Elena Chizhova: The Time of Women

Elena Chizhova

Russian Booker Prize 2009
Shortlist Russian Booker Prize 2003, 2005
Award Journal Zvezda 2001
Severnaya Palmira 2001

Born in Leningrad in 1957, Elena  Chizhova worked as an economist, teacher and entrepreneur until a rescue from a burning cruise ship in 1996 inspired a change in her life focus. Since that time she has been overcome  by the longing for writing. Elena Chizhova made her debut with "Children  of  Zaches" in the magazine “Zvezda” (“The Star”) in 2000. She has gone on to be nominated for and to win several prestigious literary awards, including  the Shortlist Russian Booker Prize in 2003 and 2005,  and the Russian Booker prize for The Time of Women in 2009.  Chizhova
s  prose shuns trickery in favour of emotional honesty in order to probe the weeping sores of Russian history that contemporary  culture would sooner forget.  ...

Elena Chizhova's book “The Time of Women” weaves together the personal and historical struggles of mothers, daughters, grandmothers, and women who become sisters through сircumstance in “a secret culture of resistance and remembrance”.

Life is not easy in the Soviet Union at mid-20 th century, especially for a factory worker who becomes an unwed mother. But Antonina is lucky to get a room in a communal apartment that she and her little girl share with three elderly women. Glikeria is a daughter of former serfs. Ariadna comes from a wealthy family and speaks French. Yevdokia is illiterate and bitter. All have lost their families, all are deeply traditional, and all become “grannies” to little Suzanna. Only they secretly  name her Sofia. And just as secretly they impart to her the history of her country as they experienced it: the Revolution, the early days of the Soviet Union, the blockade and starvation of World War II. The little girl responds by drawing beautiful pictures, but she is mute. If the authorities find out she will be taken from her home and sent to an institution. When Antonina falls desperately ill, the grannies are faced with the reality of losing the little girl they love – a stepfather can be found  before it is too late. And in this ”time of women”, what they need is just a bit of kindness and cooperation from a man. 

The Russian Booker Prize winning novel “The Time of Women” captures the atmosphere of a communal apartment of the early 1960s, where memories of starvation and death in first cataclysmic half of the century, as well as the loss of their  own children, have receded in the background of everyday worries – such as how to preserve flour from one season to the next, or how to afford a wool suit for the 7-year-old girl. Here the author gives priority of voice to the grandmothers who  having lost their families in the World War II siege of Leningrad and quietly tell their stories to the future writer during confidential conversations at home. Chizhova uses these scraps of stories to form base of her narrative, voicing the terrible  facts of the siege in contrast to official versions from Soviet books.

The novel features a variety of characters representing a collage of Soviet society, which only seems to be equal and to treat all its citizens alike: the aristocracy, the clerisy, villagers secretly mocking  communist ideals while hoping only for God's  help, low-level party officials, trade union members ardently loyal to the Soviet Union, factory workers just starting to believe in the benefits of Soviet society and hoping that one day it will actually be  possible to have a washing machine at home. ...

Author Interview: Elena Chizhova

Elena Chizhova is a Russian writer pursuing a long held dream to have her novels published. This dream was realised five novels ago, and now her work is being made available to Australian readers. We were fortunate to have her tell us a little about her work.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I was twenty when I first started writing poetry. For many years my dreams to be published remained just that, dreams. At the same time I was busy with something entirely different – making a career in science, teaching and, already after perestroika, had to become a businesswoman, a necessity at the time when many men were unable to find employment in a new socio-economic environment. And someone needed to feed my family…. That is when I realized and became firm in my desire to write prose. I was sure that unless I do it, the life that I had ahead of me would not be mine, it would be a life of a stranger. By the end of the 90s I made the decision, and since then published five novels.

What inspired you to write this novel?

First and most of all, the memory of my family, the victims of the long Soviet era; then my country’s past which, sadly, does not want to remain in the past.  Too many characteristics of the Soviet way of life migrated into our modern day. The pain that I feel when writing my novels, is rooted in the XXth century, in the distorted narration of its history that today is filled with myths. Until we, Russians living in Russia, fully realize the impact of this mentality, until we uproot remnants of totalitarianism, our country will not be able to move forward.

Can you tell us little about The Time of Women?

It’s a story of a little girl who was orphaned at an early age and could not speak until she was seven. Her mother died young, and three elderly women, random neighbors in a shared apartment, whose relatives perished under the merciless wheel of the XXth century, make a decision to take care of the child. Doing this brings back what they thought they’d lost under the iron thumb of the ruling power – the feeling of self-worth and dignity. The girl grows up to become an artist. This, in short, is the novel’s plot. For me, though, this book is the destiny of my generation and my nation’s history. Only due to the preservation of true factual history and memory of events, many of us were saved from falling into the Soviet trap and grew up normal people. ...


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