Analysis of Lydia Chukovskaya's Sofia Petrovna: The Burned Letter
Sofia's burning of her son's letter is among the most powerful symbolic acts in the novel. By the end of the novel Sofia Petrovna finally accepts her son Kolya's fate and the reality of Stalin's purges. The first piece of this two part series analyzes the initial stages in the evolution of the novella's protagonist Sofia Petrovna, a widow of a wealthy doctor now trying to find her place in Communist Russia. Through Sofia's character the book aims to capture the dreadful atmosphere of Stalin's Great Purge during the 1930s. This piece further examines her persistent denial and eventual acceptance of her son's arrest by focusing on how her interactions with other characters in the book influence her development.
Sofia Petrovna vs. Zakharova
Although she was only briefly introduced in the novel, Zakharova made a very powerful impression on me. With Sofia she shares her previous glamour, eventually absent in both as a result of the distressing events that have transpired in their lives, although this distress is definitely more pronounced in Zakharova’s case. Zakharova was in essence the more mature, conscious version of Sofia, the next evolutionary stage in Sofia’s development as a character, the stage she doesn’t reach until the end of the novel.
The brief encounter between these two consciously polar characters near the prosecutor’s office aptly epitomized the drastic disparities that existed within Soviet society during the Great Purge. This polarity is evident in the following exchange between them, with Sofia Petrovna telling Zakharova: “They won’t send my son away. You see he’s not guilty. He was arrested by mistake,” to which Zakharova solemnly and somewhat mockingly replies: “Ha! By mistake! Here you know everything is by mistake!" (75).
Here we see Sofia’s oblivious self-assurance clash with Zakharova’s distressing awareness. Of course Zakharova’s distress is likely exacerbated by the fact that she and her little daughter are practically being deported out of the country. Just like Sofia, Zakharova has to endure through the pain of losing a loved one; unlike Sofia, she seems to be much more aware of the politics behind the purges, making this pain more pronounced. On the other hand, Sofia through her unawareness and ignorant convictions manages to dodge the anguish that has clearly enveloped Zakharova.
Sofia's Continued Denial
The degree of trust that Sofia has in Soviet leadership at some points appears to even exceed the degree of trust she has in her own son. For instance, she speculates whether Kolya committed some sort of infraction that could have resulted in his arrest, such as him getting into a “bad company” (67). In her son’s arrest she is swifter to suspect her son, someone who she raised and who hasn’t committed a single crime in his life, than suspect a wrongdoing on the part of Soviet government, the nature of which she is barely, if at all, acquainted with.
When the prosecutor reads to her Kolya’s sentence, ten years at remote camps (77), Sofia despite being shocked by the revelation, appears to almost reconcile with it: “But Kolya confessed, Alik, he confessed.”, she soberly tells Alik, Kolya’s best friend, who helps Sofia with her endeavors to save her son and as the novel progresses, becomes more and more irate and suspicious with the apparent injustice behind Kolya’s predicament, “I’m beginning to think that this is some kind of colossal plot,” (78) eventually getting arrested himself.
Jews as Scapegoats - Blaming Alik
A common theme throughout the novel is Sofia’s penchant to blame Alik for Kolya’s arrest, believing that his abruptness, outspokenness and negligence (59) might have somehow gotten Kolya into trouble, “Couldn’t it be because of his [Alik’s] impetuosity that Kolya was now in jail?” Indeed up until his arrest, Alik appears to be Sofia’s primary, if not the only suspect in Kolya’s arrest.
What makes this theme more intriguing is the fact that Alik is Jewish. This is significant when taking into account the fact that a considerable number of high ranking Soviet officials eliminated on or before the Great Purge, most notably Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev, were Jewish.
In addition, throughout the course of history Jews were often used as scapegoats for society’s problems; this was particularly true in late 19th century Russia, where the persecution and oppression of Jews were at their peak (at least until Nazi Germany’s implementation of the Final Solution), culminating in pogroms that took place during the period. And while it’s uncertain whether Sofia’s suspicions are motivated by Alik’s ethnic background, one can argue that Chukovskaya was trying to implicitly articulate that her suspicions were to some extent influenced by it.
Sofia's Acceptance of Kolya's Fate
By the end of the novel Sofia finally reconciles with the fact that Kolya has been convicted unjustly and that any attempts to save him will be futile and will only exacerbate the already dire situation for both of them. By burning the letter she received from Kolya, in which he hastily explains how through torture he was forced to confess to crimes he didn’t commit, and that he isn’t going to last much longer and needs Sofia to act quickly to get him out, Sofia broke out from the realm of naivety and mental sightlessness in which she was enveloped for the entirety of the novel.
The burned letter in my view, symbolizes Sofia’s purification of her deluded mind, her finally coming to terms with bleakness of the situation, and ultimately her decision to move on.