Review of Irina Paperno, Stories of the Soviet Experience: Memoirs, Diaries, Dreams

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The Times Literary Supplement [TLS] - June 11, 2010 (No. 5593)
Alexander Etkind

Review of Irina Paperno, Stories of the Soviet Experience: Memoirs, Diaries, Dreams

(Reviewer’s suggested title: Fed and Raped by the State)
On 18 December, 1936, Andrei Arzhilovsky, an uneducated but highly literate peasant who spent his life in Siberian factories and some god-forsaken parts of the gulag, wrote down a dream: “A small room, simple and ordinary. Stalin is drunk as a skunk, as they say. There are only men in the room, and just two of us peasants, me and one other guy with a black beard. Without a word, [Iosif] Vissarionovich knocks the guy with a black beard down, covers him with a sheet and rapes him brutally. ‘I am next,’ I think in despair”. But Stalin is already satisfied. “Overall, things worked out fairly well for me, they even treated me to some food”.

Even under Stalin, people lived different lives: one was raped, another was fed. Some loved Stalin, some hated him, and some managed to combine both feelings. Some suffered immensely but some lived through the Great Terror without noticing it. Analyzing diaries, memoirs, and dreams of the Soviet era, Irina Paperno carefully shuns generalizations. Her material is substantial; she claims to have surveyed two hundred primary documents. She understands her task as collecting and carrying out a respectful, close reading of these sources. We meet such celebrities as Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Bukharin, whom the state tortured with diligence and imagination. Their unique responses have defined the memory of those of us lucky enough to live in a different era. Others are ordinary people, members of collective farms and inhabitants of communal apartments; in the gulag, they were called “camp dust”.

What was common to all these people was that they chose to record their experience on paper. At times of historical rupture and massive loss, people write down their lives more often than they do in pleasant and stable circumstances. Before and after the collapse of the Soviet state, memorial texts of various genres, from diaries and memoirs to biographies and novels, proliferated with unusual intensity. Marietta Chudakova, a literary scholar and a member of the Presidential Council under President Yeltsin, declared that this massive production of textual material about the Soviet past was the Russian counterpart to the Nuremberg trials. For the time being, it is also the Russian counterpart to Yad Vashem and other Holocaust museums.

Paperno has no patience for these comparisons. She does not pretend that her readings have a historical or political impact other than to articulate some of the meanings of these texts. Uncharacteristically for the field, she does not talk about the evolution of the regime or make detailed comparisons between communist Russia and Nazi Germany, although, in the best part of her book, “Dreams of Terror: Interpretations”, she does revert to the unavoidable analogy with Nazi victims. This collection of dreams, which Paperno found in the diaries of actual or potential victims of the Soviet terror, is an original and impressive undertaking. Most of the reported dreams have political content and document the deep, often shocking interaction of the public sphere with the most private fantasies of the citizenry. In her analysis Paperno accepts neither the Freudian notion of dreams as wish-fulfillment, nor the idea articulated by Charlotte Beradt, a scholar of German dreams under Hitler, that dreams worked as self-applied instruments of terror. Avoiding interpretative schemes, Paperno treats recorded dreams not as historical illustrations or theoretical cases, but simply as human documents.

In her dissection of the micro-worlds of the intelligentsia, Paperno examines not just common dreams, but also shared apartments and erotic liaisons. She masterfully recreates the sense of suffocating proximity within small groups of educated Soviets. Such people shared their lives with those they trusted to an astonishing extent; the consequence, as Paperno writes, was “their sense of common tragic destiny” – a self-fulfilling prophecy. Describing these claustrophobic communities, Paperno keeps a cool distance from her subject. Hannah Arendt was more passionate when, writing about “humanity in dark times”, she revealed how people respond to the collapse of the public sphere by pressing up against each another, eliminating distance and defences, mistaking “warmth” for “light” (which only the public sphere can provide), and developing the “unworldliness” characteristic of pariahs. It is hard to write about pariahs; harder, in a sense, than to write about actual victims. Those who perished in the gulag deserve pure, unlimited compassion. But those who escaped arrest were also disfigured, ethically and psychologically. In Paperno’s innovative readings, compassion towards these people is mixed with a curiosity about their chosen way of life, ironic surprise, and something close to revulsion.

Paperno provides fascinating material for analysis of the self-destructive subjectivity of Soviet citizens. Night dreams in particular reveal an unbearable intensity, as in the case of the Leningrad philosopher Yakov Druskin. On 21 August, 1945, at six in the morning, Druskin recorded a dream of his mother, his brother and himself. His mother abandons them, and his brother is killed by the leader of a group of “assassins” they meet on the road. The chief assassin then kills him, the dreamer, three times; “unable to take the vileness”, the dreamer kills himself. He is then handed an axe by one of the leader’s victims, a “repulsive” woman who is now herself an assassin, but refuses to kill her. “I plunge the axe into the floor and say: disappear.”

There is a lot of resistance to power in this and other traces of Soviet experience surveyed in Paperno’s book. However, resistance interests her less than compliance and fear. She has chosen not to engage with the crucial documents of resistance that eventually triumphed, such as the memoirs of Andrei Sakharov, Andrei Sinyavsky, and Lyudmila Alekseyeva; nor does she mention controversial cases, such as the alleged memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev or Dmitry Shostakovich. This is a scholarly choice, but her reasons are not entirely clear. The idea of history from below is dear to Paperno, but she also focuses on elitist figures such as Anna Akhmatova. In fact, it is the comparison between high and low in the Soviet experience that interests her most. In two long chapters, Paperno discusses contrasting but equally astonishing texts: Lydia Chukovskaya’s multi-volume diary of her meetings and conversations with Akhmatova, and a stunning memoir by a semi-literate peasant, Evgenia Kiselyova, which she wrote as a film script about her life. Powerful and bitter women, Akhmatova and Kiselyova lived through their extraordinary time with critical reflection, promiscuous energy, and a love of writing. As authors, these two women could not have been more different, but Paperno emphasizes as their common feature a suffocating distrust and focus on the self, as part of what she calls “a nexus of intimacy and terror”. She argues that their writings complied with a “political culture that conceives of itself historically and eschatologically”. These are two terms that Paperno frequently uses, separately and in combination.

Though I failed to find in this book a definition of historicism, Paperno’s use of the term is consistent. Her “historicism” is not just a sense that things change and that at any given time human beings contribute to this process, whether they know it or not. More or less than that, Paperno’s “historicism” resembles a sacrificial religion. Those who believe in this “historicism” suffer or die with a feeling of legitimate sacrifice for the sake of the historical process. Paperno attributes this particular understanding of historicism to Hegel. Highly critical of this self-destructive sentiment, she believes that it was brought to Russia by Alexander Herzen and spread among Soviet and post-Soviet authors. I would call this version of historicism, which is more original than Paperno admits, “sacrificial historicism”. It is much more specific than the various branches of historicism found in Herder, Goethe, Hegel, or even Marx. Hegelian historicism can be heroic as well as sacrificial. Marx wanted to alter the ways of history, not lie under its wheels. Writing about the Soviet people, almost all of whom received a Marxist education, Paperno argues that they believed in a sacrificial, rather than Hegelian or Marxist, version of historicism.

Commonly, history is experienced as open-ended and historicism has usually been an enemy of eschatology or apocalypticism. But in Paperno’s interpretations of Soviet and post-Soviet experience, a sense of history comes with the anticipation of its end. She emphasizes the actual experience of these apocalyptic feelings, which “reach beyond rhetoric and beyond metaphor”. Certainly, some established Soviet intellectuals did feel the collapse of the USSR to be the end of the world as they knew it. One was the semiotician Yuri Lotman, whose last book, the recently translated Culture and Explosion, reads as an elaborate announcement of the end that failed to come. In fact, the collapse of the Soviet Union did not mean the end of the world but actually helped to avert it. Paperno savours the apocalyptic moments of the intelligentsia but is much less interested in the zeal with which many of these people were burying the Soviet regime in the early 1990s. Ideological and generational differences in the memories of the Soviet collapse have been enormous, and there is no reason to link all the variety of post-Soviet intellectual life to an obscure, exoticized “apocalypticism”. Paperno is reluctant to ascribe secular, humanist motivations to the work of Russian historians and archivists, and the adjective “post-Soviet” usually has a pejorative ring in her book. It is as if she shares some of her protagonists’ belief that the end came when the Soviets left. Failing to support this premise, she under-appreciates the very existence of intellectual life and secular scholarship in contemporary Russia.

There is one other important aspect of Paperno’s work that invites respectful disagreement. In her selection of memoirs and in her way of reading them, Paperno emphasizes one overwhelming sentiment that fed these stories: fear. But for victims and even more so for those who survived and wrote memoirs, another, more dignified feeling has been equally important: mourning. In the post-Soviet condition, it is mourning that is omnipresent. For some, it is mourning for significant ones who were unnecessarily lost to the Soviet tragedy. For others, it is mourning for ideas and ideals that were unnecessarily compromised by this tragedy. Paperno focuses on one great document of fear, Chukovskaya’s diaries, but pays little attention to a great document of mourning, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs. For many years, Mandelstam had a painful, persistent nightmare: she is queuing to buy food while her imprisoned (in fact, dead) husband stands behind her; but when she looks back, he is not there. She runs after him to ask, “What is being done to you ‘there’?”. But he never responds.

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