Lidiia Chukovskaia *

SOFIA PETROVNA


Background information, Questions for Reading, and further resources

There are two editions of Chukovskaia's novel Sofia Petrovna available: the 1967 translation by Aline Werth took the same altered title as a (not completely accurate) 1965 émigré edition published in Paris, The Deserted House (Opustelyi dom), after a line in Anna Akhmatova's long poem Requiem (number VII, "The Sentence," dated Summer 1939, which ends with the lines "I have long had a foreboding of this/ Bright day and emptied house."). Chukovskaia naturally did not approve of the change, as it violated her intentions for the novel, whose title focuses the reader's attention on the character and experience of the heroine; it also made Chukovskaia's work secondary to the poetic cycle of the better-known Akhmatova, to whom her Notes already paid such tribute. It was one thing for the author herself to act as if she were second fiddle to the famous poet, but another thing for others to treat her that way. I have not checked the 1967 edition, but the 1988 edition and subsequent reprints not only have the correct title and have been revised, but they include a foreword and afterward by Chukovskaia that are well worth reading. For one thing, by reminding us that the novel was written by someone who survived and fought the system with great effect, the extra material leaves the reader much less depressed.


Lidiia Korneevna (read: Kornéyevna) Chukovskaia was born in 1907 in St Petersburg, the second of four children. Her father was the remarkable literary critic, scholar, translator, theorist of language acquisition, and most famously (to his dismay!) children's poet, Kornei Ivanovich Chukovskii. I won't write about him at length here, but he's a very interesting guy and well worth your research, especially since Chukovskaia wrote quite a bit about him. Most of her childhood was spent in the dacha community of Kuokkala, then part of the Russian Empire, now in Finland. The famous painter Il'ya Repin was a close neighbor, and all kinds of famous poets, writers and other artists visited the house. Chukovskaia's father steered her unsubtly towards elite and adult culture, but, in exchange for the girlie amusements she had to forego, he was a marvelous though demanding companion and leader of children's games.

After the Revolution the family moved back to Petrograd (later renamed Leningrad), and there Chukovskaia spent an early Soviet youth that combined poverty and hardship with the excitement of watching a new society and its institutions emerge. After completing her education she married Tsezar' Vol'pe, a literary critic, and found a job editing children's books under the direction of the poet Samuil Marshak. She had one daughter in 1932; her second husband, the physicist Matvei Bronshtein, was arrested and killed at the height of the Stalinist Terror in 1937. At work, colleagues were arrested all around her and the work of the publishing house both interrupted and mocked by the "purge;" after her husband's arrest Chukovskaia fled the city, knowing from the experience of others what her fate as the "widow" of an "enemy of the people" would be. Even after the second world war, she was unable to return to Leningrad, the city where she was born and had grown up, and for the rest of her life she lived in or near Moscow. In many ways she belongs to a "lost" generation of Soviet writers (others might include Iurii Olesha, 1899-1960, Nikolai Zabolotsky, 1903-1958, or Mariia Petrovykh, 1908-1979), who began to bloom as creative personalities just before the great era of repression began, so that it nipped their development as writers in the bud. Petrovykh, in particular, spent the rest of her life with the sense that she had failed her gift. Chukovskaia, on the other hand, was both freed and compelled to write by the events of the Purges. As Svetlana Shnitman-McMillin points out, the best- known works by women about the Stalin era are memoirs -- Evgeniia Ginzburg's Journey into the Whirlwind and WIthin the Whirlwind and Nadezhda Mandel'shtam's Hope Against Hope -- but Chukovskaia was "the main woman writer of fiction to turn to this bloody theme" (in Cornwell, see below, p. 231).

The "Author's note" that prefaces the 1988 (Northwestern UP) edition of Sofia Petrovna traces the conditions in which it was written and the extraordinary circumstances of the manuscript's survival; the "Afterword" gives the bitterly amusing and very telling story of its non-publication in the Soviet Union during the "Thaw." Chukovskaia was well aware of the novel's power and value, and she was evidently right to say that it's the only work of fiction about the Terror actually written in the midst of events, a prose parallel to Akhmatova's "Requiem" -- a work in whose composition Chukovskaia took part both as a listener and as a repository of the poems that were too dangerous to be kept in written form. Her Akhmatova Journals record the ceremony of writing, memorization and burning with which Akhmatova would transfer a new poem to her -- Chukovskaia's quick and well-developed memory made her an exceptional assistant in this way, almost the perfeect realization of the word "secretary." A novel, so much longer and with so different a verbal texture, could not be held in memory; the value of Sofia Petrovna is underlined by the fact that others were willing also to risk their lives to preserve it and to return the notebook it was written in to the author after the end of WWII.

Beth Holmgren, who has done the most significant work to date on the author in English (see below), stresses both Chukovskaia's professionalism as a writer and editor and the gendered, "feminine" way in which she understands and projects her own creativity. Holmgren points out quite rightly that Chukovskaia inherited this "handmaid" view of her own literary activity from her father, whose lower-class childhood and struggle to gain an education left him with the kind of complex or perhaps even chip on his shoulder (about the huge gap in privilege between himself and the writers and artists he wrote about and so admired) that might afflict a scholarship student today. No wonder he liked that hooligan, Mayakovsky, whose "chip" was very theatrically expressed through Futurism. The best depiction of Chukovsky's background is in Chukovskaia's To the Memory of Childhood, see below. Her self-effacing self-image, or at least the apotropaic projection of such a diffident, other-oriented self-definition, makes Chukovskaia an interesting Russian parallel to the more apologetic nineteenth-century British and American women writers. This trait shows up most strongly in the Akhmatova Journals, as well as in her self-effacing To the Memory of Childhood, but one might also trace it in the invisibility of the narrator in Sofia Petrovna. Chukovskaia also asserted that she began to write creative work (poetry and prose as opposed to her bio- and bibliographical notes on Akhmatova or her editorial and scholarly writing) because she simply could not help it -- and the truly life-threatening danger of committing a work like Sofia Petrovna on paper make this statement entirely believable: there are pressures that can overcome the most well-trained super-ego, and even the known danger of writing and then keeping such a manuscript might serve to ease her feelings of guilt as a survivor of the terror in which she had lost so many friends, colleagues and loved ones. The moral imperative of bearing witness and preserving the truth in face of distortion and repression obligate her to write, and relieve her of what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar famously call the "anxiety of authorship" (in their Madwoman in the Attic).

The book I wanted the group to read, Going Under, was written in 1949 but not published until 1972 (as "tamizdat," of course; it wasn't published in Russia until 1989). This second novel treats a heroine much more like Chukovskaia herself, moving among other writers and intellectuals, and raises a different set of questions: no longer "How can this happen?" or "What does it do to people when this happens?" but rather "How have people chosen or managed to survive?" Because Sofia Petrovna is more often used as a text for history or literary classes, it has remained in print (well, that is, I hope it has remained in print and will continue to do so!), but I prefer the later novel, with the (for me) more accessible heroine.

After Stalin's death Chukovskaia's life changed again as she gradually became a prominent Soviet dissident. Her attempt to publish Sofia Petrovna was only the first of many courageous acts; for the first several years, when she was working to spread the word of Joseph Brodsky's trial for "parasitism" and exile to the insalubrious far north for example, her father's prominence and popularity as a writer served to protect her. (This "protection" was not enough on its own to ensure a civic conscience: her older brother Nikolai shocked and disappointed her by signing the Writers' Union letter vilifying Pasternak for writing and allowing the publication of Doctor Zhivago abroad.) After her father's death Chukovskaia if anything felt more free to take risky stands: in the early 1970s she let Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stay at the Peredelkino dacha while he was working on The Gulag Archipelago, which lead to her expulsion from the Soviet Writers' Union early in 1974 (this is the subject of her work "The Process of Expulsion" and had the very practical consequence that she could no longer publish anything in the Soviet Union -- from then on her writing was circulated only in samizdat or published abroad); with the help of friends and volunteers, she maintained her father's dacha in Peredelkino together as a museum; she continued to write increasingly open and critical works, even as her eyesight was failing (in one place she describes having to use foreign-made felt-tip pens that wrote a very thick dark line in order to read her own writing). In 1990 she was the first recipient of the Sakharov Award in recognition of her accomplishments, but the economic, social and political chaos around the break-up of the Soviet Union proved to realize her fear that the masses in Russia, kept ignorant of the best achievements of Russian culture by Soviet censorship and nourished on primitive propaganda, would reject the values of the intelligentsia and begin to idealize crime and violence. Towards the end of her life she worked with her daughter, Elena Tsezarevna Chukovskaia, to edit and publish her father Kornei Chukovskii's journals. She died in 1996. I must add (after flipping through the sources below in order to compose this quick introduction) that Chukovskaia's identity as a premiere dissident has tended to overshadow her own life story -- so much so that the articles in many of the important reference works on Russian literature barely outline the details of her biography, concentrating instead on her achievements and position as a writer. To the extent that her writing about herself often effaced herself to some extent, she has been extremely successful in shaping the way her life and work are read.



Questions for Reading:

1. How does the style of this novel compare to the Great Novels of the 19th century that you have read? Why might a very transparent, "classical" realist style be well-suited to the subject matter here?

2. If you know anything about Socialist Realism, how does this novel play off that style and worldview to deliver its message to the reader?

3. If you don't know anything about Socialist Realism, how would you guess this novel is like and unlike it? Another way to ask that question might be: where does the novel seem to reproduce a kitsch-driven view of the world and of reality? Where is Sofia Petrovna surprisingly retrograde in her ideas and tastes, and where have her son's educational efforts brought her up to speed?

4. Our heroine's name, "Sofia," means "wisdom" in Greek (as in the roots of "philosophy," etc.), and thanks to Dostoevsky and others it's one of the more beloved "speaking" names for a female character in Russian literature. How does S. P. stack up vis-a-vis other Sofias (or Sonias) you have read about? -- Does her depiction make her more sophomoric, perhaps?

5. What are the roles of the other young characters in the novel -- the intelligent Natasha, whose more privileged social background has been a black mark ever since her childhood, and who has grown up with a feeling of guilt and unease? S. P.'s clever and enthusiastic young son,

6. Chukovskaia is about as intellectual as a person can be, and her audience (whether in the Soviet Union or outside it in time and space) is made up of well-educated, thoughtful people. Why would she choose such a mentally and philosophically limited person

7. Even if you already have a sense of the sort of tragedy that's likely to be coming, the book may lull you into a sense of security. At which point do you realize that you too (like S. P.?) have been "had"? How do we explain that sort of deception to ourselves, and how do the various characters in the book explain it to themselves -- or otherwise make mental and psychological adaptations in order to keep on living? (Or not)

8. A nice topical thought: how does this book compare with more recent works such as The Matrix in raising the question "What is reality?"

9. If writing such a depressing book was half survival therapy and half moral obligation, then what do we gain from reading it? Can tragedy or suffering be morally improving? -- or, if we encounter them, is it our obligation or challenge to redeem them by our learning or increasing wisdom? What is the role of tragedy in human experience (or, on a more limited but also more controllable scale, in the part of human experience where we choose to take a dose of tragedy by reading or viewing something that wounds and upsets us), as opposed to everyday middle-class diligence, or the gifts of grace or unexpected joy?


If you enjoyed this book, try to find these other works by Chukovskaia, some of which are no longer in print:

  • The Akhmatova journals, translated by Milena Michalski and Sylva Rubashova; poetry translated by Peter Norman (New York : Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994 and later)
  • Going Under, translated by Peter M. Weston (New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., c1972)
  • To the Memory of Childhood, translated by Eliza Kellogg Klose (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1988)
  • ... Or else the wonderful parodic works by Abram Tertz (pseudonym of literary scholar Andrei Siniavskii), The Trial Begins and On Socialist Realism, translated by our friend Max Hayward (The Trial Begins and by George Dennis (On S. R.), with a very nice introduction by Czeslaw Milosz, winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature and a major figure in the Great Polish Literature of Conscience (New York: Pantheon Books, 1960; it has been reprinted since by University of California Press)

    A select bibliography on Chukovskaia in English:

  • Sibelan Forrester, "Lidiya Chukovskaya," in in Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer, eds., Women in World History (Waterford, CT: Yorkin Publications, 1999-2001), vol. III, pp. 741-746
  • Sibelan Forrester, ""Lidiia Chukovskaia," forthcoming in Dictionary of Literary Biography, 20th Century Prose, ed. Christine Rydel (Detroit, etc.: Bruccoli Layman Clark)
  • Beth Holmgren, "Chukovskaia, Lisiia Korneevna," in Marina Ledkovsky, Charlotte Rosenthal and Mary Zirin, eds., Dictionary of Russian Women Writers (Westport, CT and London: 1994), pp. 133-137
  • Beth Holmgren, "Lidiia Chukovskaia," in Christine Tomei, ed., Russian Women Writers (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999), pp. 1129-1133 (followed by a translation of parts of "Process of Expulsion," trans. by Christine Tomei)
  • Beth Holmgren, Women's Works in Stalin's Time (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993)
  • Stephanie Sandler, "Reading Loyalty in Chukovskaia's Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi," in Wendy Rosslyn, ed., The Speech of Unknown Eyes: Akhmatova's Readers on Her Poetry (Nottingham: Astra Press, 1990), vol. 2, pp. 267-82
  • Svetlana Shnitman-McMillan, "Lidiia Korneevna Chukovskaia 1907-1996," in Neil Cornwell, ed., Reference Guide to Russian Literature (London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998), pp. 228-232

    * This image was scanned from the cover of Chukovskaia's book of poetry, Stikhotvoreniia (Moscow: Gorizont, 1992).


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