ČŃ: published with the permission of Indiana University Press: Bloomington & Indianapolis
ÄŇ: 1993

"Women's Works in Stalin's Time on Lidiia Chukovskaia and Nadezhda Mandelstam" by Beth Holmgren (excerpt from the book)


"Swallowing up whole blocks of the city physically and - spiritually-our conscious and unconscious thoughts, shouting its own carefully crafted lie from every newspaper page and radio-megaphone, the torture chamber demanded at the same time that we not utter its name in vain -even within four walls, one on one. . . . Surrounded by muteness, the torture chamber wanted to remain at once all-powerful and nonexistent; it did not want to permit any word to summon it from its omnipotent nonbeing". Notes on Anna Akhmatova 1

Since its long-awaited publication in 1988, Soviet critics have read Chukovskaia's first novel “Sofia Petrovna” as history rather than fiction.2 A reviewer for the journal “Novyi mir” (“New world”) argues its status as "document" and implies that its revision would amount to a distortion of the facts.'3 Another critic, accepting the novel as "authentic eye-witness testimony," even pronounces its writing a heroic act.4 The assumed truth of “Sofia Petrovna” is crucial to its value: What is most extraordinary about the novel, the reviewers seem to agree. is that it is one of the few texts, perhaps the only text, that dares to "name the torture chamber" in its presence - to record and respond to the events of Stalinism where and when they occurred.5

Over the course of her long literary career, Lidiia Chukovskaia wrote two critically acclaimed novels, and by and large, both were composed during and focused on the Stalinist years.6She wrote “Sofia Petrovna” in an astonishingly short time, from November 1939 to February 1940. “Spusk pod vodu” (“Going Under”) required a longer genesis; begun in 1949, it was completed in 1957, because, as she recalls, the years after Stalin's death absorbed her with other pressing obligations.7 Both works seem to issue a deeply emotional, self-consciously moral response to their context.8 They were written secretly and hidden carefully until the conditions of the "thaws" permitted their partial circulation.9 Both emerged and remained in a single variant. Without renouncing the fiction of either, Chukovskaia asserts that the eponymous protagonist of Sofia Petrovna was meant to stand for hundreds of actual victims she had witnessed in the case of Going Under, she allows that the heroine's ordeal overlaps with her own experience.10

Given their horrific context, however, there remain important questions concerning the writing and reading of these novels. Reviewers can testify to the fact of Chukovskaia's heroism but are less able to explain its source and form. How could Chukovskaia defy the torture chamber with these singular texts? Why did she choose - in a striking departure from her father's practice -to manifest this defiance in narrative fiction? What place do these texts occupy in her life work? And, finally, what might they signify about the respective roles of women and men and the possibilities of moral resistance and artistic creation in Stalinist society?

Emulating Chulcovskaia's self-analysis in "To the Memory of Childhood", the few tentative interpretations assayed underscore her family background. At least in part, the "Noviji mir" reviewer traces her "freedom from fear" to "the spiritual atmosphere of a family inseparable from Russia's cultural intelligentsia" (249). The critic Efim Etkind expands on this claim, grounding the argument of heredity in historical environment: "Truly, K. Chukovskii 'was not empowered to pass his talent on' to L. K. Chukovskaia. Because she, the daughter, had a different talent, formed on the same foundation as that of her father, but in a different epoch."11 He suggests that just as the father's talent was nurtured and shaped by the rich cultural environment of Russia in the early twentieth century, so the daughter's talent was forged to withstand the fantastic cruelty and tastelessness of its Stalinist surroundings. After a lengthy consideration of the fsther's accomplishments (this in the afterword to the tamizdat Russian edition of "To the Memory of Childhood"), Etkind produces a more austere portrait of the daughter. He envisions her as a kind of warrior persona-a pure, stern queen- whose causes are Memory (Pamiat'} and the Word (Slovo) and whose writing is "permeated with honor and courage" (281). Doubtlessly intending to pay homage to both, Etkind also conveys the impression that Chukovskaia's work was simplified by its mission, forced into an uncompromising defensive pattern. Coming of age in a peaceable world, he implies, the father could indulge in the luxury of art; the daughter had to streamline and commit all her resources to the war effort.

Etkind's analysis nicely summarizes a traditional approach, but our reading requires more nuanced attention to Chukovskaia's works. Certainly both father and daughter wrote in dialogue with their worlds. Certainly Kornei Chukovskii's oeuvre describes a more extensive and varied activity - in large conscience, I submit, of more favorable historical and domestic circumstances. Yet it is essential to recognize that the harsh environment of Chukovskaia's adulthood not only "forged" her defense, but enabled a different kind of work. Beset by the same terrible conditions, the father was compelled to retreat from subjective criticism to more formal literary scholarship (his major project in these years was a scholarly study of the poet Nekrasov), while the daughter was able to write novels and poetry and keep a journal of her meetings with a poet persecuted by the regime. This last comparison is offered not to argue Chukovskaia's greater heroism, but to move toward an adequate evaluation of her art and its relationship to its Stalinist context. The written evidence is undeniable: Chukovskaia worked out a different creative mode of responding to that context. As ironic as this may appear, she seemed to draw a kind of creative empowerment from her experience in the torture chamber.

Chukovskaia herself perceives her creative impulse as an overwhelming emotional imperative. Queried about the composing of "Sofia Petrovna", she insists that "it was easier to write than not to write"; elsewhere she states that she could not not write the novel.12 Particularly in the case of "Sofia Petrovna", her creative writing was engendered in a period of terrible personal and national trauma. The purges had devastated Soviet society, her workplace was wholly dismantled, and her husband was arrested and sentenced to "ten years without right of correspondence" (what she later learned was a bureaucratic euphemism for execution). Indeed, both of her novels were connected to this last bereavement: "Sofia Petrovna" emerged in its painful wake and "Going Under" retold it. Creating "Sofia Petrovna" in the year after these events, Chukovskaia found relief-as she terms it, "salvation"- from a suffering she could not otherwise express and share (Latynina). If she had not written the novel, she admits that she might have "gone to pieces" (razorvat'sia na chasti).13

Her creative approach therefore personalizes her father's practice of writing therapy. At one point in "To the Memory of Childhood", Chukovskaia recounts the deaths of her sister and two brothers and observes how her father seemed to displace sorrow over their loss with more intense work: "Work kept grief at bay, shielded him, helped him 'keep a tight grip on himself.' And further, it raised his resistance by requiring him to lift his spirits" (114). When Chukovskaia resorted to this therapy, however, she delved into a kind of writing which-from the somewhat detached vantage point of fiction-allowed her to explore her trauma and articulate her pain. Even the modes of narration she employed (as I will show in analyses of each novel) emphasize the full psychological experience of her characters -their conscious, semiconscious, subconscious, and sometimes pathological perceptions and feelings. For Chukovskaia, it would seem, writing became a way of understanding and accommodating her grief. At the same time, these fictions expressed moral action; she could not "not write" on account of the double impulses of emotional pain and moral obligation.

Through their genesis, focus, and form, then, "Sofia Petrovna" and "Going Under" work out Chukovskaia's personal, moral response to her times. They are set in her very present context; they are born and reflective of her particular (and, as it turns out, representative) pain; they consequently feature female protagonists and enact plots based on women's specific experience, and as such, they establish the female helper as a novelist in her own right. Because these novels ultimately seem to propose a moral stance (on negative and positive examples), they comprise an almost prescriptive complement to the documentary "Notes on Anna Akhmatova". That is, they dictate Chukovskaia's own "alternative scripts" on female heroism and the domestic sphere (including the extension of the prison lines). The following analyses read "Sofia Petrovna" and "Going Under" as the careful creative designs of a highly conscientious female helper-as her reflections on and prescriptions for the roles of women and men in the Stalinist context and, particularly, their manipulation of the connections between written word, private life, and political resistance.

"Sofia Petrovna"

When "Sofia Petrovna" was first issued in English translation, it bore the title "The Deserted House" - the result of an editorial decision that explicitly linked the work with Akhmatova's great poetic cycle "Requiem" and, in particular, the phrase uttered by another bereaved mother: "that bright day and deserted house." The reference is important, but the substituted title, as Chukovskaia objects, "is an attempt to change the basic idea" of her novel.14 "Sofia Petrovna" like Requiem, depicts the ordeal of the mother during the Stalinist purges, yet attends, above all, to the continuous development of its title character- to Sofia Petrovna's entry into and engagement with Stalinist society. We undergo with Sofia Petrovna herself, the full extent of her tragedy, especially because we are bound to her perspective. Chukovskaia relates Sofia's experience through what the critic Dorrit Cohn has termed psycho-narration-a third-person voice permeated and sometimes deliberately limited by the mindset of a given character.15 In lieu of Akhmatova's quest in "Requiem" for an adequate verbal monument to all the victims, Chukovskaia tries here to convey the reality of the Terror by charting, in a gradual, persuasive and interior way, the particulai course of one ordinary woman's life. What makes Sofia Petrovna's story so distinctive is the unexpected perversion of her success; from a plateau of integration and fulfillment she is plunged unawares into a nightmare of loss, disruption, and isolation.

In fact, the ingredients for success -in socialist realist or (initially) feminist terms -are tantalizingly displayed in the novel. In the character of Sofia Petrovna, Chukovskaia has obtained a woman "different" from herself, but representative of her society and times -a woman who, until the (natural) death of her husband, had been contented with the traditional roles of wife and mother and is then drawn into public life. Before the action of the novel begins, it is implied that Sofia Petrovna had little contact with the world beyond her home and family. Although the Soviet regime has already encroached on her domestic domain, carving up her comfortable apartment into smaller units, she has managed to preserve and maintain a corner of it. Her husband had been a successful doctor, her only child-a son named Kolia-is hard-working and self-reliant. Sofia Petrovna is educated, but by no means politically enlightened. In a wry twist, her one dream of employment de-politicizes a popular concept of Russian radical thought and fiction: She longs to own a dressmaking shop where "[i]n a large, light room pretty girls would sit bent over billowing lengths of silk and she would show them the fashions and engage in worldly conversation with elegant ladies when they came in for fittings (4)".16 With what will prove to be characteristic myopia, Sofia Petrovna simply misses all the political implications of this setting (women's employment and financial autonomy, opportunities for radical education) through her attention to surface images, her judgment according to the restricted categories of a bourgeois femininity (good manners, attractive appearance, and smooth social intercourse).17

Identified as "typical" in her limitations, Sofia Petrovna is then launched, somewhat obliquely, on a course of self-realization and public fulfillment. Her move out of the home and into a profession is first motivated by notions of self-sacrifice and male achievement. Widowed, she must work to support her teenage boy, especially since her husband "would never have allowed his son to go without a higher education" (3). Finding employment as a typist in a Leningrad publishing house, Sofia Petrovna settles on a service position most often staffed by women and symbolizing her own concern with superficial appearance and external decorum.18 Yet she benefits from her new job within her basic limitations. She learns to groom herself for her new authority; she is flattered, though not informed, by her exposure to the manuscripts of new literary works. In short order Sofia Petrovna finds herself recognized and advanced for her efficiency and dutifulness. She is placed in charge of the typing pool; she is chosen to address a political meeting on behalf of all nonparty employees; she is elected the official representative for her now communal apartment. By the time she is permitted her first vacation, she discovers that her orientation has been completely reversed: Rather than savor her return to the home, she longs to go back to work. As she absorbs Party speeches and press reports, Sofia Petrovna comes not only to accept her public fulfillment, but to identify and revere the power that "'scripted" it:

"Sofia Petrovna now completely agreed with Kolya when he expounded to her on the necessity for women to do socially useful work. Yes, everything Kolya said, and everything that was written in the newspapers now seemed to her completely obvious, as if people had always written and talked that way". (14)

In this first section, the plot echoes the formulae and imperatives of socialist realist fiction as well as some of its famous nineteenth-century precedents.19 The new Soviet state has facilitated the heroine's move from the domestic to the public domain. It reduces her bourgeois apartment to a single room, thereby devaluing this part of her life, and rewards her venture into the public world of work. In keeping with official policies on women's roles, it lays out the course and sets the limits of her liberation. An anonymous "they" (her beneficiary is rarely named) enlist Sofia Petrovna in various housekeeping and supervisory activities: She distributes typing jobs to her "young ladies"; collects union dues from the office; enforces regulations, and writes reports for her communal apartment. This faceless establishment - "the Party Organization and the Mestkom" - officially recognizes her contributions with a basket of flowers on International Women's Day, a Soviet holiday dedicated to (and so specifically marking) women as a group. Aware now of the state's benefactor role, Sofia Petrovna cherishes the gift as a token of her approved membership and displays it in her home near other such tokens - the collected works of Lenin and a little bust of Stalin (18).

Yet Chukovskaia's novel demonstrates how this "benevolent" establishment actually reinforces Sofia Petrovna's traditional middle-class hierarchy of gender roles and relations. For the most part, the men in her worlds exist as remote and/or idealized figures, beyond the range of her understanding and control. The high Party officials from Moscow who visit the publishing house are "stout men in foreign-made suits" (11). Her director, a young man viewed in his imposing office or graciously caring for his daughter at an office party, elicits her motherly adoration; far from being attracted to his position, she considers him a wonderful model for her son. In clear contrast, Sofia Petrovna presumes greater authority among the women at her workplace and in her communal apartment. Interestingly enough, in this context her regard for class distinction is most vehemently in evidence. She befriends and, in a sense, matronizes Natasha Frolenko, the best worker in the pool (and the daughter of a colonel), inviting her home and advising her on how to improve her appearance. While lamenting the fact that her neighbor, a policeman's wife, is "such a sloven" and is apparently responsible for her children's learning handicaps, Sofia Petrovna is on good terms" with this kind, unassuming woman who lives in their former study and depends on Sofia Petrovna's advice. On the other hand, Sofia Petrovna dares to disapprove of the women who exhibit a lack of decorum - rude manners, coarse language, provocative dress. She regularly criticizes Erna Semionovna- a young woman she considers the worst worker among her typists-and, in an unconscious class judgment, links her with her former "fresh" housemaid. The wife and daughter of the accountant (the whole family resides in her former dining room) shock her with their vulgar behavior, the more so because the wife comes "from the gentry" (15). Anna Grigorievna, the chairperson of the Mestkom and the one woman Sofia Petrovna might accept as senior, is rejected for her dirty nails, poor taste in clothes, and spoiled, unpleasant son. Now doubly trained to accept men as the bearers of power, Sofia Petrovna defines her own sphere as separate and supportive and, moreover, an arena where she exercises control as a law-abiding "mother," nurturing the good women who are modest, kind, hard-working, and obedient, and punishing the bad for their greed, rudeness, and insubordination.

Predictably, although Sofia Petrovna dreams up an appropriate fiancee for her son -an idealized postcard image (27) - she is fated never to find his female equal among the women she can judge. Natasha, the one woman she particularly endorses, is dismissed as too unattractive to be her Kolia's bride. A match be impossible: In political and cultural terms Kolia represents the epitome the official "son." He reincarnates the figure of the socialist realist hero seen, most unusually, through the apolitical (but no less idolizing) consciousness of his mother. His clean-cut, athletic, controlled image is made to order:

“Her son had become handsome, with his grey eyes and black brows, tall, and more confident, calm, and cheerful than Fyodor Ivanovich had been even in his best years. He had a sort of military way about him always, tidy and energetic. Softia Petrovna would look at him with both tenderness and fear, glad and yet afraid to be glad. What a good-looking young man, and healthy, too, he didn't drink or smoke, a good son and loyal Komsomol member”. (19)

Given the "representative" realism of Sofia Petrovna, Kolia seems to project a documented instance of a socialist realist character. In his first extensive appearance in the novel, he qualifies himself with state-approved credentials and scripts, informing his mother of his new Komsomol membership, announcing his organization of a "comrades' court show-trial" (to condemn a fellow student's anti-Semitism), and reciting Maiakovskii, the Soviet poet laureate. Together with his friend Alik Finkelstein (a less impressive figure and a foil to Kolia) he studies hard to obtain his degree in mechanical engineering - one of the technical fields promoted by the industrializing Soviet state. When a call goes out for technical experts in Sverdlovsk, an industrial center in the Urals, he and Alik set off to prove their loyalty and enthusiasm, to become the shock workers endorsed in official Soviet fiction and the press.

Perceived through his mother, Kolia functions, in large part, as her metonymical connection to the state. He articulates and enacts its values and priorities. He explains for her the "justice" of the purges conducted after Kirov's murder; he keeps her informed about the international situation from a Soviet point of view. Before he leaves home, Kolia equips Sofia Petrovna with a radio - the state's ubiquitous mouthpiece. Writing to her every week from Sverdlovsk, he preempts his private life with a public record, reporting on the operation and achievements of his factory. When he sends her a present, it is - rather than the sewing machine she hopes it to be - the first cogwheel made by the "Fellows' cogwheel cutter" he developed, the product of his public labor, the quest object of a socialist realist plot (26). Bewildered but indulgent, Sofia Petrovna accords the cogwheel a place of honor in her home as yet another emblem of official approval.

Even when he is living at home, Kolia remains allied to the public sphere. Although Sofia Petrovna worries about providing him the space for his own life-particularly for a future wife - her son shows little need for or interest in this kind of privacy. Aside from his friendship with Alik, he conceals all other personal involvements and treats his home as an extended workshop, a place where he and Alik experiment with various engineering projects. He defers the whole question of a personal life by moving to Sverdlovsk. After his departure, Kolia's image coincidentally takes on a public dimension for his mother. At the movies Sofia Petrovna discovers that the state-approved film characters - "[t]he pilots with their white teeth, accomplishing great feats" - remind her of her son. With his invention of the cogwheel cutter, Kolia himself is transformed into a public icon of achievement and dedication and appears, to his mother's surprise and delight, as a model hero on the pages of “Pravda”.

On her part, although Sofia Petrovna learns to appreciate and absorb her son's state-prescribed worldview, she never undergoes a complete conversion. She still senses the limitations in his model and presumes in him an inadequacy which she, as mother, must fill. Kolia either hides or dismisses private needs and feelings; while he remains at home, Sofia Petrovna supplies those missing parts of domestic comfort and emotional support. When he goes away, she deems him incapable of caring for himself and spontaneously appeals to Alik -a Jewish boy who does not conform to the manly Stalinist prototype-to look after her otherwise heroic son. Frustrated by Kolia's official letters, she even writes the “mothering" Alik for news about their domestic circumstances. For the first time on an intuitive level, Sofia Petrovna is dissatisfied with the inadequacy official expression when it touches on the vital subject of her son.

The limitations of both characters - indeed, their neat division of convention - masculine and feminine traits - explicitly demonstrate the inequality between the sexes that underlies most socialist realist plots. While seeming to liberate herself from assigned gender roles, Sofia Petrovna simply has exchanged one form of subordination for a new one that reapplies, but does not assign primary value to, her housekeeping and mothering skills. Kolia endorses a single of political and pragmatic action for both sexes, excluding the very posssibilities of a nonpublic space and a differentiated self. Neither character works out of independent set of social values or conceives of themselves outside of the imposed frameworks of tsarist patriarchy or Stalinist system. Yet, judged according to a socialist realist model, their situation still holds important potential. Kolia is the socialist realist hero "incarnate"; his mother, while hampered by the evil relics of her bourgeois past, has traveled far on the road to socialist enlightenment, purged of her former class privilege, employed as a worker, involved in political reeducation. In fact, in her son's absence, she becomes in her own way more absorbed in Soviet political culture by going to movies, listening to the radio and talking with Natasha. For roughly the first third of the novel, Chukovskaia seems to be recording a socialist realist success story.

The perversion of this success, therefore, underscores the terrible deceit inherent in Stalinist society and the official literature that misrepresents it. The first alarn sounds during the grand illusion of the office party. Characteristically, Sofia Petrovna and Natasha have interpreted the event on their own - as a kind of celebration of the family - and they buy presents for all of the employees' children and bedeck the room with icons of Lenin as a child and Stalin a benevolent paternal figure (30). There Sofia Petrovna is told of an arrest which is threatening by analogy: They have picked up Doctor Kiparisov, her husband's old colleague and Kolia's godfather. Yet, far from alerting her, this news and subsequent similar reports simply dupe her into the general mass hysteria. Having developed no other means of evaluation, she clings to the official interpretation reiterated in the papers and on the radio. Even the arrest of the can be dismissed as the result of a personal rather than a professional indiscretion. She demonstrates the extent of her delusion when she chances on her counterpart, the wife of Doctor Kiparisov. Bound to her petty standards of Sofia Petrovna simply registers a physical change - Mrs. Kiparisova has “let herself go terribly"-and while she insists on the "misunderstanding" of the doctor's arrest, she is incapable of reading the signs of her friend's ordeal.

Sofia Petrovna is shaken, but no more enlightened, once her son is in danger. When Alik, having failed in caring for his charge, comes back to inform her of Kolia's arrest and to help her make the rounds of police and prison, she is still loath to relinquish her trust in the state. The latter half of the novel chronicles her pathetic struggle to cope with this monstrous rift between an official society - where official doctrine is articulated and enforced - and a world of unofficial experience and association. With her son's arrest, the boundary between public and domestic spheres is made irrelevant for Sofia Petrovna, and she is cast into an unofficial netherworld that she is ill equipped to navigate and use.

She enters this realm instinctively, making her way to the prison - the one reference point she already knows.

“She noticed a large crowd of women in the middle of the street. Some were leaning against the parapet of the embankment, others walked slowly along the sidewalk or on the pavement. Sofia Petrovna was surprised that they were all very warmly dressed, muffled in scarves over their coats, and almost all in felt boots and galoshes. They were stamping their feet and blowing on their hands. "They must have stood here a long time to be so cold," Sofia Petrovna reflected for lack of anything to do, "it's no longer freezing, the thaw has begun." All the women looked as though they'd been waiting for hours on end for a train at a waystation. Sofia Petrovna took a careful look at the building across from which a crowd of women was standing - an ordinary building without any sort of sign on it. What was it they were all waiting for? In the crowd there were ladies in elegant coats and also simple women. Again for lack of anything better to do, Sofia Petrovna walked once or twice through the crowd. One woman stood there holding an infant in her arms and another child, muffled crosswise in a scarf, by the hand. Near the wall of the building there was a man standing alone. All their faces looked a little green -maybe it was the half light of the morning that made them look that way?” (47-48)

Like some kind of amateur ethnographer, Sofia Petrovna happens on a group that exists outside the customs of her time, place, and activity, and communicates only through cryptic questions and messages. Over the course of the next few weeks, Sofia Petrovna masters the customs, if not the meaning of this world: where to go; how to dress; what to ask of the prison or police officials; what information she can expect to obtain about her son's whereabouts and punishment. She learns to distinguish what she had missed in Mrs. Kiparisov's face; she can even detect among casual passersby which women are on their way to stand in the lines at the prison, the prosecutor's office, the secret police headquarters. In fact, Sofia Petrovna internalizes these women as her constant companions:

“She knew now, when she left home after a short sleep, that wherever she went - on the street, on the staircase, in the corridor, in the hall, on Chaikovsky Street, on the embankment, at the prosecutor's office - there would be women, women, women, old and young, in kerchiefs and hats, alone or with small children or babies - children crying from lack of sleep and quiet, frightened, laconic women; and as in her childhood, when upon closing her eyes after an excursion to the woods she had seen nothing but berries, berries, berries, now when she closed her eyes, she saw faces, faces, faces. . .”(57)

Overwhelmingly female, sharing the same stigma and hardship of the lines the sake of their imprisoned loved ones, this company could offer Sofia Petrovna a kind of support - at the very least as living proof of an ongoing political terror. Alik, who helps her keep vigil, certainly draws this conclusion, observing first that "[a]ll those mothers standing in line somehow look an awful lot like Sofia Petrovna" and then insisting, after he learns of Kolia's confession, "a colossal plot" is afoot. Natasha, her other helper, falls into a despair of confusion and doubt, unable to debate the heresies Alik proposes, at a loss to explain Kolia's confession to the authorities. Yet Sofia Petrovna counters their rest and hesitation with an unswerving belief in official lies. She censures for his rash behavior and even suspects her son of disobedience. Most vehemently, Sofia Petrovna refuses to approve and befriend the unofficial company she is forced to keep. Queuing up with hundreds of other victims, she them much as she criticized other women for their bad manners. Both groups, in her limited mind, are damned by their insubordination:

“No, Sofia Petrovna had been quite right to keep aloof from her neighbors in the lines. She was sorry for them, of course, as human beings, sorry especially for the children; but still an honest person had to remember that all these women were the wives and mothers of poisoners, spies and murderers”. (60)

Because Sofia Petrovna has embraced official standards as her own, she eventually condemns herself, allowing the very characters she instinctively disliked-the vulgar, materialistic Erna Semionovna and the accountant's wife - to victimize her in the name of the state and for personal gains. She loses job largely through the machinations of the unscrupulous Erna; she is accused of stealing and threatened with eviction by her co-tenant. When Alik is arrested and Natasha commits suicide, only the policeman's wife remains to offer Sofia Petrovna occasional consolation. She subsists in terrible isolation, “afraid of everyone and everything," including the newspapers which, for her, d once proclaimed the irrefutable truth. She responds by effacing herself both at work and at home, and she transforms her private refuge - her cherished, tidy room - into a messy storage place for goods to be sent to Kolia. Her circumstances combined with her limitations reduce Sofia Petrovna from worker, mother, and budding citizen to the most primitive kind of mother - a woman who lives only to get food and clothes to her suffering child.

The strain of living alone outside the bounds of official society finally breaks Sofia Petrovna: the ordeal distorts her thinking and perverts those few independent instincts she has displayed. Pushed to the limits of her endurance, hearing from Mrs. Kiparisova that some prisoners are being released, Sofia Fetrovna readmits herself to society by appropriating the state's reality-making fictions. Seemingly unaware of what she is doing, she lies to her co-workers and neighbors about Kolia's pending release and feels renewed by their congratulations. In official favor once again, she can care for herself-improving her tea-and-bread diet, cleaning up her room. Sofia Petrovna then awaits written confirmation of her lie and restored public life from Kolia. Yet the letter she miraculously does receive exposes a very different reality and, more, a very differently speaking Kolia. Imprisoned and tortured, the socialist realist hero now dwells only on emotional ties and physical pain. He has been beaten to confess until he is deaf in one ear; he is anxious over the welfare of his loved ones; he begs Sofia Petrovna to make an emotional (not ideological) appeal to the authorities as his "old mother."

It is intriguing that at this critical juncture Sofia Petrovna seeks advice from another woman. For the first time she voluntarily links her fate with a co-sufferer in the lines. Unfortunately, she turns to her counterpart, Mrs. Kiparisova - a woman who has more experience with the penal system but no more capacity to resist its dehumanizing influence. In the two women's sporadic meetings since Kolia's arrest, Mrs. Kiparisova has served as ambiguous mentor, passing on rumors and advising a cautiousness bordering on paranoia. When Sofia Petrovna runs to her with Kolia's letter, she discovers the doctor's wife already in the next stage of persecution, seated on a trunk in an empty room, awaiting deportation. Thoroughly terrorized, Mrs. Kiparisova draws Sofia Petrovna into her bathroom (the last refuge in her terrorized home) and warns her not to write an appeal:

"Don't write it!" whispered Kiparisova, bringing her huge eyes, ringed with yellow, close up to Sofia Petrovna's face. "Don't write one for your son's sake. They're not going to pat you on the back for an appeal like that. Neither you, nor your son. Do you really think you can write that the investigator beat him? You can't even think such a thing, let alone write it. They've forgotten to deport you, but if you write an appeal-they'll remember. And they'll send your son farther away, too. . . And who brought this letter, anyway? And where are the witnesses? . . . And what proof is there? . . ." She looked around the bathroom with wild-looking eyes. "No, for God's sake, don't write anything." (108)

Like a more extreme version of Sofia Petrovna, Kiparisova yields only negative reinforcement. She confirms Sofia Petrovna in her yearning to be obedient, in her impulse to avoid a reality that reveals the surface of normal society to be a monstrous lie. In lieu of inspiring courage and lending support, her words corner Sofia Petrovna into further submission and self-censorship. Returning home to think, Sofia Petrovna does not think at all. The narration slips from her confused consciousness to thoughtless action:

“Sofia Petrovna took a box of matches out of a drawer. She struck a match and lit a corner of the letter. It burned, slowly turning to ash, coiling up into a tube. It curled completely and burned her fingers. Sofia Petrovna threw the flame on the floor and stamped on it”. (109)

Sofia Petrovna concludes with this episode of terrible destruction. By burning her son's letter the protagonist psychologically and symbolically destroys herself. She is not strong enough to articulate and oppose the state's deception. More poignantly, she is not strong enough to be a protective mother under horrific circumstances. Through her action she reveals that she can no longer preserve what she once naturally desired - the expression of private (and incriminating) needs and feelings, her son's emergence as vulnerable human being. Out of terror and confusion, Sofia Petrovna turns away from the most vital personal connection remaining to her and performs the complicit treachery encouraged by the regime.

In composing the story of Sofia Petrovna, Chukovskaia uses a woman as the effective (and affective) measure of the devastation of Stalinist society. Echoing her own experience on a less sophisticated level, her female protagonist appropriates the role of the "little man" in nineteenth-century Russian literature, relating through her limited consciousness and mundane aspirations most telling critique of political tyranny.20 Just as Aleksandr Solzlienitsyn adopts the simple perspective of the peasant Ivan Denisovich to probe the full horror of the prison camp, so Chukovskaia reveals the nightmare of daily life in Soviet society through a simple and most representative character - one of the thousands of women who waited in the lines. Sofia Petrovna presents a strong case study because as an ordinary woman - someone trained and eager to serve within the bounds of a given system and to submit to authoritative male modlels - she demonstrates the incredible power (both attractive and destructive) of the Stalinist regime. Supported by the new order, she moves naturally from home to workplace; she is surprised and flattered by her easy professional success. As good wife, good mother, and good worker, she maintains for herself and imposes on others (most readily on women) absolute standards of obedience and loyal service. She absorbs Party doctrine without question-largely through the explanations and actions of her exemplary son.

Yet Sofia Petrovna does not (indeed, cannot) foresee the perils of her whole-hearted commitment. While seeming to expand her horizons and link the separate compartments of her life in a single devotion, she in effect relinquishes almost all her roles and modest spheres of influence to Party control. Made official and promised approval, her life still does not acquire primary value in her socciety. Her contributions as helpmate are presumed, exploited, and encouraged, but always contained. Moreover, her concern for Kolia's private welfare (the one response that lies outside official interests) proves at first to be irrelevant and then is punished as criminal association. When, on the basis of her crime of motherhood, Sofia Petrovna is forced to endure the horrible metamorphosis of official sanction into total punishment and terror, she has left herself no grounds for resistance. Committed to believe and obey, she submits to and suffers from the self-serving manipulations of "bad" characters still enjoying official approval. Watching the destruction of the obedient and the "good," she nevertheless abhors and suspects any form of dissidence.

So doomed by the nature of her participation, Sofia Petrovna is driven to a fundamental denial of herself and other., Her fate is the more terrible because it is worked out within and against a newly forming potential - a world which, for all its bleakness, testifies to an unofficial reality and gathers the victims together in a random community. Because she subscribes to the official interpretation of her experience, Sofia Petrovna cannot locate her own place -a possible refuge and source of resistance- in the company of these women, whom she presumes to be the wives and mothers of the enemy. Renouncing their positive image and association, she is led to distrust her own unofficial response as a loving mother and an intuitive woman and, in the end, yields to the annihilating silence of the torture chamber.

"Going Under"

With the confused despair and final surrender of its heroine, “Sofia Petrovna” imprints Chukovskaia's darkest reading of Stalinist society. The novel charts the insidious progress of totalitarian control-what Chukovskaia depicts as a plundering of perception and expression. Privy to the semi-verbal workings of Sofia Petrovna's consciousness, we witness and understand her inevitable capitulation; she possesses no spiritual or cultural funds to prevent it. Mother love, her surest virtue, alone proves to be no match for this overwhelming perversion. Chukovskaia's second novel, however, composed over the long years of survival, proposes a kind of recovery from the final breakdown of “Sofia Petrovna”. For this purpose, Chukovskaia necessarily selected a different protagonist, one closer to herself in mentality and vocation and therefore endowed with a deep knowledge of and love for literature. Nina Sergeevna, the speaking heroine, is a woman of cultural means, and the novel “Going Under” at once posits and explores her healing potential.

Chukovskaia clearly equips her protagonist to be her own writer and analyst. Nina Sergeevna belongs to the Union of Soviet Writers, and while this membership does not guarantee her talent, it identifies her conscious professional commitment and connects her tangibly with the literary scene. This heroine is highly skilled in the manipulation of words. She has long since graduated from the simple service of Sofia Petrovna; at one time she was employed as a shorthand typist, but for the duration of the novel she works (officially) as a translator. More importantly, Nina Sergeevna insists on what she feels to be the honest use of words and relies on her own writing for emotional and spiritual sustenance. She writes herself here in self-conscious diary form, through a first-person mode that not only records, but meditates on, her present experience and exercises a novelist's sensitivity to character and imagery. In contrast to the diffuse range of a daily diary, her account is contained and propelled by her sense of urgent mission.21

Nina Sergeevna, like Chukovskaia, has lost a husband in the purges, and she aims to penetrate the enigma of this bereavement-now over a decade old, but no less troubling-during her month at a writers' rest home. A widow writing about a widow writing about her loss, Chukovskaia seems to suggest “Going Under” as a metatext for her own practice. This connection also perhaps accounts for the more prescriptive and overtly moralizing tone of her second novel.

Nina Sergeevna, then, enters the scene as a professional woman with an established career. Her plot, in an interesting departure, removes her from both public and domestic spheres and locates her in a strange blend of hospital and workplace-a space where she can rest, recuperate, and work. For Nina Sergeevna this combination of comfort and freedom is essential:

“And here I am at home. From the lounge came the musical deep sound of a clock striking and immediately one could hear the measured assiduous pounding of an electric power-station. At long last I would be living alone in a room, for the first time since the war. As if I was in my own home in Leningrad. Sitting down at a desk which would not have to be turned into a diningroom table three times a day. Working in quiet. My thoughts and musings would not be run down, mutilated by somebody's words from the kitchen. ... I rested the palm of my hand on the blue pipe of the radiator: it was hot”. (6)22

Her room in the sanatorium affords her the refuge she might have enjoyed at home - a refuge, she implies, that has been chipped away by state design and family duty. Although she professes nothing but love and concern for her daughter Katya (her first act in her new room is to set out the "flags" of her ink-well and her daughter's photograph), here she enjoys a double respite from the daily grind of domestic relations in a communal apartment and the daily chores (if not the anxiety) of mothering. Here, too, she escapes from the demeaning bureaucracy of Moscow life into a world of solicitous people and "kindly pretence," where public exchange is still informed by courtesy and a concern for one's individual welfare. With its specially prepared meals, tidied rooms, medical treatments, and leisure activities, this world effectively mothers Nina Sergeevna, providing her - the traumatized victim-with the physical well-being necessary for her recovery.

Granted these special privileges, Nina Sergeevna is at pains to distinguish her enjoyment from what she early on identifies as crass hedonism. Her first thoughts, intended to commence her "meeting with [her]self," digress instead to the foil of Liudmila Pavlovna, the well-appointed matron of the sanatorium who is probably pleased to "work in such a smart place," but "bored to death" by its pure air and natural setting (6-7). Nina Sergeevna presumes that she alone can appreciate the depth of her new home's restorative power, the delights of house and forest. Reminiscent of Chukovskaia's own Kuokkala, the natural world surrounding the rest home entrances her with its sparkling silence md dancing birch "families" (family once again recurs as an important motif) and constitutes for her a special meeting place with texts and people. If the comforts of the rest home nurture her in a material way, then she receives from the forest the same sort of poetic nourishment Chukovskaia obtained from outings with her father. Her long walks in the woods culminate in spontaneous recitations. For Nina Sergeevna, as for Chukovskaia, poetry and nature are recorded as complementary phenomen:23

“Looking around, I saw that I was quite alone and I began to recite some poetry. I tried to fit the sounds to the birch-trees, to this treacherous snow.

I tried out Pushkin, Pasternak, Nekrasov and Akhmatova. Yes, they were all from here. They all fitted in. "All Correct", as one would say in checking a telegram. ... All the words grew from this soil, and drawing in a deep breath, stretched upwards to the sky like the birch-trees”. (55)

To a remarkable degree, the sanatorium institutionalizes the place of Chukovskaia's idyllic childhood, echoing the perfect synthesis of parents, home, and Finnish landscape with the imperfect, but certainly beneficial, complex of medical staff, rest home, and surrounding woods.24 Yet this place can only imitate that past: in contrast to the happy plot and setting of childhood in Chukovskaia's memoir, her novel represents the convalescence of a troubled adult - a woman constantly victimized and, above all, spiritually disrupted by the world outside. Nina Sergeevna suffers from the same social schizophrenia that undoes Sofia Petrovna, but she is made intelligent and brave enough to diagnose its cause and fortunate enough to find temporary relief. In this place she hopes to restore herself by shutting out a false public life and reviewing her past experience, a process she describes as "going under" as she descends into the semiconscious state of remembering and dreaming arrests, interrogations, and prison queues.

Nina Sergeevna sets the stage for this process with the record of her first nightmare. Here she names the central, compelling source of her pain - the loss of her husband, Alyosha. Experienced and recovered, this dream represents for her a subconscious attempt to penetrate the unknown, to realize "a horror without color or smell" (19). She approaches this horror obliquely, fearfully, through a patchwork of related memories, dreams, and commentary. The nightmare moves her beyond the enigma of interrogation and prison camp to an incriminating account of Alyosha's return:

“I am lying on the low soft bed. Black deep silence. My heart is pounding as if I had been performing under the circus big top, had missed the trapeze - and fallen into the net. Tonight I understood why I was guilty. I understood in my dream. I am alive. That was why. I am alive, I am still living after they have shoved Alyosha into the water with sticks. He had come back for a moment to reproach me. That was what I saw in my dream”. (20)

Like Sofia Petrovna, Nina Sergeevna has been most affected by Stalinist repression through the loss of a loved one. Yet, as this narrated dream already shows, she is working out a positive, sanity-preserving response to her bereavement through the act of writing; "going under" entails both recollection and inscription. Her subsequent descents are planned, voluntary assays to write across the terrible chasm between surviving self and murdered husband, present existence and the netherworld, and these culminate in an all-important book:

“It will stand on the shelf with other books, it will be picked up, leafed through, put back in place. The dust will be wiped off, dust of the quiet of this place, of today through which Alyosha's voice and Katya's tears return to me. The book was me, the sinking of my heart, my memory, which nobody can see, just as nobody can see, for instance, a migraine, a point of pain in my eye, yet it will become paper, binding, a new book on the market and - if I plumb the depths fearlessly - someone's new soul. Creating it, Alyosha's voice and Katya's tears will permeate this soul”. (36)

Like so many other unofficial texts written in this period, her book is assigned a dangerous status and a transcendent mission. In the course of “Going Under” she divines her book in secret (like Chukovskaia, she intimates her creation as involuntary act) and camouflages her writing with reported work on a translation project. She does not risk her work's distribution, although she employs the same imbedding device used by Bulgakov and Pasternak, including it as an “untitled” excerpt in the frame narrative (98-110). But Nina Sergeevna does declare her ultimate goal in writing it: "I want to find brothers - if not now, then in the future. All living things seek brotherhood and I seek it too. I am writing a book to find brothers, even if only there in the unknown distance" (38).

Chukovskaia's heroine, like Chukovskaia herself, simply conflates the masculine and the universal in evoking such a "brotherhood." It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the text of her book mainly features female characters from her past - the undersociety of women in the prison lines. (Nina Sergeevna even .plates entitling it "Daughter".) Her first-person chronicle of a "routine" morning, this text explores the possibility of articulating the women's experience and describes their first, fearful attempts to interact and share. At the outset her account emphasizes silence: The waiting women converse very little themselves, and none of them, including Nina Sergeevna, can explain their presence to a curious onlooker. In fact, the longest passages of dialogue are attributed to the police commandant, who barks out the regulations and fends off timid questions with lies and flirtatious remarks. Nina Sergeevna depicts how the women are herded into a single line moving toward a door they enter one by one; once inside, they receive identical information from a disembodied bureaucrat who hides behind a high wooden shutter. Shunted through this assembly line, the women become a mass of identically silenced and dismissed victims.

Yet despite the silence, distrust, and forced conformity she records, Nina Sergeevna also indicates how she enters into a hesitant process of individuation and interaction. She notes the intermittent appearance of an old Jewess with a mustache who herself manages to speak to the commandant and then to her co-supplicants. And she especially distinguishes a young Finnish woman and her frail baby daughter:

“The little baby girl sneezed beneath the starched pale-blue cloud, her mother lifted the tulle and I caught a glimpse of a tiny delicate face, pink like her blanket, so delicate that a speck of ash which had settled on her cheek looked like a heavy, black stone. She was blessed with eyelashes which seemed to reach halfway down her cheeks. She had a teeny little face - and there in the blanket were tiny red heels, tiny little fingers with tiny toy nails and all her fragrant velvety little body. "Wrap her up quickly," I said. It was terrible to think that the frost might touch that little face”. (100)

Nina Sergeevna vaguely marks the progress of mother and child through the line. Although she wonders at one point why the woman is holding the baby on outstretched arms, she cannot spare any further reflection until they are both released from the building into a little courtyard. Here an apparently normal world of family and society is instantly restored, with bundled children playing under the supervision of their nannies, and Nina Sergeevna gradually becomes conscious of a terrible change: Instead of cradling the baby in her lap, the mother has laid her daughter beside her on the frozen bench. For the first time Nina Sergeevna shifts her concern from missing husband to present companion and rushes over to help, but her efforts are too late. The baby had died several hours before, the mother had remained in line out of love for her husband, and Nina Sergeevna can only help her catch her tram home.

By the conclusion of her inset text, Nina Sergeevna has indeed portrayed herself in contact with one of her sisters. She proves able to express compassion and commit herself to help. Her involvement cannot alter the horror; the icon she recognized in the child is nevertheless destroyed. Yet in acting and then writing down that action, she establishes an important precedent and creates a powerful symbol. In contrast to a paralyzed Sofia Petrovna, she demonstrates the possibility (if not the immediate benefit) of interaction and support among these "suspect" woman. And she conveys the seemingly inexpressible emotional ordeal ("Alyosha's voice and Katya's tears") through a tragic tableau vivant enacted by women - a baby daughter's death, a woman's anguish over lost husband and dead baby, a female onlooker's compassionate grief for mother and child.

During the "descent" of her book, Nina Sergeevna does risk contact and ventures into some of the lives of her fellow victims. What she does not anticipate is the possibility of discovering "brothers" among her present company in the sanatorium. Unfortunately, her refuge, compared to Chukovskaia's Kuokkala, attracts a very different sort of visitor - approved members of an official union rather than a group of dedicated artists. She enters the sanatorium with the intent to isolate and immerse herself and, during her first days, shies away from any other association. Yet these official writers are an intruding, demanding presence at the dining-room tables, in the lounge and the bathing cubicles, even on the forest paths. And as Nina Sergeevna must meet and intuitively read these characters, she expresses certain conventional, moralizing patterns of classification and dismissal. All the other "artists" at the sanatorium happen to be men. They are the characters most likely to engage her in discussions about work, literary tastes, and literary politics. With a few important exceptions, Sergeevna hears them as parrots of official rhetoric and judgment. She illustrates their conformity by juxtaposing their "impromptu" opinions with radio and newspaper accounts. Although these men possess other faults, Nina Sergeevna judges them most harshly for their speech, which, like the Stalinist newspeak she openly condemns, rings false in its very "monotony, word order, syntax, tone and intonation" (96).

The women exemplify an altogether different Stalinist vice. They make up stiff of the rest home and the families - the wives and girlfriends - of the visiting writers; they either serve or accompany the "artists." In Nina Sergeevna’s critical reading, they, too, devalue culture, but in a more physical way; she scorns them as the embodiment of vulgar materialism and sensual indulgence. The wry disdain she expresses for Liudmila Pavlovna - a fashionable woman “bored to death" by nature -characterizes most of her judgments. At first intrigued by a dark-eyed young woman in the dining room, Nina Sergeevna very concludes that she is too pretty to be a writer (21), and then is wholly disillusioned by her beauty when the woman begins to flirt with other guests. In her most self-righteous mode, Nina Sergeevna assumes an intellectual limitation, even a kind of spiritual inadequacy, in these well-dressed, attractive women - as if their concern for external appearance betrays an inner emptiness and,. worse, acquiescence to a false, repugnant material standard.35 Although she observes this kind of materialism among men as well, she locates its source in women - specifically in the figure of the wife who, in her judgment, can both incarnate and determine the value system of a household. She ponders this phenomenon in the case of the journalist, a man she admits that she may have misjudged until she meets his spouse:

“Since I had seen his face there on the bridge I had almost believed that the fur collar and the fancy knob had no special meaning and were not so directly connected with him. But now, seeing the wife's well-proportioned figure, the handbag slung over her shoulder and hearing her voice and laughter I thought "No, both the fur collar and the knob were not accidental. They had a meaning." . . . "But what a revealing thing one's wife is," I thought, as I walked behind her shapely hips and watched her happily spitting. The words "It's fun to do it with your mouth" appear to him to be wit; the carthorse strength and lightness of step - beauty; and that stupid laugh - candor. In her spitting he sees something spontaneous, childlike maybe, and intimacy with ordinary people”. (56-57)

As in her search for "brothers," her dislike of the materialistic wife implies a rather male-centered worldview - one perhaps unreflectingly transmitted by her author. It is characteristic that Nina Sergeevna highlights only one villain from her domestic life "outside"- her neighbor, Elizaveta Nikolaevna, who evinces no good wifely qualities (she has no children and cannot "sew, mend, or bake") and lives to tyrannize and exploit others. A truly evil wife, this woman is mainly responsible for violating the refuge of Nina Sergeevna's home, spoiling her previous "descents," and forcing her to seek peace and privacy elsewhere. Among this conventionalized assortment of lying "intellectual" men and grasping "physical" women, Nina Sergeevna conveniently figures as a shining anomaly. She is the only woman who is a writer; more, she is the only female character (aside from the doctor, a background figure) who demonstrates any sort of intellectual ability. According to her own criteria, her appearance confirms her capacity. She admits her shabbiness when she is first accosted by visitors in the forest: "Prosperous, well-dressed people! I immediately thought of my old coat, my unpermed and untinted hair" (11). She bears none of the trappings and expresses none of the desires of a materialistic wife. She refuses to indulge in the flirtatious atmosphere of the rest home; when confronted with the prospect of a love affair, she is wearied and even repelled. In effect, Nina Sergeevna "transcends" the embodied materialism that she ascribes to other women.

At the same time she is the only writer in the sanatorium who explicitly protests official lies and voices her own independent opinions. When the journalist, echoing a critical paragraph in the newspapers, complains that Pasternak is obscure, Nina Sergeevna, echoing Lidiia Chukovskaia, delivers an impassioned speech about the necessity of a poetic education and the unfathomable greatness of the poet. Of all her companions, she alone {and despite a friendly warning) objects when the critic Klokov endorses the state's new anti-Zionist campaign. Unable to restrain herself, she insists on the "blatancy of the lies" in print and the consequent innocence of all those who had been publicly accused. Although Nina Sergeevna realizes that such outbursts are useless and often dangerous, she has, in fact, performed a remarkable feat within her context: she has broken through the silence and paralysis that cripples her society and has made her private belief a public stance.

Refusing materialist entrapment on the one hand and intellectual sycophancy on the other, Nina Sergeevna might seem impossibly virtuous and unapproachable. Yet she finds that she exercises an attractive and synthesizing power; involuntarily, she develops into a new sort of heroine. While attempting to shun contact, she invites all manner of confidences and attachments - from surprising sources and, most often, in the forest she had hoped to preserve as her solitary refuge. Liudmila Pavlovna, who had provoked only her scorn and suspicion, suddenly gains her sympathy; Nina Sergeevna finds her weeping as she walks along a snowy path and there hears the matron's confession about her sister's second arrest and deportation. The same day, making polite conversation with another patient, she stumbles on his horrific life story as he tells her how the Germans immolated his wife and two of his three children during the war. In another instance, she is even called upon to sort out "poetic truth" when the Jewish poet Veksler asks her to compare his Yiddish poems with their Russian translations and she obliges, earning from him a deep respect for her editorial skill.

Meeting her by chance and encouraged by her sympathy, these characters serve to endorse Nina Sergeevna's special capacity as a listener and a seeker of hidden "truth." She is cast as a kind of caretaker of their most precious secrets, as someone to whom they can relate every aspect of their existence. Veksler repeatedly asks her to listen to and comment on his work. Still maintaining the pose of gracious matron, Liudmila Pavlovna depends on her to keep her secret and offer occasional advice. Nina Sergeevna alone seems equipped to preserve an essential integrity in both moral and cultural terms. She even functions as surrogate mother when she befriends Lyolka, a little girl who lives in the village nearby and is the sister of one of the maids at the rest home. Struck by the girl's sad situation (her father is missing, both her mother and sister work, and she must take care of her year-old brother), Nina Sergeevna tries to provide Lyolka with the kind of poetic education Chukovskaia records receiving from her father. She plays cultural parent to the girl, treating her to sweets and a book of fairy tales, silencing the newspeak of the blaring radio in their hut by reading aloud. In this sense, Nina Sergeevna begins to generalize the relationship she has preserved with her daughter Katya and shows how, as an educated writer and a mother who resists the state's manipulation, she might manage to save the souls of many such daughters.

For Nina Sergeevna all these unexpected contacts afford glimpses of potential “brotherhood" - an imperfect or as yet undeveloped communion. Yet she enters one relationship that promises immediate fulfilment. Another guest at the sanatorium, the writer Nikolai Bilibin, comes to exist for her as a human emissary from the world of the camps. She attracts him as well, and although she rejects his early romantic advances, she appreciates a kind of physical ambiguity in him - something "veiled" in his eyes and actor's voice. He continues to pursue her even after she has publicly compromised herself with her defense of Pasternak and, just when she predicts the next ploy in his flirtation, seduces her with a very different disclosure: he tells her of his camp experience. Nina Sergevna quotes his stories at length, paying homage to the essential information he gives her. In return, she shares with him the precious secret of her husband. After these first confessions, their relationship develops, in pattern and intensity, like a love affair. Overhearing Bilibin's flirtatious banter with other women, Nina Sergeevna feels secretly possessive of his "real" voice (46). Dismayed by his assumed pose with the other guests, she longs to be alone with him and listens avidly for his footsteps outside her room (61). When he does not apppear, she even seeks him out and, because of her urge to talk with him, saves from dying of a heart attack. Her passion, however, depends on the exchange of forbidden stories. In contrast to her random contacts with Veksler and Liudmila Pavlovna, she and Bilibin both throw themselves into the roles of witness and listener: "He could not have had many opportunities for talking about camp life because he spoke with the same insatiable voraciousness I felt listening to him" (68).

Indeed, it is the knowledge she receives from Bilibin that allows her to reconsider human intimacy. Telling her the very probable scenario of her husband’s execution, Bilibin actually dispels her nightmares with his facts and makes her widowhood definite and bearable. Their conversations eventually preempt all her other writing and remembering and realign the spiritual configuration of her world. She actually permits contact with another human being to supercede her solitary communion with nature:

“The grove no longer lived for itself, its own secret life, at one with the snow, wind and clouds, but existed for us, existed to imprint our footsteps in the snow, existed to cover them over in a flurry of flakes; to fill them with water, for the wind to roll over our heads; to change the color of his eyes by the greyness or blueness of the sky; to preserve us from the whole world and not to hinder us as we listened to one another”. (111)

The exacting Nina Sergeevna gradually comes to treat Bilibin as a full-fledged "brother," valuing his narrative, worrying about his health, and relying on him for emotional support. Yet in the end she discovers that Bilibin cannot maintain the comprehensive standards she has set for them both. She herself registers an early warning: "poetry kept us apart". As it turns out, Bilibin's deafness to poetry implies a greater insensitivity and incapacity. At first he misreads their relationship as a case of erotic love. It is revealing that Nina Sergeevna does not so much object to the notion of love as Bilibin's trite expression of it:

“. . . But why and how had we suddenly started talking in such a stupid way: 'rival', 'successful rival', 'unsuccessful rival'. 'Rival' in what? How could we have degraded what we had experienced together by using those trite words?” (120)

Yet her final break with Bilibin stems from his deliberate miswriting of his life. Nina Sergeevna is already contemplating him as an actual reader of her "book" and naturally consents to look at his manuscript, expecting to hear there his "real voice." Instead she reads the perversion of his camp experience into a standard socialist realist novel. Paraphrasing his text, she spells out its falsification of his camp stories - the reduction of real characters to stereotyped and officially approved ciphers, the addition of improbable hero and heroine and a ridiculous plot, the distortion of state persecution into a glorification of state productivity. Judged by her (and Chukovskaia's) practice, Bilibin has committed the most terrible sin: he has borne false witness in creating a work of art. Feeling a "shame so strong that time came to a stop," Nina Sergeevna pronounces her verdict to his face, dismissing him from her "brotherhood" as a coward and a liar.

The novel does not conclude with this betrayal; instead Nina Sergeevna is moved from self-righteous condemnation and willful seclusion to compassion - a pattern that informs the entire narrative. Within the "meeting place" of the forest, she now observes Bilibin from afar, feeling remorse as he struggles with his weak heart. Although she does not approach him, she relates her own extensive interior monologue of forgiveness and these words, even unuttered, represent an important emotional reconciliation: "I felt sorry for him, and I felt sorry for myself, and for everyone. 'Russia, my motherland,' I thought in someone else's words" (135). Without abandoning her goal, she begins to consider and accept its imperfect human realisation – on a national scale, Rather than pass judgment and shun sinners, she entertains a hope for shared grief and shared renewal. During the train trip home from the sanatorium, she eavesdrops on her companions and suddenly imagines a collective "going under":

“The words "Russia, my motherland," came back to me. I surreptitiously began to scrutinize the other passengers. What sort of people were they? What went on inside? How could I glance within and make contact with them? . . . What did each of them see in their darkness when they closed their eyes to go to sleep? If only I could go under with then and see what they saw. That would really be a descent. Together with them. Getting into their memory. (138)

The novel closes at the moment of Nina Sergeevna's reentry into the normal world.The context for her return is beset with daunting obstacles: the train is met by Bilibin's wife, another decorous, well-dressed matron; the Moscow streets "look black" in comparison with her dazzling forest; at home she must face the odious Elizaveta Nikolaevna before Katya returns from school; Bilibin makes superficial small talk for their public parting. Nina Sergeevna is deposited once again in a venal, deceitful, abusive society. Yet, even confronted with these bleak impressions, her perception (and that of her reader) is enhanced now by a sense of duality. She is surfacing, in effect, from a first exploration of collective depths. While traveling to the sanatorium at the beginning of her narrative she fiercely protected her solitude and excluded her companions; she comes home filled with the knowledge of their characters and, despite her disappointment, is now attuned to the double life that surely exists all around her.

Her reentry, in turn, coincides with her reader's reentry into the world outside the text. Intended (ultimately) for a Soviet audience, her diary-novel in its entirety proposes a first plan of action, demonstrates a new conscientious role model. In “Going Under”, a lone woman, temporarily freed from the duties of and home, transcends the conventional limitations of the men and women around her to achieve a heroism that originates out of her unofficial widowhood and features an overwhelming sensitivity to and care for others and their hidden "truth”. In spite of the threats and temptations that waylay the other characters, in lieu of spectacular feats and dramatic schemes, her heroism consists of writing and sharing the forbidden life stories she deems essential for her nation's spiritual and cultural renewal. Within her present situation she alone is qualified to perform such heroic acts, yet in the course of her journal she discovers she might involve and help others in the same process. As she is lured out of her moral isolation into the roles of compassionate witness, intimate confidante and surrogate parent, she begins to effect a potential cure for her society’s schizophrenia. In this way Chukovskaia elaborates the female writing role articulated in Akhmatova's “Requiem”; she develops both the creative and transormative potential of the female mourner and witness. Her heroine's experiment of "going under," then, concludes at the point of its most critical application.

Viewed in sequence, the fictional records of “Sofia Petrovna” and “Going Under” offer a continuous reading, from a female perspective, of gender roles and positions during the Stalinist period. In both, Chukovskaia portrays women as the characters who are left behind, burdened with a seemingly unbearable responsibility. Men, who dominate the ruling and intellectual elite, are shown to be far more absorbed in the public domain and removed from the demands of domestic life. At the same time, because of their high public profile, they are most immediately and harshly victimized by the regime, disappearing from the public eye into the unseen, "unreal" world of the prisons and labor camps. Although no longer relegated to the domestic sphere, women remain involved in both work and home; at work, they seldom are allowed or enabled to progress beyond a supportive role. Their lesser public status and greater domestic involvement shields them somewhat from the brunt of the purges but does not ensure them refuge since even their home life - their modest domestic privilege - comes under indirect Party control. When they are not arrested or deported for "criminal association'' with their husbands and sons, Chukovskaia depicts women as compelled, by their own concern, to occupy the threshold of the prison world. In the somber public space of prison and police stations, they figure as the dispossessed, the unacknowledged, the inexplicable. They pursue their own victimization; they are driven to effect a link between "normal" society and the unreal world of the torture chamber. Chronicling women's experience of the threshold, both “Sofia Petrovna” and “Going Under” illustrate the overwhelming difficulties of this task. Even Nina Sergeevna, convinced of the state's villainy, cannot fully overcome the alienation and silence of the lines. To bridge the gap between the two worlds, she must retreat to a separate refuge where she is free from daily cares and more sheltered from the state's incessant physical and verbal siege.

While it is unclear where these women will find reliable sanctuary within their society, Chukovskaia does indicate how they can maintain these vital connections - if they dare. Both protagonists are trapped in a world which pronounces their personal feelings and allegiances criminal, which dismisses their perception and intuition as unreal. To keep faith with their loved ones (and preserve their own sanity), Sofia Petrovna and Nina Sergeevna must reject the official lie and believe in and articulate their private experience - an experience based, above all, on the state's persecution of their family. For both, their ability to write and read "private" recording texts ultimately predicts their own survival as compassionate, honorable human beings. Sofia Petrovna, overwhelmed by what she cannot (and will not) acknowledge, destroys possibly the last testimony of her beloved son. A conventional, culturally uneducated woman, she is left a paralyzed and muted object easily manipulated by the state. In contrast, Nina Sergeevna can overcome her victimization by "meeting," recording, and sharing it. Endowed with Chukovskaia's own training (and prejudices) as a "fortunate daughter," she resists the fate of becoming victim and accomplice by hesitantly putting that training to work, accepting her new acquaintances as potential members of her national spiritual family and healing their moral and psychological wounds by expressing and upholding the "truth." From different vantage points, then, both “Sofia Petrovna” and “Going Under” assert that for those left behind in the involuntary and primarily female position of caretaker and mourner, the only possible acts of heroism are, in a sense, communicative and re-creative. And these are works which, according to Chukovskaia’s biographical and fictional examples, a poetically educated woman is and empowered to perform.


1. Lidiia Chukovskaia, “Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi” (“Notes on Anna Akhnuitova”), T. I. 1938-41, 2d ed. (Paris: YMCA Press, 1984), 11.

2. Written in 1939-40, “Sofia Petrovna’ was first slated for publication in the early 1960s during the political "thaw." When this contract was rescinded, Chukovskaia successfully sued the publisher for her full honorarium. For an account of this curious history, see her “Protsess iskliucheniia” (“Process of expulsion”) (Paris: YMCA Press, 1979). The novel was finally published in the Soviet Union, in both serial and book form, in 1988.

3. M. Korallov, "Nado zhit' dolgo," “Novyi mir”, 11 (1988): 248-50.

4. Alia Latynina, "Pisat'-eto bylo spasenie: Ystrecha s Lidiei Chukovskoi," “Moskovskie Novosti”, 17 (12 April 1988): 7.

5. Cf. Latynina, also Natalia Ivanova's "Khranit’ veehno," “Iunost'”, 7 (1988): 86-90. Chukovskaia herself, characteristically modest about her artistic achievement, still claims this distinction. See her "Afterword" in the translation of “Sofia Petrovna” by Aline Worth (revised and amended by Eliza Kellogg Klose) (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 111: "To this day (1974), I know of no volume of prose about 1937 written in. this country and at that time."

6. Early in her career, Chukovskaia did produce other fiction (mainly under the pseudonym A. Uglov), but, to date, only “Sofia Petrovna” and “Going Under” (“Spusk pod vodu”) are remarked on in Russian literary histories. It is notable that Chukovskaia also wrote poetry all through this period, and her verses reflect on related themes of loss and bereavement. See her collection, “Po etu storonu smerti: iz dnevnika 1936-1976” (Paris YMCA Press, 1978).

7. Chukovskaia told me this and other valuable information during my meeting with her on 25 September 1989 in her Moscow apartment.

8. Hirshorn maintains that both novels grew out of Chukovskaia's diary entries and "retained many features of her diary narrative" (157).

9. In Latynina's interview, Chukovskaia reports that after she had finished “Sofia Petrovna” she actually read it aloud to a gathering of nine people.

10. Again, information related during our September 1989 meeting.

11. Efim Etkind, "Father and daughter" ("Otets i doch'"), the afterword to the Russian language edition of “To the Memory of Childhood” (New York; Chalidze Publications. 1983), 273.

12. The first quote is cited in Latynina; the second refers to a passage in a letter I received from Chukovskaia dated 7 July 1989.

13. From my September 1989 meeting with Chukovskaia.

14. See "Afterword" to “Sofia Petrovna”, 119. For other textual changes made in the first tamizdat version of “Sofia Petrovna”, see Hirshorn, 109-10.

15. For Dorrit Cohn's discussion and demonstration of all the variants of this narrative mode, see her “Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 21-57.

16. All subsequent quotations refer to the English-language edition of “Sofia Petrovna” by Aline Worth with revisions and amendations by Eliza Kellogg Klose (Evanston, IL Northwestern University Press, 1988).

17. The most famous fictional treatment of this concept occurs in Nikolai Chernyshevskii's novel “What Is to Be Done”. On the cultivation of such establishments as a means of educating women and liberating them from economic dependence on their families, see Stites, “Women's Liberation in Russia”, 118-21; also Engel, “Mothers and Daughters”, 88-90.

18. One reviewer, Natal'ia Ivanova, goes so far as to characterize Sofia as a twentieth- century version of Gogol's copy clerk, Akakii Akakievich. "Khranit' vechno," 87. Al though I think this analogy is ultimately inaccurate, it does recognize Sofia's continuation of the "little man" role, a point I highlight in the chapter's conclusion.

19. It could be argued that Chukovskaia is parodying elements of Chernyshevskii's “What Is to Be Done”, although many of these had already been thoroughly absorbed hit socialist realist models. My hypothesis is that Chukovskaia is playing off the gamut of nineteenth-century radical fiction and its socialist realist offspring.

20. In an unpublished review of “Sofia Petrovna (recommending its publication in “Novyi mir” in the early 1960s), the critic Stepan Zlobin remarks that the novel presents the "little man" and his "little tragedy" ("melkii chelovek" and "melkaia tragediia" within the Stalinist context. Located in fund 2175, opis 5 in TsGALI - the Central Star-. Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow.

21. The critic Michat Glowinski draws a distinction between the first-person novel and the diary on the basis of their "global awareness"; he maintains that the diary does no: manifest any consciousness of a potentially large audience. "Powiesc i dziennik intymny," in “O prozie polskiej XX wieku”, edited by A. Hutnikiewicz and Helena Zaworska (Warsaw: IBL PAN, 1971), 375-94.

22. All citations taken from Lidiia Chukovskaia, “Going Under”, translated by Peter M Western (Barrie and Jenkins, 1972) with my revisions based on the Russian edition “Sofia Petrovna. Spusk pod vodu. Povesti” (Moscow: “Moskovskii rabochii”, 1988).

23. It is intriguing that for all her similarity to Chukovskaia, Nina Sergeevna never ascribes her poetic sensibility to another figure. She treats this belief as a given, not a parental legacy.

24. According to Hirshorn, this place may also reflect a real-life sanatorium (Litvinovka outside of Moscow) that Chukovskaia loved to visit (135).

25. This critique negatively reflects certain values encouraged and expressed in official postwar culture. As Vera Dunham states in her innovative book, “In Stalin's Time: Middle- class Values in Soviet Fiction”, introduced by Jerry F. Hough (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976): "Material craving engulfed postwar society from top to bottom. Coiffures, cosmetics, perfume, clothes - the trappings of enhanced femininity - gained social significance" (43). Dunham describes how the regime promoted and rewarded the material values of the meshchanstvo (the petty bourgeoisie) to members of its cultural intelligentsia. Intellectuals of Nina Sergeevna's mindset generally countered this privilege with a defiant asceticism; her prejudice against materialistic women also seems to be widely shared. In her article, "'Middle Class Values' and Soviet Life in the 1930s," in Soviet Society and Culture, Sheila Fitzpatrick suggests an interesting revision of Dunham's thesis - that this new intelligentsia was composed of both arrivistes from lower- class backgrounds as well as "members of the old 'bourgeois' intelligentsia" (35-36).

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