I first read Lydia Chukovskaya’s Софья Петровна (Sofia Petrovna) in the early ‘90s, when I lived in Moscow: it was one of six pieces in a collection called Трудные повести (Difficult Novellas) that also included Andrei Platonov’s Котлован (The Foundation Pit). My reading skills weren’t ready for Platonov then but I could read and appreciate Sofia Petrovna quickly, easily, without a dictionary. The novella was even more satisfying because I could tell Chukovskaya’s direct, unembellished language was the perfect medium for a story about a Leningrad widow whose son Kolya, an engineer, is arrested in the 1930s.
I appreciated Sofia Petrovna even more this time around, watching Chukovskaya unwind the story of Sofia Petrovna, a loyal Soviet citizen who becomes more and more unhinged trying to handle difficulties at work and the cruelly impossible task of finding her son. Chukovskaya experienced similar humiliations—she wrote the novella during November 1939-February 1940, after the arrest of her husband, which makes it even more remarkable—and demonstrates the effects of totalitarianism with painfully striking precision.
I’m thinking of totalitarianism in the second definition in my Webster’s New [sic: it’s dated 1981] Collegiate Dictionary—“the political concept that the citizen should be totally subject to an absolute state authority”—more than the first definition’s “centralized control by an autocratic authority” that creates the political concept. Chukovskaya’s novella is less about the system itself than its effects on the thinking and actions of regular people, represented by a circle of family and friends anchored by Sofia Petrovna. The book draws the reader into her psyche as Soviet life wears her down.
We hear Sofia Petrovna’s doubts about Kolya’s activity and friendships, experience her pain when her communal apartment neighbors say nasty things, and feel her deflation when she has brief audiences with government officials after waiting for hours, even days. As the novella continues and we witness her evolution from a happy, optimistic publishing house administrator to a recluse who barely eats, it’s not difficult to understand her confusion, her delusions, or her fears of everybody.
After Chukovskaya’s book I picked up a collection by Fazil’ Iskander and chose Сумрачной юности свет (The Light of Murky Youth) for one reason: at 75 pages, it was the longest piece in the book. I didn’t know the story was about an Abkhaz man, Zaur, whose father was shot during the Stalinist terror. Most of the story takes place when Zaur is an adult—there are mentions of Khrushchev—and the most vivid aspect of the story for me, perhaps because of my lingering thoughts on Sofia Petrovna, was the uneasy balance of private and public in Zaur’s life. That made the story feel like a later generation’s update on totalitarianism.
Iskander gives Zaur a childhood with public Stalin portraits and an adulthood that values privacy and individuality, whether he’s writing to the Central Committee about the need for more private farming or trying to find a place to be alone with his girlfriend. Though Iskander deftly blends believable characters with lots of telling episodes about required volunteer work, sneaking into forbidden places, police behavior, family pressures, and politics, the story felt a little lumpy to me. But that’s a minor complaint, what with the strong pull of the conflict between control and privacy (always a favorite), and Iskander’s ability to, like Chukovskaya, create vivid scenes, portraits, and stories out of simple words and complex human situations.
Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: Though I think the language in Sofia Petrovna is easier than the language in The Light of Murky Youth, I’d recommend both to readers looking for relatively easy novellas.
Up Next: Perhaps Mikhail Lipskerov’s Белая горячка. Delirium Tremens, which I began reading today at the beach. If I don’t like the book as reading material it may still have an honored place in my life and beach bag: it’s a paperback of the perfect size and thickness for killing the stinging beach flies that love to hover around my ankles.
Fazil Iskander on Amazon
Sofia Petrovna on Amazon
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