The following text presents the reconstructed notes of my conversation with Lidiia Korneevna Chukovskaia on September 25, 1989 in her Moscow apartment, when glasnost’ at once enabled such free exchange and overbooked all those who had something meaningful to say. At the time I was researching "Women’s Works in Stalin’s Time: On Lidiia Chukovskaia and Nadezhda Mandelstam" and was eager to consult with my living subject, a woman whose achievements as both writer and dissident activist cast a giant shadow. I found this living icon to be unaffected and gracious, generous with her time and scrupulous in responding to my questions, and she put me at ease. But I also knew in advance that Lidiia Korneevna, a highly experienced editor, would tread carefully with me, a young American scholar about whom she knew almost nothing. She made it clear that our conversation did not constitute an interview, and that she would need to approve any selected passages I wanted to quote in my study. I readily agreed and left my tape recorder back at my hotel. And so I found myself in a situation vaguely similar to that of Chukovskaia with Akhmatova – racing home to scribble down all I could remembered of what my admired author had said. Alas, my memory was no match for Chukovskaia’s, even with the advantages of a computer and no worries about police surveillance. But I was thrilled by the drama of the reenactment.
My great thanks to Elena Tsezarevna Chukovskaia for permission to post these notes; I beg the reader’s indulgence for any inaccuracies due to my faulty memory. Throughout our talk, I asked Chukovskaia to focus uncharacteristically on Chukovskaia – on her creative development, the backstory of her writing, her current work.
Chukovskaia the writer
Lidiia Korneevna (hereafter LK) considers herself to be a writer, and did so even after she had been expelled from the Writers’ Union for her forthright dissidence. Writing is imperative for her, and she has embraced her father’s credo as her own: “Otnimite moe pero, i ia perestanu dyshat’.”
LK told me that she tried her hand at poetry when she was 11 years old, and began keeping a diary when she was 13, at her father’s urging. These diaries are lost to us. When she was forced to leave them with a friend in 1937, she granted that friend permission to burn them if the need arose. She was relieved to learn that her friend had destroyed her diaries about a month before being arrested. Here was a “keeper of the text” story with an unmiraculous ending, but not a wholly unhappy one, as LK saw it.
LK admitted that she didn’t much care for literary scholarship, but preferred the sort of essays on literature of which her father Kornei Chukovskii was a master. As she put it, she likes “literature about literature.” Yet even the best-written essays should exercise no creative license with the facts. LK’s professional self-conception as a writer is straitened by her editorial meticulousness. She fears the text’s distortion by any means – i.e., through lies conveyed by the author or insinuated by censorship or sloppy translation. LK has assiduously overseen all her publications, and vets the translations of her novels with the help of knowledgeable friends.
The genesis of "Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi"
LK said that she chose to write about Akhmatova because she was, quite obviously, a great poet, and because she was so easy to transcribe. She maintains that Akhmatova’s laconic speech, her predilection for aphorisms, very much resembled her verse. In her style and pace of delivery Akhmatova differed from Pasternak, who was difficult as both a speaker and a poet. LK clearly prides herself on her stenographic ability: she could even transcribe Pasternak’s phone conversation.
This talent plus her phenomenal memory facilitated the writing of "Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi". After each visit with the poet, LK rushed home and wrote down what she had remembered on whatever piece of paper came to hand. She memorized Akhmatova’s words with care, as if they were verse, and inserted the appropriate quotation marks as she went along. She kept only one draft of the manuscript. LK thought Akhmatova wasn’t aware of what she was up to, except in one instance, when Akhmatova was upset about misinformation being spread about her in western sources and referred to LK’s ongoing “record.”
LK acknowledged that she never thought to publish "Zapiski", but sought simply to capture Akhmatova’s speech through her writing, to transcribe all that she saw and heard during her visits. In a sense, she approached the keeping of these "Zapiski" as an extension of her diarykeeping. LK told me that she knew she was not Akhmatova’s closest friend, but that she was the one who thought to take down what the poet said. It was only after Akhmatova’s death that LK began to read through the Zapiski with a more critical eye. She showed them to her father and to the scholar Viktor Zhirmunskii. Kornei Chukovskii pronounced them both immediate and timeless – a fine piece of work.
The text of "Zapiski" circulated in samizdat and then was sent abroad with LK’s consent. Typos and errors crept into their tamizdat publication, and LK clearly anguished to correct these in the copy I’d brought to our meeting. The Soviet edition of the first volume had just been published in the “Kniga” series titled “Vremya-Sud'by”. LK had made minor changes in this edition, restoring here Akhmatova’s harsh comments on those now dead – e.g., how Lilia Brik and her salon consorted with the chekisty.
LK is working on the second and third volumes of the "Zapiskii" for Soviet publication and has discovered only a few new useful materials about Akhmatova. She values a diary kept by Liubov’ Vasilievna Shaporina describing her meetings with the poet through the 1940s, when LK and Akhmatova were not speaking to each other. LK also approves of Anatolii Naiman’s recollections of Akhmatova, which she read in manuscript.1 At the time of our meeting, she’d not yet visited the Akhmatova museum in Leningrad.
In speaking about her relations with Akhmatova, LK interjected that she served as the poet’s personal editor. Akhmatova was ever impressed with LK’s style of punctuating, a skill she’d learned from her father in early childhood. When Akhmatova was to publish poetry in "Novyi mir", she sent the proofs to LK for correction, creating an awkward situation for LK and the editors at the journal. LK recalled how Akhmatova, lying in the hospital after her fourth heart attack, was going over the mistake-ridden volumes of her poetry that Gleb Struve was then publishing in the United States. Akhmatova demanded that LK come help her, but LK herself was suffering from a serious heart condition and could not manage the visit. Akhmatova died without seeing LK again, but the letter she sent her listing all the mistakes in the Struve volumes turned up in the archive kept by Irina Punina.
About "Sofia Petrovna" and "Spusk pod vodu"
LK says that she wrote "Sofia Petrovna" in three months spent at a sanatorium, where she found accommodation despite the fact that she wasn’t then a member of the Writers’ Union. Writing the novel during this dark Stalinist night proved immensely therapeutic. If LK hadn’t written it, she claims that she “might have fallen apart.” She meant "Sofia" to stand for the hundreds of victims of the purges that she’d witnessed. LK didn’t know how the novel would end until she wrote the ending; like so many other writers, she asserts that characters dictate plot.
LK stated several times in the course of our conversation that the true heroes of Soviet literature are those who safekeep it in the face of terrible danger. And she retold the miraculous story of Sofia Petrovna’s preservation. LK had entrusted "Sofia Petrovna" to someone in Leningrad who died of hunger during the Siege. After this man’s sister also died, the manuscript went to relatives whom LK knew only by surname. She located them after the war and found a basket with her friend’s things in their attic. The notebook lay hidden in the bottom of the basket – her lone copy of "Sofia Petrovna".
"Sofia Petrovna" was at last published in the Soviet Union in 1988 -in the periodical Neva with a circulation of 700,000. LK has received about 100 letters from her readers, all of whom marvel at the novel’s truth. She received no such feedback when the novel was published in book form, perhaps because the book’s circulation was much more restricted. At the time of our conversation, two theaters were producing "Sofia Petrovna" for the stage and a version of it was being prepared for television. In all cases of its screen/stage adaptation, LK insisted that the language of the characters not be changed, and required that the credits read: “po motivam Lidii Chukovskoi.”
LK wrote "Spusk pod vodu" over a longer period of time (from 1951 to 1957) because, as she said rather circumspectly, “so much other work needed to be done.” She admits that this novel is the more autobiographical and reflects in part her views on the poetic process. Nonetheless, she is closemouthed about its references. She took liberties in developing most of the characters, although she based Bilibin, the male protagonist, in part on someone whom she will not name. LK chose to publish "Spusk pod vodu" in book form only because she balked at where she might place it for periodical publication.
LK told me that she has written another set of memoirs focused on herself. Her friends have read these and urge her to publish them, but she says that they dissatisfy her. She feels as if in them she’s “walking around naked.” Perhaps by way of warning, she interjects that she wants no one to write her biography. Biography, LK notes, “is a very complicated enterprise,” and her biography is “murky.” LK began her memoir project writing about Matvei Bronshtein, her second husband who was executed during the purges, and found that she had to write about herself in order to get to him – about her first husband, her divorce, her daughter.
LK relates her biography to me rather unwillingly and with periodic stops. She described the search in her Leningrad apartment after the NKVD had taken Bronshtein away. She remained there alone as the police shredded his dissertation and all his papers. When one of the policemen declared that her husband “had been a mystic” (he’d been examining Bronshtein’s lithographs of religious figures), his use of the past tense made her blood run cold. Some seventeen years later, LK learned from a camp “returnee” who’d shared a cell with her husband that the police had tortured Bronshtein and subjected him to a military tribunal. This meant that almost immediately after he was sentenced he was shot in the back of the neck.
LK thinks her father knew Bronshtein’s fate. He’d gone to V. Ulrich’s office to find out when his receiving hours were, and was informed there that Ulrich kept no hours. When he asked for Ulrich’s home phone number, the receptionist shouted at him. Then Chukovskii noticed a crumpled piece of paper at his feet. Someone had recognized him and scribbled Ulrich’s number on the note. He called Ulrich (Ulrich’s wife wrote verse for children and that served as his entree), and Ulrich said he’d look into the matter. Chukovskii never heard from him again, but Bronshtein’s former cellmate attested that Ulrich was the chief signatory for the tribunal that sentenced Bronshtein to death. Eventually Chukovskii sent a note to LK in which he told her that Bronshtein had surely died, and he could write no more because his hands were shaking.2
“Voobshche est’, chto delat’.”
LK is happy with the new freedom of glasnost’, but unhappy about its consequences –
the decline in literary productivity, the loss of talented people leaving the country, the physical stress on those honorable folks who now have far too much to do. (She cites the recent heart attack of Iurii Kariakin, Dostoevskii’s biographer, as a case in point.)
As she remarks somewhat sternly: “Voobshche est’, chto delat’.” About new publications she remarks that she likes Tolstaia’s work, doesn’t like the works of Petrushevskaia or Erofeev, and recommends Kaverin’s memoirs, opining that he is a better essayist than fiction writer. She herself continues to work steadily, receiving calls and visitors, reading about three and a half hours a day, and spending her evenings listening to the radio or being read to and meeting with people. She and her family remain a whirlwind of productivity. Two authors are working on a biography of her husband, and her daughter Elena Tsezarevna is editing a two-volume set of her grandfather Kornei Chukovskii’s diaries for publication. LK supervises at her father’s museum three days a week, and is upset that one of their workers is going abroad. She remembers a contrasting example of staying put through personal sacrifice. When the authorities wanted to kick LK out of her father’s house after she was expelled from the Writers’ Union, Elena Tsezarevna shouldered the family’s obligations, and then slipped on the ice and broke her back. She lay in the hospital for eight months and thereafter convalesced in the family’s home. Because of the seriousness of Elena Tsezarevna’s injury, the government was not allowed to move her, and she and her mother retained custody of the house. LK likes to tell her daughter: “Etot dom postroen na tvoikh kost’iakh.”
LK wants no monument for herself when she dies. It is enough, she says, that her mother’s and father’s graves are marked.
1. Liubov’ Vasilievna Shaporina was the founder of the Puppet Theater and the wife of composer Iurii Shaporin. Her diary about her meetings with Akhmatova is published in Akhmatovskii sbornik, ed. Sergei Dediulin & Gabriel’ Superfin (Paris: Institut slavianovedeniia, 1989) and in Anna Akhmatova: Pro et contra, ed D. K. Burlaka & Svetlana Alekseevna Kovalenko (Saint Petersburg: Izd. Russkogo khristianskogo gumanitarnogo instituta, 2005). Shaporina’s diary about the purge years appears in English translation in the anthology Intimacy and Terror, ed. Veronique Garros, Natalia Korenevskaya, & Thomas Lahusen, trans. Carol A. Flath (New York: The New Press, 1995). For the latest edition of Anatolii Naiman’s memoirs on Akhmatova, see Rasskazy ob Anne Akhmatovoi, 2d ed. (Moscow: Vagrius, 1999).
2. On 13 December 1939 Chukovskii wrote LK: ”It pains me to write you that I now know for sure that Matvei Petrovich is dead. This means there’s nothing else to be done..//My hands are shaking, and I can’t write anymore.” Published in Chukovskii, Kornei — Chukovskaia, Lidiia. Perepiska 1912-1969 (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2003), p. 254.