Lydia Chukovskaya’s “Sofia Petrovna”

I was raised on the canon of Dead White Males.   Not that this bothers me:   in the Greek and Latin classics, which I read for the joy of deciphering the languages as well as the exquisite literature, women writers are rare.  And few women writers were taken seriously until the 19th and 20th centuries.

But even in the 20th century, there was a paucity of women’s literature in translation.  I am a Russian literature aficionado, and am always on the lookout for women writers.  So I was fascinated to find the Soviet novella Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya, published by Northwestern University Press.

Written in 1939 but not published till 1962, it is the story of a widow, Sofia Petrovna,  who works in an office during the Great Purge.  In the preface to the novella, the author  Lydia Chukovskaya wrote, “The story now seeking the attention of readers was written twenty-two years ago, in Leningrad, in the winter of 1939-1940.  In it I attempted to record the events just experienced by my country, my friends, and myself.”

Sofia Petrovna  lives for her son Kolya, a brilliant student who becomes an engineer.  But after her  husband dies, she takes a typing course, and then finds work at a publishing company.  She is smart and efficient, and soon she is in charge of the typing pool. She loves the administrative work.  And she and the best typist, Natasha Frolenko,  become fast friends:  they gossip over meals at Sofia Petrovna’s home, which  consists of one room in a large apartment occupied by multiple families.

Lydia Chukovskaya and her daughter in the 1940s.

Sofia Petrovna is a novel reader, not interested in the news.  She is barely aware of the purge until the kind director of the publishing company is arrested.  And then her son, who has moved to another province, is arrested and accused of being a terrorist.  Sofia Petrovna is sure it is a mistake, but spends her days in long lines waiting to find out where her son is. She even writes three letters to Stalin, and is surprised that he doesn’t write back.   And one day in line she meets the wife of her former boss, who is being deported with her daughter–and no one will tell her where her husband is, so she doesn’t know if she’ll ever see him again.

This sad and terrifying book is only 119 pages. It is all too easy  to identify with the heroine.

I read this in a single afternoon.

It is translated by Aline Werth and emended by Eliza Kellogg Klose.