Written for the University of South Florida, May, 2019
Sofia Petrovna is a novel that is undeniably political in nature. Written directly during Stalin’s purge in 1936-1938, the book revolves around the life of a typist called Sofia Petrovna. Author Lydia Chukovskaya depicts the horrors of life in a Soviet system under Stalin’s rule. By the end of the novel, Petrovna, a loyal communist has lost everyone ever close to her.
The book shows the injustice, anxiety, and surveillance that people experienced during the Great Purge.
Chukovskaya depicts the injustice long before the purge even begins. Although Sofia Petrovna previously belonged to an elite family, she no longer lives that lifestyle. Petrovna has accepted the Soviet system by working and sharing her apartment with other people. “The family of a policeman named Degtyarenko was moved into Fyodor Ivanovich’s former study, the family of an accountant, into the dining room,…” (Chukovskaya et al 14). Not only that but people like Natasha (Petrovna’s younger friend) who despite her sympathy to the Soviet regime is denied membership (twice) to the Komsomol, simply because her father was once a homeowner. The regime despised anyone who came from a wealthy family and wanted to eradicate them completely. This comes true when Chukovskaya kills Natasha through suicide. Other injustice includes the treatment of Sofia Petrovna who finds it terribly hard to secure a job after Kolya’s arrest. Nobody wants to have anything to do with her, a mother of a so-called saboteur. The greatest injustice, in fact, maybe when Sofia Petrovna blames Alik for Kolya’s arrest. She says, “Oh, that Alik!of course he was a good boy and devoted to Kolya, but so awfully abrupt! One mustn’t shoot from the shoulders like that. Couldn’t it be because of his impetuosity that Kolya was now in jail?” (Chukovskaya et al 68). The treatment of these two women foreshadows the innumerable amount of arrest that soon follows the book.
The first arrest in the book comes in chapter six. It happens when a large number of physicians are arrested (Chukovskaya et al 31). Doctor Kiparasova, a colleague of Petrovna’s late husband and godfather to Kolya is arrested. Coincidentally, this is also the same time in the book when dots start appearing more regularly in the characters’ dialogue, depicting hesitancy to speak their mind. “And what did they….do…in the print shop?” Natasha asked timidly (Chukovskaya et al 35). .. “I heard that you’ve had some trouble…about Ivan Ignatievich….Listen..” (Chukovskaya et al 36). More than the arrest itself, it is the aftermath that induces anxiety in the people. Because information was heavily controlled by the regime, nobody not only knows why Doctor Kiparasova, including other physicians, is arrested but even the papers refuse to talk about it. Of course, this makes sense to us today as Stalin’s purges targeted a large number of intellectuals a majority of whom were doctors and professors. Similarly, the second arrest follows quickly. This time, it is the director of the publishing house, Comrade Zakharov. Petrovna, including Natasha, are in disbelief, even if only for a brief moment. Nobody really knows why he’s been arrested; there are but only speculation and theories surrounding his arrest. But none of this matters when towards the end of chapter eight, Alik brings the news of Kolya’s arrest.
Kolya’s arrest like several other arrests makes no sense. He is presented as the perfect communist: he is a member of the Komsomol, appeared in the Pravda, and is the de facto spokesperson of the policies of the regime. Back in chapter three, after having shared her apartment with other people, Sofia Petrovna desires a private room for Kolya. To this, he argues that it wouldn’t be fair for other people to live in the basement and explains to Petrovna the revolutionary idea behind occupying bourgeois apartments with extra tenants (Chukovskaya et al 14). When Natasha gets denied membership to the Komsomol, Kolya suggests she study and take notes on the work of Lenin, Stalin, and Marx. Despite all this, Kolya gets arrested, making the point that nobody, no matter how loyal, wasn’t free from Stalin’s purges and that it didn’t matter whether those who were arrested actually did anything wrong.
After Kolya’s arrest, Sofia Petrovna begins to live with constant anxiety. To start with, neither she nor Alik, Kolya’s friend who had been with him at Uralmash, knows why he’s been arrested. Petrovna like hundreds of other women and children spend her days and nights standing in lines, sometimes outside the KGB headquarters or on the staircase in the “prosecutor’s” office. “She only went home to eat or sleep a little when Natasha or Alik took her place” (Chukovskaya et al 56). She does all this in the hope of defending her son and possibly bringing him home. The suffering and misery following an arrest are also shown in other people. Petrovna notices that the women who had been waiting outside the prison stood out for hours in the cold. Later in the book, Zakharov’s wife and child are deported to Kazakhstan. To no avail, weeks turn into months and Sofia Petrovna still does not have a single clue as to her son’s whereabouts. None of her questions are answered. She does not know where her son is and why he has been arrested. She gets drained out by the heat, the waiting, and the nights in line (Chukovskaya et al 62). In the midst of all this, Natasha Frolenko is fired from her job and deemed as a saboteur when she accidentally makes a typing error, adding up to Petrovna’s already existing apprehension. Petrovna continues to visit the prosecutor’s office, however futile and overly bureaucratic the experience may be. She continues to live with unease and misery, when finally towards the end, a year after Kolya’s arrest, she gives up on ever seeing him again. It is worth noting that Petrovna’s sufferings are the sufferings of so many other women and children whose husbands, fathers, and sons are wrongfully accused and taken away from them. Further, the novel also presents the surveillance that people lived under at the time.
Evidence of mass surveillance exists throughout the book. In chapter eight, when the director of the publishing house gets arrested, naturally, Sofia Petrovna and Natasha desire to talk about it as they remain in shock of the news. Unsurprisingly, they both understand that they cannot talk about it at the office, “Let’s go to your house, I’ll explain everything to you” said Natasha (Chukovskaya et al 40). Worst, Natasha has to do crazy things like hide the newspaper in her briefcase. Even their rooms are tapped, “Let’s go into the bathroom, the telephone’s in here,” (Chukovskaya 107). Behaviors like this only affirm that the people were constantly living in fear as the regime monitored the population. Petrovna and Natasha in doing what they do aren’t mad because there are informants like comrade Timofeyev, who spy on people, including his former boss, Zakharov, and on Natasha and Petrovna. Timofeyev even goes on to write an editorial on Petrovna, labeling her as a saboteur. This culture of surveillance worked well for the regime as it destroyed solidarity among people. After Kolya’s arrest, instead of being kind towards Sofia Petrovna, her neighbors treat her in the exact opposite way. Chukovskaya et al writes, “Neither the nurse nor the house manager greeted Sofia Petrovna” (98). The nurse accuses her of destroying the ceiling, and says something very Stalinist, “Seems she doesn’t want to do her cooking in the kitchen as everybody else..” (Chukovskaya et al 98). The manager even goes on to warn her that she will be reported to the police if she doesn’t return the kerosene to the kitchen. The height of surveillance is depicted in chapter 15:
She was now afraid of everyone and everything. She was afraid of the janitor, who looked at her differently yet at the same time severely. She was afraid of the house manager who had stopped nodding hello to her. She was mortally afraid of the wife of the accountant. She was afraid of Valya. She was afraid to walk by the publishing house. She was afraid of every ring of the bell: perhaps they’d come to confiscate all her belongings. (Chukovskaya et al 92)
People are so afraid to speak in public, and even at their homes to the point that it prevents them from reaching out and consoling each other during terrible times. A perfect example is in the case of how Petrovna refrains from calling Mrs. Kiparisova when her husband gets arrested. Of course, Sofia is met with a similar but not the exact treatment after Kolya’s arrest. Mrs. Kiparisova finally visits Petrovna after a year from Kolya’s arrest and even then before she leaves, she says, “Please, don’t see me out so no one will see us together in the corridor” (Chukovskaya et al 97). With so much injustice happening, it’s a surprise that Sofia Petrovna hasn’t been arrested or deported already. Chukovskaya keeps her alive only so that readers can see the misery, paranoia, and pain, ordinary (loyal) communist experienced under the Soviet system.
In this way, by the end of the novel, Sofia Petrovna, the most loyal communist that we know of, loses everyone ever close to her: She’s lost her son, her only friend Natasha, Alik, a sonlike figure, and family friend Mr and Mrs Kiparisova. Like stated earlier, she’s kept alive and not sent away only so that readers can know the severity of the oppression, misery, and surveillance in Soviet system under Stalin.
Chukovskaya, Lydia, et al. Sofia Petrovna. Northwestern University Press, 1967.