Pessimism and Boys

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • The Diary of a Soviet Schoolgirl 1932-37 by Nina Lugovskaya, translated by Joanne Turnbull
    Glas, 215 pp, £8.99, October 2003, ISBN 0 571 72006 4

To hell with the new society! It’s only Gennady who can get wrapped up in it and spend hours reading what Lenin and Stalin said and about the achievements of our Soviet Union.

Fourteen-year-old Nina Lugovskaya wrote this in her diary on 2 May 1933 (Gennady was a classmate). Four years later, the secret police confiscated the diary and arrested its author. When the NKVD men read it, they underlined this passage, along with other heterodox thoughts. Against the new society! Contemptuous of Soviet achievements! And, on top of that, the daughter of a former socialist Revolutionary, a political opponent of the Bolsheviks with an arrest record going back to 1919, the year after Nina’s birth. In fact, Nina’s bad mood on 2 May was related to her father’s travails: he had just been refused a Moscow residence permit and had had to move to Mozhaisk, a small provincial town not far away; and on this May Day holiday, Nina’s mother had gone out to Mozhaisk to be with him. Nina was alone at home, ‘dreary and sad’. It was the first time she had missed the big holiday demonstration. ‘I heard the orchestra playing the march and, somewhere in the distance, cries of "Hurrah!",’ she wrote plaintively.

Not that Nina wanted to go to the demonstration. She was, after all, a principled anti-Bolshevik. She was also a loner, prone to what she called ‘pessimism’ and ‘sadness’, quarrelling with her annoyingly popular and right-thinking twin sisters, not doing well at school, seeking escape in solitary writing. Irritable, charmless, self-conscious and endlessly introspective, Nina was Auden’s frowning schoolgirl dying to be asked to stay. She particularly hoped for boys’ attention, but even girls’ friendship was hard to achieve. Nina didn’t like being a girl: she wanted to be a ‘great and extraordinary person’, and how was that possible for a woman? Her father, and very likely all men, despised women (‘it’s good we don’t have a brother: the difference between Papa’s treatment of him and his treatment of us would have been colossal’). In any case, Nina thought herself ‘ugly’, with crossed eyes that an operation had failed to correct, and ‘messy hair sticking out over my ears’. Despising conventional femininity, she also wished she could be charming and flirtatious like her friend Ira, ‘not disfigured like me, thinking about equality, demanding to be treated as a person’.

Nina is not the only Stalinist adolescent whose diary has come down to us, but she is one of the most singular personalities. The historians Jochen Hellbeck and Igal Halfin have suggested that Soviet citizens in the 1930s had no choice but to think within a Soviet framework because no other was available, just as they had no language other than ‘Sovietspeak’ in which to express their thoughts. If they kept diaries, these historians suggest, it was almost always part of a self-conscious discipline aimed at producing the New Soviet Person and eliminating all traces of the pre-Soviet one. Bildungs diaries of this sort exist: that of the kulak’s son Stepan Podlubnyi was published in German in 1996 by Hellbeck as Tagebuch aus Moskau; and schools and the Komsomol probably encouraged young people to keep them. But Nina’s diary is another thing altogether.

Adults tended to be wary about writing diaries in the Stalin period – too dangerous, if the NKVD came round – and were liable to destroy them at times of high political tension. Of the diaries that have come down to us, some survived thanks to NKVD confiscation and subsequent archiving. That is probably the case with Nina’s diary, which was found a few years ago in the Russian State Archives by Irina Osipova and subsequently published by her with seemingly minimal editing. This alone puts the diary in a different class from earlier publications such as The Diary of Nina Kosterina (translated by Mirra Ginsburg in 1968), which, like Anne Frank’s diary, had to pass a father’s editorial scrutiny as well as that of the Soviet censor.

Our Nina, Nina Lugovskaya, was a prisoner in a Kolyma labour camp in 1941, the year Nina Kosterina was killed while fighting as a volunteer in the Home Guard outside Moscow. Nina K. was a happy, gregarious, confident girl until her father’s arrest as an ‘enemy of the people’ in 1937 sent her life spinning into confusion and misery. For both Ninas, the main point of their diaries was to record and explore their emotions, though Nina K. nods to the Soviet Bildung agenda from time to time. This kind of diary is, by definition, secret – or, in Nina K.’s case, a secret that can be revealed selectively to intimates. Diary-showing as a form of emotional communication seems to have been a familiar practice in Soviet schools. Nina L., who had real secrets and few close friends, never engaged in it, but wistfully noted it in others. ‘Levka showed Ira his diary,’ she recorded enviously. ‘I wish I could read it!’

The basic themes of Nina L.’s diary were, in her own words, ‘pessimism and boys, boys and pessimism’. ‘Pessimism’ (depression) was a fundamental condition of her life between the ages of 13 and 16: irritation, boredom, misery, a feeling of futility and emptiness, disgust at herself and an anguished sense of being unattractive pervade the diary’s early years. She sought solitude and tried to escape into daydreaming. Her father was impatient, construing her depression as laziness and self-centredness; her mother, according to Nina, didn’t understand her feelings and was anyway too busy to pay attention. Nina wrote repeatedly about suicide, and in October 1934, deciding that poison was the best solution, took a vial marked ‘opium’ from her grandmother’s medicine cabinet and drank it. The opium turned out to be diluted, however, and the suicide attempt was both unsuccessful and unnoticed.

Boys, to Nina’s shame and embarrassment, were a constant preoccupation. She had a crush on her schoolmate, Levka, from the very beginning of the diary. As she got older and her elder sisters started bringing home boyfriends and having parties, there were more crushes, though none was reciprocated, and Nina at 18 was still without a boyfriend. Her interest in boys was ‘excessive and silly’, she wrote self-reproachfully at 15. But the next year it was just as bad. ‘My thoughts are full of boys and compared to them everything else seems uninteresting and unimportant. When I read or study, I’m always thinking about someone, remembering his remarks . . . In school I’m always searching for someone with my eyes . . . If I happen to meet someone’s glance a few times I can’t help wondering: "Does he like me?”’ This is about as close as Nina got to writing about sex, a topic generally absent from Soviet diaries.

At school, Nina was a troublemaker; analysing her class as a mix of hell-raisers and model pupils, she placed herself among the former. She was bored, irritable and (for reasons that are not clear) older than the rest of her class. ‘We’re behaving abominably in class,’ she wrote in January 1935. ‘Our fear of the teachers has disappeared to the point that we’re often rude to them.’ Then, in quasi-apology: ‘It is so deadly dull in class without a commotion.’ But her troublemaking also had its principled side. When the civics teacher boasted about Soviet achievements in higher education, she decided – heart pounding – to ask him an awkward question about the political purging of institutes, and got a bad grade as a result. She participated in a boycott of a classroom informer, and organised a petition when the school changed its day off. She almost got in real trouble (that is, the kind of trouble that involves the secret police) after a snowball fight landed her in the school director’s office. When the director’s questioning indicated a knowledge of the pupils’ conversations and friendships, Nina was indignant (though not surprised) at the revelation that there were ‘spies’ in their midst.

Yet even in her most recalcitrant period, Nina half-thought she ought to be one of the good students. As university entrance approached, she started to work harder at school and enjoy it more. In one diary entry, she even wrote critically of the subaltern culture of anti-authoritarianism that she had earlier found exhilarating: ‘We all want to annoy’ the teachers, ‘to play dirty tricks, and then refuse to say who did it rather than betray a friend (that is what earns our respect).’ She added with a tinge of regret that ‘we don’t have the new, good attitude – what they now call the "Soviet attitude".’

Nina didn’t often lapse into ‘the Soviet attitude’. But when the Chelyuskin expedition was successfully rescued from the Arctic in the summer of 1934, and its members returned to a hero’s welcome, Nina was close to joining the cheering crowds. She recorded the event in the only passage of pure Sovietspeak in the diary, noting that she ‘wanted to cry for happiness and sympathy with these great heroes . . . to participate in the general celebration’. This is so unlike the usual Nina that it comes as a shock, but the reason soon becomes clear: boys. ‘I used to laugh at sentimental girls in love with interesting heroes and celebrities,’ she wrote ruefully, ‘but how am I any better?’ The object of her desire was the pilot Slepnyov, whose ‘strong manly features and white peaked cap’ so entranced her that she hung round his apartment building hoping to see him and stopped to look at his picture in every shop window. She salvaged her political principles with the acerbic remark that when a Soviet exploit failed, you didn’t hear about it: ‘Our government doesn’t like to talk about the failures, it only likes to boast.’

Nina no doubt got her political principles from her father, though this inheritance somehow bypassed her twin sisters with whom she was always arguing ‘about the times we’re living in, about the state of the workers, about culture . . . They tried as hard as they could to defend the present state of affairs, while I refuted it . . . I will never be able to agree with them, to call the system we have now socialism or to consider the current horrors normal.’ Nina’s ideal was the old populist intelligentsia, those ‘noble, idealistic people’ whose dreams, she wrote, had been turned into a caricature by the Bolsheviks. She noted (with specific reference to her sisters) how poorly young people nowadays compared with the revolutionary youth of the last century. She loved her father, she wrote, ‘when he’s a revolutionary . . . a man of ideas, a man of action, a man who sticks steadfastly to his views and won’t trade them for anything in the world’.

She remembered her intense ‘anger and spite’ when the police took her father away in 1929, when she was 11; and the diary is full of denunciations and invective against the Bolsheviks. Sometimes it’s quite childish: ‘Homework, my God, we have so much homework. What wretches the Bolsheviks are! They don’t think about us at all, don’t think that we’re people too.’ At other times it’s a direct response to police actions: during a house search when she was 13, she ‘stood out in the corridor and watched, chewing my nails and containing my rage and hatred’; at 14, cowering alone during an afternoon of persistent knocking on the door (which she refused to answer): ‘I was so scared I couldn’t concentrate on anything. Damned Bolsheviks, I hate them! They’re all hypocrites, liars and reprobates.’

The 1933 diary contains two striking passages of reportage and comment on Soviet society, in which Nina suddenly seems to stop writing like a child: ‘A kilo of white bread costs 60 kopeks! A litre of kerosene costs 50!’ she wrote on 21 August. ‘Angry, hungry, tired people standing in lines berate the government and curse life. Not a word do you hear anywhere in defence of the hated Bolsheviks.’ A detailed description followed of the commercial structures that gave the Soviet elite privileged access to goods. Ten days later, she wrote about famine in the Ukraine: cannibalism, refugees, the steppe overgrown with weeds, villages deserted after the inhabitants had fled in search of food. Like the 21 August entry, all this was underlined by the NKVD. In language as well as content these two entries seem out of character (though this is not flagged by the editor, and may have been missed by the NKVD as well), and it’s unclear how she knew about conditions in the Ukraine. The likelihood is that she copied or paraphrased an item from the Menshevik Socialist Herald or some similar émigré publication. Although she never mentions her father bringing home this kind of material (which was, of course, illegal and dangerous to possess), the NKVD confiscated ‘Socialist-Revolutionary literature’ belonging to him in the same 1937 house search in which they took Nina’s diary.

Nina realised that her diary was potentially dangerous. After her mother read it, fearing that it ‘might contain something counter-revolutionary’ and finding that it did, Nina crossed out some of the most dangerous passages (but left others intact). But her first, typically adolescent reaction was a stab of embarrassment that her mother had read what she’d written about boys. In an earlier entry she had said: ‘What if the apartment is suddenly searched and it is confiscated because of my completely uncensored remarks about Stalin? And it winds up in the hands of the secret police? They’ll read it and laugh at my amorous gibberish.’

In the event the NKVD didn’t laugh when they read her diary, because they thought they had uncovered a serious 18-year-old counter-revolutionary. This is not quite as unreasonable as might at first appear. The NKVD was quite capable of underlining passages of grumbling and sarcasm in confiscated diaries that could have suggested counter-revolutionary activity only to the most paranoid policeman. In Nina’s case, however, a literal reading would have given any security man grounds for anxiety.

Two entries were particularly incendiary. One recorded her reaction when her father was refused his Moscow residence permit, soon after returning from his first spell of exile in Siberia early in 1933. This is one of the passages Nina partially excised after her mother read the diary, but the excisions did not prevent her post-Soviet editor – or, presumably the NKVD – from deciphering much of the text. Filled with ‘helpless rage’ after the denial of the permit, Nina

began to cry. I ran around the room swearing. I decided that I had to kill the bastards. Ridiculous as that sounds, but it’s no joke. For several days I dreamed for hours while lying in bed about how I’d kill him. His promises, his dictatorship, the vile Georgian who has crippled Russia. How can it be? Great Russia and the great Russian people have fallen into the hands of a scoundrel. Is it possible? That Russia, which for so many years fought for freedom and which finally attained it, that Russia has suddenly enslaved itself. I must kill him as soon as possible! I must avenge myself and my father.

The italics indicate her excisions.

Another vehement outbreak (not excised) was precipitated by the murder of Kirov at the end of 1934. The killing greatly alarmed the Soviet leadership and led to large-scale reprisals against former Oppositionists, former aristocrats and other undesirable categories. Though she shared the regime’s (probably false) assumption that the assassin, Nikolaev, had been part of a conspiracy, Nina did not share the public grief. ‘I felt glad: that means there’s still a struggle going on, there are still organisations and real people. Not everyone is gobbling the slops of socialism.’ She was indignant at the arrests and executions that followed the murder, comparing the situation to the panic that followed Alexander II’s assassination – except that then there had been a furor over the execution of the six assassins. ‘Why is no one incensed now? . . . What right do these Bolsheviks have to deal with the country and its people so cruelly and arbitrarily . . . To call Nikolaev a coward! He went willingly to his death for what he believed in, he was better than all those so-called leaders of the working class put together.’

By the time she was 17, Nina’s long depression was lifting, she had some friends and a bit of a social life, she was enjoying school and looking forward to going to university, and the anti-Soviet outbursts in her diary were becoming rarer. ‘I’m almost satisfied with my life,’ she wrote in October 1936. ‘I had to adapt and with every year this ability has grown in me.’ She meant she had to adapt socially, but perhaps even ideological adaptation was not out of the question. In the final year of her diary, Nina scarcely wrote about politics or public events, only about the personal. Summing up the year in her last diary entry, on 2 January 1937, she wrote that she had put her past failures and problems behind her: ‘I’m looking ahead and only ahead.’

What lay ahead, however, was not university but the gulag. The outlook for families like Nina’s had been darkening since Kirov’s assassination. Her father was rearrested in autumn 1935, held in Butyrka prison for a few months, and then exiled again, this time to Kazakhstan. The Great Purges were already under way when, on 4 January 1937, the NKVD searched the Lugovskoy apartment and confiscated Nina’s and Olga’s diaries as well as their father’s papers. Under interrogation after her arrest on 16 March, Nina could scarcely deny that she had an ‘extremely hostile attitude towards the leaders of the Bolshevik Party and primarily towards Stalin’, and even the accusation that she had ‘terrorist designs on Stalin’ was not too outlandish, given her fantasies of revenge. Diligently underlining the inflammatory passages of the diary, the NKVD created a plausible picture of a sworn enemy of the Soviet regime.

But that was not all. The NKVD’s selective underlining produced a portrait of a ‘degenerate’ as well as a political enemy: a twisted, suicidal misanthrope; a Dostoevskian underground person, full of envy and malice towards the world. Nina’s suicidal thoughts and attempted suicide were central to this representation, of course. In addition, all her philosophical reflections about the meaninglessness of life and the pervasiveness of deception and disappointment were underlined, as was her remark that ‘physical disfigurement has deformed my soul.’ Every hint of misanthropy was picked up: for example, her quotation from Lermontov on the boorishness of the unwashed masses (one can almost hear the NKVD man’s mind ticking over: Alienated from the masses!) and her ironic comment that women are ‘dogs who are trying to raise themselves up to their masters’ (Reactionary views on women’s emancipation!). These underlinings could have provided Maxim Gorky with fine material for one of his diatribes contrasting Dostoevskian decadence with Soviet life-affirmation.

It was typical of Stalinist police practice that not only Nina, the true anti-Soviet in the family, was arrested, but also her hard-working mother and right-thinking, ‘life-affirming’ sisters. (In their mug-shots, Nina looks defiant, the twins disoriented, and their mother resigned; touchingly, all three of the girls have ‘messy hair sticking out over their ears’.) In a set of photographs at the end of the book, we see the twins fined down to skin and bone shortly after their release from Kolyma in 1942. Nina is there, too, looking in better physical and mental shape than others in the family. And there is her husband, Viktor Templin, an artist and former political prisoner whom she married in exile in Magadan in the late 1940s. Remembering all the romantic disappointments of Nina’s adolescent diary, it is a relief to see a husband – an educated man, judging by his photograph, perhaps even an idealist. The two of them spent their lives working as stage designers and landscape painters in various provincial towns, ending up in Vladimir.

What is one to make of a life like Nina’s? A sense of the pity of it, the waste, the pointless brutality, is inescapable. But our attention, as readers, is focused on her tormented adolescence and cruelly interrupted transition to adulthood. She had four and a half decades of life after the gulag, but we know hardly anything of what she made of it. Her adult photographs show a woman of character. But she was a survivor, too, which probably meant that she further developed the ability to adapt, whose belated emergence was noted in her diary. But adaptation can mean many things. After Stalin’s death, she sought rehabilitation, like other former political prisoners, and obtained it in March 1963. In a personal petition to Khrushchev, she explained her childish bitterness against Stalin as a product of the trauma of her father’s arrests. This seems like a repudiation of her childhood self, though whether for pragmatic reasons or because of a real shift in convictions is not clear. After rehabilitation, she had some success as a painter, holding a solo show in 1977, which probably means that she had been admitted to the prestigious Union of Soviet Artists. ‘Friends in Vladimir knew nothing of her prison past and recalled her as a reticent and kindly person,’ the editor tells us.

Nina Lugovskaya-Templina died at 74 in 1993, surviving the Soviet Union by two years. Did she rejoice at the collapse of the Communist regime? Look hopefully towards post-Soviet democracy? Wax indignant at ‘robber capitalism’? (After all, hers had been a socialist anti-Sovietism.) Fear change, like many of her contemporaries, even if it was ‘for the better’? The historical record gives no answers to these questions.