Author Alexandra Popoff, daughter of a Russian author whose wife edited and advised him on his writing, believed in her youth that "a writer's wife was a profession itself." In "The Wives," Popoff examines the lives of the wives of six of the most significant Russian writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, all of them unsung heroes of sorts.
The chapters are arranged in near-chronological order: Anna Dostoevsky, Sophia Tolstoy, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Vera Nabokov, Elena Bulgakov and Natalya Solzhenitsyn. Drawing on a wealth of both English- and Russian-language sources (including biographies, autobiographies and letters), Popoff begins each chapter with a synopsis of the woman's earlier years and then details the couple's life together, particularly in relation to the husband's writing. Each wife was devoted to and very active in promoting, publishing and preserving her husband's work, even after her husband's death. Though the ultimate focus is on the women, the book also provides useful back story on and context for the origins of their husbands' famous major works, both on political and personal levels; even those not familiar with these writers might find the descriptions of the extended censorship tribulations faced by Mandelstam, Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn very eye-opening.
Popoff writes on almost the very last page of the epilogue that "This book should change a popular perception of [these women's lives] as miserable, lonely, and unfulfilled." While she does occasionally try to emphasize how the women were content in their roles and, for example, didn't feel burdened by the double duty of motherhood and full-time writer's assistant, Popoff isn't entirely convincing in this aim. They were astute and accomplished editors, translators and publishers, yes, but their happiness and fulfillment is complex and difficult to ascertain. Popoff describes how Anna Dostoevsky rewrote certain passages in her personal diary to make her husband's behavior sound less unpleasant than it actually was. She also tells how Sophia Tolstoy, in her memoirs, lamented having to wait decades to pursue her own artistic interests (having been busy bearing and raising children while also helping produce Tolstoy's work), writing that "eternally suppressing [her artistic interests] to serve a genius is a great misfortune."
One certainly can agree with Popoff's thesis, however, that these women carried out a huge amount of valuable and sometimes even dangerous work (for example, when evading Soviet censors), and that each one was instrumental in shaping her husband's legacy. It seems that unconventional partnerships were likely the only kind that would have suited writers of such caliber, and these six partnerships worked in their unconventionality.
Kim Hedges is an editor and book reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area.