"The Authority That Organises Terror" [Review of 'Procherk' ('A Stroke of the Pen') by Lydia Chukovskaya]

Lydia Chukovskaya. Procherk (A Stroke of the Pen).*

Moscow. Vremya. 2009. 560 pg.

This novel by the Leningrad writer Lydia Korneievna Chukovskaya (1907-1996) was first published on its own late last year. The text, which she worked on for a number of years is still somewhat unfinished. The wording she had finished in the 1980s was to be supplemented with newly discovered details. The thing is, the book is autobiographical and documentary in nature. It is dedicated to Chukovskaya’s husband Matvei Petrovich Bronstein who was executed on February 18, 1938 during the “great terror.” In the glasnost period Chukovskaya managed to get a glance at Bronstein’s file but the related details that were to be included are provided by compiler and publisher Yelena Chukovskaya as an appendix, along with poems that Chukovskaya dedicated to Bronstein over the years.

Picture of Lydia Chukovskaya in 1926Does the story have any relation to the history of the anarchist movement? It does. Bronstein, apart from working in theoretical physics alongside Lev Landau was also writing popular scientific books for the Leningrad division of Detizdat. Writer Boris Lavrenev, as he characterised the work of the publishing house as “sabotage,” mentioned among other things that “it provided work to the likes of Chukovskaya – formerly an anarchist bomber.”

She was not a bomber and she was arrested and exiled in 1926 in connection with a case of an anarchist group in Leningrad despite not sharing her friends’ views. She probably had little reason to lie about what happened some sixty years ago – even if she was only ever guilty of visiting one underground meeting and letting a workers’ appeal be copied on her father’s typewriter.

But this episode was no coincidence. In her early teens, as she listened to the roaring of artillery over the Gulf of Finland, Chukovskaya asked herself “were the Kronstadt sailors right” as they “rose to defend justice.” And in 1994 as she was reading on the history of Kronstadt mutiny, “due to an interest in which I actually got gaoled and exiled,” she noted once again: “The baseness of the Bolsheviks and the nobleness of the Kronstadt sailors are visible in all their magnitude.”

The workers in the underground circle where a friend brought her were certain: “The revolution was stolen from us.” But as Chukovskaya notes, “they had a worldview, and I had none.” There was another difference that the authorities drew: unlike the students, “the workers got harsher sentences. Some were gaoled for many years, some were exiled to Siberia.” In her exile in Saratov, Chukovskaya continued hanging out with the politicals, including the anarchist typesetter Yura, and lived in a commune with the other exiles. After returning to Leningrad as early as 1927, Chukovskaya absolutely refused to collaborate with the punitive organs: it was probably “something like an embryonic worldview.”

But the students’ gallows humour – “Nothing’s certain in this world / And we’re gonna meet again / At Gorokhovaya, 4 / At Shpalernaya, 25” (being the addresses of the GPU [Secret Police]) – proved prophetic, except the NKVD built itself new headquarters on Liteiny, the Big House (“it’s so big that you can see Siberia from there”). What happened to Chukovskaya and her husband then seems like another proof for the cynical aphorism: “If you’re not involved with politics, politics are going to get involved with you.” Chukovskaya herself notes: “I was shaken by my own trust in the lies of empty words, ability to be deceived and deceived again until the moment that you, you personally, have a chair pushed your way by someone’s leg and then get a jackboot in your face.”

The thing is, it wasn’t enough to be guiltless during the years of the “great terror” (1936-1938). Even perfect loyalty to regime wasn’t enough. Not just those who may have done or said something wrong were taken away, but just some random people – for sake of statistics. Bronstein was imputed to be a member of a “fascist terrorist organisation” in which he theoretically (as he was a theoretical physicist) substantiated the necessity of terror. The information against him included an insinuation that “if Trotsky comes to power, he would name himself his nephew.”

Chukovskaya’s and Bronstein’s friend Gersh Yegudin noted: “These extremes are the Soviet power.” But it’s not the system itself that is to blame for the sudden appearance of “screws of the rabid bureaucratic machine,” like the refined NKVD worker who didn’t beat the arrestees himself, charging his subordinates with the task instead. “They are always the same, they are always they but they change their looks… They have new looks now, a new grin of the beastly teeth.” I find the current campaign to rehabilitate Stalin and his system that was started by the scum who worked at the Big House to be extremely ominous.

This book is a document of terrible suffering that humanity shouldn’t forget about, a record of decades-long striving for truth – “I am writing in a vain search for causes and consequences.” The Kafkaesque absurdity is all the more horrible because you know that all of this was for real. Here are the faces of murdered people on the photographs. Here are the words of people who loved them.


* The title comes from her husband’s death certificate: that’s all that was listed as cause of death and place of death in a paper that Chukovskaya got after he was rehabilitated in 1957.

[The photograph shows Lydia Chukovskaya in 1926.]