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The woman behind Tolstoy tells her story

As the saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman.


In the case of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, the world can now get to know his literary assistant, transcriber, editor and wife, Sofia Tolstoy, in her recently published memoirs My Life.

Edited by University of Ottawa professor Andrew Donskov and published in English exclusively by the University of Ottawa Press, the recently discovered memoirs paint an honest and sometimes unflattering portrait of Leo Tolstoy. Sofia Tolstoy shares intimate details about her husband, their marriage, family and work, particularly during the writing of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

“Never will there be a documentary piece of this nature – here is a person who knew Tolstoy better than anyone else,” says Dr. Donskov, a professor of Russian literature and director of the Slavic Research Group at U of O. “It’s a huge work and a real chronicle of the family. It would now be unthinkable to write a biography of Tolstoy without drawing upon her memoir.”

As a result of his frequent trips to Russia to study Tolstoy, Dr. Donskov established important ties to museums dedicated to the author. The professor says it was a “real coup” when the manuscript was given to him and the University of Ottawa Press to translate and publish in English.

It took two years for Dr. Donskov and a team of two translators (John Woodsworth and Arkadi Klioutchanski, both members of the Slavic Research Group) and press staff to ready the book for publishing. With more than 1,200 pages to translate, scores of names and details to fact-check with experts in Russia, and 4,000 footnotes to create and index, managing editor Marie Clausén describes My Life as “the biggest and most complex book project I have ever worked on.”

With the book successfully completed and launched, Dr. Donskov has turned his attention to writing a critical study of Sofia’s work; none has ever been published in English. “She was an extremely bright woman,” he says. “What is most remarkable [about My Life] is if she had been given a chance, she would have been a very accomplished writer.”

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