11. 8. 2006
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ISSN 1213-1792


Jan Čulík


Karel Dolejší


Michal Panoch, Jan Panoch

Grafický návrh:

Štěpán Kotrba

ISSN 1213-1792
deník o všem, o čem se v České republice příliš nemluví
Jochen Hellbeck : Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin
11. 8. 2006

Revolution on My Mind

There is a deeply internal, moral dimension to the quest to belong, which in the absence of this diary literature we simply did not see. We saw the political side and believed that it determined everything. We believed that Soviet citizens for the most part had a cynical attitude toward the larger goals of the revolution. And now these documents reveal how involved they felt in their larger community and in the making of world history.

German historian Jochen Hellbeck, who teaches history at Rutgers University in the United States, has just published a new book which -- analysing personal diaries written by ordinary Soviet citizens in Stalin's times -- quite radically changes our perception of people's attitudes to the Soviet regime of the 1930s. Jan Čulík interviewed Dr. Hellbeck in Siena, Italy.

You have just published a remarkable book with Harvard University Press, entitled Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin. What is it about?
It is about diaries that I found in Russian archives over the past fifteen years --intimate personal diaries that Soviet citizens wrote in the 1920s and 1930s. These diaries disclose an unexpected story of massive personal involvement in the revolution that defies our customary picture of the relationship between regime and citizens during that period.
So it is basically about the attitudes of the individual toward what was going on during the years of the revolution?
Exactly. The customary picture is quite well encapsulated in George Orwell's 1984. One of the opening scenes involves Winston Smith coming home and finding a spot that is not under the surveillance of the camera. He opens his desk, pulls out a notebook, and begins to write a diary. The diary's explicit purpose is to defy the Big Brother state. The diary begins with erratic jottings, but over the course of the first sentences, Winston develops a personal voice, a distinct sense of personal self. He writes: "I hate Big Brother, I want to kill Big Brother." Several things are expressed in that scene. First, it is extremely dangerous to write a diary under a totalitarian regime. Second, only exceptional individuals like Winston Smith kept diaries.Third, the diary was kept largely as an gesture of defiance, to position yourself against the state order. In keeping with this picture I expected, as many other researchers did, that people would not write diaries under Stalin and that any diary that could be found would be an exceptional diary.
So is the writing of a diary under Stalin in itself an act of defiance?
When I discovered the first diary that was what I expected. I found the diary by chance, in one of the newly opened archives of the perestroika period. It was the People's Archives in Moscow. I passed by it one day and simply walked in, because I was intrigued by the name and had not heard of it before. It was in 1990 and the staff working in the archive was very helpful. I told them about my interest in rural to urban migration in the 1920s and the fate of the peasantry, and they said, "Oh, we have a document that might be of interest to you." They pulled out a box and opened it, and there were these stacks of notebooks. I started reading and I was dizzied by the story I read.
Well, it was the story of a young peasant migrant coming to Moscow. His problem was that he was the son of a kulak peasant who had been expropriated and sent into exile. The son escaped from the home village in the Ukraine and came to Moscow. In his diary which he began to keep in Moscow he narrated the story of his double life. He pretended to be a worker. He hid his origins and tried to adapt to the conditions of life under Stalin. On one hand the diary narrates the story of his double life. But it is more than that. It also served him as a means to transform himself, to bridge the gap between the outward mask and the inner self. He really wanted to become the person that he claimed to be. That, he believed, was the only way he could save himself. Not by masking himself -- sooner or later he knew that he would be unmasked -- but by really becoming the person he outwardly pretended to be. That was a fascinating story because it told me something different from Winston Smith and the conditions of life in the Big Brother state. It told me about the desire to truly become a good Soviet person, so as to be socially accepted and to gain self-respect.
Can it be seen as an analysis of an individual's predicament vis-à-vis a certain ideology or ideological state?
In the beginning I looked at this diary and its author as marginal cases. I looked at them through the eyes of a social historian and saw the document of a son of a kulak who tried to fit in. My initial hunch was to look for other documents of kulak dependants and to map the psychological profile of outcasts in Stalinist society. I then found more and more diaries. Some were kept by socially marginal people like this kulak's son, but I found many other diaries as well. What many of them shared, regardless of their authors' social background, was an urge to belong to this age, an overwhelming desire to march in step with the collective. Along with this desire there is a recurrent fear of marginalisation, a fear that somehow you can't belong in this imagined community. Often the thoughts expressed in the diary are to bridge those two poles and bring you into the collective fold.
Why would they write these diaries? Surely they must have been aware that in writing these records they might be doing something individualistic and hence subversive. Were they aware of this?
Not really. If you actually keep a diary in order to think with the collective, it is no longer an individualist project. You don't do it in order to maintain your autonomy, you do it for the opposite reason, to transcend the boundaries of your autonomous thought. To that extent keeping a diary seems to be socially acceptable. Now, what is less acceptable is that many of these diaries are written in a very frank way, with authors confiding their fears, their anxieties, all sorts of secrets. That part is quite problematic. While authors might not have been aware of it, these thoughts could have cost them very dearly.
And you think they wouldn't have been aware of it?
I think many of them were not aware of it because they believed they were good citizens. They travelled the road from the old to the new. This journey has to start somewhere in the dark to show that you are travelling toward the light, that you are improving yourself. Along the way you shed your bad thoughts and become purer, but before you shed them you need to articulate them.
Before we have a look at the way they tried to identify with the regime, let us ask the question: Why would they want to identify with the regime? What is the motivation? Pure survival or something more?
It is a mix of many factors. Let me say a little more about the diaries that I have examined. All of them are self-reflective diaries, diaries of people who think about who they are in relation to the wider world. I have not included travelogues, nor have I dealt with those writers' diaries that consist of scattered observations for literary works in progress and have no immediate autobiographical relevance. Neither have I included diaries which were kept as chronicles of everyday life, where the author's personality is absent from the chronicles. I have only looked at diaries with a self-reflective character. Among those are three different types. One type is written by members of the bourgeois intelligentsia. These were members of the educated classes who were under suspicion under the Soviet regime. They increasingly under attack in the late 1920s and early 1930s in connection with the cultural revolution, with the mobilisation of proletarian writers and the repression of all those suspected to be "bourgeois" class enemies.
There are a number of authors who under those conditions kept a diary in order to further their transition from a bourgeois to a proletarian subject, and in the process to rid themselves of "old" and "useless" thoughts and habits. Second in chronological order, there are diaries, especially prevalent in the late 1920s and early 1930s, of young people, often villagers and of modest educational background. Some of them seem to have kept diaries as a result of literary workshops that they attended in the factories and on the construction sites of the Soviet industrialization campaign. The profession of the writer was one of the most venerated at the time, along with the profession of the engineer, so every young person wanted to become a writer. They enrolled in literary workshops where they were taught the basics of creative writing. Many of these apprentices had high ambitions, they wanted to become writers in their own right. It was in those workshops that they were told to keep diaries. These diaries sometimes grew into real personal laboratories where you can still see the imprint left by the writing assignment, but in the course of writing the journals morph into distinctly personal projects.
A third group is the communist diary. These are diaries written by communists who were supposed to be the most virtuous citizens of the Soviet realm. They had to be model citizens, exemplifying what it meant to live in a Soviet society where there is no private sphere outside of your public activities. You are all one social person. Your whole conscious and even unconscious life is to serve society and to execute the laws of history. For them, writing a diary comes more natural because it is a self-monitoring device. They, too, tend to write more, not less, when they come under suspicion. When a purge campaign draws closer or envelops them they turn to the diary to justify and defend themselves, but they also examine themselves, turn inward in an attempt to identify the old person within whom they then seek to drive out. So, in some sense, their diaries can be read as self-generated, private show trials. Many of them think historically, which also means that they think in terms of their own inner progression from old to new forms of thinking and being. And they believe that the "old," "bourgeois" personality that they feel inside themselves has to die for the new socialist person to be born.
So the diary is a kind of instrument of self-exorcism for them.
Where then do you see a common denominator? How does the individual relate in this self-exorcising manner to the new demands of society in general?
One of the very striking things that I have found in reading these diaries is that many individuals don't have a clear sense of societal demands. These appear very much to be self-generated documents. Repeatedly authors complain that there are no ethical guidelines on how to live in a socialist society. The Party has all sorts of practical suggestions, demands, exhortations, but it does not supply an ethical code, something analogous to the church. In the absence of ethical guidelines these people turn to their own diaries and try to define their own prescriptive ethics.
So it is also an expression of uncertainty. There is something that is wanted of them but they don't know what it is?
Precisely. It is a time that is defined by a great deal of uncertainty. It is defined by a universal sense: "We need to be good communists, we must become a hundred per cent pure," but how to get there, how to bridge that gap, and whether it is possible at all - that is not clear at all. For instance, in the case of the first diarist that I mentioned, the son of the kulak who came to Moscow and pretended to be of proletarian background, theoretically even he could become a good communist. If sons, daughters, or wives of kulaks demonstrated their "sincere and wholehearted" devotion to the Soviet state (that was written into the law), they could acquire full civic rights.
The question remains, of course, how to demonstrate such sincere adherence. The law stated you had to work for the Soviet state for five years. So, five years of sincere labour could absolve you. However, with the suspicion in the Party that all these people are actually masked double-dealers, inveterate kulaks, how do you demonstrate your true sincerity? In the case of this kulak's son, you see how he uses his diary to explore who he really is, what forces -- good, proletarian, progressive, or backward, selfish, and evil -- account for his "psychology." Many other diarists experience a similar uncertainty: they want to belong to the new age and yet, in the witchhunt atmosphere of this age, they acutely fear that they may be expelled from the ranks of the collective. A recurrent theme in the diaries that I have studied is the parade. There is a longing to be in the marching collective. The collective usually walks by you and you are excluded from it. Communists under the spell of suspicion, communists who fall victim to a purge, they turn on the radio and longingly listen to the chorus of Soviet people and its unison shouts of hurrah. They listen with rapture and great envy to the record harvest that is announced on the evening news and they feel: "This is this heroic age and I am not a part of it."
So they are accepting it. They never think for a moment that it may be sham, propaganda or anything?
They actually do. It is quite complex. They go through the motions. Many of them have doubts, but in the end the desire to go along as well as the belief that the future will resolve all current problems and imbalances, these two factors take precedence. Some write that Stalin is a terrible deviation, that he is a tyrant, but the future will correct this deviation. They have an unbroken belief that history will resolve these aberrations that are explained in a dialectical manner and hence made into law again. So, historical dialectics serves as a wonderful tool both to express and resolve uncertainties, anxieties. The diary thus becomes an extended battlefield in which the struggle toward the future is demonstrated.
So they are accepting the new status quo even though they necessarily do not know what it is? You said it was a very violent society. Earlier, you mentioned that these people "internalised" the violence. Can you describe this process?
The Stalin era was a very peculiar time, therefore I would not want to generalise and say that these diaries were kept throughout the Soviet period up until 1991 in the same vein. I am very far from making such a claim. Those diaries that I have looked at, they shed light on inter-war Russia, between 1917 and 1941, particularly the 1930s. Beyond that, they also speak to the social and political makeup of inter-war Europe as a whole. But if we only look at the Soviet context, the 1930s are defined by an ardent utopianism, with the regime proclaiming that, with the help of the concentrated willpower of all of its supporters, it will be able to build the new, perfect society, and in a lifetime. So that the builders will actually live to see the communist future.
By the same token, this regime utilises an incredible amount of violence against everyone who is not ready to go along with it. Everyone who isn't ready to go along is repositioned as an enemy and essentially open for destruction.
I would see an ethical problem here. If the violence was quite visible and if it was a condition of you embracing this new society also to embrace the violence, doesn't it imply a certain amount of guilt?
The violence is embedded in the utopian premise of the age and also in the perception of a hostile environment. The sense that the Soviet project is embattled is quite real. Witness the rise of fascism that Stalin belatedly recognises, witness the at least decade-long Soviet preparation for war. Finally, we need to keep in mind the world economic crisis which lent further credibility to the emerging socialist state. This is the wider scenario. And it is within this context that people somehow come to accept the violence. They naturalise it. They accept it as a legitimate political tool. They accept that these are very violent times. Many people don't question the violence. I should add that throughout Europe, many intellectuals are fond of what they call "revolutionary violence." Avant-garde artists embrace violence as a means to cut through to a new aesthetic sensibility. People like Walter Benjamin, political thinkers, they embrace violence as a purifying agent, as a tool of revolutionary politics. This is the wider environment in which we see many quite ordinary citizens accepting violence and practicing the same violence. The regime enters their lives in very violent ways and they take up the violence to excise the old self from themselves and be reborn. This obligation to convert would probably not be as compelling if it was uttered in a non-violent environment.
Any reference to religious self-flagellation?
Metaphorically, the analogy works. You can read some of these diaries much like Jesuit texts, for example Ignatius of Loyola. The analogy to Puritan society may work even better. The Puritans emerged historically in the wake of the Reformation and religious attempts to carve a new self. They were radicals who promulgated the Protestant ethos of seeking an immediate relationship between the Christian believer and God. They also advocated self-purification and the use of the diary. But while we see the use of diary writing in both Puritan and Soviet societies, the goals differed significantly. For a Puritan, to expose one's sinful self meant to be saved. Man as a fallen, sinful creature couldn't transcend his sinful essence, but he could count on God's grace and the afterlife in paradise. This is where we see a crucial difference when it comes to Communism and the Stalin era. What counted in a Communist society was life in this world, not the afterlife. As a communist you are supposed to build the perfect future, you must act in history, and not just think and brood, like Hamlet. You are supposed to step out from your writer's cabinet into social life and be an activist. To an extent the regime endorsed the writing of diaries, in so far as this activity promoted "work on the self," a widespread slogan of the times. But in the eyes of Communists the diary was fraught with ambiguity, for it was seen as a lonely venture, cut off from the collective, that could breed individualist moods; it privileged thought over action; and its writing could not be controlled. For these very reasons, the NKVD loved reading diaries and it found a lot of non-conformist thoughts in them, as is evidenced by red underlinings that you can see in a number of diaries that were found in the KGB archives.
What did the NKVD agents underline, for instance?
Many things. They would underline, of course, expressions of doubt, such as if someone doubts or ridicules what was written in Pravda. That, of course, is underlined. But they would even underline perfectly loyal statements, as happened with the poet Olga Bergholz, whose diary was confiscated by the NKVD when she was arrested in 1938. She was released after half a year in prison and her diary was returned to her, and it was then that she read in her own diary the underlinings of the NKVD prosecutor. What he had underlined were her expressions of sorrow when Sergei Kirov died. Kirov was murdered in December 1934, and in her diary Olga Bergholz mourned him eloquently. The prosecutor read these lines as the expression of a "double-dealer," a political counter-revolutionary and enemy who hides behind the Bolshevik mask. He believed that she was dissimulating.
That is paranoid, though, isn't it?
It is paranoid, but it is in keeping with the Stalinist prescription. She was arrested in December late 1938. Earlier that year many of the communists who had been purged in 1937, to the extent that they were still alive, were rehabilitated. The rationale for their rehabilitation was that they had been wrongly accused by enemies of the Soviet people who themselves had masked as overzealous Bolsheviks. So this marked the beginning of a new purge that explicitly aimed at those who had appeared as most loyal, "vigilant" subjects up to then.
So if you expressed the feelings of sincerity for the regime, that actually meant that you were a traitor.
It could mean that you were a traitor. They were looking for corroborating evidence. But you were under suspicion. It means really that there was no more clear way to express your sincerity, and in fact Olga Bergholz identified the problem very clearly. As she noted in one of her post-prison entries, from now on it would be impossible for her to keep a real, sincere diary, if at every step she had to reflect about how a suspicious state prosecutor would read her prose. She did continue to write her diary, but in reading it you feel a distinct sense of crisis, a partial collapse of her belief in the Soviet state.
Was there an element of self-deception in any of the processes?
That depends on what you mean by self-deception. You could say: Yes, these people were deluded in that they did not realise that they could not through their own actions absolve themselves in front of the regime. But I think we shouldn't read these documents only as political statements, as attempts to persuade the state that they were loyal and deserved full integration into the new society. If the diaries were written only with that goal in mind their authors would have tried to make them available to the regime. But most of them didn't, they kept their diaries for themselves. A stronger motivation for them was to align themselves with the revolution and with history and to think about who they were as individuals . This moral quest is very respectable. The diaries thus tell us something about the heights of moral thinking as well as the self-discipline that seemed to characterize this age, along with ubiquitous violence and terror. The revolution, we see,is an entity that is larger than just the Bolshevik regime and its political goals. It is the intense promise of the revolution, the promise of certainty, renewal, and ultimate perfection that that these people embrace. In part this promise has become reality, especially for the unlettered young people who have unprecedented access to education and social mobility. As they write themselves into what they believe is a historic age they also think that the problems that they clearly see are temporary contradictions that will work themselves out.
You gave an example in the seminar here of a diary of an older woman who had a younger lover. In concluding, can you tell us something about her case?
That is an interesting diary, the diarist's name is Zinaida Denisevskaya. What is particularly striking about her case is that she started to keep a diary in 1900 when she was 13 years old. She is a member of the Russian intelligentsia, she was born into an educated family in the provincial town of Voronezh and she later became a schoolteacher. Intellectually she was well equipped to understand her age critically. At one point, around 1905-1907, she flirts with extreme individualist positions, Nietzschean-style. She longs to affirm herself as a "new woman" and not be controlled by anyone, men in particular. But at the same time she longs for love and a a male partner. Along with occasional complaints about her poor health her diary is suffused with an all-encompassing sense of loneliness.
When the Revolution of 1917 comes she greets it initially. She believes that society is on the rise and she wants to merge with it. She believes in an idea of communion and endorses the socialist notion of brotherhood.
However, she draws a line when it comes to the Bolsheviks because she finds them cynical, power-lusting, and overly cruel in their politics. She charges them for fostering civil war, hatred and divisions in society, and she remains at a distance from them. The only thing that keeps her going is the mission she has a member of the intelligentsia, to teach the benighted, "dark" masses. It is at this point that she enrols in an experimental farm in the countryside, responding to a desire to do hands-on work benefiting Russia, raising its educational level.
Throughout these years she keeps looking, as she had done in her youth, for an all-embracing worldview. She wants to align her life with the needs of society and with history. This is an enduring commitment that comes out of her intelligentsia vocation and is integral to the intelligentsia in 19th century Russia.
The stunning thing about her is that in the late 1920s she identifies this worldview, and the hope and certainty it bestows, with the communist regime that up to then she had condemned as a dividing force that fractured Russian society. That conversion of hers has to do with Stalin's scenario: with the onset of breakneck industrialization and with the collectivisation of agriculture, with a sense that although the politics are extremely violent, as well as ugly in many respects, they appear irresistibly powerful and they appear to deliver. The country appears to be making a leap into the future. It seems to resolve the age-old predicament of Russian backwardness. Especially the symbolic politics of the Stalinist regime seem to be so effective that this village schoolteacher no longer wants to be on the sidelines. She wants to jump in, and she does she resolutely turns against her former intelligentsia environment which she now castigates as an "old," "bourgeois" intelligentsia. She, by contrast, wants to be with the young people who build the kolkhozes, with those who are active, who take to the streets, agitate, and propagate the new life.
And it is in that context that she falls in love with a young man (16 years her junior) whom she has known for a long time, because he used to be her student and an apprentice on the experimental farm. His name is Alyosha. She used to ridicule his coarse manners, And she felt sorry for him because he was so clumsy and awkward. Now she falls in love with Alyosha. He impresses her with his resolute manner, his activism, his vitalist spirit. These qualities somehow overshadow his shortcomings. They get married. But their life together doesn't work out, she quickly realizes that. It is impossible for her as a person of another age and generation to live together with a rather monosyllabical communist who does not share her sense of love, who does not want to engage in old-fashioned romance, who prefers to be physical and lacks a sensuous vocabulary. There are multiple, fascinating misunderstandings that develop between the two.
Do you think this romance is a metaphor of her relating to society?
Absolutely. She seeks a union with the new Stalinist society and this union becomes embodied in her relationship with Alyosa. And the question of whether she and Alyosha can get along, for her it turns into a question of whether she can find a home in the Soviet system.
But she cannot?
She does, actually. They leave, by mutual consent. They both feel that they cannot get along. And even though she feels alone again she is grateful to him. Now, he has become her teacher, politically. She used to be his teacher, culturally, but now she has become his student. What he taught her was to be more uncompromising toward herself, as well as to be more accepting of reality. She has also learned to believe in the communist future without asking too many questions. In fact she keeps asking very painful questions, but she finds ready answers to these questions. And so she does find a new home in the Soviet system. With great enthusiasm she applies herself to teaching a young generation of Soviet scientists, she supervises doctoral theses on rather peculiar topics, such as "the dialectics of the poultry egg." And yet, all this work is cut short by her death in 1933. Mind you, she lives in Voronezh, a center of the Black Soil region, which is one of the grain supplying regions that was particularly affected by the famine of 1932/33. She was 45 when she died.
It is not clear whether she died of hunger or of diseases, she had a lot of health problems. But if she died of illnesses, these had to be exacerbated by food shortages. Those food shortages were rendered more acute by the fact that the institute in which she worked was shut down in 1932, in connection with a political investigation. There was a supposed counter-revolutionary plot that was discovered in the institute, the institute was shut down and all the workers of the institute were dismissed. That meant among other things that they lost their ration cards, which were vital for survival during those days.
And yet, up to the end this woman clings to the belief that the tragic events in her life are only temporary events or personal tragedies that that do not affect the "larger picture," and that will not deflect her from her newly-found belief which she simply does not want to let go.
It is really remarkable that in the face of all these horrendous conditions people expressed faith in the new system.
Yes, that is remarkable. I guess dialectics provides one clue to this. If you think about Marxism according to how it presented itself, its sheer endless ability to "rationalize" events and processes small and large, there is something very appealing to this, especially when you keep in mind the search for a guiding worldview and for social integration that characterized the societies of interwar Europe as a whole.
That, plus the sense that in the aftermath of the world economic crisis the bourgeois world was coming down, seemed to suggest that the socialist camp was on the upswing. Against this backdrop many diarists consistently marginalised their own individual, critical positions.
It's not that they were stupid. They saw a lot of things and they were very pained by them. In the end, many of them came to marginalise their own positions not only because the regime exerted enormous pressure against those who would voice dissent. There was more at stake than only political penalties, there were considerable social and moral penalties as well: ostracism, expulsion from society, and ultimately, expulsion from the historical community of the builders of the radiant future.
There is thus a deeply internal, moral dimension to the quest to belong, which in the absence of this diary literature we simply did not see. We saw the political side and believed that it determined everything. We believed that Soviet citizens for the most part had a cynical attitude toward the larger goals of the revolution. And now these documents reveal how involved they felt in their larger community and in the making of world history.

Jochen Hellbeck : Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin, Harvard University Press 2006, ISBN: 0674021746

Further details regarding Jochen Hellbeck's new work HERE

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10. 8. 2006 Britský ministr vnitra: "Kritikové protiteroristických opatření nerozumí ničemu"
10. 8. 2006 Riziko útoku na americká letadla ohrožuje komerční letectví ekonomicky
10. 8. 2006 Účastníci zájezdu lehce vítězí v soutěži o snad nejslabší český film z poslední doby Jan  Čulík
10. 8. 2006 Slepá odbočka na cestě lidské civilizace Milan  Dubský
10. 8. 2006 Castrovi obhájci, pozor! Cenou úspěchu Kuby jsou lidské mozky a životy Fabiano  Golgo
10. 8. 2006 Kubánofobie jako základ zahraniční politiky Mesfin  Gedlu
10. 8. 2006 Murray Bookchin -- Rudolf Bahro: Dvojice zelených protikladů Pavel  Pečínka
6. 8. 2006 Hospodaření OSBL za červenec 2006
22. 11. 2003 Adresy redakce