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#496 ~ The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants


The Wives by Alexandra Popoff

Published by: Pegasus

Published on: August 1, 2012

Page Count: 400

Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography

My Reading Format: eGalley sent to me by the publicist for consideration

Available Formats: Hardcover and eBook


My Review

Last year I read a great deal of historical fiction set in Russian. I loved it. It felt new and fresh and, quite frankly, was a nice change of pace for my typical European based historical fiction. I can’t explain what took me so long to look for this topic in my reading because I’ve always enjoyed the classics of Russian literature that I’ve studied or simply read for pleasure. When I was offered the opportunity to read The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants by Alexandra Popoff, I couldn’t pass it up. It was the right decision. Not only did I learn a great deal about Russian authors and poets, it provided food for thought about gender roles both now and in the past and they are impacted by culture.

Popoff presents the lives of six Russian literary wives: Sophia Tolstoy, Vera Nabokov, Elena Bulgakov, Nadezdha Mandelstam, Anna Dostevsky, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn. I found each story fascinating. While they each had different reasons for embarking on their marriages, each woman had the same unswerving devotion to their husband’s art and contribution to society. They were integral to their husband’s success and legacy because they made their husband’s writing their life work as well. This did not make them simply 50s style wives tending the home and hearth while their husbands created art. Indeed there is no comparison. Nadezdha Mandelstam memorized each poem her husband wrote so that his work wouldn’t be yet another victim of the Soviet government. Sophia Tolstoy, after her husband experienced a religious conversion that bordered on mental illness, had to fight her husband and his followers to defend his estate and his legacy. When not fighting for their husband’s art, there were the countless hours of taking dictation, reviewing early drafts, and losing night after night of sleep to help ensure that deadlines were met. I left this book feeling that without their wives, many of these authors and their work would be unknown today.

While these women made their own choices and not a one ever seemed to express regret over their decision to make their husband’s vocation their life’s work, it made me think about gender roles and the influence of culture on women’s choices. Had Sophia, Vera, Elena, Nadezdha, Anna, and Natalya been the passionate writers, would their husbands have made reciprocal sacrifices? Even if their husbands would, would their society have taken them as seriously at the time? As much as I appreciate the idea of a marriage based upon a common, uniting goal, giving myself up to the pursuits of my husband seems utterly foreign to me. It makes me want to delve into the lives of the wives of American and European authors. Did they make similar life decisions? Are different decisions made during times of revolution and government oppression?

The Wives is an engaging look at the lives of six very different women linked by the common bond of cultivating and preserving their husband’s life’s work. A chapter was devoted to each woman, making it a good book to have on hand when reading time is limited. Although I read it from cover to cover, it can be read in any order. Popoff’s book has inspired me to plan more Russian classics into my reading life. Although Boris Pasternak’s wife was not featured, their mention has made Doctor Zhivago a must read in 2013. This book is perfect for readers interested in Russian literature or women’s studies. I couldn’t recommend this book any more highly.

9 Comments

  • At 2013.02.07 15:29, jenn aka the picky girl said:

    I don’t *love* Russian lit, but I do find the authors themselves very interesting. This book, though, sounds FASCINATING. I didn’t know any of this and would love to know more. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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    • At 2013.02.07 20:59, Jennifer said:

      You are most welcome. I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. I liked that I could sit down and read a chapter when the mood hit. Great read. I really need to read more non-fiction.

    • At 2013.02.08 09:45, CLM said:

      I always loved Russian history after falling in love with the book Masha by Mara Kay as a child. This sounds interesting, and more readily enjoyable than some dense volumes if broken into six distinct sections. Jennifer, I always admire your openness to such a wide range of books/topics. That will set such a great example to your daughters!

      • At 2013.02.14 20:47, Jennifer said:

        You are really going to enjoy this book. I found each of the six sections equally interesting. I read it over the course of two weeks. That’s not something I could do with a novel. I love that. It makes me wonder why I don’t pick up more non-fiction. Thank you for your nice comments. I hope my daughters eventually pick up my reading habit. My youngest is on the brink. My oldest… I can always pray. 🙂

      • At 2013.02.08 13:56, Melissa said:

        A few years ago I got into Stacy Schiff’s biography of Vera Nabokov but I didn’t get to finish it (what I did read was fabulous, though…I hope to pick it up again soon). I also know a little about Sophia Tolstoy, and her life sounds incredible. I think I’d love this book. It sounds great!

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        • At 2013.02.14 20:48, Jennifer said:

          Melissa, you will really enjoy this book. There is enough information about each woman to satisfy, but I could easily see this book as a starting point for further reading, too.

        • At 2013.02.12 16:12, Madame Von Bee said:

          Based on your review, I just bought this for my mother to read in hospital. She is notoriously selective, but I think/hope she would love this as she is a huge fan of the Russians, especially Solzhenitsyn. I plan to borrow it from her when she is finished, as I love the Russians too and am a particular fan of Bulghakov. I know Yelena was his Margarita but even though I am familiar with the story I still want to read someone else’s version of it…

          • At 2013.02.14 20:49, Jennifer said:

            Please keep me posted on your mother and how she enjoyed the book. I definitely like giving books like this as a gift – you make the recipient happy and get to enjoy borrowing it afterwards.

            • At 2013.02.19 04:41, Madame Von Bee said:

              Wives arrived yesterday and my mother is delighted. A visiting friend of hers has already asked to borrow it. The only thing, which I hadn’t thought of, is that being the Russians, it won’t be a particularly cheerful hospital read…. But she said that when you are in hospital at a certain age, you find stark messages in most books, even the most unlikely ones…

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