January 2015

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

The Boredom and the Horror: On Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya

Sofia Petrovna is a superb novella whose greatness and acerbity do not become evident until its very last line. It's also one of the few fictional works concerning "totalitarianism," that twentieth-century coinage I could see outlasting this century -- at the end of which the various famous European slaughters will have grown much more abstract than they seem now. It's certainly much better than Nineteen Eighty-Four, that overladen fable, and, as has been often pointed out, the favorite novel of anyone who's only read five novels.

One of Orwell's mistakes was to depict the "totalitarian" society (I'll use that word, which in practice tends to absolve the West of any of its own rights abuses, for convenience's sake) as comprising only the party and the people, the clergy and the laity, the oppressors and the oppressed. One of the genius touches of Sofia Petrovna is its depiction of how everyone on the Soviet social ladder, with the exception of maybe Stalin himself, was at once a potential torturer and potential victim, and how everyone's consciousness of this fact, the wild swinging hinge of each individual life that could lead either to promotion or to the torture chamber, encouraged decisions which, en masse, created the slaughter of the late 1930s. Ordinary people accused one another of being fascist spies not for any grand ideological reasons but because of grudges, or wanting to create an employment vacancy, or just to head off a potential accusation headed their way. The terror, it turns out, makes perfect psychological sense at every step; it's only when you begin counting corpses that it seems absurd and "inhuman." The overarching rationale for Soviet terror, the need to "safeguard the revolution from its enemies," was also rational on its face; their new society did have formidable enemies. As usual, the horror of life isn't that it makes no sense but that it always makes some degree of sense.

In Orwell's dystopia, there are believers in the system and then his two heroes, who only pretend to believe. On the contrary, Chukovskaya would say, under Stalinism the vast majority of people both believed and were suspicious, depending on the circumstances; the human mind very easily accommodates contradictions when self-interest is at stake. Furthermore, and this will come as a surprise to many in the West who know only a caricatured version of history, the terror involved an immense and intricate legal apparatus complete with judges, defense lawyers, appeals, receipts, and writs. The idea that what English-speakers call "due process" and vast injustice can't coexist or even reinforce one another is supportable only by turning a blind eye to the scrupulously procedural terrors carried out throughout history. The people who condemned others to die weren't ingenious psychopaths like Orwell's O'Brien so much as tired bureaucrats administering dry rules, dreaming of lunch.


Our titular heroine is a Leningrad mother who, after her husband's death, finds work as a typist in a publishing house, where she flourishes, to her own amazement. Chukovskaya depicts an office milieu hilariously like any that might be found in a contemporary Western city: the main preoccupations are tedium and provincial hierarchies, enlivened only by the occasional gossip and the usual petty jockeying for favor. Sofia's teenage son, Kolya, is the apple of her eye. Chukovskaya slyly depicts the masculine fixity of Kolya and his best friend Alik Finkelstein as they prepare for a career in engineering; the choice of engineering as her son's field is inspired not only because engineers played such an outsize role in the Soviet mythos but also because an engineer, with his focus on the rational and the workable, seems uniquely primed to be blindsided by the coming absurdities of the terror. Sofia practically bursts with pride when Pravda covers her son's invention of a method for building cogwheel cutters, out in the Urals where he and Alik are dutifully carrying out the Five Year Plan. Later, Sofia will touchingly believe that this small burst of fame is enough to save her son from the purges.

The question of how intelligent a character ought to be in a novel has always baffled me. One of the chief weapons in the novelist's arsenal is dramatic irony, which necessitates that the author know something the characters do not or cannot. The author denies knowledge to her characters not because the author would do better, if placed in the character's position, but only to illustrate the epistemic deficiencies we all labor under. (Don Quixote isn't a caution against chivalric romances but against all the untenable stories we absorb.) But the possession of knowledge is of course distinct from intelligence. The smarty-pants personages in Proust and Henry James don't escape their subtler forms of doom just because their intellects register even the smallest gust of social weirdness -- on the contrary, they are often blinded by their all-seeing eyes. Sofia Petrovna would appear to be a drudge, and even a very efficient sort of simpleton, judging from her very trusting behavior during the first parts of the novel. It's in this respect that she seems like the granddaughter of Bartleby the Scrivener or Gogol's Akaky Akakyevich, both office white-collar peons transformed through their farcical ordeals into candidates for sainthood. The tragedy of the book is that reality educates her.

This is the respect in which the novella retains a universal appeal, separate from its role as a merely historical document. The story isn't about a woman laboring under Stalinism so much as it is about a woman laboring under her own illusion that Stalinism is sincere. When word first arrives that there are fascist wreckers interfering with production quotas, Sofia Petrovna is shocked, shocked as we would be upon hearing that our government had been infiltrated by crypto-jihadis. As others, closer and closer to her, are "unveiled" as fascists, she rationalizes this as an example of incompetence among the lesser, intermediary commissars who can't carry out the will of Comrade Stalin effectively. (This reflects the experience of Jung Chang in her thrilling memoir Wild Swans; millions of earnest people never suspected that Mao himself could have approved of the false accusations that destroyed so many lives during the Cultural Revolution.) The selection of new victims was collective, spontaneous, and profoundly moralistic in tone, and the fact that the accused all magically confessed tended to erase initial doubts. Again, the value of the novella is not in conveying that "Stalin was a bad man" so much as its depiction of the inexorable human ability to rationalize any crime or act of violence, so long as the mainstay illusions of a society remain inviolate.

And there's a still darker implication about the human craving for illusion. Illusion and love may be inextricably conjoined. Leopardi sounds this theme in his Zibaldone. Every being loves itself, deep down, but in order to sustain this love, every being has to accept certain falsehoods. Every example of real love, which is to say freely given loyalty, is conditioned on certain misunderstandings about ourselves or the object of our love. Kill the misunderstanding and you end up killing love. (It follows from this that, in a society devoted to the increase of data and the killing of illusions, the future of truly selfless love looks bleak.)

Much of the novella concerns the physical ordeal of waiting in line, often through the night, to speak to a bureaucrat about the status of her arrested son. Like everyone, Sofia Petrovna believes in her own uniqueness and has faith that once she apprises the proper authorities of a few facts that she, unlike thousands of people whose relatives have also been arrested, will receive special treatment. Even when violently disabused of this notion, she finds new ways to hope for Kolya's release. At the very least, she hopes, a letter from him will arrive and she can send him canned goods at great personal cost. The eventual arrival of this letter sets in motion the novella's shocking conclusion.


Fans of the period literature will have noticed that Sofia Petrovna covers much the same subject matter as Anna Akhmatova's Reqiuem -- the son's arrest, the waiting outside the Leningrad prisons, and so on. But while Reqiuem sounded a dirge for the dead and offered a hymn of consolation to nameless sufferers, Sofia Petrovna states a more unspeakable truth, namely that nearly everyone was corrupted by the terror.

I'll end this article by presenting two anecdotes about Chukovskaya and Akhmatova that, I think, reveal Chukovskaya's character and her relation to loyalty as a value.

The first story. During the height of the terror, Akhmatova invited Chukovskaya over to her Leningrad apartment and proceeded to conduct a sham conversation about the weather, fearful that her ceiling had been bugged by the secret police. Meanwhile, Akhmatova scribbled down Requiem on scraps of paper, a few lines at a time, and handed them to Chukovskaya, who immediately committed them to memory before burning them in the poet's presence. This was how Akhmatova first published her poem, by entrusting it to the memory of a few friends; in those murderous days, she was afraid to commit her verses to paper much less submit them to any official literary organs.

The second story. A quarter century later, seated in the garden courtyard of a literary couple, Chukovskaya heard Requiem recited by her host, who had heard the poem from her husband, another literary type; like a beneficent infection, Requiem got around. Chukovskaya was furious. She said, "We -- I think there were ten of us -- have kept quiet about this for more than twenty years." The implication was clear: political thaw or not, these promiscuous declamations were devaluing the currency.

Taken together with Sofia Petrovna, what do these Boswell-esque anecdotes reveal about Chukovskaya's personality and values? I think they reveal a soul obsessed with loyalty, who was also indignantly conscious of how rare the true article is. Nothing is better than standing by the object of your love; nothing is more unspeakable than abandoning it. I've always thought the saddest scenes in any story are those depicting the death or severance of a loyalty that's survived any number of troubles until that point. And, by this standard, Sofia Petrovna is magnificently sad.