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.
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.