ČŃ: Published by University of Melbourne
ÄŇ: 1987

Lydia Korneevna Chukovskaya. Her Life and Work by Bella Hirshorn.

INTRODUCTION


Lydia Chukovskaya occupies a very special place among Russian writers today on several counts. Her novel, “Sofia Petrovna”, is unique in being the one surviving record of the Great Terror written during the terror by an eye-witness and a victim of it; Memoirs bring to life and give valuable insights into the work, personality and times of the poet Anna Akhmatova; finally, her Open Speech in defence of the Russian dissidents, a collection of open letters and articles addressed to but not published by the oficial media, is an example of polemical writing at its best, remarkable for its passion and brilliantly reasoned eloquence. Chukovskaya is a superb stylist and her message is clear and unequivocal.

As a person Chukovskaya is admired for her indomitablei courage, her uncompromising values, her integrity and her total commitment to the concept of an open society and " the power of unarmed truth".

Born in St Petersburg on 24 March 1907, Lydia spent childhood in the happy, poetic microcosm of her family, dominated as it was by the famous and most prolific writer, Kornei Chukovsky. His stories in verse have delighted generations of Russian children, but they constitute only a fraction of his literary output — studies of Chekhov, Nekrasov, Blok, Bely, Zoschenko, Gorky, Mayakovsky , Pasternak among others; volumes on the theory and practice of translation; his own masterly translations of Kipling, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Chesterton, Fielding, Synge, H.G.. Wells and Shakespeare, Browning, Keats, Longfellow and Walt Whitman; works on the psycoloqy and grammar of children's speech and on the standards and practice of literary Russian. Altogether some 849 editions of his works, totaling 123 million copies, were published in his lifetime. This prodigious creativity was matched by his buoyant extrovert nature, his insatiable interest in people, his sense of fun and unquenchable thirst for knowledge, discovery and adventure.

Small wonder that for Lydia and her siblings the father figure was larger than life. A tall man, to them he was the tallest man on earth entering a room he had to bow his head to avoid hitting the lintel. Sitting aloft on his shoulders on could see the far reaches of the Gulf of Finland. A very tall tree would be measured as “ten times Dad”, and the depth of the sea calculated no in fathoms, but by Kornei’s height. With such a father as a constant playmate, the children learned to skate, ski, swim, sail, row, cart water, chop and saw wood, light campfires, build ramparts against the encroachments of the sea, paint fences, play chess, draw, and above all to recognize poetic rhythms and appreciate quality and accuracy in speech and writings. Chukovsky believed that “a man who has never had the experience of being carried away by love literature, poetry, music or art, would always remain a spiritual cripple”.

Lydia’s adolescence was spent in Petrograd which was devastated by the Revolution and Civil War, with essential services in disarray, and people dying from starvation. Cold and undernourished, Lydia – like so many of the intelligentsia in her father’s circle – would still attend poetry readings in unheated halls, to hear Blok, Mandelshtam, Gumilev and others recite their poetry. She also heard Shalyapin sing and saw Repin at his easel. Lydia attended on of the best schools and completed a course in literature at the State Institute for the Arts.

In 1927 Chukovskaya joined the Children’s Section of the State Publishing house, under the general guidance of Samuel Marshak. Marshak was an inspired, creative man, and he gathered a team of similarly imaginative and gifted writers around his Section. Chukovskaya was completely in tune with Marshak’s editorial policy and principles, his ideas about children’s literature, his love for Russian classics and his insistence on the highest possible standards of language, content and form.

Unfortunately, the Children’s Section came under attack for its alleged bourgeois leanings. It was argued that children should not be fed on a diet of verse, fiction and fairy tales, and that the tenets of Socialist Realism should be applied to children’s literature. As Alexei Tolstoy had put it “if you have a little mice in your stories, they must be little Soviet mice”. In the late thirties Marshak and his staff were accused of subversive activities, his chief contributors were one by one arrested and disappeared, and the whole Section closed down.

In 1938 Chukovskaya’s husband, Matvei Petrovich Bronstein, a distinguished astro-physicist, a talented writer and a man of wide culture, also fell victim to Stalin’s Terror. Lydia herself narrowly escaped arrest, and for many years thereafter led a precarious existence, separated from her daughter and unable to obtain any but casual, sporadic employment. She made vain attempts to save her husband and repeatedly applied for news of his fate, but it was not until nineteen years later that she was notified officially of his execution which had taken place soon after his arrest.

Evacuated to Tashkent during the war, Lydia worked among displaced children and recorded her experiences in The Children Have the Floor (Tashkent, 1942). During her first year in Tashkent Lydia also came in daily contact with her friend and beloved poet, Anna Akhmatova. The friendship was not one-sided. Both were women of culture, sensitivity and strength of character. By training and inclination, by similarity of experiences, by their love of Russian classics, their patriotism, their passion for truth, their search for excellence and linguistic precision they stimulated and supported each other. Chukovskaya in her eightieth year still possesses a phenomenal memory, and at that time she was able to help her friend to restore texts which had been destroyed or could not be safely committed to paper, but which she, Chukovskaya, knew by heart. The result of this communion of rare spirits can be seen in the three volumes of Memoirs dedicated to Anna Akhmatova, published by the YMCA-Press in Paris.

After the war Lydia was able to take part in some literary activities. Her Introduction to the Collected Works of Taras Shevchenko was published in 1946, her Decembrists as Explorers of Siberia in 1951, and Introduction to Mikloukho-Maclay's Diaries in 1952 and Boris Zhitkov in 1957.

Lydia Korneevna always placed great store on editorial responsibilities. An editor must have vision, taste, imagination, profound knowledge of literature, a commitment to truth and to direct and precise utterance, as well as technical competence and publication skills. Drawing upon her experience under Samuel Marshak and her subsequent editorial work with the Literaturnoe Nasledstvo publications, Chukovskaya wrote In an Editor's Laboratory (Moscow, 1966) which was enormously popular and promptly went out of print.

Chukovskaya's splendid study of Herzen (Moscow, 1966) was the last of her books to be published in the Soviet Union. The rest of her writing appeared in the underground press and in publications abroad, sometimes without her knowledge or consent. Actual1y her Sofia Petrovna was accepted for publication by the Sovietsky Pisate1 publishers in 1963, in the wake of Khrushchev's revelations about Stalin, but it was banned at the last moment. Chukovskaya sued the publishers for breach of contract and was paid her royalties in full, although the ban on publication remained. In 1965 Sofia Petrovna was published in Paris, without the author's permission, under a misleading title and with some unauthorized alterations. In 1966 Novy Zhurnal (New York) published it again restoring the original title and text.

Going Under, her second novel, or rather 'povest” - something between a novel and a long story, a genre much favoured by Turgenev, Tolstoy and others - was brought out by the YMCA-Press in 1972. In 1974 she was expelled from the Writers' Union. Published abroad are also her Diary of the 1950s included in To Anna Akhmatova's Memory (YMCA-Press; 1974), Notes on Anna Akhmatova, Vol.1, 1938-1941(YMCA-Press,1976), The Open Word (Khronika, New York,1976), On This Side of Death {poems from her Diaries 1936-1976 (YMCA-Press,1978), The Process of Expulsion (YMCA-Press,1979), Notes on Anna Akhmatova Vol.II (YMCA-Press,1980), To the Memory of My Childhood (Chalidze Publications, Vermont USA,. 1983) . Despite almost total blindness and expulsion from the Writers' Union she is at present working on further memoirs.

Lydia Korneevna is indeed a heroic person, upright, fearless, indomitable; but the effectiveness of her message is due precisely to her being first of all a poet. To her Poetry - Literature - Art are incompatible with any form of villainy, untruth cowardice, or compromise with one's conscience. A writer must be true to his art, to the inner laws creativity; he or she must be, above all, a Poet.

Hence the importance to Lydia Chukovskaya of “the Word.” She is fond of quoting Tolstoy's version of the dictum 'Words are deeds' (Ruskin), and the use of words is seen by her as a moral issue. She believes in glasnost, in an open society and free speech. On the fifteenth anniversary of Stalin1s death she addressed the editor of Izvestia with a passionate call to stop the 'conspiracy of silence' which concealed from the people their terrible past. We must know what took place under Stalin, she insists. The names of those who had committed crimes must be made known, but not for the sake of revenge. Those who informed on innocent people, gave false witness and took part in the untold sufferings and death of millions of people deserve the death penalty, but the narod, the people, do not deserve to see any more bloodbaths. The guilty must be punished by public opinion, by 'the Word”. The Word was one of the main casualties of the Terror. Honest words cost the speakers their lives - so people learnt to prevaricate, to lie, to conceal -rather than reveal - their meaning. Now people have to learn anew how to think and speak with clarity, honesty and precision.

In her final speech at the Writers' Union Chukovskaya quoted from Tolstoy's correspondence with his friend Urusov: 'Yes, the word is the beginning of all. It alone has the power to change the world.'

***


It was my very great privilege to meet Lydia Korneevna on several occasions and I feel it is not inappropriate to record those encounters.

My first glimpse of Chukovskaya was in 1958 when I attended the Slavists’ Congress in Moscow. To my shame I knew little about her at that time, and hardly anything about the underground literary ferment. We heard rumours concerning the existence of Dr Zhivago, but when I was offered an opportunity to meet Pasternak I turned it down on the advice of a former student then working at the British Embassy who argued that 'contacts with foreigners' might endanger Pasternak's life. I learnt too late that such caution was mistaken... Then followed the drama of the Nobel Prize award. Pasternak accepted, expressing delight. He was immediately vilified in the Soviet media, threatened with exile, and in the end forced to decline the prize. In This Side of Death, Chukovskaya has an evocative poem entitled '28 October 1958' in which she describes the atmosphere of malevolent ostracism that then descended upon Pasternak. As might be expected Lydia did not abandon her old friend, but went out of her way to give support. And later she recalled this disgraceful episode in an article, 'The People's Wrath', which served as the immediate pretext for her expulsion from the Writers' Union. How far removed from the stark reality of her life we, delegates to the Congress from the West, - secure in our academic tenure and taking free speech for granted - must have appeared to her at that time! No wonder she seemed to be so aloof.

On another occasion, at her father's home, her interest was quickened by mention of Mikloukho-Maclay's explorations in Australia and New Guinea.

- Don't you know Lydia's book on Mikloukho-Maclay? - asked Kornei Ivanovich, and went out of the room to look for a copy. He found one already inscribed to somebody else, counter-inscribed it to me, and we talked about Mikloukho-Maclay's relatives we both knew in Leningrad.

In 1973, on my way to England, I spent several days in Moscow. Lydia Korneevna was already in official disfavour and I feared doing her further harm. However, mindful of what her father had said about my failure to see Pasternak, I called her from a public telephone:

- Greetings from Australia!

- Who is speaking?

- Nina.

- Which Nina?

- Nina Mikhailovna.

- Which Nina Mikhailovna?

I felt sure she knew perfectly well who was speaking, but insisted on full identification and then promised to visit me at the Hotel Metropole the following day. She was half blind even then and I offered to meet her outside the hotel.

- No, wait for me inside your room. I'll be there at four o'clock.

When I returned to the hotel that evening my room seemed full of workmen. They were changing the wall-to-wall carpet, and as the 'new carpet' was neither better nor worse than the one it replaced, I felt it was reasonable to suspect my quarters were being bugged. The following day Lydia Korneevna arrived, protesting about the slow lifts. I pointed to the telephone and the ceiling and told her about the carpet.

- Let them listen, she said. Let them put it on record.

She complained also about the BBC for distorting one of her 'open' pronouncements and for misquoting Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. I said I had nothing to do with the BBC.

- But tell them, she insisted, that if they broadcast anything of mine they must quote me in full, otherwise they distort my meaning. (In London, later, I learnt that the BBC, on the advice of Jaures Medvedev, had watered down one of her forthright speeches, in order to protect her).

It seemed to me as though Lydia Korneevna was deliberately addressing the (supposed) bugging device with her clearly articulated catalogue of the crimes perpetrated by the 'heirs to Stalin.'

But she also spoke at length about Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and Nadezhda Yakovlevna Mandelstam. She treated me to a recitation of their poetry -one could only marvel at her memory - and I wished I could have recorded that strong, vibrant voice, obedient to the rhythms she knew and loved so well.

Later she asked me if I liked Nadezhda Mandelstam's Reminiscences.

- Magnificent, I said, referring to the first volume.

- And the second?

I hesitated- I liked it much less than the first, but feared to offend Lydia Korneevna by an unflattering opinion of her friend's work. But Chukovskaya is an uncompromisingly truthful person and it is difficult to prevaricate in her presence, even for the sake of politeness,

- Well, of course, she said. It is not a good book. It's our misfortune.
(Chukovskaya later wrote a book of her own to counter Nadezhda Yakovlevna's second volume and called it Misfortune: whether it will ever be published is hard to tell.)

During our talk I several times glanced at her brief-case, wondering whether I should offer to try to smuggle a manuscript abroad. Chukovsksya caught my eye and laughed, saying:

- I have only three requests. First, tell the BBC that verbatim reports are best. Second, send me some of those new marker pencils and a good magnifying glass. Third, about Sofia Petrovna: tell those people that if they publish us without our permission the least they can do is to refrain from mutilating the text.

This is how I remember her on that occasion: tall and straight, wearing a beret that suited her face and grey hair. She was very calm and collected as we walked downstairs and into the street. Her steps were quick and steady, and she spoke in a clear resonant voice, not looking to right or left.

I met her again in 1983. All Aeroflot flights from Singapore were delayed by an alleged bomb-scare after the KAL catastrophe. As a result I missed my connection to Kiev and had to spend a night in Moscow. I telephoned Lydia Korneevna at Peredelkino.

- You must come at once, she said. So I hired a taxi.

By that time Kornei Ivanovich had died and Lydia Korneevna had been expelled from the Writers' Union, but she and her daughter 'Liusha' - Kornei Ivanovich's literary executor - were living at his dacha. This was a typical cottage in the writers' village about twelve miles south-west of Moscow.

It was a two-storied building similar to Pasternak's, a couple of streets away. So far as could judge, the upstairs had been occupied by Kornei Ivanovich and his very extensive library; downstairs comprised a dining-room, kitchen and two other rooms which were at various times occupied by the large Chukovsky family and their friends. Solzhenitsyn had found shelter in one of those rooms before his expulsion from the Soviet Union.

The whole house was redolent of memories of people who had lived in it, visited it, enriched it by their presence, or had inscribed books, left original paintings and drawings, musical scores, mementoes. There were large correspondence files containing letters from most of the major writers of this century, in many languages. Australia was represented by books from Alan Marshall, David Martin, John Morrison, Judah Waten, Vance and Nettie Palmer, a copy of Patrick White's Voss, books illustrating Australian flora and fauna, and copies of Melbourne Slavonic Studies and Meanjin Quarterly. In fact, the dacha could well have served as a monument to the life and work of Kornei Chukovsky. Although it had not been officially declared a museum (as were the homes of Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov, Scriabin, and others), Lydia Korneevna and her daughter received hundreds of visitors every week and gladly showed them original paintings by Russian masters, precious manuscripts of (say) Oscar Wilde, an extensive library of children's books, and so on.

The 'authorities’ had paid lip-service to the memory of the enormously popular Kornei Ivanovich. A special stamp was issued on the centenary of his birth, and various laudatory articles and books were published (from which his daughter's name was carefully excised). But the spontaneous pilgrimage of thousands of people to the Chukovsky home was not to be tolerated. Lydia was served with an official notice - the house was 'in disrepair' and had to be demolished. The news spread like wildfire, and within hours volunteers began renovating the house. When the inspectors arrived they found nothing to complain of. Nevertheless Lydia received a court injunction to vacate the premises Her daughter 'Liusha' conducted her own defence when the case was tried, and the dispossession order was postponed. This procedure was repeated several times and Liusha was preparing for another court appearance the very week I arrived. That was why Lydia Korneevna wished me to see the dacha once again... Four years later the issue remains unresolved. Visitors flock to the dacha, and although Lydia Korneevna is under notice to vacate it, there are now hopes it will be preserved as an official literary museum.

Bela Hirshorn, author of the present book, was first attracted to Lydia Korneevna's work when she was an undergraduate in the Department of Russian Language and Literature at the University of Melbourne, and later she chose it as a subject for her Master's thesis. Equipped for this task by her 'qualities of heart and mind', she was also fortunate in being able to consult Zhanna Grigorievna Dolgopolova, Michael Ulman, Sir Isaiah Berlin, T.M.Litvinova, Amanda Haight, among others, who helped her make a genuine contribution to the study of Lydia Korneevna's life and work. To our knowledge no other work of this scope has so far appeared in print. Some minor changes and corrections have been made, but the text mainly stands as it was originally presented.


Nina Christesen, University of Melbourne 1987


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