A perceptive literary critic, a world-famous writer of witty and playful verses for children, a leading authority on children’s linguistic creativity, and a highly skilled translator, Kornei Chukovsky was a complete man of letters. As benefactor to many writers including Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky, he stood for several decades at the center of the Russian literary milieu. It is no exaggeration to claim that Chukovsky knew everyone involved in shaping the course of twentieth-century Russian literature. His voluminous diary, here translated into English for the first time, begins in prerevolutionary Russia and spans nearly the entire Soviet era. It is the candid commentary of a brilliant observer who documents fifty years of Soviet literary activity and the personal predicament of the writer under a totalitarian regime.
From descriptions of friendship with such major literary figures as Anna Akhmatova and Isaac Babel to accounts of the struggle with obtuse and hostile censorship, from the heartbreaking story of the death of the daughter who had inspired so many stories to candid political statements, the extraordinary diary of Kornei Chukovsky is a unique account of the twentieth-century Russian experience.
There are several editions of the diary in Russian, and I've got one and a half: the older one is missing the second volume - they were being sold separately, I guess - and I've been told that the one I've got is harder to find than the one I haven't. Excerpts from the diary were published in several issues of Novyi Mir in the early 1990s - I've got those somewhere as well. Actually, I was digging through the old magazines in 2001, ran into the diary in Novyi Mir, got hooked and suddenly remembered we had a hardcover edition somewhere on the shelves, found it and couldn't stop reading,
I only acquired the full two-volume edition a year or two ago, but didn't have the heart to finish the second volume: it begins with the suffering and death of Chukovsky's little daughter, and it gets sadder and sadder as Chukovsky is getting older. Not that the first volume is full of cheerful stuff: Chukovsky's notes on the early 1920s - horrible, hungry and cold - are among the most shocking and unforgettable.
This past summer, Mishah and I went to Peredelkino, where Chukovsky had a dacha (while in St. Pete, I tried to find his other dacha in Komarovo, but no one seemed to know where it used to be). The dacha is a museum now, tiny and wonderful, very well-kept: it seems as if Chukovsky just stepped outside for a minute and would return shortly. All his books (or many of them) are there, and there's an impressive English-language collection.
The tour of the house wasn't extremely interesting, however, partly because the woman working there as a guide was too used to showing kids around: she simplified things, there was much to add to what she was saying, and she sounded somewhat too patronizing, especially toward Mishah and me (kept saying something about the 'younger generation' while looking at us, even though she was probably my age and definitely not older than Mishah). Two women who were on this tour with us didn't know anything about Chukovsky beyond all the wonderful kids' stuff he's written, and it was quite a revelation to be reminded of how obscure Chukovsky's adult side was. These two women hadn't been aware of the museum's existence and ran into it accidentally on the way back from Boris Pasternak's dacha-museum, also located in Peredelkino (but not as interesting as Chukovsky's dacha, we were told).
Then there's Lidiya Chukovskaya, of course, Kornei Chukovsky's elder daughter, a Soviet dissident, author of Sofya Petrovna, one of the earliest fictional accounts of Stalin's purges, written in 1940, shortly after Chukovskaya's husband had been persecuted.