Chukovskaya, Lidiya (1907–1996)

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Chukovskaya, Lidiya (1907–1996)

Russian novelist, critic, memoirist, poet and dissident, whose writings preserve the history of Russian literature and culture and document the tragedies of Stalinist and post-Stalinist repression in the Soviet Union. Name variations: Lydia, Lidija, Lidiia, or Lidia Chukovskaia, Chukovskaja. Pronunciation: LEE-dia Kor-NAY-yevna Choo-KOVE-skaya. Born Lidiya Korneyevna Chukovskaya on March 24, 1907 (some sources cite March 23), in St. Petersburg, Russia; died at her home in Moscow on February 7, 1996; daughter of Kornei Ivanovich Chukovsky or Chukovskii (a Russian critic, translator, and popular author of children's verse and fairy tales) and Maria (Borisovna) Chukovsky ; married Tsezar' Vol'pe; married Matvei Petrovich Bronshtein also known as Matvey Bronshteyn (a physicist); children: (first marriage) daughter Elena (b. 1932). Expelled from Soviet Writers' Union (1974).

Selected writings:

The Decembrist Nikolai Bestuzhev: Investigator of Buratia (Moscow, 1950); In the Editor's Laboratory (Moscow, 1960, 1963); Hertsen's "Past and Thoughts" (Moscow, 1966); The Open Word (New York, 1976); On This Side of Death (Paris, 1978); The Process of Expulsion (Paris, 1979); Sofia Petrovna (published as The Deserted House, Paris, 1965, published as Sofia Petrovna in New York, 1967, 1972, Moscow, 1989); Going Under (London, 1972, Moscow, 1989); Notes on Anna Akhmatova (Vol. I, Paris 1976, 1984, Vol. II, Paris 1980); To the Memory of Childhood (New York, 1983, Moscow, 1989). Collected and edited The Children Are Called Upon to Speak (Tashkent, 1942).

On a cold day in February 1938, Lidiya Chukovskaya reached the front of a long line of wives, mothers, and other relatives of Soviet citizens in prison. She held out some money and named her husband, but the voice behind the

window snapped, "He's been sent out!" and her hand was brushed aside. After two or three days in another line, Chukovskaya was told that she could find out about her husband's sentence in Moscow; that same night, she took the express train from Leningrad. In the morning, a friend from Leningrad called to say that Chukovskaya's five-year-old daughter and her nanny had moved to the apartment of Chukovskaya's father—in other words, in the careful language of that period, she must not return home, because overnight the secret police had come to arrest her, too, as the wife of an "enemy of the people."

Chukovskaya returned to Leningrad only to meet her father and daughter on the street. Taking some money, she departed again and spent several months with acquaintances in distant cities, moving frequently, determined to survive, to care for her daughter and work for her husband's release. At last she heard from her family that Pëtr Ivanovich (a code name for the Soviet secret police, the NKVD) "had calmed down and stopped chasing other men's wives." She returned to her apartment in Leningrad to find her husband's belongings plundered and his room occupied by an NKVD man, who was soon replaced by his sister, a professional prostitute. There seemed to be no further danger of arrest, so Chukovskaya brought her daughter back home. It was during these difficult days that she began to visit the great poet Anna Akhmatova .

Matvei Bronshtein's sentence was "ten years of imprisonment without the right of correspondence." The folk wisdom surrounding arrest, prison, labor camps and exile finally concluded that these words really meant immediate execution. Bronshtein's death in February 1938 was confirmed only in 1957, when innocent victims of the great purges were "rehabilitated." Chukovskaya's literary work became a lasting memorial to her husband and countless other victims of Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union.

Lidiya Chukovskaya's life breaks into four distinct parts: childhood before the 1917 Revolution, youth and adulthood following the Revolution, Stalinist repression, and finally open dissidence. Until she was ten years old, she lived mainly at the family's dacha (summer house) in Kuokkala, Finland, not far from St. Petersburg. Unlike most other Russians, who only spent the summer in their dachas, the Chukovsky family lived in Kuokkala year round. Chukovskaya describes her happy childhood in To the Memory of Childhood, which is in reality a tribute to her father who taught her that writers are special and important people whose contribution to culture sets them apart. Lidiya's mother was not an artist, and so she barely appears in this recollection of childhood or any of Chukovskaya's writings.

Lidiya's father, born Nikolai Vasil'evich Korneichukov, was the illegitimate son of a university student and a peasant woman, Ekaterina Osipovna Korneichukova , who supported herself and her two children doing laundry. Nikolai grew up in Odessa, bitterly aware of his poverty and the circumstances of his birth; he was expelled from school after a government decree prohibited education for "cooks' children." Though he educated himself, he always felt secondary in talent and importance to the many poets and artists he knew. After 1917, he changed his name legally to Kornei Ivanovich Chukovsky, the literary pseudonym he had been using for more than a decade. His new first name, not the old one, formed Chukovskaya's patronymic, "Korneyevna." Chukovsky was a prominent literary critic before the 1917 Revolution, but in the Soviet period he became best known for children's poems and translations. He was the second Russian ever to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University (1962).

Chukovsky worked hard to give his children an artistic education, passing on his almost religious love of literature. Lidiya relished reading girls' books, The Little Princess and Little Women, but she soon learned to prefer the poems of Pushkin, Nekrasov, and the great Ukrainian Shevchenko. Still, when famous poets, singers, actors, and painters visited the dacha, the children were most interested in the important questions: what were their dogs or horses like, how did they play croquet? Lidiya enjoyed family games, rowing on the Gulf of Finland while her father recited poetry, and learning English through nonsense translations. Chukovskaya and her brothers Kolya (Nikolai, 1904–1965) and Boba (Boris, 1910–1941) were the first source for their father's influential writings on childhood language acquisition, and his famous rhymed fairy tales began in the nonsense rhymes he made up to amuse them. At the same time, Lidiya had to obey the iron rule of the household: her father must not be disturbed while working. One afternoon she happened to see the headmaster of the local primary school methodically whipping another pupil with a belt. Upset and stuttering, she told her family what she had seen, and from then on she and her brothers took their lessons at home with a tutor, preparing for high school.

At some point after Tsar Nicholas II's abdication in 1917, the Chukovsky family moved to Petrograd. (St. Petersburg was renamed during World War I to sound less German.) Chukovskaya gives few details of the next part of her life. After finishing preparatory school in Petrograd, she attended the former Tenishev school, a famous and excellent institution whose earlier alumni included Osip Mandelstam and Vladimir Nabokov. She later recalled her embarrassment, during Russia's Civil War (1919–21), when she had no shoes and could go outside only with her father's galoshes over her house slippers; the enormous galoshes constantly fell off her feet. At school, she formed lasting friendships with other girls who liked literature: they sat together for hours, reciting poems by Blok and Akhmatova from memory. Chukovskaya completed her formal advanced studies in literature at the Leningrad Institute for the History of the Arts.

In 1927, Chukovskaya began work at the Leningrad State Publishing House in the branch for children's literature, directed by her father's friend, the poet Samuil Marshak. She married Tsezar' Vol'pe, an up-and-coming critic and editor, and their daughter Elena (called by the affectionate nickname Liusha) was born in 1932. Chukovskaya admitted with shame that she did not "open her eyes" as millions of peasants died or were exiled during the collectivization of Soviet agriculture, but there was one family tragedy in this period: her little sister Maria, born in 1920, died painfully of tuberculosis in 1931.

Where the word has not perished, there the future is saved.

—Lidiya Chukovskaya

Lidiya was a talented and hard-working editor who enjoyed her job and her co-workers. In 1937, however, members of the staff of the children's section were denounced as "wreckers" by a colleague. Abruptly, Chukovskaya and those she cared for were thrown out of work. Some of the editors were arrested and spent years in prison or camp. When her obviously innocent second husband, promising astrophysicist Matvei Petrovich Bronshtein, was arrested in 1937, an exhausted and humiliated Chukovskaya tried to find out what was happening to him. This, and her own near-arrest in 1938, finally convinced her that the Soviet state was committing horrendous crimes, that she could only survive physically and morally by doing all she could to stay free and to preserve the people and writing she loved. With her talents and connections, she continued her critical and editorial work in children's literature to support her daughter through the Stalinist period. Personal tragedy and the threat to Russian culture provoked her, in spite of the danger, to begin her best creative writing, a psychological release from the pressures of caution and silence. Writing about the terror meant risking arrest and torture, for herself and her family. Chukovskaya's courage, in this third part of her life, prepared her for her later dissident activity.

Chukovskaya's first novel, Sofia Petrovna, is the only known prose work about the terror that was written in the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1940. The heroine is an "ordinary" Soviet woman very unlike the author, a hard-working and self-righteous citizen with middle-class tastes. Sofia Petrovna's world collapses when her only son is arrested on false charges in 1937. Though she is driven from her job because she is a relative of an enemy of the people, she continues to believe that her son's arrest is a single mistake in the state's pursuit of wreckers and foreign spies. She stands for hours in lines to learn his fate, hoping to argue his innocence; his devoted best friend is also arrested and the young woman she hoped would become her daughter-in-law, unemployed and desperate, commits suicide. In the end, a letter arrives from her son begging for help, telling of how he was beaten until he went deaf in one ear and confessed. Sofia Petrovna, unbalanced as her world collapses, burns the letter that may be her last link with her son. This was strong stuff, and Chukovskaya asked a friend to keep the notebook containing the only copy of the novel. "If they had caught him with it, they would have drawn and quartered him," she noted. The friend starved to death during the blockade of Leningrad in the Second World War, but his sister kept the notebook and later returned it to Lidiya.

Chukovskaya and Anna Akhmatova began meeting to exchange advice about the prison system in hushed voices. Though they had met before 1938, they now had something in common: Akhmatova's son Lev was also arrested. Soon, Chukovskaya was keeping regular notes of their conversations, especially Akhmatova's thoughts about poetry, to preserve all she could of the great poet's life and work. Since this, too, meant risking her life and freedom, Lidiya abbreviated the most dangerous details in code. She began to help preserve Akhmatova's own dangerous poems: Akhmatova would write on a scrap of paper, Chukovskaya would memorize the words quickly, and then Akhmatova would burn the paper over an ashtray. In May 1941, the secret police somehow heard about Sofia Petrovna, and Chukovskaya left Leningrad for a second time, claiming she needed to have a serious operation in a Moscow hospital. At the end of July 1941, after Hitler's Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Chukovskaya was evacuated with her daughter and nephew to the city of Chistopol' in Central Asia, where she briefly met Marina Tsvetaeva , a few days before that poet's suicide, and learned of her younger brother's death in battle near Moscow. Anna Akhmatova, evacuated from Leningrad, joined the Chukovskaya party in Chistopol', and they traveled together to Tashkent. Chukovskaya continued to record their conversations until she began to notice that Akhmatova was treating her rudely. Convinced that someone must have told Anna lies, Lidiya stopped visiting, offended. Both friendship and notes broke off for a decade.

After the liberation of Leningrad in 1944, Chukovskaya tried to return, but the secret police clearly wanted to keep her out of the city, and someone else was living in her apartment. She settled in Moscow, staying partly in an apartment in the city, partly at her father's dacha in the nearby writers' colony of Peredelkino, and wrote her second novel, Going Under, between 1949 and 1955. Its heroine Nina Sergeyevna, a writer much like Chukovskaya, is vacationing at a writer's sanatorium in the late 1940s, before Stalin's death, working on a translation and at the same time "going under" into her memories of the 1930s, when her husband was arrested and killed. The novel is written in an unobtrusive but gripping style. Nina feels a survivor's guilt and sadly testifies to declining moral and cultural standards, even among educated Russians; the anti-Semitism of the early 1950s (the midnight arrest of the poet Veksler, a hero of World War II); and the unpleasantness of life in communal apartments. More than Chukovskaya's other writings, Going Under also shows how oppression works to distance people from each other: Nina Sergeyevna is not afraid to say that she loves Pasternak's poetry and does not believe the charges aired in the latest newspaper, but she harshly judges writers who do not dare tell the truth in their conversation and their writing.

Like Going Under, the poems Chukovskaya began to write in 1936 are somewhat autobiographical, documenting and mourning the losses of friends, loved ones, and her beloved city of Leningrad. Throughout her writing, Chukovskaya advocates the writer's prerogative to use her own life experience as the basis for literature, even if so doing demands bravery and honesty. Like Nadezhda Mandelstam , another memoirist and judge of her generation, Chukovskaya is both judgmental and quick to criticize her own compromises.

In 1952, Chukovskaya began to meet Akhmatova anew in Moscow, where Akhmatova spent weeks at a time visiting friends. Lidiya's notes pick up in the second volume of Notes on Anna Akhmatova, and she continued meeting the poet regularly until Akhmatova's death in 1966. One of the most important writers of the 20th century, Anna Akhmatova was a living link with the prerevolutionary literary tradition but also a woman whose personal losses let her speak for all survivors of the Stalinist period. The Notes provide intimate details about Akhmatova—her poor health, her irritation at petty humiliations, even her panic at crossing the busy city streets—but ultimately present her as a monumental cultural figure. Along the way, Chukovskaya recounts her own life to help explain literary history or the context of Akhmatova's words.

Chukovskaya's mother died in 1955, and her father's health became fragile; worn out by the stresses of the Stalinist terror, Lidiya too had various illnesses. Her weak eyes were further irritated when she did too much close reading, but her work as an editor and scholar and her love of literature meant that she spent hours reading every day. In the late 1950s, she experienced prickly relations with her older brother, a successful writer with an official position in the Soviet Writers' Union. She felt that his speeches condemning Boris Pasternak for publishing his novel Doctor Zhivago in the West were a betrayal of Russian poetry and of a family friend.

Stalin's death was eventually followed by a brief "thaw," when writing and conversation about the decades of repression were allowed and even encouraged. Chukovskaya began to submit Sofia Petrovna to different state publishing houses, and, in September 1962, the novel was accepted. Editors and workers at the publishing house praised the book in her presence, told how they had wept reading it, and asked for copies for relatives and friends. The illustrations were done and she had received 60% of her royalties, when suddenly the political climate changed. In 1963, the book was "stopped." Chukovskaya, stung by the hypocrisy of the upper-level staff when she inquired about the book's fate, sued the publishing house for the remaining royalties and received them. The experience made her even more convinced that working to protect her career as a writer made her a collaborator in the general lie and silence about the horrors of the past, and she gradually began to protest openly. She had already championed Boris Pasternak. But after 1966, she had more and more trouble publishing her work, as she was publicly speaking out and writing open letters to defend dissidents such as writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (who often visited the Peredelkino dacha to work or to evade surveillance), poet Joseph Brodsky, and physicist Andrei Sakharov. "Ideas should be fought with ideas," she wrote, "not with camps and prisons." In October 1969, Kornei Chukovsky died, and his age and fame could no longer protect his daughter. Always concerned with preserving the past, she made the dacha an unofficial museum where her father's books and belongings were kept untouched in the three rooms where he had lived. Lidiya worked with her father's longtime secretary, Klara Israilevna Lozovskaya , trying to maintain the place and receiving visits from other writers, foreign students, scholars, correspondents, and bus loads of school children.

Chukovskaya's writings spread through samizdat, the unofficial typed "publication" of unpublishable works and documents in multiple-carbon copies. This made her "open letters" addressed to (but not published in) the country's leading newspapers available to a wide circle of readers. When the samizdat texts began to appear in print in the West, the Soviet literary establishment moved to throw her out of its organizations. (In 1967, Sofia Petrovna was smuggled out of Russia and published in the West under the title The Deserted House.) It was impossible to make a living as a writer outside the official literary system, and it was the royalties from overseas publications that paid for medication for her failing eyes. Despite Kornei Chukovsky's fame, the museum-dacha in Peredelkino was falling apart—the Writers' Union, the owner from which Lidiya rented the building, refused to repair it to show its disfavor. Students and friends volunteered to help with repairs and clear the yard.

Chukovskaya angrily details her exclusion from the Writers' Union in 1974 in The Process of Expulsion. Called to a meeting with the union's secretary Yuri F. Strekhinin, she was asked about her continual criticism of the Stalinist regime:

"How do you know these things," he asked.
"From my life," she replied. "From mothers, wives, sisters. In order not to see, you have to shut your eyes and cover your ears. It's all around…. They put one of my friends who was completely healthy in an insane asylum."
"Why does all this happen around you and nothing like that happens around me?" asked another writer in attendance.
"I don't know—maybe you are living on an island. You make a special effort not to see."

The expulsion deprived her of any legal right to publish her work. Her name was purged, her books were removed from library shelves, and she was completely deprived of her livelihood. By now, Chukovskaya was a frail old woman in terrible health; she had a weak heart and was almost blind, able to read even her own handwriting only by using a special magnifying glass. However, her protests gave a moral and cultural example for others, and she kept right on working.

Unlike so many of her contemporaries, Lidiya Chukovskaya lived to see her vindication: her novels were published in Moscow in 1989, her writings are now available in Russia, and the "dangerous" poems she helped Akhmatova to preserve and conceal for decades have been published in many editions. The writers in whose defense she wrote so many letters have been welcomed back to Russia. Even her vision improved after several operations on her cataracts. The crisis of Russian culture in the early 1990s is foreseen in Chukovskaya's critical open letters from the decades before: she argued then that by artificially cutting the masses off from the intelligentsia, especially from the greatest writers, the rulers of the country were preparing an ignorant and embittered populace that would eventually turn violent. Even in 1995, one year before her death, when Boris Yeltsin awarded her the State Prize for Literature, she refused the money because of Russia's handling of Chechnya. Said her longtime friend and translator Sylvia Rubashova : "She was very uncompromising." Solzhenitsyn used another term, "incorruptible." Following her death on February 7, 1996, Chukovskaya was buried in the cemetery of Peredelkino, a few feet from the grave of Boris Pasternak.

Lidiya Chukovskaya was devoted to the highest achievements of Russian literature and culture, loved and supported those who produced that culture, and was convinced that a network of writers, appreciating the dissident's work, would come forward to offer support at crucial moments. Her judgments can be harsh and abrasive, though she was aware that it is easy to succumb to compromise and silence when loved ones are held hostage by an oppressive regime. The monstrosity of Stalinism is almost too grotesque to understand, but Chukovskaya's writing attempted to document and explain it, while raising a monument to those who died. Throughout the entire Stalinist period until the mid-1980s, preserving and documenting the Russian cultural, historical and literary heritage was as radical a challenge as any purely creative work. In working to serve her country and its art, defining her artistic mission in terms of selflessness, Lidiya Chukovskaya discovered a powerful, memorable voice as a writer.


Chukovskaia, Lidia. To the Memory of Childhood. Trans. by Eliza Kellogg Klose. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988).

Holmgren, Beth. Women's Works in Stalin's Time: On Lidiia Chukovskaia and Nadezhda Mandelstam. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

The [London] Times (obituary). March 2, 1996.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. "Lidiya Chukovskaya, Champion of Dissidents and Chronicler of Stalinist Abuses, Dies at 88," in The New York Times. February 9, 1996.

suggested reading:

Holmgren, Beth. "Chukovskaia, Lidiia Korneevna," in Dictionary of Russian Women Writers. Edited by Marina Ledkovsky, Charlotte Rosenthal, and Mary Zirin. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 133–137.

Lydia Korneevna Chukovskaya: A Tribute by Bella Hirshon. Melbourne, Australia: University of Melbourne, 1987.

Russell, John. "High Spirits" (review of To the Memory of Childhood), in New York Review of Books. February 15, 1990, pp. 12–16.

Sandler, Stephanie. "Reading Loyalty in Chukovskaia's Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi," in The Speech of Unknown Eyes: Akhmatova's Readers on Her Poetry. Vol. II. Edited by Wendy Rosslyn. Nottingham: Astra Press, 1990, pp. 267–282.

Sibelan Forrester , Assistant Professor of Russian, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania