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.

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.

But worse was to come: In December 1937, at the height of the Great Purges, his mother was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison. Podlubny considered his mother’s arrest an appalling injustice, and the tone of his diary comments on the Soviet regime turned acid. This was the end of Podlubny’s project of self-transformation. But there are several ironic postscripts to the story. In October 1939 Podlubny was sentenced to serve eighteen months in a labor camp, not as a counterrevolutionary or social alien but, more mundanely, as an accomplice in a black-market deal–an aspect of his life on which the earlier diary is completely silent. Podlubny survived, and after the war he made a career as a bureaucrat in the Soviet health administration (on the basis of a false claim to a medical degree, it would appear, though Hellbeck does not spell this out). When Hellbeck made contact with him in Moscow in the early 1990s, Podlubny totally disavowed the striving for self-transformation and the desperate wish to become truly Soviet that dominate several years of his 1930s diary, assuring Hellbeck that the diary was actually–in accordance with the current fashion in Stalin-period reminiscences–a document of Stalinist victimization.

The photograph of Leonid Potemkin on the front cover is a typical “young Soviet worker” portrait of the 1930s, but beneath the obligatory cloth cap his expression is enigmatic and slightly wary. Hellbeck treats him as a vydvizhenets, a beneficiary of Soviet affirmative-action programs for young workers and peasants, and indeed Potemkin made the same claim on occasion. But actually he was of white-collar origins, his main contact with the working class being a precollege year of manual labor whose purpose was probably to give him a “proletarian” coloration and improve his chances of admission. His social origins seem to have come under suspicion at one point, but the danger passed; in any case, he was never in anything like the vulnerable position of Podlubny. A loner, chronically anxious and self-critical, Potemkin saw himself as a physical and psychological weakling who must “retrain myself from one who is cold, morose, and inconspicuous in society into one who is quick in his wit and actions, healthy, an activist and leader with a strong character.” The diary was part of his self-training regime, but interestingly enough, he also visited a “neuropathologist” who told him that his parents were to blame for his weak nerves (an unexpected Freudian echo in the distant Urals) and prescribed exercise and a tonic.

Potemkin, like Podlubny, made a success of his later life and put the psychological uncertainties of his youth behind him, as Hellbeck discovered when he tracked Potemkin down in the 1990s. Alexander Afinogenov, by contrast, had had a smashing success as a proletarian writer (“proletarian” referring to his political alignment, not his actual social origins) with his first play, Fear–a prescient title, as it turned out–and was riding high in the 1930s as a fully paid-up member of the new Communist elite, an occasional interlocutor of Stalin, a proud owner of a Ford motorcar and the husband of Jenny (an American ballerina), who vacationed at the best Black Sea resorts and weekended at his dacha in Peredelkino, an elite writers’ colony. In Afinogenov’s play, fear was something that afflicted only the psychologically crippled bourgeois intelligentsia, while their young proletarian contemporaries strode forward fearlessly into the future. But fear came to Afinogenov, too, when, in the spring of 1937, he was denounced as an enemy of the people, along with two of his closest associates from the proletarian writers’ group. The other two (Leopold Averbakh and Vladimir Kirshon) were arrested and shot, while Afinogenov–abjectly confessing his infection with the “poisonous disease that goes by the name of ‘Averbakh leprosy'” and decisively repudiating his “diseased” former self–was expelled from the party but for some reason not arrested. For seven or eight agonizing months he was left hanging in the wind, shunned by former friends and holed up in his dacha with Jenny and their baby. The diary Hellbeck analyzes was written at this time.

It had always been Afinogenov’s practice to use his diary as a writer’s sketchbook; he would even cut it up with scissors and arrange the pieces thematically. The diary for December 1934-late 1937 was an exception; it was kept intact as a kind of draft for a quasi-autobiographical novel, Three Years, which was to tell the story of the protagonist’s corruption, spiritual crisis and rebirth. There was a question, however, about whom his readers were going to be: If he survived to write the book, the Soviet public; if not, and he was arrested, only the secret police–which, under the circumstances, was perhaps the most important reader his diary could have had. This possibility of seizure by the NKVD obviously put into question the credibility of the diary as a personal statement, but Afinogenov anticipated this objection. In his novel, he has the protagonist–his autobiographical surrogate–tell his police interrogator about the diary in which he made notes on his “personal growth and development.” You won’t believe any of this, of course, the surrogate says to his interrogator; you will think that “once a person is waiting to be arrested and starts keeping notes, it’s clear…that he’s keeping them for the future reader, the interrogator, and that means that he’s embellishing everything as much as he can, in order to prove his innocence.” But then, in a skillful sleight of hand, Afinogenov turns this on its head: The fact that I know you know I know you will be reading this means that I am not writing this for you. Having foreseen the NKVD’s skepticism, he claims, he is able to liberate himself from its shadowy presence as a reader and write his diary, once again, for himself.

Afinogenov’s diary revels in the self-cleansing that the accusations against him had provoked and vows to give up his pleasure-seeking way of life. Sometimes he even refers to himself in the third person as “the degenerate playwright Afinogenov.” There are moments, to be sure, when his resolve breaks down and he writes of himself as the innocent victim of a “devilish” fascist conspiracy “to annihilate talented Soviet artists,” but the dominant mode is an exalted acceptance that the ordinary reader might find hard to take. The NKVD reader, however, was another matter, and it is clear that Afinogenov, for all his protests, had him in mind when he wrote, for example: “Over there, at the Lubianka, the people are intelligent. Despite their busy schedules and the insane amount of work, they see down to the roots of everything…and no wave will force them to arrest an innocent person.” Remarkably, Afinogenov survived this ordeal and was reinstated as a party member early in 1938, becoming yet more passionate in his adoration of Stalin and celebrating the purge that had made him “a better and purer person,” as well as a tougher one. He died in a German bombing raid on Moscow on October 29, 1941, supposedly while visiting the headquarters of the party Central Committee building (though this seems almost too poetically apt to be true).

Hellbeck’s analysis of his diarists is first-rate, and his enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. Of course, his selection of diaries is tailored to fit his thesis about Soviet citizens’ zeal for self-transformation and mastery of the Soviet worldview: There is little room here for Nina Lugovskaya’s adolescent alienation (Diary of a Soviet Schoolgirl, 2003), Lyubov Shaporina’s hysterical diatribes against the Soviet regime or the ex-convict Andrei Arzhilovsky’s critical detachment (both from Intimacy and Terror). But selectivity can be accepted as an author’s prerogative when the analysis is as fresh and interesting as Hellbeck’s. This book helps us to understand a particular Soviet mindset of the 1930s; and regardless of whether this mindset was typical (a claim the author does not explicitly make) or exceptional, it suggests an intriguing way of understanding the over-the-top enthusiasm that the Soviet regime inspired among some of its citizens in the 1930s. A commonsense assumption (shared, incidentally, by Stalin) would be that the terror and stigmatization characteristic of this period created enemies for the Soviet regime. But what if the opposite were true as well: Namely, that the threat of exclusion generated in at least some of its victims a longing to belong that made them particularly passionate enthusiasts for Stalinism?