Communal Living in Russia: From Books
From Fiction: Lydia Chukovskaya. Sofia Petrovna
  Summary
  Lydia Chukovskaya. Sofia Petrovna. Translated by Aline B. Worth. Revised and amended by Eliza Kellogg Klose. Excerpt.
  Translation of the Russian Transcript
  Sofia Petrovna now completely agreed with Kolya when he expounded to her on the necessity for women to do socially useful work. Yes, everything Kolya said, and everything that was written in the newspapers now seemed to her completely obvious, as if people had always written and talked that way. The one thing Sofia Petrovna really regretted, now that Kolya was grown up, was their former apartment. Other people had been moved in a long time ago during the famine years at the very beginning of the revolution. The family of a policeman named Degtyarenko was moved into Fyodor Ivanovich's former study, the family of an accountant, into the dining room, and Sofia Petrovna and Kolya were left with Kolya's old nursery. Now Kolya was grown, he really needed his own room, after all he wasn't a child any longer.

"But, Mama, would it really be fair for Degtyarenko and his children to live in a basement? Would it!" asked Kolya severely, explaining to Sofia Petrovna the revolutionary idea behind filling bourgeois apartments with extra tenants. And Sofia Petrovna was obliged to agree with him: it really wasn't quite fair. It was just too bad that Degtyarenko's wife was such a slovenly: even in the corridor you could smell the sour odor of her room. She was scared to death of opening the vent window even a crack. And though her twins were already in their sixteenth year, they still made spelling mistakes.

Sofia Petrovna had one consolation for the loss of her apartment: the tenants unanimously elected her official apartment representative. She became, as it were, the manager, the boss of her own apartment. She gently, but firmly, spoke to the wife of the accountant about the trunks standing in the corridor. She calculated the amount each person owed for electricity as accurately as she collected the Mestkom dues at work. She regularly attended the meetings for apartment representatives at the dwelling and rent cooperative association, and then gave a detailed account of what the house manager had said to the other tenants.

On the whole she was on good terms with the other people who lived in the apartment. If Degtyarenko's wife was making jam, she always asked Sofia Petrovna to come into the kitchen and taste whether or not she'd added enough sugar. She'd often drop into Sofia Petrovna's apartment to consult with Kolya as to what she could do to see that the twins, God forbid, did not have to stay back a second year at school. And to gossip with Sofia Petrovna about the accountant's wife, who was a nurse.

"Fall into the hands of that kind of nurse, and you'll soon find yourself in the next world!" Degtyarenko's wife would say.

The accountant himself was a middle-aged man with flabby cheeks and blue veins showing through on his hands and his nose. He was bullied by his wife and daughter, and you never heard him in the apartment. The accountant's red-headed daughter Valya, on the other hand, shocked Sofia Petrovna with phrases like "I'll give her what for!" and "I don't give a damn!" and the accountant's wife, Valya's mother, was truly a nasty woman. Standing over her primus stove with a stony expression, she would relentlessly nag at the policeman's wife about her smoky oil stove or at the timid twins because they hadn't latched the door properly.

She came from the gentry, sprayed the corridor with eau de cologne from an atomizer, wore charms on a chain, and spoke in a quiet voice, barely moving her lips, but the words she used were surprisingly coarse. On paydays Valya would begin to beg her mother for money to buy new shoes.

"Don't even think about it, you horse," her mother would say evenly, and Sofia Petrovna would quickly take refuge in the bathroom so she wouldn't have to hear any more. But soon Valya would come running there herself, to wash her puffy, tearstained face and shout into the sink all the insults she didn't dare say directly to her mother's face.

But in general, apartment No. 46 was a pleasant, peaceful apartment—not like No. 52 above it, where real mayhem occurred almost every week on payday. Degtyarenko, sleepy after coming off duty, would be summoned there regularly, along with the janitor and the house manager, to write up a report.


[Quoted from Lydia Chukovskaya. Sofia Petrovna. Translated by Aline Worth. Revised and amended by Eliza Kellogg Klose. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL: 1988. Chapter 3. Copyright © 1967 by E. P. Dutton & Co, Inc., and Barrie and Rockliff. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission, courtesy of Northwestern University Press.]

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