Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Sofia Petrovna

Sofia Petrovna / Lydia Chukovskaya;
trans. from the Russian by Aline Werth
Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1994, c1965.
120 p.
This slim novel has a story much bigger than its size implies. One of the only novels of the Soviet purges of the 1930s written contemporaneously, the author points out the degredations, the corruption and the suspicions of this totalitarian society. Most importantly, she points out how it affects every single citizen, high and low. 

In this society, a whisper holds power and a person can go from powerful government official to prisoner in a day. This uncertainty makes everyone afraid to trust, afraid to connect, even splitting spouses and families.

Sofia Petrovna is a simple woman, a widow who works at a stable job as a typist at a publisher's house. But the jealousies between office mates change as Stalinist propaganda grows -- now those jealousies and desire for someone else's job, someone's apartment, can lead to denunciations based only on wishes and dislikes. 

Sofia has a son, a young man who she is very proud and protective of. He's become an engineer and  been sent off to some camp somewhere to work. He comes up with a great innovation and is praised in the newspapers. Sofia feels relief; surely this will be enough to save him from any purge. 

But no. He's arrested, and Sofia then spends all of her time waiting in line at the prison, believing that he is innocent so of course, therefore, as soon as the officials understand this her son will be freed. She doesn't grasp that innocence has nothing to do with anything any longer. 

She doesn't get to see him, and hopes for a letter from him so that she can send him something -- food, clothing, anything he needs -- to keep him well. But she waits and waits. And in the meantime there are more suspicions, more disappearances, and a close friend who commits suicide rather than continue. Sofia is slowly becoming adapted to the atmosphere of the purges. 

And then she does get a letter. And the final few pages are shocking, terrifying, and immensely sad. I didn't expect what was coming but it says so, so much about this kind of society in just a few words and actions. 

This is an immensely striking book, powerful and truthful in a way that feels very personal. I'd recommend it to anyone, especially now. 


  1. Surely this one was not actually published contemporaneously to the purges? Was it hidden away or perhaps written by an exile?

    Even your review is a bit terrifying, so I can well imagine the power of the novel.

    1. Yes you are correct -- not published at the time, but written and tucked away with a friend. Published much later, not until 1965, and I believe not in the USSR at that time.

  2. Sofia Petrovna is such a good book, one of very few I'd also recommend to anyone. I'm not much of a rereader but I've read it several times.

    A History of Russian Literature (by Kahn, Lipovetsky, Reyfman, and Sandler) says the novel was first published abroad in 1965 and in the USSR in 1988, though written in 1939-1940. The analysis and summary of the book include a quote from Chukovskaya, "I expressly meant to write a book about society gone made...."

    1. Thank you Lisa -- good to know the details of the publication history. I agree, it's a haunting book, and I can see how it could be experienced again with rereads. Lots of depth in it.

  3. It's such a powerful work, isn't it? Really chilling and as you say very relevant still.



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