Textual Analysis of Axmatova’s “Requiem” and Čukovskaja’s Sof′ja Petrovna

Jennifer Ryan Tishler, Dartmouth College

Although the literary and personal relationship between the writers Anna Axmatova and Lidija Čukovskaja has been thoroughly studied by such scholars as Beth Holmgren and Stephanie Sandler, to date there has been no comprehensive textual comparison of two “sister” works: Axmatova’s poetic cycle “Requiem” and Čukovskaja’s short novel Sof′ja Petrovna. These works are linked by their theme and their time of composition: they record the experiences of mothers who lost their sons during the arrests and purges of the Stalinist 1930s and were written while—or very soon after—the events they describe were unfolding. Both works have borne limiting characterizations as “documents” or “heroic acts,” often at the expense of their vitality as literary works (Holmgren 44). That the two works are connected in the minds of their readership is evidenced in the fact that the first, unauthorized, version of Sof′ja Petrovna published was given by its editors the title The Empty House [Opustelyj dom], a phrase taken directly from the “Requiem” poem “The Sentence” [“Prigovor”].

Careful reading of these two texts demonstrates many parallels. For example, in Chapter Ten of Sof′ja Petrovna, we read the heroine’s introduction to the rules of the prison line: “Mnogoe uznala Sof′ja Petrovna za èti dve nedeli—ona uznala, čto zapisyvat′sja v očered′ sleduet s večera …” (48). This phrase resonates with the Epilogue of “Requiem”, where Axmatova writes: “Uznala ja, kaka opadajut lica,/ Kak iz-pod vek vygljadyvaet strax” (3:28). Other points of comparison in the two works include the realms of public and private space, and the “crime of motherhood” (Holmgren 55). One key contradistinction between the two works is that Axmatova’s speaker witnesses the arrest of her loved one in the poem “Uvodili tebja na rassvete” (3:23). By describing the small but significant actions at the moment of parting (“the children cried,” “the candle sputtered”), Axmatova’s speaker preserves this scene, true to her command to herself “Don’t forget!” This final glance is a privilege denied Sof′ja Petrovna, who badgers her son’s friend Alik, present at the time of the arrest, to describe what he saw: “Zato ona s žadnost′ju rassprašivala Alika pro to, kak èto bylo, kak uvodili Kolju” (50).

As part of my literary analysis of “Requiem” and Sof′ja Petrovna, I will also address the question of influence. Given the closely related biographies of these two writers, can all cases of textual similarities be traced to the influence of one writer on the other? Or were both Axmatova and Čukovskaja simultaneously reacting to (or anticipating) greater literary and societal trends?

Selected Bibliography

Axmatova, Anna. Sobranie sočinenij v šesti tomax. Ed. T. Gor′kova. 3 vols. to date. Moscow: Èllis Lak, 1998–1999.

Axmatova, Anna. Sočinenija v dvux tomax. Ed. N. Skatov. Vol 1. Moscow: Pravda, 1990. 2 vols.

Amert, Susan. In a Shattered Mirror: The Later Poetry of Anna Akhmatova. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1992.

Cavanagh, Clare. “The Death of the Book à la russe: The Acmeists under Stalin.” Slavic Review 55.1 (1996): 125–135.

Čukovskaja, Lidija. Sof′ja Petrovna. Ed. John Murray. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1997.

Čukovskaja, Lidija. Zapiski ob Anne Axmatovoj. 3 vols. Moscow: Soglasie, 1997.

Holmgren, Beth. Women’s Works in Stalin’s Time: Lidiia Chukovskaia and Nadezhda Mandelstam. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1993.

Naiman, Anatolij. Zapiski ob Anne Axmatovoj. Moscow: Vagrius, 1999.

Nerler, P. “Fantastičeskaja jav′.” Oktjabr′. 10 (1998): 202–204.

Pratt, Sarah. “Angels in the Stalinist House: Nadezhda Mandel’shtam, Lidiia Chukovskaia, Lidiia Ginzburg, and Russia Women’s Autobiography.” In: Engendering Slavic Literatures. Ed. Pamela Chester and Sibelan Forrester. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1996. 158–173.

Sandler, Stephanie. “Reading Loyalty in Chukovskaia’s Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi.” In: The Speech of Unknown Eyes: Akhmatova’s Readers on Her Poetry. 2 vols. Nottingham, England: Anstra, 1990. 267–282.