‘Life has been reborn’

Karl Schlögel

  • Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin by Jochen Hellbeck
    Harvard, 436 pp, £19.95, May 2007, ISBN 978 0 674 02174 7

‘They are burning memory. They’ve been doing it for a long time . . . I go out of my mind when I think that every night thousands of people throw their diaries into the fire.’ The Soviet writer Yuri Tynianov said this to a colleague in Leningrad in the late 1930s. They were standing at a window looking at the air outside, which was filled with a fine ash. We associate diaries with individualism, intimacy, privacy, with unrestricted reflection and deliberation. But from a Communist perspective, to keep a diary was to withdraw from social responsibility, it was a form of apolitical, even asocial behaviour.

But even when the hysterical mass mobilisation against ‘enemies of the people’, ‘spies’ and ‘other criminal elements’ was at its peak, diaries were being kept and preserved. A few examples were published in the years of thaw and de-Stalinisation: the diary of Nina Kosterina, for example, was published in the 1960s, and that of Julya Piatnitskaya, the wife of Osip Piatnitsky, a leading Communist of Lenin’s generation who was executed in 1938, found an audience via the samizdat of the 1980s. But no one had any idea that so many more diaries existed, recording the experiences and thoughts of thousands of people, most of them unknown.

And then in the early 1990s Jochen Hellbeck, a young student at Columbia University, went to do research in Moscow. The Soviet Union was changing every day, as new newspapers appeared, archives and documents were declassified, and the country experienced a ‘happy summer of anarchy’ as it learned to enjoy its new-found freedom of speech. It was a wonderful moment for historians. Strolling through Moscow, Hellbeck was attracted by a sign saying People’s Archive. He went in and discovered that thousands of papers and memoirs had been deposited there, from all levels of society and all parts of the country. Written in exercise books or on the backs of official forms, they had escaped being turned into ashes.

In Revolution on My Mind Hellbeck discusses the diaries of four individuals. The first is Zinaida Denisevskaya, a member of the pre-Revolutionary Russian intelligentsia. She kept a diary from 1900, when she was 13 years old, until her death in 1933. In the year of the October Revolution she was a schoolteacher in Voronezh, a sensitive and well-educated woman who felt isolated from the ‘masses of the people’. Voronezh was in Russia’s agricultural heartland and thus affected by the forced collectivisation of the late 1920s and the Great Famine of the early 1930s. Denisevskaya is conscious of the atrocities and absurdities that surround her, but nevertheless tries to make the ‘truth’ of the Party agree with her own observations and experiences. ‘In its fundamental ideas, the Party is now correct and I am forcing myself to overlook petty details,’ she notes on the eve of collectivisation. ‘One must not confuse the particular with the general. It is very difficult to maintain a broad view all the time, especially for a non-Party member.’ She sees herself as suffering from the shortcomings of the ‘estranged intelligentsia’ and is filled with desire to join ‘the masses’. Finally, she puts herself and her class on trial and affirms her own metamorphosis: ‘How much has changed over these 13 years, both within me and around me! Life has been reborn and I have been reborn.’ In the end, she came to regard the Soviet regime as the sole legitimate repository of the core values of the intelligentsia: social commitment, mass education, the enlightenment of the people.

The second diarist here, Stepan Podlubny, faced a different problem. One of millions of peasants who were swept into the cities and onto construction sites during collectivisation and the period of accelerated industrialisation, he has to find his way as the son of a ‘kulak’ and ‘class enemy’. To survive, to escape his ‘class origins’, he must turn from a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing into a sheep’. Podlubny kept a diary from 1931 until 1939 – with a short break in 1937, the year of the Great Terror – and from 1941 until he died in 1998. (His diary was published in German with a commentary by him several years ago.)

The entire diary is an exercise in self-observation, as Podlubny works on and overcomes his old self. He knows what happened in the villages during the deportations of millions of peasants and in the Great Famine. But he is merciless:

All in all, what’s happening is awful. I don’t know why, but I don’t feel sympathy for this. It has to be this way, because then it will be easier to remake the peasant’s smallholder psychology into the proletarian psychology that we need. And those who die of hunger, let them die. If they can’t defend themselves against death from starvation, it means that they are weak-willed, and what can they give to society?

Hellbeck met Podlubny before he died. He also had an encounter with the third of his diarists, Leonid Potemkin. A retired deputy minister of geology of the Soviet Union, Potemkin could look back on a long and successful career. Born in 1914, in a village in the Kama River region, into a petit bourgeois family, he started writing his diary in 1928, while he was still at school. Of all the diarists his attitudes and procedures are the most systematic, even programmatic. He works on his self as though polishing a diamond. He is a model vydvishenets, the protagonist of upward mobility in the 1930s: a young, cultured, working-class man in a white shirt, suit and tie, cultivating the manners of the new establishment, writing about Tchaikovsky and reciting Heine. ‘I feel,’ the young Potemkin wrote, ‘that I will (one day) stand before the court of society, where the details of my life will be examined. I feel that I am under inspection.’ For him, as for the historian, his passage from poor villager to qualified engineer is the paradigmatic realisation of the ‘Soviet dream’.

The fourth diary is, even in the context of these extraordinary documents, unique and at times shocking. Alexander Afinogenov was one of the most successful Soviet playwrights of the 1920s and 1930s. The borders between fiction and fact are blurred in his diary, which sometimes seems to function as a notebook for his future plays, and which covers, in fragments, the period between 1926 and 1941.

Born in 1904, into the family of a railway employee, Afinogenov was, in his most successful years, close to Maxim Gorky and the inner circle of power – he met Stalin several times. But in 1937 he was expelled from the Party; some of his colleagues (Vladimir Kirshon, for instance) were killed. Despite this, he confesses that the year of the Great Terror was the year of his rebirth, that the time of fear resulted in his most productive thinking and writing. ‘For him,’ Hellbeck says,

the terror induced a veritable explosion of autobiographical writing. The Stalinist purge emerges in his case not as an expression of absolute estrangement between state and citizens, but as an intense synergetic link between individuals and the state, in which the respective agendas of social purification and individual self-purification fused . . . As the Stalinist regime increased its demands for the unmasking of Trotskyist enemies, Afinogenov by means of his diary proceeded to scrutinise and cleanse his soul.

In 1938 Afinogenov was reinstated as a Party member. He was convinced that the Great Purge was necessary and he wanted to be a participant in it, and an active one, prepared to denounce even himself. He saw Stalin as the architect of a new world and himself as a bricklayer or, rather, as his master’s inkwell. Afinogenov died during an air-raid in October 1941, in the building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Moscow.

All four diarists express the sense that they live in ‘historic times’ worthy of exact documentation and analysis. They are part of a tradition with strong roots in Russian culture, especially in the history of the intelligentsia, with its cult of self-perfection and ethos of serving the people. After the Revolution, the combination of an inferiority complex and a sense of mission to represent the nation’s conscience came to extend beyond the intelligentsia. A new mythos emerged, orchestrated again by intellectuals, that of the New Man or Hero, as Gorky put it.

But more important was the impact of the huge social upheavals that began with the First World War, the Revolution and the Civil War, and continued with the mass migrations, famine and violent clashes in the countryside. Social identities disintegrated and were reconfigured by the phenomenon of ‘a whole empire walking’, as the historian Peter Gatrell has described it. The cities were overcrowded with peasants who had lost their stable way of life, their social position, their framework of values. These diaries show the struggle involved in negotiating the extremes of the epoch, in creating a self able to live simultaneously in the village and in the urban world, in premodern and revolutionary times. The destruction of ‘normality’ and the permanent state of emergency put everyone under almost unbearable pressure, subject to a violent and ruthless regime which created entirely new conditions for the constitution of a self. The classification of social groups – workers, intellectuals, peasants – proved to be more or less fictitious. As Hellbeck writes,

The exploding political paranoia of the 1930s, the massive increase in suspicion against supposed enemies of the people, also expressed a crisis induced by the breakdown of the traditional Marxist tool of class analysis in evaluating the individual. Where there were no more alien classes to point to, the proclivity to demonise existing obstacles on the road to socialism became overwhelming.

As Sheila Fitzpatrick has shown, when the notion of class no longer makes sense, and class ascription becomes arbitrary, the desire to construct an identity, to make the New Man, becomes powerful. Even such a convinced Communist as Julya Piatnitskaya felt the ground shift after the arrest of her husband. ‘Who is he?’ she wrote in her diary. Her first inclination was to trust him; after all, they had been married for 17 years. But this would mean that the Party was at fault. ‘Obviously I don’t think that. Obviously Piatnitsky was never a professional revolutionary, but a professional scoundrel – a spy or provocateur.’ Hellbeck comments that

the diary served as a tool by which she could release her poisonous thoughts and thereby regain the assured and unified voice of a devoted revolutionary. Her task was to ‘prove, not for others, but for yourself . . . that you stand higher than a wife, and higher than a mother. You will prove with this that you are a citizen of the Great Soviet Union. And if you don’t have the strength to do this, then to the devil with you.’

Jochen Hellbeck has opened up a new way into the private inner world of the Stalin years, a world to which former schools of Soviet history didn’t pay much attention. These diaries weren’t written in 19th-century Paris or Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, in the semi-public space of the Ringstrassen-Café or the Parisian salon. The permanent flux in what Moshe Lewin has called a ‘wind sand society’ – one of crowded communal apartments with dozens of inhabitants, endless queues outside department stores or NKVD offices, an atmosphere of omnipresent fear and suspicion – meant that the formation of subjectivity took place in very different conditions.

Maybe this will be one of the main implications of Hellbeck’s discovery. There can’t now be a cultural history of the 20th century that ignores the experience of forging the self under the conditions of Communist – and especially Stalinist – rule. It took almost half a century for the diaries kept by the German Jew Victor Klemperer between 1933 and 1945 to be discovered and edited, and more than half a century to excavate Podlubny’s and Afinogenov’s diaries. Together they give us a rough idea of what happened to the individual during the ‘Age of Extremes’.