Lydia's future profession was predetermined by her birth to the family of Kornei Chukovsky, the most versatile Russian writer, best known for his children's verses, whose 120th anniversary we will mark next week. Kornei Chukovsky's real name was Nikolai Korneichukov, but his children adopted his pen name, both last name and patronymic. Two of his children, Lydia and Nikolai, were to play an important role in Russian literature. But the careers of these two writers could not be more different. Nikolai Chukovsky wrote mostly patriotic stories about the war, and in his later years was an official of the Writers' Union. Lydia Chukovskaya devoted most of her life to the struggle against the Soviet regime, and her works only began to be published in this country in the late 1980s.
Lydia Chukovskaya was born in St. Petersburg in 1907. It is not easy to be the daughter of a great man, and the road Lydia herself chose was also far from easy. At an early age, in the best traditions of the Russian intelligentsia, the girl pondered over problems of social justice. Her father wrote down the following words spoken aloud by the 7-year-old: "All people should get together and decide that there should be no poor people any more. Put the rich in huts and make the poor rich, or rather, let the rich be rich but the poor a little bit richer." Even at that tender age the girl realized that the Bolshevik idea of dealing with the problem of the rich and the poor was nonsense.
However, the greatest passion of the young girl was literature, in particular poetry. The house she lived in was visited by the most prominent writers of the day: Alexander Blok, Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilyov, and many others. Alexander Blok became her favorite poet.
It was not Lydia's free spirit that was the reason for her troubles with the authorities. It seems that a girlfriend of hers used her father's typewriter to type some sort of anti-Bolshevik leaflet. But once in prison, Lydia refused to request pardon, and was sent into exile to Saratov. Despite the fact that there she spent time in the company of revolutionaries, she showed no interest in politics. It was her idea that the defects of the universe could be corrected by means of fiction. When she returned to the city that was now called Leningrad, she went to work with Samuil Marshak, Chukovsky's main rival in children's literature, at the Children's Publishers. Soon afterwards she married Matvei Bronshtein, a brilliant young physicist.
Although for many writers children's literature was a way of avoiding adult political problems, for quite a few, in the case of the Leningrad Children's Publishers, this did not work out. A number of authors with the publishing house were arrested in 1935-1938, at the height of the Great Terror. Some were executed, among them Lydia's husband. Marshak himself was forced to move to Moscow.
Chukovskaya was to be arrested as the wife of an "enemy of the people," but she was not in Leningrad at the time. Far from succumbing to fear, in 1939-1940 Chukovskaya wrote a story, Sofia Petrovna, which was an attempt to show what Stalinist Terror had done to people. Although there was no question of publishing the story, the secret police learned about its existence. Chukovskaya was forced to move to Moscow, where her father was also out of favor at the time. Her life was difficult; she did not have a regular job. According to the Soviet view, Chukovskaya's background and biography (arrest and exile) made her a suspect character. In addition, she was too straightforward and unyielding, and so was unable to hold a job for more than a few months.
In the early 1960s, thanks to the Thaw in the country, Chukovskaya managed to publish some critical articles and two books, including one about Alexander Herzen's The Past and Thoughts. As for Sofia Petrovna and another book on Stalinist repression, they were simultaneously published abroad, thus exposing the author as a target for repression.
But Chukovskaya's principal contribution to Russian literature, the reason she will be remembered, are her letters and articles, in which she denounced the repressive actions of the Soviet regime, such as the arrest of poet Joseph Brodsky. These works were circulated by intellectuals in manuscript form and transmitted over Western radio stations, which were jammed in those years. In 1974 Chukovskaya was expelled from the Writers' Union and her works were no longer published in the country. I remember Lydia Chukovskaya in the late 1960s, when she stayed at her father's house in Peredelkino. She worked in a small shack in the garden, which she called Beer-Soft Drinks, after the stands that sold these beverages at the time in Soviet cities. Subsequently, Chukovsky'a house in Peredelkino became a literary museum, in which Lydia played an important part.
There was a high-strung moral indignation in Chukovskaya's writings of the time, which might seem excessively high-sounding, but which answered the needs of society in those years of stagnation and moral indifference.
While Kornei Chukovsky was forced to adapt to the Soviet system, and even change genres in which he worked in order to survive, Lydia Chukovskaya was absolutely unyielding and did not budge an inch on issues that concerned her. However, it was only after her father's death that Chukovskaya started her struggle against the Soviet regime in earnest.
Chukovskaya has also left highly interesting reminiscences of outstanding people. Her portrait of her father shows him through the eyes of his young daughter. Her book about Boris Pasternak is likewise fascinating. Notes on Anna Akhmatova is arguably the best book about this great Russian poet. Chukovskaya also described her brief meeting with poet Marina Tsvetayeva shortly before the latter committed suicide.
In a separate book Chukovskaya wrote about the writers such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and herself who took the road of confrontation with the regime, attempting to understand why others served the regime zealously. The Power of Lonely Silence is a profile of the dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov.
Lydia Chukovskaya died on February 7, 1996, in Moscow. Our age is in dire need of the moral qualities which were so plentiful in the writer.