sofia tolstoy the pain and despair, a wobblies legacy

While misery may not like perky I’m not sure it loves company either. So those in a bad relationship will probably not find Sofia Tolstoy’s story much solace – ‘The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy,’ reviewed by Michael Dirda

On Nov. 13, 1863, the young wife describes her existence:

“I am left alone morning, afternoon and night. I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child, I am a piece of household furniture. I am a woman. I try to suppress all human feelings. When the machine is working properly it heats the milk, knits a blanket, makes little requests and bustles about trying not to think — and life is tolerable. But the moment I am alone and allow myself to think, everything seems insufferable.”

Not always, though most of the time people try to make the best of a bad situation. Extracting some small pleasures from the daily routine or the most miserable conditions. Robert Stroud, known as the Birdman of Alcatraz, is an extreme example who used his prison sentence and solitary existence to become an expert on bird diseases. Sofia seemed to lose herself in Tolstoy’s writing.

Whenever Sofia shows a little spirit or playfulness, Tolstoy finds her “stupid and irritating.” She starts to copy his manuscripts for him — she would go on to transcribe the manuscript of “War and Peace” over and over, parts of it seven times — and there she does find a kind of peace: “As I copy I experience a whole new world of emotions, thoughts and impressions. Nothing touches me so deeply as his ideas, his genius.”

Difficult to separate the artist from his art for those not married to the artist. How Sofia managed not bind up Leo’s work with his cold personality and moralistic Christian-Socialist values probably took a monumental amount of compartmentalizing. She stayed pregnant bearing Leo 13 children. In some ways Sofia was the head of a modern household – say from the late sixties (Dirda suggests present day Washington D.C.). She handled everything to do with running the house, rising the children and watching after family finances.

On one page of her husband’s diaries, devoted copyist Sofia comes across this sentence: “There is no such thing as love, only the physical need for intercourse and the practical need for a life companion.” She acidly comments: “I only wish I had read that 29 years ago, then I would never have married him.”

Wobblies Marching in Manhattan – “Women of the Industrial Workers of the World march to Madison Square Garden in support of the Patterson Silk Strike of 1913.” Wobblies refers to members of the Industrial Workers of the World. IWW was formed in Chicago in June 1905. It was reactionary, bringing together many disaffected workers who described themselves as socialists, anarchists and radicals who thought the more traditional American Federation of Labor (AFL) has not done an effective job in recruiting and organizing labor. The IWW also felt all workers regardless of trade or craft should belong to the same union. They might have been more radical in reputation than actual accomplishments. Never working out exact goals other than to “abolish the wage system”. Unlike the AFL who negotiated with manufacturers on wages and working conditions. The IWW did not think much of contracts. Since many of them were anarchists who put personal freedom above all else, it follows the logic of anarchism to eschew contracts. The IWW all but died out, but they did leave one lasting legacy to other more popular unions. The IWW did not have any membership restrictions based on gender or race. It has become the historical norm to describe people such as the Wobblies as radical – admittedly as they did themselves, but than what would the people who murdered Wobblies be described as. Both the government and business came to hate the Wobblies. There were a lot of small skirmishes in which members of the IWW were beaten and clubbed. The ultimate symbol of the violence against the IWW’s particular brand of organized labor was the Everett Massacre (also known as Bloody Sunday) of 1916 in the state of Washington. Even before the massacre local police ( who were controlled by business) and hired mercenaries ( citizen deputies) used ax handles to attack various members of organized labor. Business also used hired detectives to infiltrate the IWW and at least one of those detectives was known to have encouraged the Wobblies to use violence to acheive their ends. When some Wobblies tried to land on a boat called the Verona, the local sheriff pulled his gun and told them not to come ashore, he claimed to be enforcing some local law. Proceeding a shore anyway the Wobblies were met with gunfire. Some shots were reported to have come from the boat, but since the Wobblies almost capsized when the first shots were fired by racing to the seaward side, it is unlikely and even more unlikely they hit anything. At the end of the day two “deputies” were dead and 20 wounded. The two deputies were actually shot in the back by other deputies. The IWW claimed 5 of their own dead and 27 wounded. The Wobblies were charged with the deaths of the two deputies and found to be innocent. The Patterson Silk Strike of 1913 might seem anticlimactic by comparison. A strike for an eight-hour work day and better working conditions. Those ghastly demands caused the strike to last six months. One of those times when the picture is especially helpful as it gives one an idea of the importance of fabric in at that point in America society. Fabric woven by very skilled workers called broad-silk weavers. They were joined in the strike by ribbon weavers and unskilled dyers’ helpers. Estimates vary a little, but it is thought at least 1,800 strikers were arrested. The strikers were ultimately defeated. The Wobblies efforts were undercut by both business and the AFL union. Though the IWW still exists it is largely in name only. The legacy of the Wobblies is obvious enough. We take an eight-hour work day and safe, relatively clean manufacturing and office conditions for granted.

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