Stories of the Soviet Experience

Stories of the Soviet Experience: Memoirs, Diaries, Dreams

Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 304
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Stories of the Soviet Experience
    Book Description:

    Beginning with glasnost in the late 1980s and continuing into the present, scores of personal accounts of life under Soviet rule, written throughout its history, have been published in Russia, marking the end of an epoch. In a major new work on private life and personal writings, Irina Paperno explores this massive outpouring of human documents to uncover common themes, cultural trends, and literary forms. The book argues that, diverse as they are, these narratives-memoirs, diaries, notes, blogs-assert the historical significance of intimate lives shaped by catastrophic political forces, especially the Terror under Stalin and World War II. Moreover, these published personal documents create a community where those who lived through the Soviet era can gain access to the inner recesses of one another's lives.

    This community strives to forge a link to the tradition of Russia's nineteenth-century intelligentsia; thus the Russian "intelligentsia" emerges as an additional implicit subject of this book. The book surveys hundreds of personal accounts and focuses on two in particular, chosen for their exceptional quality, scope, and emotional power. Notes about Anna Akhmatova is the diary Lidiia Chukovskaia, a professional editor, kept to document the day-to-day life of her friend, the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Evgeniia Kiseleva, a barely literate former peasant, kept records in notebooks with the thought of crafting a movie script from the story of her life. The striking parallels and contrasts between these two documents demonstrate how the Soviet state and the idea of history shaped very different lives and very different life stories.

    The book also analyzes dreams (most of them terror dreams) recounted in the diaries and memoirs of authors ranging from a peasant to well-known writers, a Party leader, and Stalin himself. History, Paperno shows, invaded their dreams, too. With a sure grasp of Russian cultural history, great sensitivity to the men and women who wrote, and a command of European and American scholarship on life writing, Paperno places diaries and memoirs of the Soviet experience in a rich historical and conceptual frame. An important and lasting contribution to the history of Russian culture at the end of an epoch, Stories of the Soviet Experience also illuminates the general logic and specific uses of personal narratives.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5911-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xviii)

    Since the late 1980s, memoirs, diaries, and other personal accounts of life in Soviet society have been appearing in print in a steady stream. Some of them were written in recent years, others date from the “thaw” of the 1960s and before. Most were written by intellectuals, but documents from the working class, and even by barely literate authors have appeared as well (inevitably, edited by intellectuals). The impulse to publish arose with the policy of glasnost, with its politicized demands to uncover the Soviet past, especially the Stalinist terror. By the mid-1990s, these efforts had lost official support and...

    (pp. 1-56)

    If, as I argue, the massive appearance of personal documents at the end of the Soviet epoch is indeed a trend, what does it mean? Some answers are obvious. Imbued with the historicist sense of an end and by specific circumstances of violent Soviet history, Russian memoirists are driven by a need to claim their survival, commemorate the dead, provide historical data and ethnographic material, talk through their traumatic past, repent, accuse, and denounce. There are also the writer’s imperative to write about himself, the scholar’s urge to make his life into an object of investigation, the public demand (or...


    • CHAPTER 1 Lidiia Chukovskaia’s Diary of Anna Akhmatova’s Life: “Intimacy and Terror”
      (pp. 59-117)

      In the years 1938–42 and 1952–65, the editor and literary scholar Lidiia Korneevna Chukovskaia (1907–1996) documented, day by day, her meetings and conversations with her intimate friend Anna Andreevna Akhmatova (1989–1966). (As she would later explain, during the years of the terror she was unable to keep a diary of her own life.) Preparing her Notes about Anna Akhmatova for publication between the 1960s and 1990s, she supplied extensive historical commentary on the people and events, as known from the vantage point of later times, creating a large section entitled “Behind the Scenes” (Za stsenoi).¹ This...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Notebooks of the Peasant Evgeniia Kiseleva: “The War Separated Us Forever”
      (pp. 118-158)

      Evgeniia Grigor'evna Kiseleva (1916–1990), a pensioner from a small coal mining town in Ukraine, wrote her life story with the hope that it would be made into a film, and, in 1976, she sent a handwritten notebook to a Moscow studio. The notebook attracted the attention of the journalist Elena Ol'shanskaia, who tried to have it published, but succeeded only in 1991, when, under glasnost, excerpts from Kiseleva’s writings appeared, in heavily edited form, in the literary journal Novyi mir. Deposited in the People’s Archive, the notebooks (over the years Kiseleva produced two more) then fell into the hands...

    • Concluding Remarks
      (pp. 159-160)

      I have chosen to read, side-by-side, two texts, one written by a member of the intelligentsia; the other, by a barely literate former peasant. Both of these texts have now become part of a single extended corpus: personal accounts of the Soviet experience. The similarities between these two documents are striking, in spite of the differences. First and foremost, both writers are inspired by an irresistible desire to project their own lives into an infinite public space, in which the reader (who is addressed by the peasant author with no less urgency than by the author-intellectual) will learn, understand, and...

    (pp. 161-208)

    In the 1966 foreword to the first publication of her Notes about Anna Akhmatova, Chukovskaia makes a stunning comment. She speaks of the diary of her own life (“my diary”), which she had attempted, but ultimately failed, to keep in the years of the terror (writing instead a diary for Akhmatova):

    My entries on the terror, incidentally, were notable in that the only things which were fully reproduced were dreams. Reality was beyond my powers of description; moreover, I did not even attempt to describe it in my diary. It could not have been captured in a diary, and anyway...

    (pp. 209-210)

    Throughout Soviet history, people have felt a need to record what happened to them in their private lives. The demise of the Soviet regime—coinciding with the end of the century—prompted an urge to unveil these personal records. Unpublished (in some cases, privately known) accounts went to press. Those who had not yet written hastened to tell their stories. The living worked on behalf of the dead, collecting, assembling, and publishing extant personal documents. Diverse authors and their publishers have come to construct a converging corpus: the annals of private life, or intimacy, under Soviet power. Different as they...

    (pp. 211-212)

    In his memoirs, Mikhail Viktorovich Ardov (the son of Akhmatova’s intimate friends, who observed the literary community from early childhood) relates the following episode from the late 1960s, which involves the pillars of the nonconformist literary intelligentsia:

    Meilakh once came from Leningrad to Moscow.¹ I recall how we dropped by to see Nikolai Ivanovich Khardzhiev. Gershtein was there. The host sat at his desk, and Emma Grigor'evna on a chair in front of him. The guest said: “It’s a matter of moral obligation that you write memoirs.”

    At this point, Khardzhiev, who had so far been entirely immobile, promptly wrapped...

    (pp. 213-258)
  11. NOTES
    (pp. 259-278)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 279-286)