Historically, women in industrialized societies are placed at a double disadvantage; in addition to occupational workloads and/or the rigor of citizenship, they are also responsible for the daily maintenance of the domestic sphere. In regarding women's experiences in Stalinist-era Soviet Russia, this is a particularly important fact to consider. Life for women was especially bleak, given the harsh political climate that affected both the professional and personal arenas; in a time where more women were entering the workforce, governmental investigation and regulation of people's words and actions led to mass paranoia and tragedy that affected women as workers, wives and mothers. In Lydia Chukovskaya's novel Sofia Petrovna (originally published as The Deserted House), we follow the titular character as she attempts to navigate her way through an increasingly perilous cultural climate. Sofia, a top-tier worker and single mother, loses her job, friends and son in Stalin's purges. The novel focuses on her transformation from proud mother to frightened self-preservationist, and we see how at every turn Sofia is thwarted by seemingly absurd beaurocracy. It becomes clear that in this confusing climate, women were particularly challenged due to the convergence of several ideological, social and economic structures wherein women held very specific roles for an equally specific purpose (to raise conscientious citizens, to fulfill quotas, to garner support for particular parties). Chukovskaya's novel makes this abundantly clear, and in doing so shows us the confusion of everyday life during this particularly tumultuous era; the absurdity of Sofia's experiences makes the reader question the reality of what we're witnessing – putting us in Sofia's shoes, as she wonders the same.
[...] It was dangerous to keep it in the drawer of my desk, but I couldn't bring myself to burn it. I regarded it not so much as a story but as a piece of evidence, which it would be dishonorable to destroy Additionally, in closing, she tells us that not for me to judge its artistic value, but the value of accurate testimony is indisputable" (Chukovskaya 111). The author wants to make it clear that, while this is a piece of fiction, it is also an historical text, in that it makes public the despair and confusion that she personally felt as a prominent citizen (the daughter of a beloved children's author) who lost a husband during this tumultuous time. [...]
[...] However, the business of literature was becoming increasingly regulated by the state, making it harder for most writers to get published. Additionally, rigorous censorship and the fear of recrimination kept many from writing: Throughout the period from 1917 to 1953, there was a close attachment between literature and ideology, ensured on the one hand by a censorship still more rigid than that of Tsarist days, and on the other by economic centralization and nationalization, so that the cultural establishment was progressively brought under state control . [...]
[...] pretty women lounged about in gowns all day; however, as an adult, she decided that joining the typing pool was a far more important pursuit (Chukovskaya 4). Her hard work earns her the title of Senior Typist, and she begins spending more time at the office, away from her son. "Kolya more and more had to heat up his own dinner and teasingly began to call Sofia Petrovna the social activist'” (Chukovskaya 9). Sofia, though engaged with her work, gave little thought to the economics of the printer that employed her, and when speaking in front of her workers she discussed ideology, not business, emphasizing the importance of conscientiousness and high-quality work (Chukovskaya 16). [...]
[...] The novel forces us to question our conception of Soviet women under Stain because it shows us that while, certainly, arbitrary criminalization was a widespread but not absolute danger to everyone, women were doubly affected by this phenomenon. The domestic sphere was brutally violated, with families torn apart and women, like Sofia, unable to receive concrete information about their own families. The novel illustrates this double negative in chilling detail. Additionally, it asserts that literature is not only a valid form of resistance but a powerful tool in helping future generations comprehend the convergence of factors that aligned to create such a volatile atmosphere. [...]
[...] Why was the publication of this novel so important to her? "In my novella I tried to show that society had been poisoned by lies as completely as an army might be poisoned by noxious gases. For my heroine I chose not a sister, not a wife, not a sweetheart, not a friend, but that symbol of devotion - a mother" (Chukovskaya 111). The decision to portray Sofia as an absolutely desperate woman, one who would sooner sacrifice her own child than admit that her nation has betrayed her, was a calculated choice. [...]
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