Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sofia Petrovna

Lydia Chukovskaya (1907 - 1996) was of Jewish origin and was the daughter of a beloved writer of children’s books in Russia.  Lydia married Matvei Bronstein, a promising young physicist.  In the late 1930s, Bronstein was arrested as a part of Stalin’s purges, and was put to death as an enemy of the Communist Party.  The government refused to give Lydia any information about her husband, and for a number of years, she did not know that her husband had been executed.

Lydia Chukovskaya as a young woman.

Between 1939 and 1940, Chukovskaya wrote her most famous work, the novella Sofia Petrovna.  Sofia Petrovna is the widow of a medical doctor.  After the Communist Revolution, her apartment is confiscated by the government and divided up among several families.  Sofia and her son, Kolya, live in a single room of their former house in Leningrad.

Lydia's husband, Matvei Bronstein, who was executed by the Stalinist Regime

While her son studies to be an engineer, Sofia takes a job as a typist in a government publishing house. Life is more or less good for Sofia and her son.  Sofia performs well in her job and is promoted to supervisor.  Kolya does well at his studies and shows great promise as an engineer.

Lydia Chukovskaya and her daughter in the 1940s.

However, conditions rapidly change when many formerly prominent people begin to be arrested as traitors and saboteurs.  First, Sofia meets the distraught wife her husband’s former medical colleague who has been arrested.  Next, the director of the publishing house is arrested and denounced.  The relatives of those arrested and exiled to “remote camps” in Siberia are themselves sent into exile or worse.  Finally, Sofia’s beloved Kolya is arrested.

Lydia Chukovskaya, the Soviet Dissident, in the mid 1960s

Now Sofia enters a nightmare world of standing in line at the prison and the prosecutor’s office in an attempt to get any information.  Finally, she is told that her son has been sentenced to 10 years in a Siberian labor camp.  She is told that he has “confessed.”  Sofia’s best friend, Natasha, and Kolya’s girlfriend is fired from her job because she made a typographical error in typing “Rat Army” instead of “Red Army,” and because she is suspect because her father was an officer of the Tzar.  Natalia eventually commits suicide.  Kolya's best friend Alik is also arrested.  Sofia slides into madness.  When she finally receives a letter smuggled by Kolya out of the labor camp which says that he cannot make it very much longer, Sofia burns the letter and sinks totally into her fantasies.

The picture of Soviet life under Stalin is fascinating.  Religion has been banned, so Soviet citizens put up “New Year’s Trees” which are topped by a Red Star.  The Christ child has been replaced  by  pictures of “the Child Lenin.”  Children are given candy with a card which says “Thank You Comrade Stalin for giving us a Happy Childhood.”

The story of how Chukovskaya’s manuscript survived is just as interesting as the novella.  After her husband’s arrest and execution, Lydia fled her home in Leningrad.  The manuscript was hidden in a friend's house.  The friend died of starvation during the German seige of Leningrad but the manuscript was discovered and was finally returned to Chuskovskaya after the war.  During the political thaw introduced by Kruschev in the early sixties, Sofia Petrovna was prepared for publication.  However, it was decided that enough anti-Stalin literature had been published and publication was tabled.  A manuscript of the novel was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and was published by a French publisher without Chuskovskaya permission under the title “The Deserted House.”

Sofia Petrovna is a very good novel which deserves a wide readership and is a warning why we must be ever vigilant against tyranny.  

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