Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Nation of Dictators

As a blogger, I’m interested in understanding what light diaries can shed on the Soviet historical era. The diary, as we know from the British historiography on this subject, is a historically conditioned, quintessentially modern, literary genre. The diary, much like the daily newspaper, only came into being with the horological progress that occurred in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In medieval or ancient eras diary-keeping would hardly have made sense: in the absence of clocks, people didn’t usually think about their lives in terms of the passing of twenty-four hour cycles, but in the modern era, the progress we believe we are making from one calendar day to the next is one of the most vital components of contemporary subjectivity and self-understanding. What resolutions are we most likely to scribble down in our own diary next January 1st? Tune in to the Oprah Winfrey show or its successor to find out.

In this sense of measuring the impact of Soviet on personal ideology, Jochen Hellbeck’s book, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Dairy under Stalin, is a brilliant contribution to our understanding of the Soviet Union during the 1930s. For it is one thing to analyze the state’s ubiquitous propaganda, and quite another to see how that propaganda did, or did not, affect the most private recesses of a citizen’s mind. Of course, as Hellback points out, other historians have rightly argued that Soviet diaries were not always freely produced, but were often constructed with some level of fear about the ends to which an intrusive state apparatus might put to this potentially self-incriminating material.

Even so, Hellback’s book makes a convincing case that many Soviet diarists, including those who supported the regime and those who opposed it, continued to write voluminously throughout the 1930s, frequently disregarding or directly countering official ideological strictures. Moreover, Hellback shows that the majority of these diarists were creating these precious historical documents because they were actively supporting the state’s authoritarian project. In other words, their diaries record a daily struggle to conform to Soviet ideals related to self-actualization and personhood, which included values such as hard work, optimism, socialist realism, social activism, proletarian purity, brotherhood, and collectivity.

What’s interesting about Soviet diaries is that they reflect a philosophy of self-criticism that emerged in a somewhat perverted but essentially consistent form in the purge trials of the late 1930s. Again and again, diarists accused themselves of selfishly placing their own private interests above those of the Party and historical necessity in general.

What Hellback’s analysis makes clear is that Soviet citizens were active participants in everyday Stalinism, and often accepted its most illiberal tenants. While Stalin’s enemies publicly confessed to failing the Party in grotesque ways, many ordinary citizens were making similar self-accusations on a private level, struggling mightily to shed any hint of bourgeois atavism in an effort to be a part of socialist modernity. Notwithstanding recurring doubts about the system’s flaws, which sometimes rose to the level of state-sponsored famine, economic slavery, or political terror, Soviet citizens went out of their way to put aside their reservations. They did so because they believed two things: first, that the advantages of a socialist future would ultimately outweigh the temporary setbacks of “subjective” Soviet reality; and second, that focusing on the socialist future would incorporate their own petty, private lives into the much more rewarding and meaningful platform of collective historical progress and social change.

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