia

Sofia would perform a ritual every year on September 23rd unless she was stopped. She would dress nicely, select a location, take her camera, prepare the frame, study the light, and then pose with Tolstoy for a picture. The last portrait was taken in 1910, and Tolstoy died two months later. Tolstoy's marriage was troubled due to differences in beliefs and the interference of Tolstoy's followers.

Sofia supported her husband despite not understanding his beliefs, but they had different views on art. In the last portrait, they appear distant with separate gazes. Sofia holds his hand affectionately while he looks at the camera with a surly expression. Tolstoy requested the pose to show a loving couple, but the distance between them is hinted at.

Tolstoy's wife, Sofia, is often overlooked in English editions that feature her husband's portrait on the cover. Her reputation as the cause of her husband's crisis has followed her, but she wanted to be remembered differently. In a letter, she asked her husband why he treated her badly in his diaries and wished for future generations to view her as a wicked wife. She asked him to cross out the negative words, but he did not, possibly to make himself appear as a martyr and her as a tormentor.

The translator Marta Rebón had a difficult time finding the Russian edition of Sofia's novel, "Whose fault is it?" while in Israel on a scholarship. After searching many libraries, the translator finally found two books at the National Library in Jerusalem: "Tolstoy and His Wife" by Tikhon Polner, which portrays Sofia as "the wife of", and "Song Without Words: The Photographs and Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy", a book that explores her life as a photographer through over a thousand of her photographs.

She was surprised by Sofia's photography skills, which showed a freshness, sensitivity, and modernity that were rare for the time, especially for a woman. Sofia's self-portraits stood out because they showed her need for emotional distance and self-assertion, even though her husband, kids, and family responsibilities made her feel like she couldn't do either.

Lev and Sofia Tolstoy, September 23, 1910.
Lev and Sofia Tolstoy, September 23, 1910.

Sofia wrote in her diary about her discussions with her husband and wanted to convey a certain image of herself and Lev. This was important at a time when the image of writers was becoming increasingly important. Sofia competed with her rival, Vladimir Chertkov, to create this image. Both knew that portraits could reveal much about a writer, and Sofia focused on portraying the intimate, familiar Tolstoy, while Chertkov aimed to capture the philosopher, preacher, and activist.

Sofia Tolstoy wrote "Whose fault is it?" to show the contradictions in her husband's actions and beliefs. She wrote "Sonata to Kreutzer" about a couple's sexual relationship, which was seen as a public attack on her. She wrote another novel, inspired by her marriage, but did not publish it. The manuscript was first printed in 1994.

Tolstaia portrays a generous and idealistic view of a woman, Anna, in her novel Whose fault is it? Anna marries a dissolute nobleman, Prince Prozorski, but finds spiritual fulfillment in a painter. Prozorski becomes jealous and murders Anna. Tolstaia places all the blame for the unhappy marriage on the husband.

Sofia Andreyevna Behrs was a multi-talented intellectual with many interests, including writing, memoirs, photography, editing, and translation. She supported her husband's literary work by being his first reader, critic, and editor, but felt limited by society's expectations of a woman. She felt that her creative talents were stunted because she devoted herself to her family and her husband. In her diary, she thinks about the lack of female geniuses and says that many women's artistic skills are lost because they are so focused on being good mothers and taking care of their families.

Source: Rebón, Marta. “Querida (Y Denostada) Sofia | Marta Rebón.” Querida (Y Denostada) Sofia | Marta Rebón, Nov. 2019,