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#1965Club – a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucracy…

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My final read for the#1965Club is, somewhat inevitably for me, a Russian book – Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya, translated by David Floyd. It’s a book that’s been nestling on Mount TBR for five years, if the grocery receipt tucked in the front is any guide, and that in itself is fairly alarming. Really, I wish I’d pulled this one down to read before now, as it really is an excellent book. Although it was initially published in 1965, “Sofia…” was actually written in the 1930s and this fact is crucial; the book has a ring of authenticity which comes from being written in effect as an eye-witness account of what it was like to live in those times; and it isn’t necessarily pretty.

Chukovskaya herself is a fascinating figure; born in Finland when it was part of the Russian empire, her father was Kornei Chukovsky, a poet and children’s writer. She mixed regularly with just about everyone involved in the arts, from Blok to Chaliapin, and was not particularly welcoming to the Bolshevik regime, earning herself an early period in exile. Yet she managed to survive all of the upheavals of Soviet Russia and lived until 1996, even winning at one point the Andrei Sakharov Prize For Writer’s Civic Courage, presumably for her work supporting dissidents in her country. “Sofia Petrovna” was originally published in 1965 under a completely different (and inappropriate) title, after having circulated via samizdat, and my Harvill edition is from 1989.

“Sofia…” tells the ostensibly simple story of a woman living through the 1930s in Russia. The titular character is a widow with a young son, and she takes up work typing in a Leningrad publishing house to make ends meet. As she’s an efficient worker she soon ends up in charge of the typing pool, trusted with responsible jobs and highly regarded by her employers. She works hard, brings up a good Soviet son and all seems well. However, subtle little cracks appear; there is mention of the Kirov assassination; of Stakhanovite workers, doctors’ plots and sabotage. Anyone with knowledge of Soviet history of the period will immediately pick up on these hints; but of course Sofia is living her ordinary, straightforward life through these times, involved in trying to keep food on the table and get on with her neighbours in their communal housing (ah, the housing shortage and primus stoves – consistent features in any Russian literature of the time!)

As the decade rolls on, things continue to get worse for Sofia; the director of the publishing house is arrested, as is the family doctor, and hostile elements start to take control. Sofia’s engineering son and his friend are sent off to work elsewhere in the country and then rumours start to reach Leningrad of arrests and wreckers, till finally the unthinkable happens – Sofia’s son is accused and she must try to prove his innocence. Yet how can you do that in a country where you can’t even find out where a person is held, what they’re accused of or who you should speak to?

Sofia Petrovna’s days and nights were now no longer spent at home or at her work but in a new world, the world of the queue. She queued on the Neva embankment or she queued on Chaikovsky Street – where there were benches to sit on – or she queued in the vast hall of the Great House, or on the staircase of the Prosecutor’s office. She would go home to have something to eat or to sleep only when Natasha or Alik came to take her place in the queue.

“Sofia…” is a marvellously written and chilling book; barely longer than a novella at 128 pages, it nevertheless manages to convey brilliantly the horror and uncertainty of living through times when you don’t know who to trust, you daren’t speak out or speak to certain people and you never know from day to day who will still be free. As Sofia pursues her quest to search out the truth about her son, it’s terrifying to watch her being sucked into the Kafkaesque nightmare of soviet bureaucracy. And of course, Sofia herself becomes tainted by association, and her health suffers from lack of food as well as endlessly standing in queues whilst trying to get news about her son. It’s a world which is captured in a completely convincing way, and of course reading with hindsight there are little hints in the narrative to which we now attach importance but which to Sofia at the time seem of no import; while I was reading I found myself wanting to scream at her to be careful what she said to this or that person, or to watch her back.

My Chukovskaya books

Chukovskaya lived through those days, losing her husband when he was executed on a false charge, and also being at risk herself – in fact, reading details of her life I can see where she obviously draws on her experience to paint her portrait of Sofia Petrovna. Somehow, she made it through the Purges and went on to have a long career as a writer, poet, memoirist and dissident (although of course “Sofia Petrovna” could never be published in Soviet times – another book written ‘for the drawer’). In speaking out in support of Brodsky, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, she lost the right to publish inside the USSR, and in the notes to the book Chukovskaya reveals her strong desire for “Sofia Petrovna” to be published in Russia – which it eventually was, and happily within her lifetime. She was also a lifelong friend of Anna Akhmatova, and I have her book “The Akhmatova Diaries” on Mount TBR, which is something to look forward to….

Chukovskaya on the back cover of the Akhmatova Diaries

So my final read for the #1965Club was an excellent one; a moving, wonderfully written, chilling and frightening book which brings to life vividly the terrible times through which Chukovskaya (and so many other Russians) lived. It’s a fitting memorial to someone who was obviously a strong and moral force, prepared to stand up for others, and I’m so glad that it finally came off my shelves. Truly, I *do* need to read more from the TBR!

Cursed Days

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The Great Fear by James Harris

Stalin’s great terror, a period in soviet history in the late 1930s when millions of Russian people from all walks of life were purged and murdered, most often for no reason, holds an endless fascination for historians. However, a new book from OUP sets out to challenge the simplistic view that it was all based on Stalin’s insecurity and makes a very compelling case. Author James Harris, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Leeds, has spent years studying Soviet history, with access to many archives not available in the past and he’s used this knowledge and research to come up with fascinating new theories on the source of the purges.

great fear

The pat view of the Great Terror is that it was a result of Stalin’s paranoia and his attempts to ensure that all potential rivals were eliminated. The received wisdom is that the dictator wanted to crack down on old Bolsheviks such as Zinoviev and Bukharin, with the high-profile show trials having a deterrent effect on any plotters intending to try to unseat him. The assassination of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad regional party secretary, on 1st December 1934, is generally considered as triggering the slaughter. But if the foregoing is the case, why then would so many of the purged be ordinary people – workers, lowly party members, engineers, soldiers and the rank and file who kept the Soviet Union going.?

Harris’s argument against looking at Stalin’s terror in isolation is a persuasive one; as his introduction reveals, the history of Slav countries is of a culture holding grimly onto power, riddled with paranoia and plotting. Mass killings and repression had taken place under the various Tsarist regimes, and continued in the early days of the USSR – Lenin was not averse to the removal of anyone perceived to be in the way. However, there are a number of other factors involved and as Harris makes clear, there is no one simple answer to the question of why this happened.

…it remains that the logic of the appalling political violence unleashed by Stalin was not the logic of some lone, paranoid, bloodthirsty dictator. it was the logic of the Bolsheviks, and albeit in a more extreme form, the logic of the Russian Tsars determined to preserve and protect the autocracy.

Pivotal to the book is Harris’s account of the kind of information gathering that was going on in the USSR at the time. The early 1930s were a time of much world instability and rumours of another war; Russia was in constant fear of invasion, perceiving itself as threatened on all sides by hostile capitalist powers. Used in the West as we are to seeing Russia as a large, confident, warlike and hostile force, it’s perhaps hard to recognise that the fledgling state felt anything but confident, and was convinced it was about to be invaded at any time.

In this kind of climate, the authorities relied very much on the secret services and the results of their spying for information on what was happening in the rest of the world and whether conflict was about to break out. But unfortunately the structure of the Soviet state, the constant pressures to achieve unreasonable targets and the various vested interests had created such a climate of suspicion and mistrust that the information reaching Stalin and his colleagues was anything but accurate. The powers given to the OGPU/NKVD allowed them such a free rein that they could obtain ‘confessions’ by any means, confessions which were quite probably worthless; and it was in their interests to keep the spectre of invasion real to justify their existence.

And as a result of this misguided, inaccurate and misleading intelligence which fostered an incorrect view of the state of the world and the threat to the USSR, the leaders were persuaded that there were enemies everywhere. Denunciations, which decimated society from top to bottom, resulted in the purges which weakened the state considerably at a crucial time just before WW2. And all the threads came together – the misleading intelligence, the ‘outsiders’ turning on those in positions of authority, the fear of invasion – resulting in a maniacal necessity to clamp down on any perceived transgression.

harris

“The Great Fear” presents a nuanced reading of history drawing on a number of primary sources; its strength is to see the Great Terror in the context of world and Russian events which contribute to the structure of society and mindset of the people in power, rather than as the result of one’s man’s paranoia or capriciousness; indeed, Harris presents Stalin as making quite rational decisions based on the information he was receiving. However the effect on the country was dramatic and destructive, and had Stalin and his cronies had more accurate intelligence their behaviour might well have been very different. “The Great Fear” is not a book for the uninitiated; for example, if you don’t know what a Stakhanovite is, you’ll struggle here. But for those with a keen interest in Soviet history, this excellent book is a must for the light it throws on a dramatic and appalling period of the regime’s history.

(Review book kindly supplied by Oxford University Press – for which many thanks!)

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