Review: Sofia Petrovna – by Lydia Chukovskaya

By Owen Hsieh – 27/4/21

Of the novels of the Dickens, Thackeray, Bronte and Gaskell, Marx once remarked:

“The present splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers in England, whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”

With this sentiment we celebrate the remarkable novella of Lydia Chukovskaya, Sofia Petrovna, set during Stalin’s Great Terror of 1936-37. Sofia Petrovna is remarkable as one of the remaining literary accounts of Stalin’s Great Terror that was actually written during that period. Chukovskaya, a witness to the Terror while living in Leningrad in the ‘30s, was herself a victim. Her husband was arrested in ‘37 and shot in ‘38. The novella is thus very poignant and authentic as she can speak with authority on these matters. Like the social novelists quoted above by Marx, her novella acts as a devastating political exposure of Stalinism, or put simply; Chukovskaya’s pen convinces!

While Moshe Lewin had cause to remark: “A complete history of the purges of 1936-37 may very well never come to be written”. Chukovskaya’s anti Stalinist literature advances this cause, in her reflecting on the life of ordinary people at the time. In the foreword she states:

“I wrote my book at a time when all around me in my beloved city, every tenth person was being shot, maybe every fifth.”

“In it I tried to record the events that we had just lived through – my country, my family and myself. I was simply incapable of not writing, but I cherished no hope at all, of course, of ever seeing my story in print. It was difficult even to hope that the school notebook into which I had written a fair copy of the story would escape destruction and be preserved. To have kept it in the drawer of my desk would have been risky. But I just couldn’t bring myself to burn it. I regarded it not as a work of literature so much as the evidence of an eye witness, which it would be a crime to destroy.”

Lydia Chukovskaya (unknown date)

Many in Chukovskaya’s generation were unable to publish, giving rise to a broad phenomena known as ‘writing for the desk drawer’. On this, Trotsky wrote: “The most eminent artists either commit suicide, or find their material in the remote past, or become silent. Honest and talented books appear as though accidentally, busting out from somewhere under the counter, and have the character of artistic contraband.”

Soviet authors such as Chukovskaya, were forced to hide their honest, critical titles, with hope in their eventual availability to the reading public. To wit, writing in the same period, one of Bulgakov’s characters in his satirical work of magical realism – Master and Margarita: was to casually remark “Manuscripts don’t burn”, this aphorism expressing the eternal truth and value of the arts over reaction that was broadly accepted by a generation of soviet authors as a rallying cry. Fortunately Chukovskaya’s manuscript was neither fated to be tossed into the flames!

Remarkable for escaping the censor, doubly remarkable was that Chukovskaya’s unpublished draft also survived the continuing torrent of calumny of the 20th century:

“For years there was only one copy of my novella; a thick school notebook written in lilac ink. I could not keep the notebook at home: I had already been searched three times and had all my belongings confiscated. A friend gave refuge to my notebook. If it had been found in his possession, he would have been drawn and quartered. A month before the war I left Leningrad for Moscow to have an operation; my friend remained in Leningrad; he wasn’t drafted in the army for medical reasons and, as I learned later while in evacuation in Tashkent, he died of hunger at the time of the siege. The day before his death, he gave my notebook to his sister: Give it back to her – if you both survive.”

Originally conceived in 1939-40, after the death of Stalin in ‘53, with Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ in 56, the relaxation of control over cultural life allowed the publication of ‘prison camp’ literature such as Solzyhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and other treasures of Samizdat [self-publishing] literature. Spurred on by this open political environment Chukovskaya sought publication in 1962, her novella was then accepted and prepared for publication up to ‘63, although it never saw the light of day as the period known as “the thaw” came to a close.

Someone who was very privy to these political developments, in the forewords to his magisterial histories of the left opposition, Vadim Rogovin wrote:

“The crimes committed in the two and one half years of the Great Purges (from July 1936 to the end of 1938) were so wide ranging and monstrous that the publication of the entire truth about them threatened to undermine the post-Stalin political regime. Therefore after the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [CPSU] in 1956, its leaders carefully measured out in doses the admissible truth with untouched Stalinist myths and falsifications. The party leaders frequently retreated from self exposure and, by the mid-1960s, the subject of the Stalinist Terror was taboo.”

“To the Brezhnev clique which replaced Khrushchev, even the explanation of the Great Terror which had prevailed in the years of “the thaw” seemed dangerous. Therefore it simply placed a taboo on discussing this topic and on developing the related subject in works of art or in historical literature”

The novel was then circulated underground in Samizdat, appearing abroad with some changes in 1965. Chukovskaya was expelled from the writers union in 1974,Sofia Petrovna was only published within Russia in ‘88 in the period of Glasnost and Perestroika.

Remarkable to think that a short work of some 120 pages was so powerful it censored by the Stalinist bureaucracy for decades.

On Eastern European Literature, one reviewer wrote:

“Generally, reading novels set in Eastern Europe during the Soviet era can be quite depressing, as things are usually grim.”

Sofia Petrovna is no exception to the rule.

Sofia Petrovna is a senior typist at a large publishing house in Leningrad. She is utterly devoted to her son Kolya, a young student and young Komsomol member, who goes on to attend engineering college. Eventually, Kolya, along with his best friend and comrade Alik, are selected as the two top students of their class thus chosen to be sent to Sverldlovsk to work in the “Uralmash” factory as they are short of trained engineers.

Kolya develops a new method for manufacturing fellows gear cutters while working in the Urals Engineering Plant tool workshop. He is celebrated as a rising star, and will even go on to be proudly featured on the front page of Pravda.

The book is quite clever – as the story progresses tension rises, with casual remarks on current affairs: Kirov’s murder, the Moscow show trial of Kamenev & Zinoviev, the media campaign against Trotskyists, wreckers and saboteurs. Friends and acquaintances are arrested, and enemies are discovered at the Publishing house. Finally, Kolya’s friend Alik comes to visit Sofia, to tell her that her son has been arrested, before bursting into tears.

Sofia Petrovna fights for her son, making various entreaties and enquiries about his case. Sofia goes on to have difficulties at work, and tragedy follows.

Chukovskaya’s prose is beautiful and dramatic; the denouement is superb, Stylistically she paints a damning portrait of the mediocrities inside the bureaucracy who prosecute and benefit from Stalin’s Great Terror. She doesn’t pull her punches, though as one with an artistic temperament, Chukovskaya doesn’t attempt to advance a full explanation of what Stalin’ Great Terror was, of its social and political roots, or exactly what it represented and why. If we may quote her again:

“Sofia Petrovna isn’t able to generalise from what she sees and experiences; and shes not to be blamed for that, because to the ordinary person what has been happening seemed purposely planned senselessness and how can one make sense of deliberately planned chaos? Particularly when one is all alone: each person was cut off from anyone else experiencing the same thing by a wall of terror. There were many people like Sofia Petrovna, millions, but when people are denied all documents, all literature, when the true history of whole decades is replaced by fictitious history, then the individual intellect is cast back on itself, on its own personal experience, and it works less well than it should.”

In order to quickly clarify, Donald Rayfield gives us an idea as to the scope of the political genocide in Leningrad:

“In 1937 and 38 the NKVD’s own records show that 1,444,923 persons were convicted of counterrevolutionary crimes, and of those 681,692 were shot.

Prisoners could be shot expeditiously – 200 in a night was the average in Leningrad.

Thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated men and women, we now have full knowledge of what happened in Leningrad and in parts of Moscow. The Leningrad Martyrology gives details of 47,000 men and women of the city and provinces who perished at the hands of the NKVD over eighteen months.

The target set by Ezhov for Leningrad had been 4000 shot and 10,000 sent to the camps over four months from July 1937.”

The political genocide was not limited to 37-38 (the worst years), here Moshe Lewin provides further data:

“Sources for 1930-53 indicate that 3,778,000 people arrested, of whom 786,000 were executed.”

In explaining the purges and their rationale, again from Lewin:

“The need to furnish himself with a new historical alibi was doubtless among the reasons that impelled Stalin to launch the purges of the party cadres he had long been contemplating in 1937. He needed to erase a whole historical period and rid himself of those who had witnessed it and knew who had done what in those heroic years.”

The destruction of those with some connection to the revolutionary heritage in Russia in 1937-38, did not take place in a vacuum, it proceeded apace with international events that exerted social pressures within the USSR, with the defeat of the Spanish republicans, Stalin’s critics and opponents were silenced on the eve of WW2, excising a source of potential opposition to the regime.

The purges of Leningrad can thus be understood as an exercise in self preservation by the Stalinist clique, Trotsky described it as “hanging on by terrorist methods”, in their need to execute the entire generation of old Bolsheviks. The Grey Blur, thus became the Grave Digger of the revolution.

Bukharin had cause to comment, “Stalin is a Genghis Khan, an unscrupulous intriguer, who sacrifices everything else to the preservation of power.. He changes his theories according to whom he needs to get rid of next”. Hence, Leningrad was particularly hard hit, as the site of the St Petersburg Soviet in 1905 of which Trotsky became it’s chairman.

Outlining his work on the 1917 Russian Revolution, John Reed commented:

“Naturally most of it deals with “Red Petrograd” the capital and heart of the insurrection.”

Leningrad (formerly Petrograd), was the site of massive working class upheaval, to liquidate a generation of old Bolsheviks, the vanguard of the working class, Stalin would have been forced to concentrate his fire on Leningrad as the city where so many were witness to the revolutionary upheavals of 1905 and 1917, many would have been tainted in Stalin’s eye by their association with Trotsky however remote.

To qualify, Rayfield writes:

“Stalin loathed the whole of Leningrad as a nest of opposition vipers”.

This is the logic of the Great Terror and purges in Leningrad captured in Chukovskaya’s masterful prose Sofia Petrovna, a novel written with great feeling by someone attuned to the goings on at the time. It is a wonderful piece of anti-Stalinist literature.

Although Sofia Petrovna is currently out of print, this reviewer strongly recommends buying a copy where any second hand edition exists, it is a one of a kind masterpiece.

References/ further reading:

Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed.
The Transitional Program

Donald Rayfield, Stalin and his Hangmen

Moshe Lewin, Soviet Century

Vadim Rogovin, 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror
1937-1938: Political Genocide in the USSR


Owen Hsieh is an independent Marxist living between Western Australia and Taiwan. An avid bibliophile and book collector with a special interest in Eastern European literature and history, currently focused on the Russian Revolution and Stalinism.

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