OBITUARY: Lydia Chukovskaya

The writer Lydia Chukovskaya stood firm in the face of totalitarianism. In the 1960s she raised her voice in defence of the young but already well-known poet Joseph Brodsky and she protested against the trial of two fellow writers, Andrei Siniavsky and Yuli Daniel. In the 1970s she stood up for the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, who were being harassed by the KGB. The Soviet government regarded her as a thorn in their side.

She was born in 1907 in Helsingfors in the Grand Duchy of Finland, part of the Russian Empire. Her father, Kornei Chukovsky, was a writer much loved for his children's stories. Chukovskaya's first job was as an editor at a children's publishing house in Leningrad. She published her first short story, "Leningrad-Odessa", under a pen-name, A. Uglov. At about this time she met and married a young Jewish physicist, Mikhail Bronstein. In 1937 he was arrested on a fabricated charge and disappeared to the gulag where he was executed.

By the time of Stalin's death in March 1953 Chukovskaya had become an established literary figure, one of the senior editors on a liberal monthly, Literatur Naya Moskva. Her real breakthrough had been a short story, "Sofia Petrovna", which she wrote during 1939-40; circulated in typescript form in literary circles in the late 1950s, it appeared in Paris in 1965 under the title "Opustely Dom" ("An Abandoned House"). It was banned in the Soviet Union.

Her second important book, Spusk pod Vodu ("Descent Into Water"), again never appeared in her own country. It was published in Paris in 1972. Written in the form of a diary, it describes the impossible situation of the poetess Anna Akhmatova and the satirical writer, Mikhail Zoshchenko, who in 1949 were ferociously attacked and then thrown out of the Writers' Union. In those days that meant they were banned from being published.

In 1964 Chukovskaya energetically protested against the trial of the 24-year-old Jewish poet Joseph Brodsky, who was nevertheless sent into exile. She also wrote a series of letters in support of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the 1970 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature; but these appeared only in the West, in the 1970 Munich almanac Literatur und Repression. In 1974, together with the physicist Andrei Sakharov, she protested against Solzhenitsyn's deportation. Shortly afterwards she defended Sakharov against the KGB's harassment.

Lydia Chukovskaya's activities were regarded as dangerous and she was closely watched by the KGB. Only her established literary name and the fact that she was well known in the West, added to her father's stature as a children's writer, protected her from arrest.

Her most important work was her two volumes of conversations with and diaries about Anna Akhmatova. Enitled Zapiski Akhmatovoi ("Akhmatova's Notes"), the first volume appeared in 1976 and the second in 1980, both in Paris. The books were banned in the Soviet Union.

In 1978, again in Paris, Chukovskaya published several volumes of poems, written between 1936 and 1976, under the title Po Etu Storonu Smerti ("On This Side of Death"). These were in part her autobiography, containing strong personal overtones: about the loss of young love, her husband, and the suffering of her people.

From the 1960s onwards she lived between a Moscow flat and her father's dacha in Perekelkino, a village about 20km from Moscow and home to a colony of writers including Boris Pasternak. It was there that she died.

Lydia Chukovksya, writer, poet, editor: born Helsingfors, Russia 24 March 1907; married Mikhail Bronstein 1934 (died c1937); died Perekelkino, Russia 8 February 1996.

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