Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Sofia Petrovna

Sofia Petrovna 
Lydia Korneyevna Chukovskaya
Leningrad (St. Petersburg) 
PLOT SUMMARY: Sofia Petrovna is a well-educated woman, working as a typist at a publishing house in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s era. Her husband already passed away, and she lives with her intelligent son, Koyla, who is an engineering student and an avid Communist. Koyla and his best friend are sent on a special assignment, and he even appears on the front page of Pravda, the official newspaper of the Soviet Union. Sofia also enjoys a high status at her job because of her perfectionist and unquestioning attitude towards her superiors. However, when Stalin’s Great Purges begin, the director of the publishing house is arrested, as well as Koyla. She is unable to accept that her son is a traitor and believes that his arrest is a mistake. For months on end, she lines up by the prison that he is supposedly jailed in to get any piece of information. When she finally does meet the person in charge of his case, she finds out that Koyla has already been sent to a labor camp. Sofia falls into delirium and begins to believe that Koyla has been released and is coming home. In the end, she receives a letter from Koyla, confirming his innocence, but she burns this letter, cutting the only direct connection she had with him. 
ANALYSIS: Sofia Petrovna depicts how even those who you would least expect to be a victim of the Purges, ended up becoming an enemy of the state, and how difficult it was for victims to reconcile this. For Sofia, the Communist regime was what established her life and order, so much so that even when her own beloved son was imprisoned, she could not truly bring herself to doubt the regime’s integrity and motivations for the arrests. Her explanation was that they had made a mistake. She even has the idea of writing a letter to Stalin in order to clear Koyla’s name, as if he was someone that she could reason with or even be given audience from. This inability to question the regime and its actions shows how successfully it had created a reality 
     The last scene in the novel where Sofia burns the letter is a dramatic and symbolic ending to the novel. The reader wonders what exactly prompts her to do this. Mrs. Kiparisova, a woman in a similar position who has already accepted that the chaos and terror is caused by the regime, tells Sofia to burn the letter, else she will be in danger, too. Perhaps this experience has knocked some sense of reality in her that if this letter is found in her possession, her association with her son would only put her in more danger. Thus burning the letter is an act of self-preservation. On the other hand, the act of burning the letter could perhaps be to preserve the self-denial that Koyla is on his way home to her. His letter only confirms her worst fears: he is innocent and he is captured for no reason. Thus in order to continue denying this she burns the letter. 

“Just think of it, all these women, the mothers, wives and sisters of saboteurs, terrorists, and pies! And the men, the husband or brother of one… They all looked perfectly ordinary, like those on a streetcar or in a store.” (50) 
“She must rush off somewhere at once and clear up this monstrous misunderstanding.” (45) 
“‘I can’t stand it anymore,’ she cried out loud. ‘I can’t stand it anymore,’ and then all over again syllable by syllable in a shrill voice, not holding back at all: ‘I can-not, can-not stand it an-y-more.’” (98)
BIOGRAPHY: Born in 1907 and daughter of a renowned children’s book writer, Lydia Chukovskaya grew up in Saint Petersburg, the capital of Russia during WWI, later renamed Leningrad after Lenin’s death. She worked as an editor at a publisher for children’s books in 1927 and also married a physicist who authored many books in fields such as astrophysics and semiconductors during this time (New World Encyclopedia). However, when Stalin’s Great Purges began, her husband was convicted and executed in 1937. Yet Chukovskaya was told that he had been sentenced to labor camps for ten years and was unaware of his death. Her novella Sofia Petrovna was inspired by her experience during this time between 1939 and 1940 while she sought information about her husband’s fate, while also escaping persecution herself. Her novella remained hidden during the Purges and was finally published in Paris in 1965, years after Stalin’s death (New World Encyclopedia). Sofia Petrovna was not published in the Soviet Union. Her unwavering support for other writers including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and artists also put her under pressure from the KGB (New World Encyclopedia). Chukovskaya died in 1996 in Moscow. 
Chukovskaya, Lydia. Sofia Petrovna. Trans. Aline Werth. Northwestern University Press, 1994.
“Lydia Chukovskaya.” New World Encyclopedia,

Aragon, Amber Marie. "A Path of Healing and Resistance: Lydia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna and Going Under." James A. Rawley Graduate Conference in the Humanities. University of Nebraska - Lincoln, 2006, pp. 1–28.
This essay provides more insight into the character development of the main character Sofia Petrovna, by offering the historical background of the experience that she was living through. This essay also brings to light Chukovskaya’s evolving voice and understanding of her own experience by comparing Sofia Petrovna to her second novella, Going Under

Trca, Emily. “Being a Woman in the Time of Stalin: Becoming the Other.” Essai, vol 12, no. 35, 2014, pp. 138-142.
This essay is about the role of women, or what was viewed as the role of women during the Stalin era, as those often left behind by the men that are arrested. While not sent to hard labor camps, they were still imprisoned within the chaos of the regime, while also being confined and expected to be the model Russian

Daly, Jonathan. Crime and Punishment in Russia: A Comparative History from Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, pp.103-124.
This chapter provides a historical background to what was happening during the time that this novella took place. It describes the progression of the Great Terror.

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