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17 November 2018

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Song Without Words

by Leah Bendavid-Val, ed.

It would be a vast understatement to say that Sophia (Sonya) Tolstoy was a remarkable woman.

Not only did she bear 13 children, lead her financially inept husband back from the brink of ruin, copy and recopy Tolstoy’s literary works, defend the interests of the large family in the face of Tolstoy’s continual impassioned desires to renounce his worldly wealth... Sonya was also an astoundingly artistic and proficient photographer. Between 1887 and her death in 1919, Sonya Tolstoy took over 1000 photographs (using 13 x 18 cm glass plates), developing many herself, including portraits, vignettes of family life, the Yasnaya Polyana estate and surrounding countryside. This new volume unites some 180 of these pictures with fascinating biographic notes and extracts from Sonya’s, Lev’s and their children’s diaries to present a rich and invaluable portrait of this woman’s and this family’s life.

A large preponderance of the photos are portraits of her husband, and in few of them does Lev offer more than a sage pose with furrowed brow and hand wedged behind his belt. But look closer and there are plenty of satisfying glimpses of spontaneity: a child’s bored glare, a room in disarray, a subject caught chatting with a neighbor, a nurse caught in the corner of the frame. This is an important contribution to our understanding of the life and times of one of Russia’s greatest writers. And of his remarkable, multifaceted wife.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Sept/Oct 2007