Wednesday, February 16, 2011

From Bourgeois to Socialist

Returning to theme of an earlier post on Jochen Hellbeck's book, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin, let’s examine the autobiography of one ordinary Soviet citizen, a teacher from Voonezh named Zinaida Denisevskaya. Zinaida, a member of the intelligentsia in pre-revolutionary Russia, kept a diary from 1900 to 1933. That diary, which documents a lonely woman's search for self-fulfillment in a highly politicized environment, amounted to almost six thousand pages of prose. When the Revolution arrived, Zinaida was mildly critical of its methods if not its goals. During the Civil War, for instance, she expressed outrage at the violence and crudeness of the Bolshevik agents. However, over time she became acclimated to the Proletarian ethos and even attempted to conform to it.

For a member of the pre-revolutionary bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, the move away from bourgeois values and toward socialist ones was not an easy or uncomplicated psychological task. To be sure, a traditional member of the intelligentsia could be expected to share a few traits with the new Soviet political class. For instance, Zinaida already assumed that her life would only be meaningful if she served the people of Russia. But would the intelligentsia's traditional concern for individuality, liberalism, education, and humanism be relevant in the new socialist order? And would the newly emerging bourgeois and even feminist values of the early 1900s, including freedom, self-reliance, self-assertion, sexual expression, and professional development, be appropriate to an emerging collectivist sensibility? And, even more concretely, would her original occupation as a librarian allow her to remain relevant in a socialist society?

According to her diary, Zinaida feared she was not on the right path. Being a librarian might indicate that she was a "useless" bourgeois, unconcerned with the manual and socially meaningful work of the Revolution. She continued her education and soon took up work as an experimental station in the domain of agriculture. The work at the experimental station fitted nicely with her evolving self-understanding. Although she had not, and never would shed, all of her bourgeois inheritance, including her intellectual snobbery and refined manners, Zinaida believed she had made a good choice by casting off abstract intellectual work in favor of applied labor in the service of a modern social order. Increasingly, her diary embraces official communist philosophical imperatives. Her old outlook had been negative, individualistic, egotistical, and inappropriately apolitical. Now, for the first time, through useful public service and systematic self-criticism, she was becoming linked to society as a whole.

As Hellbeck's analysis reveals, Zinaida's love life documents another important step in the subjective life of an emerging Bolshevik. Although her bourgeois cultural and intellectual background seems to have limited her ability to fall in love with a young Party member named Alyosha, Zinaida believed that Alyosha represented the future of Russia. Although he was awkward, low-born, and uneducated by the traditional standards of the intelligentsia, Alyosha was an emerging Bolshevik leader. In Zinaida's eyes, he had all the qualities of the New Man who would bring
reform and progress to backward Russia. He was political in the broadest sense of the word; in other words, he understand what Bukharin meant when he said that culture and politics were inextricably linked to one another. Moreover, he was sincere, pure, vital, and irrepressibly active in the construction of a new society.

Fascinatingly, Hellbeck links Zinaida's complex attitudes toward Alyosha, and love in general, to Soviet literature of the period. According to Hellbeck, in the 1920s Soviet protagonists were unbalanced, strained, and even overwhelmed by the work of transforming Russia into a socialist utopia. They were "wounded warriors" who had difficulty maintaining personal relationships in the midst of social rupture and change. Zinaida's diary echoes this literary diagnosis of socialist change when she says that she and others have sacrificed personal happiness at the alter of social improvement. Zinaida was a lonely woman, and her diary is a record of this personal loneliness. However, as she became enthralled with the Soviet project, she thought she had at last discovered that loneliness had a social meaning as the byproduct of modernity.

Helleck characterizes Zinaida's diary as the record of a Soviet woman who became invested in Stalin's Utopian project. In Helleck's estimation, Bolshevism was not something that was foisted on an apathetic or antagonistic population. At least that was not all it was. Rather, large segments--key segments--of Russian society responded positively to Bolshevik ideology and took up the challenge of self-transformation even as they attempted to fulfill the extraordinary demands of the first Five Year Plans.

Zinaida's diary seems to have a tragic denouement. In 1930, Zinaida's agricultural institute came under political attack by forces associated with Stalin. The institute was associated with the Communist "Right Opposition" and its leaders fell victim to a national purge, accused of "kulak-capitalist" restoration aims and links to foreign imperialism. Zinaida struggled to make of the accusations against her colleagues and former mentors. Eventually, she uneasily accepted the error of her former heroes. Although she couldn't make sense of the specific allegations, she understood that it was an ideological mistake to privilege the observed details of everyday life to the detriment of deeper socialist truths and social theory. Indeed, it was hubris to imagine that the individual activist could understand what was happening in Russia at the level of economic and political progress as interpreted by the Communist Party. In short, her colleagues were guilty. The attitude was almost religious: your child dies, but, as God has a plan for all of us, it must be for a good reason.

Zinaida's life came to a close in 1933 as a result of cancer and, more sinisterly, by a food shortage that affected her because her livelihood was undermined by the political attack that shut down her place of employment. However, Zinaida was comforted in her final years by a sense of connection to socialist society. She supported socialist attempts to help women by implementing collectivized childcare and communal kitchens. She enjoyed socialist holidays and parades, and even participated one despite her illness. Notwithstanding the individualism that somehow never quite disappeared from the pages of her diary, Zinaida felt that she was privileged to have participated in the dawn of a new and better age of collectivism, social interconnectivity, and human progress.

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