Lydia Chukovskaya

Lydia Chukovskaya (Lydia Korneyevna Chukovskaya/ Ли́дия Корне́евна Чуко́вская, 24 March 1907 – February 8, 1996) was a Russian writer.

Born in Helsingfors (now Helsinki), which was then a part of the Russian Empire, Lydia was the daughter of the children’s writer Korney Chukovsky. After finishing preparatory school in Petrograd (St. Petersburg was renamed during World War I to sound less German), she attended the former Tenishev school, and completed her formal advanced studies in literature at the Leningrad Institute for the History of the Arts (shortly after the death of Vladimir Lenin, St. Petersburg was renamed Leningrad).

Her first job was as an editor of children’s books at the state publishing house Detgiz, in Leningrad. In the late 1920’s, she published her first short story, “Leningrad-Odessa”, under a pen-name, “A. Uglov”. At about this time, Lydia married Tsezar’ Vol’pe, a critic and editor, and they had a daughter. Later, the couple broke up, and she married a young physicist of Jewish origin, Matvei Bronstein.

In the late 1930’s, during Stalin’s Great Terror, Chukovskaya’s section at the publishing house was shut down. In 1937, her husband was arrested on a false charge and executed in 1938. At the end of July 1941, she was evacuated with her daughter to the city of Chistopol’ in Central Asia, where she briefly met Marina Tsvetaeva, a few days before the poet’s suicide. Chukovskaya was forced to lead a nomadic life, and much later found out about her husband’s death, which was confirmed only in 1957.

Chukovskaya was a lifelong friend of Anna Akhmatova. She kept a journal of their meetings, and saved some of her friend’s poems by committing them to memory. Lydia also became active in the Soviet dissident movement. In 1964, she spoke out in defence of Joseph Brodsky. Around this time, Lydia wrote an open letter to the Communist Party, against the persecution of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, who were jailed for their satiric commentaries on the Soviet system: “Literature is not subject to penal law. One must confront ideas with ideas, not with camps and prisons.” In 1974, she protested against Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s deportation, which led to her expulsion from the Union of Soviet Writers in the same year.

Summoned to a meeting with the Union’s secretary, she was questioned about her criticism of the treatment of dissidents and was accused of having invented stories. When writer A. M. Mednikov asked her, “Why does all this happen around you and nothing like that happens around me?”, Chukovskaya replied: “I don’t know — maybe you are living on an island. You make a special effort not to see.” Even after the breakup of the Soviet Union, she remained an uncompromising figure. When Boris N. Yeltsin awarded her a literary prize in 1995, she refused it, because she disagreed with Moscow’s military campaign to keep Chechnya a part of Russia.

Chukovskaya died in 1996. On learning of her death, Solzhenitsyn said: “Our literature has lost an exquisite connoisseur of Russian poetry and a precious witness of the Soviet half-century. She preserved for us concealed treasures, which would have perished but for her.

Books

In English

  • Going under, tr. Peter M. Weston. (1972. Original: Spusk pod vodu)
  • To the memory of childhood, tr. Eliza Kellogg Klose. (1988. Original: Pamiati detstva)
  • Sofia Petrovna, tr. Aline Werth, emended by Eliza Kellogg Klose. (1994. Original: Sofia Petrovna, written in 1939-40, and first published in 1965)
    • Also published as The deserted house, tr. Aline B. Werth. (1967)
  • The Akhmatova journals, tr. Milena Michalski and Sylva Rubashova; poetry translated by Peter Norman. (1994. Original: Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi)

About her

  • Women’s Works in Stalin’s Time: On Lidiia Chukovskaia and Nadezhda Mandelstam., by Beth Holmgren (1993)
  • Dictionary of Russian Women Writers, edited by Marina Ledkovsky, Charlotte Rosenthal, and Mary Zirin (1994)

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