In a work published after he was expelled from the Soviet Union, the dissident writer Alexander Zinoviev depicted a new type of human being: Homo sovieticus, a “fairly disgusting creature” who was the end product of the Soviet regime’s efforts to transform the population into embodiments of the values of communism.1 In recent years the term has acquired a more neutral sense, as material emerging from the archives of the former Soviet Union—confessions, petitions and letters to the authorities, personal files, and diaries—has given scholars new insights into the ways Russians responded to the demand to refashion themselves into model Communists.
As well as social historians such as Sheila Fitzpatrick, Stephen Kotkin, and Lewis Siegelbaum, who focus on the self-presentation of Soviet citizens in their relations with the state, the new sources have attracted a group of young cultural historians of the “Soviet subjectivity” school such as Jochen Hellbeck, Oleg Kharkhordin, and Igal Halfin, whose approach draws on contemporary work by social scientists, literary theorists, and philosophers on the notion of selfhood. Contrary to the theorists of totalitarianism who dominated Soviet historical research in the 1960s and 1970s, they argue that far from repressing the individual’s sense of self, the pressures exerted by the Soviet state’s revolutionary agenda worked to reinforce a drive to self-perfection whose roots lay deep in pre-revolutionary Russian culture.
While the two approaches are mutually illuminating, they can also lead to divergent views on the attitudes of Soviet citizens toward the official ideology and the crimes committed in its name. A comparison of recent books by Fitzpatrick and Hellbeck shows that despite the prodigious increase in documentation on the mentalities and motives of those who implemented or colluded with Stalin’s Terror, we are still far from a consensus on the lessons to be drawn from that great historical catastrophe.
One of the most productive and influential of Western Sovietologists, Sheila Fitzpatrick began publishing in the 1970s in the US, where she was among the first to challenge the “totalitarian” school’s depiction of the Soviet people as passive consumers of an ideology force-fed to them by their rulers. Her studies of everyday Soviet life revealed a more complex interaction between rulers and ruled, the latter often adroitly manipulating the system for the purposes of their own survival and advancement. She has used newly available archival material on Soviet citizens’ communications with the regime to extend her analysis of their responses to its ideological demands. The resulting articles, written over the last decade, form the present book.
Tear Off the Masks concentrates principally on the 1920s and 1930s, when Soviet discourse was dominated by a Manichaean division between allies and enemies of Soviet power, defined in terms of class. Advancement depended on the ability to prove that one was really proletarian; ruin followed from the “unmasking” of citizens’ concealed class identity—kulak or bourgeois—on the basis of their words or practices. Fitzpatrick ranges over the multiple and ingenious ways in which Soviet citizens laid claim to a “good” class identity or attempted to discredit the claims of others through letters to the authorities, petitions, appeals, and denunciations, and the autobiographical summaries included in the files kept on every citizen.
Observing that all these forms of self-expression were animated by the effort to “speak Bolshevik” (a phrase borrowed from Kotkin)—to show that one was a genuine Soviet citizen—Fitzpatrick points to the nervousness about self-presentation and performance in Soviet society with its pervasive anxiety about class and political identity. Citizens writing to the authorities cast themselves in roles based on established Soviet stereotypes—worker, activist, patriot, victim of past oppression. She devotes two essays to the most polished and inventive of Soviet performers: the con men who flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, immortalized in Soviet literature in the humorous novels of Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, whose protagonist Ostap Bender speaks Bolshevik with such fluency that he can assume any role in Soviet society at will.
These case studies in stratagems for survival under Stalin add substantially to our knowledge of the functioning of early Soviet society, but offer few insights into the personalities behind the masks. They skirt around a question on which opinion is still divided—whether the Soviet system worked to obliterate the individual’s sense of selfhood, creating, in Alexander Zinoviev’s words, “behavioral stereotypes without convictions.” Fitzpatrick seems to imply this in her concluding essay when she cites the observation of another Soviet dissident, Andrei Sinyavsky, that Ostap Bender’s survival skills were those of “a Soviet citizen who has imbibed this system body and soul”: the personification of Soviet “new man.” But she emphasizes in her introduction that the inner lives of her subjects are not her concern, thereby firmly distancing herself from the scholars of “Soviet subjectivity.” While giving them credit for showing that Soviet citizens could be ideological agents in their own right, she questions what she sees as their overly theoretical approach to the individual personality: “my kind of historian,” she explains, is uncomfortable with philosophical notions of an intrinsic self, expressed through specific moral or ethical convictions. “I am interested in…the way people locate themselves in a social or group context rather than the way they think about themselves as individuals.”
Fitzpatrick implies strongly that despite its self-imposed limitations her research has removed the ground from beneath the feet of the other kind of historian, maintaining that one encounters a “notable silence” in the Soviet period with regard to individual soul-searching about identity. In the diaries and memoirs of the time, self-presentation took the place of self-exploration, as citizens worried “pragmatically” about how best to conform to the model of the Soviet “new man.” In periods of revolutionary turmoil, she suggests, “self-understanding becomes irrelevant, even dangerous.”
Fitzpatrick seems to be projecting onto Soviet society a tension between, on the one hand, the claims of the public sphere and, on the other, a liberal conception of selfhood as the pursuit of individual autonomy. Of course there were Soviet citizens who felt such a tension. But the Soviet notion of selfhood had deep roots in a different cultural tradition which did not recognize the same dichotomy of public and private. Lack of historical perspective is a major flaw in Fitzpatrick’s book. The “new man” was not, as Fitzpatrick implies, a concept invented by the Soviet regime. It was central to a tradition of introspection and moral self-perfecting that arose in the early nineteenth century as a response to the dilemma of the Russian intelligentsia2 whose talents were frustrated in their benighted country, and whose longing for personal fulfillment was combined with a strong commitment to social justice. From Enlightenment rationalism, German romantic philosophy, and French utopian socialism many educated Russians absorbed a vision of history as a collective process leading to the fullest self-realization of man through the healing of all painful divisions between individuals and the social whole. Radical critics urged writers to speed up the advance to this goal by creating images of “new men,” integrated personalities whose personal fulfillment was achieved through heroic labors for the good of society. We have the testimony of Lenin himself that it was this exemplary type, as embodied in Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s enormously influential novel of 1863 What Is to Be Done?, that set him on his revolutionary path.
The romantic dream of self-realization through fusion with an all-powerful collective force was transformed into alleged scientific certainty by the Marxist account of the laws of history; the notion of the new man was harmonized with Marxist Prometheanism by Bolshevik theorists such as Leon Trotsky (who described the Communists of the future as an “improved edition of mankind”), the writer Maxim Gorky, and the Commissar for Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky, who responded to the need to energize the masses for the building of socialism with a collectivist version of Nietzsche’s heroic model of personal authenticity. The doctrine of socialist realism did its part by making the depiction of Communist heroes an imperative for all Soviet writers. A secularized form of belief in the coming of a millennium, Stalinist ideology aimed to transform not only society but the very nature of man. Hence the endless campaigns of purification, personal and public, ranging from self-criticism in the workplace and Party cells to the show trials of the Great Purge. We know now that very many who took part in these campaigns were genuine believers in the messianic ideal. The sacrifices involved in the country’s industrial transformation were prompted not only by coercion and fear but also by the efforts of individuals to perfect themselves in line with Party directives based on the Bolsheviks’ claim to the sole knowledge of history’s path.
In the worst years of Stalinism many maintained their faith in the Party’s infallibility by developing a dual consciousness. As Stephen Kotkin explains, for Soviet citizens the discrepancies between lived experience and revolutionary ideology based ultimately on theory seem to have given rise to a dual reality: life could resemble “a split existence: sometimes in one truth, sometimes in the other.” Even when theoretical “truth” was contradicted by common sense, it still formed an integral part of everyday existence; without an understanding of it, citizens found it impossible to know what was permitted and what not. But acceptance of the truthfulness of the revolutionary truth also fulfilled another function: “it was also,” Kotkin writes, “a way to transcend the pettiness of daily life, to see the whole picture, to relate mundane events to a larger design; it offered something to strive for.”3 True believers could explain away the worst excesses of Stalinism by viewing the present from the perspective of eschatological time. In this form of secular religiosity, history, like Providence, was seen to move in mysterious ways; when the goal was attained it would become clear that policies and actions which now seemed objectionable or senseless all had their place in the overall grand design.
A telling example was the case of Nikolai Bukharin, one of Bolshevism’s founding theorists, convicted of treason in a show trial of 1938 and shot, who explained that the combination of shared Bolshevik goals and repugnant Stalinist methods produced in him “a peculiar duality of mind.” In conversations with émigré Mensheviks during visits abroad in the 1930s he set out his dilemma: the Party was the whole meaning of his life, and though Stalin was a monster he was a “sort of symbol of the party.” Bukharin’s faith in the Party’s collective infallibility made opposition to Bolshevism from within untenable for him. Resigned to his eventual death at Stalin’s hands, he consoled himself with a historicist argument: “One is saved by a faith that development is always going forward …like a stream that is running to the shore. If one leans out of the stream, one is ejected completely.4
Stephen Kotkin observed in 1995 that in the absence of documents from the secret police archives it was difficult to judge how much people consciously thought through the inconsistencies they saw between the Party’s version of events and what was actually happening. The declassification of Communist Party records is still far from complete, but Jochen Hellbeck’s searches in private collections and his personal inquiries have yielded a rich harvest of Stalin-era diaries which give important new insights into the ways in which Soviet citizens struggled to rationalize the monstrous irrationality of Stalinism as they worked on perfecting their inner selves.
Unlike Fitzpatrick, Hellbeck has found no lack of soul-searching in Soviet diaries—although not directed to individualist purposes. He emphasizes the importance of the traditional ethos of the intelligentsia and its ideal of the new man in shaping Soviet citizens’ attitudes toward the regime. Bolshevik ideology was not just a corpus of official truths and directives enforced from above; it was also a ferment of ideas interacting in the individual consciousness with an illiberal notion of selfhood, according to which authentic self-fulfillment was realized through collective acts fulfilling the laws of history:
Stalin-era diarists’ desire for a purposeful and significant life reflected a widespread urge to ideologize one’s life, to turn it into the expression of a firm, internally consistent, totalizing Weltanschauung.
Soviet communism having become the vehicle for realizing the hopes of the diarists, their diaries reflected an inner dialogue with the Bolshevik project, as they sought to make sense of the unfathomable.
Hellbeck concentrates on four individuals, who represent a spectrum of responses to the 1917 Revolution. Zinaida Denisevskaya, a thirty-year-old provincial schoolteacher and a political gradualist when the Bolsheviks came to power, was initially repelled by the regime’s fanaticism, suppression of individuality, and hostility to culture. As the son of a kulak, Stepan Podlubny was forced to conceal his class origins in order to be accepted into Soviet society. Leonid Potemkin was one of the multitude of Soviet citizens from a deprived background whom the Revolution permitted to fulfill their dream of a higher education. As a mining engineer he had a significant part in the industrialization process and rose in the Party administration to become deputy minister of geology in 1965. Alexander Afinogenov joined the Party while still at school, and became a director of the Association of Proletarian Writers, the most militant and doctrinaire Soviet literary organization. His plays won praise from Communist leaders, including Stalin, whom he regarded as his supreme literary mentor, and he rose to the top of the Soviet establishment as a leading exponent of the socialist realist aesthetic.
The four represent what Western historians have commonly seen as two opposing categories: those who enjoyed the status and material rewards of the Soviet establishment and those who survived only by concealing their class origins. But Hellbeck shows that these diaries should make us wary of typecasting the first as careerists and the second as impostors: all four diarists show a similar commitment to a revolutionary agenda of self-cultivation and self-perfection.
Two factors were crucial in Denisevskaya’s conversion to Bolshevism: the intelligentsia’s social ethic and her own sense of isolation from others, compounded in her case by unsuccessful personal relationships. She expresses envy of the comradeship of Communist activists, and fascination with ritual expressions of collectivism, such as the military parades and workers’ marches on revolutionary festivals. In 1931 she takes the symbolic step of joining a demonstration to celebrate Labor Day and exults at her sense of oneness with the collective: no longer just an onlooker, “I was a drop in the sea.” Hellbeck notes her lack of any trace of regret at this surrender of her individuality; she describes herself as having been reborn. In identifying with the Soviet project she had discovered her “true” self:
Throughout her life Denisevskaya cultivated her “personality,” which she defined by the possession of an integrated, universalist “worldview” and the dedication to working on behalf of history’s progression. In the end she came to consider the Soviet regime the sole legitimate carrier of these core intelligentsia values. In her diary the Bolshevik project of creating a new man appears as but a variant of the preoccupation with perfecting the “personality” that defined the Russian intelligentsia as a whole.
Podlubny’s diary records the skillful adaptive techniques that enabled him to avoid being marginalized as a class alien and become a brigade leader in the factory school of the Pravda printing plant. But the primary goal of these efforts is his inner transformation into a Soviet new man: his diary serves to chart his progress in rooting out the habits of a “useless person.”
Born in 1914, Potemkin was shaped by the Soviet state as one of its new elite. The smoothness of his trajectory to the top suggests a careerist focused on honing his adaptive skills; but his diary is devoted to charting the successes and setbacks of an elaborate program of physical and psychological self-improvement inspired by Gorky’s and Lunacharsky’s socialist version of the Nietzschean superman. This glorified strength, beauty, daring, and heroic will as the components of collectivist subjectivity—an ideal that Leonid Potemkin, as a political agitator, set down in a manual for Soviet youth. Hellbeck observes that his diary reveals him as one of those who found genuine fulfillment as Soviet citizens.
Afinogenov also was no careerist, despite the substantial material privileges he enjoyed as a leading exponent of socialist realism. He took his role very seriously, comparing Soviet theater to a church which showed people how to live and behave by exposing the vestiges of the past and depicting the seeds of the future in everyday ethics. Stalin’s attack on one of his plays for its negative portraits of Communists plunged him into anguished introspection, as he sought to realign himself with the approved version of history. Believing like Chernyshevsky that a writer must embody the standards he preaches, he saw his diary as “gymnastics for the soul,” a process of self-cleansing through self-criticism.
Hellbeck’s discussion of these four is interspersed with references to other diarists of the period to support his contention that identifying with the Revolution could spring from an urge for self-expression and not, as is often claimed, from a desire for self-effacement. He draws attention to the general prevalence in the Stalinist years of the idea
that history furnished the ultimate standard of a person’s life and that the more a person’s life served the needs of society,…the more historically valuable it was…. On account of its communal strength and historical significance, this life promised authenticity and profound meaning, and it was intensely desired. It was contrasted to a life lived outside the collective or the flow of history. [Diarists]… feared the void of meaning that expulsion from [the collective] entailed…. They struggled not to be superfluous in an age when both their public worth and their self-esteem were determined above all by the extent of their “usefulness to society.”
The diaries Hellbeck has selected are especially significant for the light they shed on an aspect of the Soviet mentality under Stalin which, as he notes, Western readers find particularly challenging: the acceptance of violence in the service of self-realization. We see at first hand the operation, chilling and sometimes poignant, of the dual consciousness that allowed many to accept the mass slaughter of collectivization and the Terror and to justify the violence inflicted on them and those they cherished for crimes they did not commit.
Since Denisevskaya was a member of the old intelligentsia who first condemned and then embraced the Soviet regime, her case is especially interesting. As a researcher at an experimental station in the countryside, she witnessed the horrors of forced collectivization at first hand, but she unquestioningly supported the campaign. Aware that “bad things” were being done in its name, she insists that such instances are peripheral and should not deflect attention from the “main background to life—the serious and active creation of new forms of life.” She records her disgust at the supposed crimes of forty-eight high-ranking officials and agronomists, executed for collaborating with foreign powers to create famine and weaken the Soviet regime. When further arrests of agronomists include some of her close colleagues, she struggles painfully to overcome her skepticism about the charges against them. Insisting that the Party is correct in its fundamental ideas, she acknowledges: “I’m forcing myself to overlook petty details. One must not confuse the particulars with the general. It is very difficult to maintain a broad world view all the time, especially for a non-party member.”
Hellbeck comments on this classic instance of a dual consciousness:
Only a…mind that situated every occurrence in the larger picture of class struggle and historical inevitability could rework unbelievable misdeeds into an unbroken pattern of Communist belief. This “belief,” Denisevskaya’s case suggests, was not merely a naive or desperate escape measure for those who refused to accept the disillusioning truth about Stalinism. It was really a complex and laborsome process, an ongoing effort to sustain a coherent world-view in spite of scattered observations that often contradicted the ideological mandate.
Podlubny’s success in remaking himself as a Soviet activist was such that he was recruited by the secret police and given the task of unmasking class enemies with class origins just like his own. His program of self-development concentrated obsessively on the development of willpower as the distinguishing mark of the new man he wished to become. This cult of the will determined his attitude toward the victims of Stalinism: when his mother received an appeal for help from the starving children of an aunt who was in prison for stealing state grain to feed them, he comments in his diary that “for some reason” the letter made him smile. His mother’s stories of starvation and cannibalism in her home village left him unmoved:
It has to be this way because then it will be easier to remake the peasants’ smallholder psychology into the proletarian psychology that we need. And those who die of hunger, let them die. If they can’t defend themselves against death from starvation, it means that they are weak-willed and what can they give to society?
Podlubny’s coolness deserts him, however, when Stalin turns his violence against the Party in 1934. He confides to his diary his distrust of the official reasons given for the thousands of arrests and executions of Communists; he then repents of his criticism as an expression of his alien class background. At the height of the Terror his origins were publicly revealed. He was expelled from the Communist youth organization and his mother was sentenced to eight years for “concealment of social origins.” He reacts to her arrest with indignant defiance, denouncing the policies and personality cult of “our Russian Nero.” But this rebellion undermines his self-image. Forced to give up his university studies, he ponders his “useless” existence. His diary stops with his arrest for involvement in a minor deal involving speculation, and resumes a year later with his release and entrance into military service during the war. But now Podlubny writes without his former introspection, his standing as an army officer and subsequently a bureaucrat having apparently resolved his concerns about his place in Soviet society. Hellbeck remarks that reading the later diary “only underscores the urgency of his diary project of the 1930s—the pressing concern for the state of his soul, the searching introspection, and the work on his self.”
Afinogenov’s response to the Terror was dictated by his urge to remain in step with history. He greets it ecstatically as a crucial stage in the march to communism:
Genuine History is upon us, and we are granted the joy of witnessing these turns, when Stalin mercilessly chops off…all the unfit and weakened, the decaying and empty.
He sees the purge of the Party ranks as the climax of a revolutionary agenda of purification of both the individual and the social spheres of life. His diary is given over to intense introspection as he seeks to cleanse and perfect his Bolshevik self through communion with the purposes of history, a task complicated when he was expelled from the Party on suspicion of involvement in a Trotskyist plot to undermine the Soviet system. Trapped in the absurd world of Stalinist paranoia, isolated from the society that gave meaning to his individual existence, and threatened with imminent arrest, he clung to his faith in the all-seeing Party, seeking to locate the blame for his fate in his own personality. He casts around for models of fall and redemption in great literature from Cervantes to Dostoevsky, but arrives at a formula for inner peace only by renouncing his “selfish” concern with his own fate and accepting his role as a tool in the hands of historical progress, as embodied in Stalin’s will: “you will understand everything,” he tells himself, “only when the purpose of all that is taking place has become clear to you.”
Hellbeck comments that such passages offer a glimpse into “the self-destructive dynamic of the Communist project,” particularly apparent during the Great Terror. Afinogenov submitted to the laws of history decreed by Communist leaders not under duress but as the supreme form of self-realization:
This explains why Afinogenov (and other Communists as well) accepted the prospect of being crushed by the party and thrown into the dustbin of history: this apparent act of self-destruction contributed to history’s eventual consummation and thereby satisfied the central purpose to which he…had devoted his life.
His diary can be seen as a form of spiritual writing, organized to enact the experience of conversion and rebirth through a deeper understanding of history’s laws.
In 1938 the Central Committee issued a resolution stating that many Communists had been unjustly expelled from the Party, the victims of “enemies” within the administration. Afinogenov was among those reinstated. He continued to support the purge campaign. His diary records that he viewed his personal ordeal with gratitude: the self-examination forced on him had allowed him to be reborn. But his fear of being left behind by history continued to haunt him until a German bomb killed him in 1941.
The young Party activist Potemkin replaced his diary in 1936 with another kind of self-analysis, a platonic correspondence with a female friend, a student of literature who shared his spiritual vision and his agenda for self-transformation. He consciously modeled himself on the critic Vissarion Belinsky, a leader of the Russian Romantics of the 1830s whose thirst for self-perfection was inseparably bound with his commitment to build a new society. Both correspondents “extolled their ideals of spiritual beauty and purity, and their vision of a bright future, against a largely unmentioned but looming background of present impurity, struggle, and death.”
This high-flown correspondence in the Romantic mode seems even more bizarre when one reflects that the mentalities of both young participants had been shaped entirely under the Soviet system. But Belinsky was lauded as an authority by Soviet literary policy makers for his insistence that the writer embody his commitment to progress in his work and his life. Potemkin devoured his works, making copious notes and constantly referring in his letters to Belinsky’s views on the personality and its fulfillment. Belinsky hoped that the next century would see the advent of Russian new men who would find fulfillment in society and its goals.
Potemkin believed himself to be an embodiment of this ideal, copying his letters out so that others could learn from them. “There was thus,” Hellbeck remarks, “a dialogue on the new man connecting Potemkin and Belinsky across a century of revolutionary thought and practice,” based on a shared historical consciousness. Potemkin’s social outlook is a particularly striking illustration of a central theme of Hellbeck’s book, summed up in its final chapter:
Bolshevik activists were successful in propagating the urgency of individual growth through adherence to the revolution because such thinking was rooted in Russia’s historical past. The moral duties of self-improvement, social activism, and self-expression in concert with history were a staple of Russian intellectual and political life for almost a century before the revolution of 1917. As Stalin-era diarists worked to align themselves with history and to achieve a historically grounded notion of selfhood, they acted in striking consistency with generations of educated Russians since the early nineteenth century. To behave in such ways was what distinguished a member of the Russian intelligentsia.
Hellbeck’s attempt to situate the Bolshevik project of self-transformation within this wider cultural and historical perspective (a dimension too often lacking in Western studies of the Soviet era) is one of the outstanding virtues of his impressive book. Never overburdening his narrative with theorizing, his sensitive and sympathetic approach allows his subjects to speak for themselves, expressing sometimes a repulsive indifference to the fate of Stalin’s victims, sometimes a tragic struggle to rationalize the destruction of friends or family accused of ludicrous crimes. He points out that their expressions of personal doubt and ideological dissent at times of intense pressure invalidate the suspicion that their diaries were produced primarily for the eyes of the security apparatus. The new man did not spring ready-made from the heads of Communist theorists. As Hellbeck observes, the huge feats of modernization accomplished by the Soviet Union in the 1930s, in contrast with the economic crises rocking the capitalist systems of the West, seemed to many to be convincing evidence of the imminent realization of the Communist ideal.
His study adds an important dimension to the work done by other scholars to throw light on the psychological reasons behind the collusion of moral idealists in the extreme violence of the Stalin years. He concludes by reminding us that the modes of thought that encouraged Soviet citizens to accept violence in the service of self-realization were not specific to the Soviet Union or the political left. In the first half of the last century the attraction of movements promising fulfillment through an all-embracing worldview led intellectuals across Europe such as Ernst Jünger and Georges Sorel to extol the morally and aesthetically purifying effects of political violence. He might also have cited a curious episode from an earlier age which is particularly pertinent to his study: the critic Belinsky’s brief support for the brutal tyranny of Tsar Nicholas I.
Tormented by his impotence as a superfluous person cut off from his society by his dissident views, Belinsky found an escape route in Hegel’s formula “the real is the rational and the rational is the real,” reasoning that Tsar Nicholas’s regime, as contemporary historical “reality,” had its necessary role in the grand scheme of progress. By submitting to it he would cease to be a “spectral” human being and become a “real” man through an organic fusion with society and history’s flow. Belinsky’s moral instincts eventually rebelled against such thinking; he curses his “odious effort of reconciliation with an odious reality,” expressing his new outlook in an ironic diatribe directed at Hegel—a great humanistic outburst against all philosophies of history that viewed human beings in the present as a mere means to the attainment of future goals:
I acknowledge your philosophical prowess, but…have the honor to inform you that even if I should succeed in climbing to the highest rung of the ladder of progress, even then I would ask you to render me an account of all the victims of life and history, of all the victims of chance, superstition, the Inquisition, Philip II, and so on. Otherwise I should hurl myself head first from that very top rung. I do not want happiness, even as a gift, if I cannot be easy about the fate of all my brethren, my own flesh and blood…. What good is it to me to know that reason will ultimately be victorious and that the future will be beautiful, if I was forced by fate to witness the triumph of chance, irrationality, and brute force.
Belinsky’s brief exaltation of tyranny is a notorious example of the moral abyss to which the Russian intelligentsia’s longing for wholeness could lead; but the humanism inspiring his passionate defense of history’s victims was also a significant strand in pre-revolutionary Russian culture. Its most outstanding representative is Alexander Herzen, who outgrew his early enthusiasm for Hegel’s vision of progress to write From the Other Shore, one of the most prescient attacks on historical determinism in all of nineteenth-century thought. Many Russian liberals, as well as writers such as Turgenev and Chekhov, warned against the dangers of the search for ultimate certainties. Many radicals, too, were torn between their thirst for utopia and the promptings of conscience. Not all resolved their battle in the same way as Hellbeck’s subjects. The legacy of the slender but important tradition of humanism represented by Herzen and some of Russia’s greatest writers can be seen in heroic dissidents such as Anna Akhmatova, who during the Terror refused to surrender their moral autonomy to the demands of ideology and brute force. Some wrote diaries, such as the peasant Andrei Arzhilovsky, who was twice imprisoned and then shot for his independence of spirit.5 How many others shared his thoughts? One can hope that Hellbeck will follow the present fine study with a sequel on such diarists.
April 26, 2007
Alexander Zinoviev, Homo Sovieticus, translated by Charles Janson (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1985). ↩
On the sui generis nature of the Russian intelligentsia, see the essay by Isaiah Berlin, “The Birth of the Russian Intelligentsia,” Russian Thinkers (Viking, 1978), pp. 114–135, and The Russian Intelligentsia, edited by Richard Pipes (Columbia University Press, 1961). ↩
Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (University of California Press, 1995), pp. 228–229. ↩
See Stephen F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888–1938 (Knopf, 1973), p. 351, and Andrzej Walicki, Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom: The Rise and Fall of the Communist Utopia (Stanford University Press, 1995), p. 463. ↩
Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s, edited by Véronique Garros, Natalia Korenevskaya, and Thomas Lahusen, and translated by Carol A. Flath (New Press, 1995). ↩