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Journals of the Purge Years | The Nation

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Journals of the Purge Years

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One might expect that diaries of the Stalin period would be the hidden, private place where Russians, pressured into lives of public conformity, recorded their secret thoughts and political doubts. Not so, according to Jochen Hellbeck's fascinating book. Rather than something external and imposed, Soviet Communist ideology should be understood, Hellbeck suggests, "as a ferment working in individuals and producing a great deal of variation as it interacts with the subjective life of a particular person." Far from resisting the regime's demands, these diarists are struggling to embrace, understand and make them their own.

About the Author

Sheila Fitzpatrick
Sheila Fitzpatrick, the author of Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times (Oxford), is Bernadotte E....

Revolution on My Mind is part of a broader recent trend among young scholars, influenced by Michel Foucault and more directly by Stephen Kotkin, to study the Stalinism of the Soviet 1930s as a civilization in the process of invention. Critical of older social historians' focus on resistance and survival strategies and of their tendency to dismiss ideology as window-dressing (full disclosure: that means me), they aim to bring ideology back to center stage. They do this by way of discourse analysis--that is, close examination of texts, particularly first-person texts like autobiographies, confessions and, in this case, diaries.

Diary-writing was sometimes encouraged in the early Soviet period, as long as the content was not personal and "trivial" (a favorite Soviet pejorative) but focused on something serious like mastery of work skills or personal growth. At the same time, it was a potentially dangerous pastime, because in the case of arrest--not such an uncommon occurrence in the 1930s--the diary would probably be seized by the NKVD (the secret police) and might become evidence against its author. During the Great Purges of the late 1930s, there were cases (though Hellbeck does not mention them) where individuals went through their old diaries removing, for example, complaints about food shortages and inserting statements of appreciation for Stalin's concern for the people's welfare.

Many diaries were surely burned by their authors in this period; others were destroyed accidentally during the war, and it was not until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that Russian archivists and Western scholars started collecting those that remained. The first Western publication of them was in the 1995 book Intimacy and Terror, a collection of extracts from Soviet diaries of the Great Purge years compiled by Véronique Garros and others; two of the diarists from this volume, Stepan Podlubny and Leonid Potemkin, are also the subject of chapters in Hellbeck's book. In 1996 Hellbeck, now an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, published a German translation of the full Podlubny diary for the 1930s. Since then, he has worked hard locating diaries in collections and private hands in Russia, but the source base he uses in this book is still relatively small: A couple of dozen diaries, many of them literary, are discussed briefly in the early chapters, and four (by Podlubny, Potemkin, Zinaida Denisevskaya and Alexander Afinogenov) are analyzed at length in separate chapters.

Loneliness, worry about social identity (in a society that stigmatized those from an "alien" class background) and anxiety about living up to the demands of the age (when the sense of historical mission weighed heavily, and heresy and even unintended lapses could be harshly punished) are pervasive themes in these diaries. Hellbeck's central interest is in the diary as a means of self-transformation, and Podlubny's is a prime example.

Podlubny was the son of a kulak (a well-to-do peasant), or rather of a Ukrainian peasant labeled and punished as such by the Soviet regime. After his father's exile to Arkhangelsk, the young Podlubny and his mother moved to Moscow, where they lived an anxious semi-legal life, but he got his foot on the ladder as a student in factory apprenticeship school, as an activist and as a member of the Komsomol (Young Communist League). It was in Moscow that he started to write his diary "for the purposes of my overall development": in other words, to become both a better writer in Russian (his native language was Ukrainian) and a better Soviet citizen. Podlubny's "alien" social origins were not only a practical source of worry to him, since it was always possible that he would be publicly "unmasked" for concealing his kulak father, but also a psychological torment. The diary was his "sole friend," a place to vent his emotions, in contrast to the strict control he needed to maintain in public. However hard he worked, "my successes in production work don't make me happy," he wrote in 1932. "A thought that I can never seem to shake off, that sucks my blood from me like sap from a birch tree, is the question of my psychology. Can it really be that I am different from the others? This question makes my hair stand on end, and I break out in shivers."

Podlubny's activism had an ironic outcome: In 1932 the GPU (as the secret police was called before 1934) recruited him as an informer, giving him the code name "komsomolist," his task being to unmask concealed class enemies--that is, people like himself--among his fellow students. This did not shake his determined embrace of Soviet values, as he saw the secret police, in Hellbeck's words, "as a moral authority, whose vocation was to correct the consciousness of erring individuals and thus restore their shattered psychological health." By 1935 Podlubny was beginning to feel that his project of self-transformation had succeeded. He was accepted into medical school, and the future seemed to open up before him. Yet at the same time he was having "reactionary" thoughts, though he struggled to overcome them. Early in 1936 the long-expected blow fell: Podlubny's kulak origins were revealed, he was expelled from the Komsomol, lost his scholarship to medical school and subsequently dropped out. The rest of the year was so awful that he stopped making diary entries, hoping it could be crossed out "like an unnecessary page" in the history of his life.

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