An aspiring literary agent and self-proclaimed bibliophile's take on books.
Muse and confidante, secretary and editor, agent and publisher, savior and wife—these are only a handful of the names bestowed upon the spouses of some of the greatest writers of Russian literaturein Alexandra Popoff’s The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giant. This work of nonfiction delves into the lives of Anna Dostoevsky, Sophia Tolstoy, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Véra Nabokov, Elena Bulgakov, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn, attempting to upend the popular perception that their lives were “miserable, lonely, and unfulfilled.”
To each of these extraordinary women Popoff devotes a single chapter that provides biographical information on both husband and wife prior to their unions before merging, almost symbolically, into a singular narrative that encompasses the marriages, literary collaborations, socio-political struggles, and the couples’ lasting influences on not just Russian, but world literature. Although biographical, The Wives is far from dense and textbook-like. It reads more like a collection of independent short stories that, when grouped, create a larger and more meaningful message than if they’d stood alone.
The stories of these Russian women are heavily impacted by the political discontent in Russia during the late imperial and Soviet eras, times rife with revolution, genocide, and censorship. Such an environment might have provided the fodder for writers like Osip Mandelstam and Mikhail Bulgakov, but their works made them “enemies of the people” and tainted anyone closely associated with them, namely their wives. Censorship made the publication of some works near impossible: Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita went unpublished until 1967, nearly thirty years after the writer’s death. But the real danger laid in merely possessing the subversive texts. Should the secret police or the KGB find the works, it could mean exile, a hellish stint in a gulag (from which which hardly anyone returned), or termination.
Knowing this, the wives of Popoff’s book were taking great risks to aid their husbands’ writing efforts and safeguard their legacies long after the men had died. Nadezhda remained homeless and on the run for most of her adult life and preserved her husband’s texts by memorizing all of his verse and prose, in their many variations; and Natalya smuggled her husband’s novels into Western Europe to ensure that they survived the Stalinist regime. It is easy then to understand why the common perception of their lives is a disparaging one. They constantly lived in the shadows of their husbands’ geniuses and that of an oppressive society.
But The Wives is truly a romance poetically disguised as history. What Popoff masterfully evokes in her writing is the transformation of two bodies into one soul, and it is a fact that the couples acknowledged and accepted. Together they became a paradoxically singular “we,” “Siamese twins where one sneezes when the other sniffs tobacco,” and likewise, were entirely co-dependent.
Their husbands’ gargantuan literary stature makes it is easy to say that the wives were somehow dwarfed, turned into the least viable Siamese twin, the one that could not survive physical separation. But it is patronizing to view these women—intelligent and prolific in their own rights—in such a way, or to call their choice to not pursue a professional or artistic career separate from their husbands’ a “great sacrifice.” As reiterated time and time again in the wives’ own words, they shared equally in the literary success. The works were their children, equal part mother and father. And it is in this way that the women found contentment: when their child had gone out in the world and succeeded, it was a job well done and a testament to their nurturing.
Thus, Popoff was successful in her quest to dispel the common misconception of these magnificent women’s lives. She does their many accomplishments justice in a way that no one else has figured out how to articulate. The Wives is an enjoyable piece of scholarly writing that is accessible to any layman interested in the Russian literary giants and their works. And if you want truly tragic love stories, you get six for the price of one.
Alexandra Popoff is the author of the 2010 award-winning Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography. She has written for Russian national newspapers and magazines and contributed to The Huffington Post and The Boston Globe. Popoff has post-graduate degrees in Russian and English literature in Canada.