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How a Canadian university nabbed the rights to the memoirs of Tolstoy's wife

In the academic world, Leo (Lev Nikolaevich) Tolstoy is a colossus. He's talked about, read, discussed, dissected and forms a pillar of studies of the novel itself. So how did the written memoirs of Tolstoy's indomitable wife, Sofia Tolstaya (the Russian feminine version of Tolstoy), one of the most important and anticipated works in modern Tolstoy scholarship, land at a university press in Canada's capital city? As with most things in academia, it involves an almost obsessive love of the subject, and lots of time.

Twelve years ago, the University of Ottawa formed the Slavic Research Group under the direction of Andrew Donskov, a world-renowned Tolstoy expert. Since its inception, the group has produced nearly 40 volumes of high-calibre work. "I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that ours would be called the centre of Tolstoy studies in North America," Donskov says.

Since 1991, the University of Ottawa has amassed memoranda of understanding with Russian institutions such as the two that hold the rights to Tolstoy's body of work: the Yasnya Polyana Museum (run by Vladimir Tolstoy, the author's great-great grandson) and the L.N. Tolstoy State Museum in Moscow. The former is Tolstoy's old family estate and holds his personal library, as well as some documents and correspondence, while the latter is the major repository of his works. To publish on Tolstoy you need permission from one of the two directors. Or, as Donskov jokingly puts it: "The only way to get something from Russians is to know them."

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Donskov met Vitalij Remizov, director of the Tolstoy State Museum more than 25 years ago, and renews his friendships with yearly trips for research and work. "It just takes a long time before they begin to trust you," he says. Over the years, Donskov worked in the area, published jointly with the Russian museums and organizations and eventually became the only foreign scholar on the editorial board of the Russian Academy of Sciences. When Tolstaya's memoirs were scheduled to be printed in Russia as a coffee-table book, Donskov was entrusted with creating the full scholarly edition, as well as the obligation to treat the material as seriously as it deserved.

He describes his Russian counterparts: "Loyal. They don't get paid nearly what they're worth, and they stay in these places for years." They are people who see themselves as the caretakers not only of archival material, but of the living legacy of an artist who is revered as part of Russia's soul. John Woodsworth notes that there was a "general fear of damaging the squeaky-clean image of Tolstoy as a writer." Even at the launch of this volume, a congratulatory e-mail from Remizov alludes to duplicity on Tolstaya's part, and admonishes us with a wagging finger to use the information in her "literary antics … wisely".

There is an enigmatic quality to the title My Life. Tolstaya was married to the volatile genius for 48 years, until his death in 1910. She was the manager of his estate; gave birth to 13 children; transcribed, edited and published his work, and advocated for his writings in front of censorship boards and even to the Czar himself. At the same time, Tolstoy was a Russian icon, and any memoir could never solely be hers. As she put it, "Perhaps there will come a time when my life will be of interest to some who wonder what kind of creature was the woman whom God and destiny found fit to place alongside the life of the genius and multifaceted Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy."

There is a huge scholarly effort on display here: A critical introductory essay, an extensive bibliography of Tolstaya's own writings, and some 4,000 explanatory notes about Sofia's life from birth to 1901, which give the factual and chronological details Tolstoy scholars so ardently desire in works that serve to limn a famous life.

But "limn" is an understatement. Tolstaya's story fully gives us parts of the man that have previously remained obscure. Tolstoy's own opinion of his disciples' biographies of him was fairly low, and on his death, the myths and legends that served to cloud his life as a family man solidified into a shell of reputation. As Donskov writes, Russian researchers "were, by and large, unable to acknowledge that it was precisely these everyday real-life details that were at the root of many of Tolstoy's literary portrayals."

It is fascinating to have someone who knew both Tolstoy's works and the man intimately, writing in such detail about their life - especially a powerfully intelligent character like Tolstaya. For example, the passion they shared on their wedding night is told to us by Tolstaya the author, who reminisces about the feelings of Tolstaya the newlywed as she compares the real Tolstoy's feelings to those of the protagonist of The Kreutzer Sonata. It's almost dizzyingly interesting. Writing with care and wit, she provides insights into Tolstoy's character, such as the incredible revelation that "in spite of his appearing to be an unusually sensitive psychologist, he really didn't understand people, especially if these people were new and he was not closely acquainted with them."

Tolstaya's inquiring and capable voice also looks out at Russia; she transforms everyday events into anecdotes, allowing them to pass through the book without needing to sum them up or provide closure, a technique she might have picked up from Tolstoy himself. An army officer reduced to hog farmer lets his pigs starve out of pique. A too-ardent suitor of Tolstaya's sister is chased off their estate. Each of these tiny anecdotes paints the vibrant and energetic culture that lent itself so readily to those stories.

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Tolstaya's writing reminds us that literature itself is a realm of people, not painted icons. Finding the person within the legendary figure seems a perfect tribute to Tolstoy and his life's work.

Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston is a freelance writer living in Ottawa.

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