Although Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov's memoir Bitter Waters: Life and Work in Stalin's Russia and Lydia Chukovskaya's novella Sophia Petrovna both contain depictions and indications of the same events—the purges and terror of "the long Stalinist night"1—the ways in which those events are interpreted differ greatly. This is necessarily the case, as Andreev-Khomiakov's memoir primarily concerns itself not with the purges specifically, but with the practical effects of the "planned economy" on a specific, actual person and those around him, though one must, of course, make allowances for the blurring of memory and the natural tendency of storytellers to embellish and change (and Andreev-Khomiakov seems to fall much more on the storyteller side of the linguistic playground2 than does Chukovskaya in some ways3). By contrast, "[Chukovskaya]'s eponymous heroine is a Soviet Everywoman," as the back of the paperback edition has it, and in that role Sophia Petrovna Lipitova is both representative of the victims of the purges (as one of those left behind, tainted by association—"Then [when she told prospective employers her son had been repressed] it turned out there were no vacancies . . . ." (Chukovskaya, p. 92)) and a critique of the self-delusion on the part of the Soviet people that "In our country, innocent people aren't held" (Chukovskaya, p. 59).
Both authors agree that there were arrests and purges—indeed, it would be nonsensical to argue that Andreev-Khomiakov was unaware that the state was attempting to exert its control over the populace through the secret police, as he himself was arrested in 1926 for counterrevolutionary activities and kept for eight years. He recounts, however, that his factory and region (and by implied extension, all the countryside) were relatively untouched by the purges. Of all the Party members in the local organization, only two are purged, neither of whom he knows personally, and none at all from his plant. Chukovskaya's novella, on the other hand, set in Leningrad, has nearly every character either arrested (i.e., Kolya, Alik, Zakharov, Timofeyev, etc.) or deported in short succession; even the two obvious exceptions are negatively affected in major ways: Natasha commits suicide, and Sofia Petrovna herself becomes delusional.
But this difference is merely indicative of a greater difference: the pervasiveness of the Party and its structures of control.4 The Party of Sofia Petrovna is everywhere, malicious and frightening: "They know everything," whispers Kiparisova as she warns Sofia Petrovna not to hand over money for Alik, lest they associate him with Kolya (Chukovskaya, pp. 92-3). Andreev-Khomiakov writes conversely that "We knew there were NKVD informers among us, but we usually recognized and avoided them, and they did not evoke much fear in us" (p. 131). While he agrees that the Party is very much in control, noting that the presence of the Lubyanka in Moscow is "reason enough to conduct oneself cautiously and circumspectly" while there (p. 131), he also has a politruk (political officer) recommend a satire on the Soviet government to him, and hears more than one (to say the least) anti-Soviet joke. Even in the lumber factory, far removed from Moscow, however, though "untouched" by the Yezhovshchina, he and everyone else "dutifully voted for the death sentence" for those declared enemies of the people, "according to the prescribed order" (p. 42). Most meaningfully, aside from those sessions, almost no one discussed the purges, with the implication that inefficient as the NKVD apparatus might be, attracting its attention might not be in one's best interests. The workers acquiesce, humanly, because if they can manage to just keep their mouths shut, it will not affect them.
Ultimately, though, as might perhaps be expected for a memoir, the Party in Bitter Waters is not a faceless entity struggling to suppress all contrary thought and even questioning, but rather a collection of human beings, with human motivations, as opposed to what may rightly be termed a caricature in Sofia Petrovna, in which the Party is bad because it is bad, and furthermore is out to get you. Like all caricatures, however, the distortion brings forth a greater truth, in this case that the arrests often were arbitrary and in some places widespread, particularly in larger cities.
More troubling than the repressions themselves—which, while tragic, were in some ways to be expected, given a would-be totalitarian regime—is the acceptance of them by the populace. Sofia Petrovna, despite knowing her son incapable of being and doing that with which he was charged, comes to believe that he was indeed guilty, because of what the newspapers say, because, as cited above, "innocent people aren't held," because everyone believes that he must be guilty—or professes to believe so—or at least, is as guilty as everyone else. Andreev-Khomiakov believes the acquiescence to the authority to be a necessity: "People have no choice but to submit" (p. 131); it, like the outside-Plan requisitions, is simply the only way to survive.
In short, although the two depictions disagree on the extent of the purges, they agree that the Soviet people did not to any great degree protest them, though they differ as well in their reaction to that lack of protest. Ironically, perhaps, it is Chukovskaya, who stayed in the USSR, who chose to highlight it as a wrong, and Andreev-Khomiakov, who stayed in Germany after the Second World War, who seems more not to mind. Regardless, both are well-grounded in the authors’ experiences, and a fascinating look into that time and place.
1Holquist, Michael. Introduction. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. By Mikhail Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981) xv.
2Short declarative sentences in discrete "idea packets," linked naturally in a speaking order. See also pp. 235-244 of John McWhorter's The Power of Babel or the entirety of his Doing Our Own Thing for a linguist's perspective on the nature of the spoken language in print, although his focus is more on complexification and its converse in the written language.
3Taking for granted, of course, that the translators have faithfully rendered the styles of their subjects.
4Interestingly, although probably insignificantly, both authors do agree that representatives of the Soviet legal system did not care for raised voices (Andreev-Khomiakov, p. 122; Chukovskaya, p. 51).