My Life, by Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya, has been edited by a University of Ottawa professor. Tolstoy's wife's memoir has gone unpublished for 100 years. ((University of Ottawa Press))

A hundred years after Leo Tolstoy's death, people will be able to read an intimate portrait of the novelist, as written by his wife.

Her memoirs are being released in Russia on Wednesday, the same day they will be released in English by University of Ottawa Press.

Ottawa scholar Andrew Donskov arranged for the English translation, which has been in the works for the last three years, and edited the 1,200-page book.

In My Life, Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya paints an undoctored picture of the author of War and Peace as a genius with many faults.

Donskov expects great controversy when the memoirs are released in Russia, because the Russians revere their writers, particularly Tolstoy.

"Many Russians even to this day will want to get something out of a book — not just the pleasure of reading it. Russians have a different mentality. After having read this they will tell you, 'I want to become a better man,'" he said.


Count Lev Nikolaevich (Leo) Tolstoy and Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya in Tolstoy's study in 1907 at Yasnaya Polyana, 200 kilometres south of Moscow. ((S.A. Tolstaya/University of Ottawa Press))

Donskov said Tolstaya's memoir has languished in a Moscow museum for 100 years because of its frankness and because much of what she writes about her husband is unflattering.

"The Soviets especially had grave difficulties in even allowing parts of the work to be published …because she knocks off slightly Tolstoy from his pedestal," he said.

Tolstoy is regarded as a great prophet and sage, as well as a social activist. Sofia Tolstaya, who bore him 13 children, five of whom died in childhood, writes about his huge sexual appetite and his bad habits — such as occasionally not washing.

"Russians will not be very happy to learn that once they got married — she was only 18 at the time — he made a huge mistake by allowing her to read his diaries, which revealed his sexual conquests and the fact that he had a couple of times contracted gonorrhea," Donskov said.

Especially tricky are the final years of the great writer's life, when he is obsessed with giving up worldly goods and runs away from his family, a story told in the film The Last Station, starring Christopher Plummer.


The former Sofia Andreevna Bers, an 18-year-old bride in 1862. ((M.B. Tulinov/Moscow/University of Ottawa Press))

Tolstaya, who edited and transcribed for Tolstoy during his writing of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, also describes the religious crisis her husband had in the 1880s.

"It is interesting for the discerning reader to know some of these details. When he started writing, when he finished, how he reacted to certain passages. They talked a good deal," Donskov said.

Tolstaya was also a critic of some of Tolstoy's later work, including some passages in 1899's Resurrection, when he was writing thinking about the persecution of the Doukhobors in Russia. He  helped thousands flee to Canada.

"She writes [a letter] to him saying,  'You are dwelling on contentious matters. Please go back to art again,'" he said.

At the end of his life, Tolstoy became estranged from his wife and died in a railway station in 1910 with his followers refusing to allow her near him.

Donskov said he was entrusted with the English translation of My Life by Sofia Tolstaya because he has worked with Moscow's Tolstoy Museum in the past.

With files from CBC Ottawa's Kate Porter