Lydia Chukovskaya's Sofia Petrovna and Milovan Djilas' Conversations with Stalin
“I’m beginning to think that this is all some kind of colossal plot. Saboteurs have gotten themselves into the NKVD, and they’re running the show. They themselves are the enemies of the people.” (Chukovskaya, 78). At the climax of Sofia Petrovna, a main character innocently makes an ironically true statement. Sofia Petrovna is written in a way that it can be understood by those who have little or no knowledge of the state of the Soviet Union in the 1930’s and 40’s, yet it is not too simplified or lacking in historical revelations so that even an expert on Stalin’s period of rule could find it engaging and revealing.
Lydia Chukovskaya represents the Soviet Union and the terror engulfing it in the years 1937 through 1938 through the eyes of Sofia Petrovna, an elderly typist in Leningrad who sees the lives of those around her torn apart by arrests and accusations of terrorism, sabotage, and spying. Chukovskaya is unique in that she personally lived through the period she tells of. She wrote this book to record what she and her country had experienced, without hope of seeing it in print. (Chukovskaya, 1). Knowing this gives the story a true validity – the fact that she didn’t write it to make money or to become famous, that she wrote it for herself as one writes a journal to remember events in their lives – gives her account of the period an even greater depth. In the Author’s Note she explains, “however great the merits of any future stories or accounts, they will all have been written at another period, separated from 1937 by decades; whereas my story was written with the impression of events still fresh in my mind.” (Chukovskaya, 2).
“Every attack of the Soviet Government ... and every negative feature in the Soviet Union – for example, the trials and the purges – were defended and justified. What appears even stranger, Communists succeeded in convincing themselves of the propriety and suitability of such actions, and in banishing from their minds unpleasant facts.” (Djilas, 12). Milovan Djilas explains the mindset of the Communists at the beginning of his book. Conversations with Stalin, unlike Sofia Petrovna, is a book that should only be tackled by someone who has a relatively good grasp on the history of the Soviet Union throughout the Stalin period and understands the “cult of personality” that existed at this time. However, for someone who does have a good understanding of these factors, this book does an excellent job of portraying the inner-workings of the government during the Stalin era.
Djilas became a revolutionary for the Communist Party during his youth and eventually became the Vice-president of the Yugoslav government. (Djilas, 213). In this book, he delineates his experiences with the Communist Party, the Soviet government, and with Stalin himself. He describes his personal and ideological conflicts with Party leadership, which eventually led to his expulsion from the Communist Central Committee, his authorship of a series of books that critically analyzed Communism, and his imprisonment for “slandering” and writing opinions “hostile to the people and the state of Yugolsavia.” (Djilas, 214). This book was also written during the period it is reflecting on. Djilas wrote it in between prison stints and published it in 1962. Because he wrote it shortly after his experiences, the book is filled with detail and passion that might otherwise be lacking.
These books, read together, give readers an in-depth understanding of the Soviet Union during Stalin’s leadership. Sofia Petrovna portrays the everyday life of a Soviet citizen in a novel way that leads the reader to fully grasp the pervasiveness of Stalin’s terror like no reading of a purely historical book can. While reading this book I felt truly sympathetic towards the main character and entangled in her plight.
Lydia Chukovskaya cleverly reveals the influence of Stalin on citizens’ lives, which extends far past what many would imagine. She describes the heart-wrenching disappointment experienced by one character who is denied Komsomol membership. Approaching this text from the standpoint of one who already knew the sad facts of life for Soviet citizens, I was more surprised to read about the “Thank you, Comrade Stalin” papers that were inserted into candy packages on New Years than to read about an over twenty year-old man sharing a room with his mother. I felt that this book was extremely beneficial to me in that it gave me a real understanding of Soviet life as opposed to giving me basic knowledge of governmental policies and state hardships which are normally understood from books focusing on this period.
Conversations with Stalin also helped to solidify my understanding of Stalin as a human with eccentricities and faults beyond the understanding that an examination of his policy-making decisions generally gives people. Djilas depicts the way in which Stalin conducted his government through a personal narrative that, though at times is a bit wordy, effectively portrays his experience and the events taking place around him. In his description of Stalin he didn’t dwell on Stalin’s accomplishments as a leader or his faults in policy – he assumed that anyone reading such a book would already know those things. Instead, he revealed the small things about Stalin that many historiographers might never have known from documented facts, videos, or pictures. “In his stance there was nothing artificial or posturing. This was not that majestic Stalin of the photographs or the newsreels... He was not quiet for a moment... he kept turning his head this way and that while he fidgeted in his seat.” (Djilas, 62).
I enjoyed the fact that this book incorporated historical details and evidence (which Sofia Petrovna was relatively lacking) without insipidly listing off facts without qualification. For example, in describing Molotov, he contrasts a historical account of Molotov’s accomplishments: “Though... Stalin claims the principal role in transforming a backward Russia into a modern industrial imperial power, it would be wrong to underestimate Molotov’s role... ” by immediately following it with a physical and personal description of the man, “Molotov even seemed physically suited to the role: thorough, deliberate, composed, and tenacious. He drank more than Stalin, but his toasts were shorter.” (Djilas, 71).
Both books start out from the viewpoint of Stalin as a great leader and an admiration for Communism, and both show a slow digression from that pattern of thinking until, in the end, both main characters are headed toward an inevitable disenchantment. In the end Djilas labels Stalin “a monster who, while adhering to abstract, absolute, and fundamentally utopian ideas, in practice recognized, and could recognize, only success- violence, physical and spiritual extermination,” but acknowledges that what Stalin accomplished “could not be accomplished in any other way.” (Djilas, 191). In the end of Sofia Petrovna, the main character is forced to face the reality of an unjust system which she is unable to fight for fear that she will be deported or imprisoned.
Chukovskaya sadly comments in her Afterword, “The war lasted four years, but the ‘cult of personality’ and it’s ‘consequences,’ almost thirty.” (Chukovskaya, 115). That is truly what the authors of these two books have accomplished: they accurately illustrate the ‘cult of personality’ in a way that only someone who has personally experienced it can.
Lydia Chukovskaya. Sofia Petrovna. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1967.
Djilas, Milovan. Conversations with Stalin. United States of America: Harcourt Brace
and Company, 1962.