From the beginning, we already know that we are in for a train wreck with Sofia Petrovna (1994, translated by Aline Worth, emended by Eliza Kellogg Klose. Originally written in 1939-40, and first published in 1965 as The Deserted House).
As the novel opens, we are in Leningrad in the 1930s, and our protagonist, the eponymous Sofia, has just started working as a typist in a publishing house. Her husband has recently passed away, and she has a young son, Kolya. Contrary to her expectations, Sofia comes to enjoy her job, and soon becomes the head typist in her section.
Sofia is content with her life, and more or less indifferent to the Soviet regime. Her son, a proud Communist, is another source of happiness to our protagonist. While Kolya is still an engineering student, he is sent as an expert to the countryside, where he develops a method for building cogwheel cutters. Kolya is even featured on the cover of Pravda, and seems to be on his path to a brilliant career.
Gradually, however, like a rising tide, the political purges perpetrated by the government start to come closer and closer to Sofia’s small circle of acquaintances. At first, she hears that some people have been arrested in the city, and is surprised that one of her husband’s colleagues is among them. Sofia is shocked: who could have guessed that Dr. Kiparisov was a dangerous enemy of the State?
Then, as the purge tide comes closer, some of her colleagues start to vanish; the director of the publishing house is arrested; her friend and fellow typist Natasha is falsely accused of treachery; and everyone seems to be drowning in suspicion and fear. Finally, word comes that her own son, Kolya, has been arrested. Desperate and unable to find anything about the case, our protagonist is thrown into an irrational world of waiting lines and bureaucracy.
The highlight of the novel for me is the gradual way Sofia becomes aware of what is happening around her. At first, when she hears about the arrests through the newspapers, our protagonist firmly believes the party accounts, and feels surprised that she was so close to a dangerous person like her husband’s colleague. Then, as the wave of arrests comes closer, Sofia tries to rationalize the purges, and starts to believe that the government has been infiltrated by traitors. Even when her son is arrested, our protagonist initially seeks comfort in the belief that “nothing can happen to an honest man in our country“. She is convinced that her son’s arrest can only be a mistake committed by some irresponsible commissar unable to properly carry out Stalin’s decisions.
Only when her once quiet life is turned upside down by a sea of nonsensical bureaucracy – only then Sofia’s faith in the rationality of the system starts to falter. To make matters worse, everyone around her starts to treat our protagonist with contempt, simply because she is the mother of someone considered by the State as a traitor. Moreover, Sofia starts to recognize in the behaviour of people around her the same sanctimonious reaction she had had against the arrest of her husband’s colleague: people seemed to be thinking, ‘who could have guessed that Kolya was a dangerous enemy of the State?’
Our protagonist is torn between what she knows and what she doesn’t want to know: she cannot let go of her faith in the Soviet system; and yet, Sofia is adamant that her son has suffered an injustice, and is determined to prove his innocence. Her awareness of the irrationality of the whole process comes to her like a wave – as gradually as the political purge itself, coming closer and closer, engulfing everything along the way.
Sofia spends most of her time waiting in long lines that lead nowhere, and the authorities don’t tell her anything about Kolya’s case. She is not even told where he is held, what he was accused of, or who she should speak to. And, throughout her ordeal, she cannot reconcile in her mind the fact that even an innocent, unsuspecting, and ordinary woman can be nonetheless destroyed by the system she has supported.
The more Sofia clings to her belief in the Stalinist justice, the more she is torn from reality, to the point where she almost loses herself in the dream of Kolya’s acquittal – lying to herself and to others, as a reflection of the web of lies that encapsulates the political purge, in which she becomes entangled. As you’ve written in the Afterword, “if she is to believe in herself, not in the prosecutor and the newspapers, then… then… the universe will collapse. Sofia Petrovna tries to believe in her son, and in the attempt goes mad.”
This is not as much the story of a woman struggling against Stalinism, but the story of a woman struggling against her tendency to rationalize an irrational system – and, ultimately, against her own illusions about Stalinism. “I wanted to show that when people’s lives are deliberately distorted, their feelings become distorted, even maternal ones”, you wrote in the Afterword. Plunged deeply into an arbitrary world where no one can be trusted, Sofia is driven to the desperate act of detaching herself from the very thing that could make her life meaningful: she becomes, at once, victim and executioner.
“Patience, patience. And she listened to the pounding of her heart: in her temples and in her ears.” – Sofia Petrovna, Lydia Chukovskaya
“She knew now, when she left home after a short sleep, that wherever she went – on the street, on the staircase, in the corridor, in the hall, on Chaikovsky Street, on the embankment, at the prosecutor’s office – there would be women, women, women, old and young, in kerchiefs and hats, alone or with small children or babies – children crying from lack of sleep and quiet, frightened laconic women; and as in her childhood, when upon closing her eyes after an excursion to the woods she had seen nothing but berries, berries, berries, now when she closed her eyes, she saw faces, faces, faces.” – Sofia Petrovna, Lydia Chukovskaya
About the book
- Northwestern University Press, 1994, translated by Aline Worth, emended by Eliza Kellogg Klose, 120 p. Goodreads
- Originally written in 1939-40, and first published in 1965 in Paris as The Deserted House
- Original Title: Софья Петровна
- My rating: 4 stars
- I read this book for The #1965Club (April, 22nd – 28th, 2019), hosted by Karen and Simon