Sofia Petrovna was written by Lidia Chukovskaya and is one of the most significant literary works to come out of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the novel is rarely included in the curriculum of high schools and universities in the United States, which seems relevant, given its content. However, by reading and passing along Sofia Petrovna, my hope is for the novel’s message to be experienced by future generations as a piece of incredible prose by an exceptional female Russian author.
Sofia Petrovna is the story of the proud titular widow living through The Great Purge of Russia. Blinded by civic pride and a naive trust of country, she is unable to see the terrible truth of the purges around her, and even as her son becomes a victim of the purges, she’s still unable to make sense of his disappearance until she is ultimately driven mad.
To truly understand the story behind Sofia Petrovna, I implore you to research a basic history of Russia, especially following the Bolshevik Revolution. Unfortunately, Russian history is not taught in American classrooms, which makes understanding terms like “communism” and “socialism” taboo, and even attributes to many misunderstandings where such terms become overly politicized. I’m going to give you an extremely paired down version of said history, so I apologize ahead of time if I’ve missed anything.
This period in Russia’s history is instrumental in understanding and perceiving the world around us. It was at the turn of the century when Russia was facing much turmoil. A monarchy ruled the lands of Russia for hundreds of years led by the Romanov family. Russia’s economy and ruling class depended on an archaic feudal system to keep power over its vast empire. This meant Russia’s people were confined to a life of serfdom, paying nobles, or oligarchs, to use land with no opportunity to advance in society. There were attempts of revolution leading up to the Bolshevik revolution, and during World War I, the Germans smuggled Vladimir Lenin to act as “a troublemaker” into Russia in hopes to create mass disruption that would cost them the war.
It worked for the Germans leading to the Russian withdrawal. Lenin and Leon Trotsky soon overthrew the Romanov family and Russia was eventually rechristened as the Soviet Union. At the time, Josef Stalin was a Georgian member of the Bolshevik Central Committee and bodyguard of Lenin’s. When Lenin died in 1924, the two strongmen Trotsky and Stalin, among others, would face off to take control. Stalin would win, Trotsky would flee where he was later murdered by an assassin hired by Stalin in Mexico. But during this time, the lives of the wealthy, members of the military, and any viewed of a privileged life were purged and forced to concede rooms, space, wealth to the large populous of the Soviet Union’s lower classes. Fairness and equity became paramount to the new national identity.
And this becomes obvious when reading Sofia Petrovna. She was the wife of a doctor and once had a house to her family, but following the revolution, like many, her home was sectioned off into rooms and transitioned into an apartment building. There a housing authority was placed in charge of each complex and everyone was subjected to answering to a government-appointed authority. Chukovskaya masterfully conveys the inner workings of life within the housing complex and further describes in sometimes brutal detail the wickedness of people and how such systems are so easily corrupted.
Stalin’s leadership largely retained his strong-arm tactics that involved intimidation, the spread of disinformation, mass arrests, kangaroo courts, and disappearing (and effectively) murdering millions of his own people under the pretense of “terrorism” or “working as spies for foreign governments.” The period between 1936 and 1938 is known as the Great Purge or Great Terror.
The most horrific period of this time was between 1937 and 1938, known as the Yezhovshchina — meaning the Yezhov phenomenon. Or “doing’s of Yezhov. After Nicolai Yezhov, who was head of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, and responsible for the mass executions of his own countrymen. Yezhov was executed a year after the purge, and effectively written out of history.
Now, that we have an understanding of the story’s setting, we can explore its author, Lidia Chukovskaya. The novel itself was based on Chukovskaya’s own experiences during the Great Purge and written at the tail end in 1939 and 1940. The novel was originally written in a school exercise book and hidden for over a decade on a bookshelf, as its discovery could have endangered Chukovskaya.
Josef Stalin finally died in 1953, which as a quick aside, I recommend the movie, The Death of Stalin, a dark comedy that examines the Soviet Union’s societal circumstances at such an uncertain time in its history. When Stalin died, he was quickly denunciated by Nikita Khrushchev.
Sofia Petrovna was to be released in the Soviet Union in 1962, and even a contract was signed with a Soviet publishing house, Sovietski Pisatel. In 1963, however, the willingness to unmask the terrible cult of personality behind Stalin in literature was again rejected by top officials in the Soviet regime as problematic as literature was digging too far into “the consequences of the cult.” In an afterward of the novella, Lidia Chukovskaya says:
“To this day, I know of no volume of prose about 1937 written in this country and at that time.” Chukovskaya stated these words in 1974.
Sofia Petrovna would first be released in France in 1965 in Russian. Its title at the time was “The Deserted House” and the character names had been changed. It would subsequently be published in the United States in Russian under the title: Sofia Petrovna in Novy Zhurnal.
Chukovskaya refused to have any of her other work published in the Soviet Union until Sofia Petrovna was published first in Russian. Sofia Petrovna wouldn’t be published until February 1988 in the Soviet Union. It appeared in the Leningrad Literary Magazine, Neva.
For an in-depth description of what happened to Sofia Petrovna after it was written, it could be found in Lidia Chukovskaya’s book the Process of Expulsion.
Hopefully, this piece will entice you not only to read Lidia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna but other works of great Russian authors. An exceptional companion piece to this work is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.