Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 22, 2019

Sofia Petrovna (1965), by Lydia Chukovskaya, translated by Aline Worth

I bought Sofia Petrovna after reading Judith Armstrong’s article ‘Hidden Women of History: Lydia Chukovskaya, editor, writer, heroic friend’ in The Guardian, and I’ve read it now for the 1965 Club hosted by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.  Although the novella is a rare – possibly unique – example of fiction written about Stalin’s Great Purge (1936-1938) when it was actually happening, it was of course not published at the time.  Chukovskaya (1907-1996) kept it hidden until after Krushchev’s Thaw in 1956 when the story was first circulated in Samizdat (manuscript form). Official publication faltered, however, in 1963 when it was decided that the book contained ‘ideological distortions’.  An unauthorised copy in English was published in Paris in 1965 (which makes the book eligible for the 1965 club) but there were changes made without the author’s permission and the title The Deserted House was absurd, given that the titular character lives in a communal house and her disagreeable co-tenants contribute to her travails.  An American publisher subsequently restored the text and the original title, giving us the form of the novella as it is today, and it became legally available in the USSR in 1988.

The European Classics edition that I have includes the Author’s Note, written in Moscow in 1962, before the Soviet publishers lost their nerve, and an Afterword, which is an excerpt from Chukovskaya’s The Process of Expulsion, which tells the story of her expulsion from the Soviet Writers Union in 1974.  What she does not say in either of these additions is that the work is drawn from her own experience: her husband Matvei Bronstein was arrested on false charges during Stalin’s Purge and for years Chukovskaya had no news of him and did not know that he had been tried and executed in 1938.

This is the blurb:

Sofia Petrovna is Lydia Chukovskaya’s fictional account of the Great Purge. Sofia is a Soviet Everywoman, a doctor’s widow who works as a typist in a Leningrad publishing house. When her beloved son is caught up in the maelstrom of the purge, she joins the long lines of women outside the prosecutor’s office, hoping against hope for good news. Confronted with a world that makes no moral sense, Sofia goes mad, a madness which manifests itself in delusions little different from the lies those around her tell every day to protect themselves. Sofia Petrovna offers a rare and vital record of Stalin’s Great Purges.

Sofia is an ordinary woman, compliant with Soviet life, and resigned to the discomforts of communal living, though she would like her adult son Kolya to have his own room. Other people had been moved in a long time ago during the famine years at the very beginning of the revolution, and she and Kolya have only his old nursery while a policeman and his family have her husband’s study and an accountant and his family have the dining room. Since her husband’s death she has taken up work as a typist, and she enjoys the modest status of being in charge of the other women:

…the typing pool was even better, more important somehow.  Now Sofia Petrovna was often the first person to read a new work of Soviet literature, some story or novel, while it was still only in manuscript form; and although Soviet stories and novels seemed boring to her—there was such a lot about battles and tractors and factory shops and hardly anything about love—she couldn’t help being flattered.  (p.4)

But before long, disaster strikes.  Kolya, a rather pompous young man much given to lecturing his mother about Soviet ideology, takes up work as an engineer in Sverdlovsk, is featured as a ‘shockworker’ in Pravda, and even sends his mother a ‘cogwheel’ that he is so proud of designing… but news comes from his friend Alik that he has been arrested.  Sofia’s life spirals downward into disaster…

She spends days and nights queuing in the bitter cold to try to learn his fate, and only after months does she find that he’s been tried and sentenced to ten years in exile, in a destination unknown.  Like all the other hapless relatives of Stalin’s victims, she is convinced of his innocence and believes that all will be well when the authorities realise their mistake.  Even when the purge infects the publishing house and her innocent friend Natasha is denounced and sacked along with other staff, Sofia clings to her faith in Soviet justice.  The incompatibility of this confidence with her belief in her son is fatal.  As Chukovskaya says in the Afterword, the novella shows that society had been poisoned by lies as completely as an army might be poisoned by noxious gases.

For my heroine I chose not a sister, not a wife, not a sweetheart, not a friend, but that symbol of devotion—a mother.  My Sofia Petrovna loses her only son.  I wanted to show that when people’s lives are deliberately distorted, their feelings become distorted, even maternal ones.  Sofia Petrovna is a widow; her son is her life.  Kolya is arrested; he is sentenced to hard labour; is called an ‘enemy of the people’. Sofia Petrovna, schooled to believe newspapers and officials more than herself, believes the prosecutor when he tells her that her son has ‘admitted his crimes’ and deserves his sentence.  Sofia Petrovna knows full well that Kolya has committed no crime, that he is incapable of it, that to the depths of his being he is loyal to the party, to his factory, to Comrade Stalin personally.  But if she is to believe in herself, not in the prosecutor and the newspapers, then… then… the universe will collapse, the earth give way beneath her feet, the spiritual comfort in which she has so comfortably lived, worked, rejoiced, turn to dust… Sofia Petrovna tries to believe in her son, and in the attempt goes mad. (Afterword, p. 112)

While Chukovskaya makes no claim for her novella as great literature, it seems to me that Sofia Petrovna does what literature ought to do.  It took great courage to write this story and to keep it safe for decades, but more than that, the novella does what cannot be done when wiser after the event: it comments on the contemporary situation by recognising the tragedy of an individual as an emblem of the wider society.  Its power lies in that it was written before Stalin was denounced, when the Terror was raw and ongoing.  The author, nursing her own distress about her husband’s unknown fate, extrapolated a more profound truth from her own cruel experience: the evil done to individuals degrades the entire society.

Thanks to Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for hosting the 1965 club!

Update 28/4/19 See also the review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

Author: Lydia Chukovskaya
Title: Sofia Petrovna
Translated by Aline Worth
Emended by Eliza Kellogg Klose
Publisher: Northwestern University Press, Illinois, 1988, 120 pages, first published in 1965 in Paris as The Deserted House.
ISBN: 978010111509
Source: personal library, purchased from The Book Depository, $24.14


  1. Rings true to me. Thanks,Lisa. Tony Kevin.


    • Hi Tony, it’s nice to hear from you:)
      Tell me, when you were there in Russia as a diplomat under the Soviets, were you aware at all of Samizdat literature?


  2. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Reminds me of what I have read about Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam. Helen Dunmore has written along these lines as well. Thanks for posting.


    • Yes, and now you say that, it reminds of something else as well: Secondhand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich, (transl. by Bela Shayevich).


  3. So glad you could join, particularly with this one which I’ll be reviewing later in the week, and I do agree about it. Very powerful and gains much from being contemporary.


  4. Well, what an unusual and moving selection! I wonder if the full Russian version has been published now…


    • I certainly hope so. But if you read that article that I linked to, about forgotten women of history by Judith Armstrong, it suggests that in this case, it’s not just that the English speaking world has been slow to translate Chukovskaya, she’s been overshadowed by Anna Akhmatova as well.


  5. Thus sounds extremely powerful. Such fascinating books being reviewed today as part of the 1965 club. 😊


    • I can’t keep up with them all!


  6. Thanks for picking this, which is entirely new to me. Elements of it remind me of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s The Girl from the Metropol Hotel. 1965 is looking like it’s going to be a very interesting year!


  7. That’s great, that it is an eyewitness account of the times (and yes, I understand it is fiction). It’s impossible to understand what Stalin was hoping to achieve by purging loyal supporters – there was so much potential in the Russian Revolution. I’ve been reading an account of the publication of DrZhivago which was facilitated by the CIA, so I’m glad too this book didn’t get caught up like that.


    • Mao was just the same, purging all and sundry during the Cultural Revolution, and if you read Zola, you find that the Emperor Louis-Napoleon was exactly the same as well.


  8. I like your final comment Lisa about the courage, and about the fact that the novel comments on what was happening at the time rather than afterwards (even if it was published later.)


    • I’m really impressed by this book. I’m so glad we had the 1965 club to prompt me to read it.


      • Haha, yes, I like the idea of the club but haven’t managed to choose a book to read for it!


  9. […] ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]


  10. I’m interested in novels about Russia and haven’t heard of this one, so thanks!


  11. I have just ordered this book based on your discussion above. It adds to my growing interest in this period having just completed Mara Moustafine’s ‘Secrets and Spies: the Harbin Files’. This is an excellent, although heartbreaking (yes I cried at parts) family history search set in the context of Russians living in Mongolia, Russia and Shanghai from before WWII and through the aftermath.

    Mara was a year or so behind me at high school, and I had Russian school friends in my year whose families shared similar stories of Russian tragedies. The girls are researching what their families had to endure before their trip to Australia.

    Mara’s book can be found on second-hand book sites or as an e-version.

    I hesitated to subject myself to more stories of absolute heartbreak, but the subject needs exploring.


    • Hello, and welcome, it is so nice to have you back in the blogosphere.
      Yes, heartbreak… when I think back on this book (it’s over a week since I finished and I’ve finished six books since then) the overwhelming impression I have is of that desperate mother not knowing where her child was. Like the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina. Just dreadful. It’s very powerful writing:)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Lisa! We have recently moved to Canberra to be near our daughter and granddaughter, who we mind a day and a half a week.

        My chronic migraine journey is still the same, and exacerbated by caring for my elderly parents, who have now both passed away.

        The mechanics of our move were logistically complex, as most moved are.

        The short of it is that I feel released into a new phase and I’m excited about it. My migraines still rob me of days, but I’m keen to throw myself into life, and books again so I went looking for your blog again.


    • Im so sorry to hear about your parents, I have suffered that loss too, and it’s a bereavement like no other because it changes us so profoundly, rendering us orphans. I’m glad to hear that you have other family close by in Canberra, no doubt you will run into Sue from Whispering Gums at LitEvents from time to time!


  12. I just read Kaggy’s commentary on this book. I think that you are on to something when you comment about this being rare. There are not a lot of fictional books written about the terrors of Stalinism while it was going on. The book sounds important and it also sounds excellent. It seems like it should be more well known. I am putting it on my list.


    • Yes, I don’t know of any other books written contemporaneously like this one, though of course, there could well be more, perhaps waiting to be discovered, or perhaps just waiting to be translated.


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: