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This essay analyzes the personal and intellectual development of Lydia Chukovskaya (1907-1996), the literary critic, editor, poet, novelist, biographer, and outspoken dissident during the Soviet era. Faced with the arrest of her husband in 1937 and his subsequent execution, she shortly thereafter wrote Sofia Petrovna. This novella has called particular attention to the suffering of millions of women standing in long queues trying to learn anything about their incarcerated loved ones during the great purges through the solitary figure of Sofia Petrovna. Chukovskaya’s second, more autobiographical novella, Going Under, written from 1949-1957, concerns a writer, Nina Sergeievna, who in 1949 is coming to terms with the loss of her husband, also arrested in 1937.
These two novellas represent stages in Chukovskaya’s thinking that ultimately led her to speak out against the legacy of official lies and terror of the Stalinist regime. In Sofia Petrovna, Chukovskaya attempted to understand the unthinkable events around her by trying to show how a great purge could be possible. She did this by depicting the madness of society through the sudden descent into madness of Sofia Petrovna, a mother, who betrays her dearly loved son. The work of the post-revisionist historian Jochen Hellbeck sheds light on this period; his study of diaries from the 1930s helps explain the popular support of the regime. Some Soviet citizens did find their sense of selves by understanding their lives as part of a historic revolutionary project just as Sofia Petrovna places her identity and faith in the state. However, despite Chukovskaya’s own lucidity about the truth of the torture chamber, she was not yet at or in a place to make a public stance.
In Going Under, Chukovskaya showed through the character of Nina that an individual’s as much as a society’s health depends on an honest understanding of the past. This message represented Chukovskaya’s desire to offer a solution for personal and national healing. She emphasized the need for an identity apart from the state, the process of writing to deal with loss, the need to confront feelings of guilt, the role of truth in enabling one to share the pain of others, and the need to publicly speak out. This stage of Chukovskaya’s thinking and the character of Nina correspond to the work of the revisionist historian Sheila Fitzpatrick about accommodation and mere outward conformity during this period. The completion of writing Going Under became the catalyst for Chukovskaya’s resistance as a result of coming to terms with her own pain, loss, and feelings of guilt and affirming her belief that a commitment to truth leads to healing, connection to others, and resistance. During the thaw and beyond, since Chukovskaya saw herself as a person committed to truth and caring for others, she could not help but move from silently bearing witness and preserving cultural memory to a more public stance of defending literary freedom on behalf of others, even at the cost of her own career. Chukovskaya’s literary attempts to understand, represent, and work through personal and social conflict demonstrates a path toward resolution.