Book review: The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants by Alexandra Popoff

“SOMEONE should write a book on the influence a woman bears on her husband, in other words on stimulation, and inspiration.” So said Vera Nabokov, and she should know, given the supporting role she carried out to such effect during her marriage to the author of Lolita.

The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants by Alexandra Popoff

Pegasus Books, 400pp, £18.99

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But the implication that such great works would not be possible without the women behind the scenes giving both practical and poetic aid is more than borne out by Alexandra Popoff’s fascinating study.

In considering Anna Dostoevsky, Sophia Tolstoy, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Vera Nabokov, Elena Bulgakov and Natalya Solzhenitsyn, Popoff argues that they all “played important and powerful roles as the writers’ intellectual companions, confidantes, and creative partners. In their widowhood, they carried on as before, translating and promoting their husbands’ works, establishing their museums, and helping biographers.” What’s more, she says, “This book should change a popular perception of such lives as miserable, lonely, and unfulfilled.”

I’m not sure that’s the overwhelming impression. The first three wives in this book suffered almost unimaginable grief and discomfort. Both Anna Dostoevsky and Sophia Tolstoy married their much older, already published husbands when they were only 18. Nadezhda Mandelstam was slightly older, at 23, but all were subjected to the jealous moods of their possessive husbands, and isolated from their friends and families (Anna’s mother was permitted only when she could be useful, helping with newborns or providing gambling addict Dostoevsky with funds).

Anna was disillusioned when, on the eve of their wedding, her future husband presented her with a diary of his sexual history – the very same happened to Sophia, when Tolstoy informed her of his illegitimate child and visits to brothels. Both women had appalling wedding nights – Sophia would describe hers in her novella later as little more than rape. Yet both women turned those difficult beginnings around by dedicating their lives to their genius husbands. Never in doubt about their work (even if their husbands were), they managed households single-handedly, typed up manuscripts, discussed ideas and helped publish their husbands’ work. A pattern of mutual need had begun – Tolstoy and Dostoevsky could barely function without Sophia and Anna but their wives soon became emotionally dependent, too, it seems. Young Anna aged rapidly, with Dostoevsky’s constant demands, and Sophia was exhausted with successive childbearing (13 in all).

Nadezhda Mandelstam is the first wife to be a victim of the times she was living in – her husband had revolutionary views but ten years after they married, his views were out of step with Stalin’s and his poetry was causing problems. Nadezhda had given up working, staying at home with her husband to be his secretary, as he preferred, something she disliked at first. When other male writers came to visit, she was expected, like other wives, not to butt into “masculine conversation”, and Mandelstam even took a mistress. It was only when Nadezhda caught TB that Mandelstam, faced with the possibility of losing her, changed his attitude towards her. Constantly homeless, watched by the secret police, often hungry and always poor, they lived through appalling times until Mandelstam died in a labour camp at the age 
of 46.

Vera Nabokov’s family had fled the Bolsheviks just as her husband’s family had, and it was in Berlin as émigrés that they met. Like all the wives here, Vera was literary, intelligent, and highly interested in her husband’s work – he was already published by the time she met him. Her life was perhaps easier than the others, given her husband’s literary and financial success, and like Elena Bulgakov, there is some romance to it. Both Elena and Bulgakov were married to others when they fell in love, and they stayed in Russia, dodging the authorities as Bulgakov took on theatre director roles. Constantly being banned for his plays, he also somehow managed to be financially successful.

It is with Natalya Solzhenitsyn that this brief interlude of comfort ends – her grandfather had died in a Soviet gulag, which helped her understand Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences. Again, her husband was a published celebrity by the time Natalya met him in 1968, when she agreed to type up his latest novel for him. As with all the wives, she helped edit his work, but she also had to smuggle out his archive from under the nose of the authorities, a highly dangerous thing to do. Again, their relationship was intense and close, permitting few outsiders – when they were deported from the Soviet Union and settled in Vermont, Solzhenitsyn shut them off from the outside world on an estate ringed by barbed wire.

The overall impression here is of devoted women coping with difficult men; behind that impression lies more disturbing questions about extreme dependency and even abuse – Anna Dostoevsky deliberately dressed down to avoid being accused by her husband of attracting male glances. These were not ideal relationships but the women survived their husbands. Whether they ever survived the hold these men had on them is open to question – each woman worked to her end to shore up her husband’s posthumous legacy. Life with a genius is never easy – life with a Russian genius even less so.