I really want to write something about the novella by Lydia Chukovskaya, Sofia Petrovna. The terror and the reaction of most people in this story made me think a lot. This is my first time reading a Russian novel about Stalin’s terror, but I’ve heard enough real stories from my grandparents who have experiences that kind of fear in the last century. Thus, reading this novella is not an experience of learning new things, but a process to reaffirm all those memories.
The way this story is written is surprisingly mundane but attractive. It’s hard to explain what kind of narrative is used here—it expresses neither general mood nor the characters’ emotion, and the only thing it does was documenting what happened to the characters, in a very objective tone. It’s almost like a diary with all the tiny details, but written without emotion. Though the style is unique and even a bit odd, this emotionless narrative actually compliments the character of Sofia Petrovna. Sofia Petrovna is portraited as a very normal woman who has an ordinary job as a typist, lives in a normal apartment and knows all her neighbours, and has a son who is in the communist party and works very hard. Nothing seems to be unusual, and she is the type who rarely makes mistakes. Sofia Petrovna is like any other woman mentioned in this story, and all of them are the same in this extreme environment. When lining up to the publishing house, the office, or the prison, all the women in this story are worrying about the same thing, and they are doing the exact same thing—waiting. Sofia Petrovna is just one of these ordinary women who are suffering from the unexpected change in politics.
Though the narrative is emotionless, we can still see Sofia Petrovna’s change of emotion and attitude after Kolya’s arrest. At first, she couldn’t believe it, and was sure it was a mistake. It was fascinating to see that she thought every other men were arrested because they must have done some crime, but only Kolya’s arrest was a mistake. And then she went to the publishing house, the office, and the prison every day, trying to know more about Kolya’s situation. She was still hopeful at this point, and this exactly shows that ordinary people in this country were not aware of what was happening, or the preceding signs of the terror. The story is a true reflection of how people holding hope at first when an unexpected situation comes.
The event that crushed her down was Natasha’s suicide and Alik’s arrest. They were the only two who supported her, and they left because of the huge pressure under this system. To me, Natasha’s suicide was not surprising at all. Similar terror happened in my country from the 50s to the 70s, and we called it “the culture revolution.” My grandmother’s family was very similar to Natasha’s—they owned factories and wealth, which was seen as the enemy of the communist party. My grandmother was sent into the deep west part of the country to “understand the work of poor peasants.” In that rural area, she was forced to learn all those communist agenda, and was re-educated as a communist. She didn’t commit suicide, but many people did in that situation, just like Natasha. It is hard for most readers to imagine the fear in this story, but I do understand part of it when listening to my grandparents’ past stories. It was a time when people could only care about their own survival, and no one dare to trust or even help others, nor there were anyone to depend on. That’s why Sofia Petrovna went into a delusional and “crazy” state after the only two supportive people left her. She was completely by herself now.