Putting the Truth to Work: The Socialist Literary Subtext in Lidija Chukovskaja’s Sof’ja Petrovna

Sibelan Forrester, Swarthmore College

Lidija Chukovskaja’s povest' Sof’ja Petrovna has often been praised as a document of historical testimony, following the author’s stress on its composition in 1939-1940, during the Stalinist terror. In North America, the book appears on reading lists for Soviet history classes more often than in courses on Russian literature. Nonetheless, the tale is more than a testimony: it has a strong literary subtext, a set of more or less obvious structuring referents which direct a reader’s reactions. Moreover, even readers who (like our students) do not know the “underlying” texts are “co-opted” by the structure of the narrative. In Chukovskaia’s tale a very canny structure underlies a surface of apparent simplicity, conveying a set of messages secondary to the project of witnessing Soviet history, but perhaps equally subversive.

As scholars such as Annette Julius and Beth Holmgren point out, Sof’ja Petrovna draws heavily on the context of Socialist Realism. This paper argues that a particularly important subtext is actually a proto-Socialist Realist novel, Maksim Gor’kii’s Mat' (The Mother). Because of its ubiquity in Soviet education, Chukovskaia’s readers were bound to know it, and she admired Gor’kij as a writer and cultural figure. Moreover, Gor’kij’s status had only risen in the years following his death (which could itself be read as a subtext to Sof’ja Petrovna). This paper traces the telling similarities in the cast of characters in Sof’ja Petrovna and Mat', their relationships, their experiences of the society around them, and the overall plot development, as well as the very telling differences between the two narratives. The palimpsest effect created by the many similarities may determine how readers interpret not only the story Chukovskaia tells, but also their own opinions of Gor’kij and other writers approved by the regime. Moreover, Chukovskaia’s novel works to make even uninitiated readers, such as our undergraduate students, complicit in the “Socialist Realist” pictures of the first several chapters, preparing their response to later developments. Although Chukovskaia emphasized the documentary value of the story and refused to make any changes in it after she recovered its manuscript in the 1950s, its literary underpinnings form a crucial part of its significance and help to refine understanding of Chukovskaia’s development as a particular kind of dissident.


Chukovskaia, Lidiia. Sof’ja Petrovna i Spusk pod vodu. Povesti. Moscow, 1988.
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Gor’kij, Maksim. Mat'. Moskva, Leningrad: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo Khudozhestvennoj literatury, 1951.
Holmgren, Beth. Women’s Works in Stalin’s Time. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Julius, Annette. Lidija Chukovskaja: Leben und Werk. München: Verlag Otto Sagner in Kommission, 1995.