The Women Behind
Russia’s Literary Giants

By Alexandra Popoff

Pegasus. 332 pp. $27.95

The world knows and celebrates the most renowned Russian writers — such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Mandelstam, Nabokov, Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn — but not so much those who stood behind them and contributed heavily to their work and success. In “The Wives,” Alexandra Popoff depicts the writers’ spouses as keepers of their spirit, women who often risked their own aspirations, fortunes and lives to promote, protect and preserve the work of their husbands.

Many of them talented writers and editors in their own right, the wives tended to their husbands’ personal and professional needs before their own. Popoff’s extensive research provides insight into the dynamic, albeit complex, relationships between these devoted women and the authors.

Sophia Tolstoy transcribed and published her husband’s celebrated epic, “War and Peace,” only to suffer his contempt after he underwent a radical religious conversion in 1881. Anna Dostoevsky barely managed to keep the family financially afloat as her husband indulged his gambling addiction and suffered frequent epileptic seizures. Elena Bulgakov, Nadezhada Mandelstam and Natalya Solzhenitsyn risked life and limb to protect the works of their husbands, whose status as literary radicals in the closed Soviet society made pariahs of their wives.

‘The Wives: The Women Behind Russia's Literary Giants’ by Alexandra Popoff (Pegasus)

Despite these challenges, the women expressed satisfaction and pride in their roles as trusted confidantes and partners in the creation of literary masterpieces. Through their ingenuity, self-sacrifice and courage, their husbands’ works were able to see the light of day, and the world was enriched by their publication.

— Megan McDonough