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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Sofia Petrovna

Lydia Chukovskaya

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To purchase Sofia Petrovna

Title: Sofia Petrovna
Author: Lydia Chukovskaya
Genre: Novel
Written: (1940) (Eng. 1967, rev. 1988)
Length: 120 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Sofia Petrovna - US
Софья Петровна - US
Sofia Petrovna - UK
Sofia Petrovna - Canada
Sofia Petrovna - India
Sophia Pétrovna - France
Sofja Petrowna - Deutschland
Sofia Petrovna - España
  • Russian title: Софья Петровна
  • Written 1939-40; first published as Опустелый дом (1965) and Спуск под воду (1972)
  • This translation originally published as The Deserted House
  • Translated by Aline Werth (1967), revised and amended by Eliza Kellogg Klose (1988)
  • Also translated by David Floyd (Harvill, 1989)
  • With an Author's Note (1962) and Afterword (1979)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : simple, effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev.of Books . 4/1/1968 Helen Muchnic
The NY Times Book Rev. . 19/11/1967 Harrison Salisbury
Slavic Review . (12/1968) Thompson Bradley
Sunday Times . 27/8/1967 Montague Haltrecht
Sunday Times* . 15/4/1990 .
The Times . 24/8/1967 David Gallagher
TLS . 16/2/1967 Alexander Werth
TLS . 7/9/1967 D.P.Gallagher
(* review of a different translation)

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Deserted House demonstrates the power of understatement. The style is simple and spare with a limited, plain vocabulary. The sentences are short and severe. At first the style is somewhat disconcerting, but soon one realizes that the tale is set in the language of Lipatova's perception." - Thompson Bradley, Slavic Review

  • "It has to be emphasised that the novel does not earn its praise merely on account of its subject matter. The widow's everyday life, and her relationship to a precisely detailed environment, are securely established. To make the dissolution of that life the more effective the narrative is controlled and well-timed" - Montague Haltrecht, Sunday Times

  • "If the outline is bleak, the details are totally absorbing, especially as Sofia comes only slowly to understand the nature and magnitude of Stalin's purges" - Sunday Times

  • "The Deserted House is in some ways a more fascinating description of Stalin's purges even than Solzhenitsyn's A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, because the action takes place not in some safely distant camp but in Leningrad, depicting therefore the manner in which the yezhovshchina affected the daily lives of innocently unsuspecting ordinary citizens. (...) Were it not for the unpretentiousness and simplicity of Chukovskaya's writing one might be tempted to suspect that she was exaggerating. She is obviously not exaggerating." - David Gallagher, The Times

  • "It is just as magnificent and , in its own way, fully as masterly as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Like that book, it will rank as one of the classics of Russian "purge literature". (...) The book tells not only the tragedy of a family, but also that of a whole people. "It is just as magnificent and , in its own way, fully as masterly as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Like that book, it will rank as one of the classics of Russian "purge literature". (...) The book tells not only the tragedy of a family, but also that of a whole people."- Alexander Werth, Times Literary Supplement
  • "(W)hile I have not read The Deserted House, I am convinced, in my "heart," that it cannot have been a good book." - Anatole Broyard, The New York Times (31/3/1976)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Sofia Petrovna is a novel of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, beginning with the widowed title character taking a job in a Leningrad publishing house, where she quickly comes to be the head typist, in charge of the typing pool. While of the privileged intelligentsia in the old days, Sofia Petrovna has bought into the Soviet system and accepts the lifestyle-changes that it brought with it, such as having to share the family apartment (though she does think that her nearly grown son Kolya really does deserve his own space -- i.e. room -- by now). She also fits in well at the publishing house, and thoroughly enjoys her job.
       Kolya is her pride and joy, and he's a very good student -- and he and his best friend, Alik Finkelstein, even get a plum assignment while still students, "sent as experts to Uralmash (Ural Engineering Works) in Sverdlovsk". Sofia Petrovna's concerns about his well-being are typically simply maternal -- can he handle his laundry ? does he have a girl ? -- but Kolya also manages to impress professionally at his new assignment, even coming up with a valuable new manufacturing method. A smiling Kolya is even featured on the front page of Pravda .....
       The inescapable yezhovshchina -- the so-called Great Purge -- of the late 1930s begins to edge into Sofia Petrovna's comfortable and happy world. Word comes of the arrest of "a large number of physicians in the city" -- including a colleague of her husband's. Sofia Petrovna can't imagine him being an enemy of the state -- but in this and the accumulating other cases still gives the state the benefit of the doubt: "Nothing can happen to an honest man in our country", she is convinced.
       Arrests continue, closer to home: the director of the publishing house, for one -- and then, most devastatingly, comes word that Kolya has been arrested too, despite his steadfast support for the regime and tangible, valuable contributions to Soviet society.
       Sofia Petrovna can only believe that it is a mistake, and devotes herself to trying to clear it up. Because he is registered in Leningrad, Kolya's case is handled there, so Sofia Petrovna is theoretically close at hand -- but for all her efforts she can never get near him, and barely gets any information. She, along with Alik and a colleague from work who has a crush on Kolya, spends many, many hours and days waiting in the long lines that form, hoping for scraps of information. But beyond acknowledging his arrest the authorities don't tell her anything; eventually she learns he's been tried and sentenced -- and already sent off to a labor camp. She's not even told where.
       Sofia Petrovna tells the story of this peculiar Soviet madness from the perspective of an average citizen who has always been supportive of the regime and remains baffled by -- and, by design, is largely kept ignorant of -- what is happening. Kolya is an exemplary Soviet youth, and he is innocent -- but in these times that doesn't matter. Sofia Petrovna is lucky not to be immediately ruined by Kolya's fate -- others are quickly deported after family members are sentenced, guilty by association -- but the toll is still huge. Others suffer too, whether because of the authorities (such as Alik) or out of despair (Sofia Petrovna's friend and colleague), and the purging continues. When she does leave her beloved job at the publishing house Sofia Petrovna has difficulty finding any sort of work, tarred by association.
       In the end, when Sofia Petrovna finally does get word from her son, even that offers only the most limited relief: her world -- the entire Soviet world -- has become so unmoored and unpredictable that it is impossible for her to take any action. No one can be trusted, no one believed, and any concept of justice has become entirely arbitrary.
       Sofia Petrovna is presented in simple, straightforward fashion, effectively conveying a poisoned system that everyone is essentially powerless in and against. Sofia Petrovna, Kolya, and many of the others are good Soviet citizens, doing their best -- and contributing to this society -- but the system nevertheless turns against them and crushes them. Chukovskaya's characters are, of course, stand-ins for an entire population, and she manages to convey these absurd times very well in barely a hundred pages.
       A simple, powerful -- and, sadly, all-too real -- work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 September 2017

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Sofia Petrovna: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Lydia Chukovskaya (Лидия Корнеевна Чуковская; also: Tchoukovskaïa, Tschukowskaja, Chukóvskaia) lived 1907 to 1996.

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