Lidija Čukovskaja’s novel (written 1939–40, published 1965) situates its female heroine in the Gogol′-Dal′-Dostoevskij St. Petersburg tradition—the depiction of the little man of nineteenth-century Russian literature. In one line of this tradition the endangering of a loved one causes the činovnik hero to question the status quo, the established social or political order, generating doubts that lead to a qualified or tenuous illumination accompanied by disaster, madness or death (Cejtlin). Čukovskaja’s novel presents a range of varied responses as Nataša, Alik and Sof′ja Petrovna herself (a kind of Soviet everywoman and product of both pre-revolutionary and Stalinist mass culture) come to consciousness, a process which in a twentieth-century context entails a more tortuous complexity than its nineteenth-century prototypes.
During her 1965 court appearance Čukovskaja was criticized for writing negativist documentary prose. Although the public events in the novel are all based on fact and chronologically accurate, this quality enriches rather than detracts from the novel’s fictional plot. The 1936–37 Pravda Staxanovite initiative, 1937 wreckers’ trials, and Kol′cov’s December 1937 article in Pravda are all closely connected to events, the significance of which Sof′ja Petrovna refuses to recognize. Given her media-induced illusion that she lives in a just society protected by the new Stalinist constitution, Sof′ja Petrovna initially sees the arrests of Kolja and the director of the publishing house as ordinary misunderstandings, and imagines Kolja’s vindicatory meeting with the interrogator as a set-piece from an adventure film. Kolja’s circumstances in prison undergo a similar, highly ironic displacement as Sof′ja Petrovna pictures her son as Princess Tarakanova, the subject of Flavitskij’s famous 1864 historical painting. Gradually Sof′ja Petrovna descends into a second, more sinister line of reasoning: those arrested must be guilty of something, and even Kolja may have acquired enemies through inexperience. In her third phase of rationalizing the status quo, Sof′ja Petrovna concludes, along with Alik, that the lower levels of government are corrupt, while the upper echelons remain ignorant of events. Her struggle to believe in two opposite and incompatible realities (the integrity of the regime and Kolja’s innocence) finally collapses into derangement when she comes under attack herself from the inhabitants of her communal apartment. Unable to bear exclusion from mainstream society and the great Stalinist family, Sof′ja Petrovna escapes once again into fantasy, now shading into madness, inventing happy letters from the vindicated Kolja. But the final ironic reversal—a real letter from the imprisoned Kolja—destroys her fantasy and forces her into temporary awareness. Yet the conclusion of the novel can only be read as indeterminate: is the burning of Kolja’s letter only the culmination of his mother’s lifelong flight from reality or, having come to full awareness of the Stalinist government’s crimes, does she realize that it is pointless to appeal to the perpetrator of a crime for justice for the victim, and that she must destroy any evidence that might harm Kolja and send her into exile? Whatever the reader’s conclusion, Sof′ja Petrovna’s destruction of Kolja’s letter from the camps points backward to his letters from Sverdlovsk, which she preserves religiously with her other treasures and, more subtly, outward to Čukovskaja’s preface in which she explains why she was unable to bring herself to burn the manuscript of the novel.