Jochen Hellbeck Revolution on my mind. Writing a diary under Stalin. Harvard University Press Cambridge, MA, London 2006. XI, 436 S., Abb. ISBN: 0-674-02174-6.

It is uncommon for historians to start talking about a book an entire decade before it actually appears. It is even rarer if the volume then lives up to the resultant expectations, as Jochen Hellbeck’s investigation into Soviet diaries of the 1930s does. When, in 1996, he first published his ideas on the diary of Stepan Podlubnyi in the pages of this journal (vol. 44 [1996], pp. 344–373) he became an instant celebrity among Stalinism scholars. Not only did he present an intriguing new source, but he also offered a very strong reading of this evidence about how Stalinism felt from the inside. Throwing the usual caution of the historian overboard, discarding the deeply ingrained rhetoric of “on the one hand / on the other”, which passes as objectivity in scholarly discourse, he presented an interpretation as refreshing as it was radical. Soviet citizens, Hellbeck maintained, even those who were victimized by the regime, believed deeply in Soviet socialism; they worked hard to “fashion” their “Stalinist souls” in attempting to belong to the revolutionary polity on its march to the future. The private was political and the regime inscribed in the individual psyche. There was no “outside,” no place to retreat, no possibility to oppose or even resist this order, which worked through language as much as through coercion.

This basic line of argument never changed, despite many explicit and implicit challenges Hellbeck received ever since his original article. As I sketched elsewhere (Kritika 8 [2007] 2, pp. 366–367), he did retreat from the most radical of his original claims – the proposition that people could not formulate dissident identities, because there were no alternative discourses available within Stalinist society. But the overall scheme, and the interest in conformity rather than opposition, remained. As Hellbeck notes early on, he found little of interest in those diaries which were not engaged in introspection and self-interrogation; and at the center of the book lie diarists who “asked themselves who they were and how they could change” (xi). Nevertheless, there is much that is new in this book. As he worked his way out of his original assumptions, the argument shifted from one which focused on the way State discourse was internalized to an investigation into how revolutionary collectivism played itself out in the inner lives of those who wanted to submerge their selves in the larger whole. Bolshevik ideology, in this reading, was not just emanating from the State, but the State itself and its propaganda were part of the larger revolutionary tradition.

Even critics of Hellbeck will have to admit that his book is a remarkable piece of historiography. Elegantly constructed, well written, and subtly argued, „Revolution On My Mind“ establishes Hellbeck as an extremely talented writer of the historical monograph. As he moved from the short form to the long genre, he dropped what had irritated many in the past. Gone, by and large, are the often scathing attacks on other historians interpretations, which punctuated his essays. Gone, too, are the more radical assertions of his early work, which proved hard to sustain empirically. What remains is a very careful interpretation of what it meant to be a communist under Stalin, why people invested so much effort in this project, and how hard it was to conform ideologically. Hellbeck added photographs to his textual analysis, and reads them with great skill, brilliantly demonstrating how visual material can be integrated beyond the usual illustrative purpose.

As in his earlier work, Hellbeck remains more interested in conformity than non-conformity. He makes remarkably short shrift of diaries which do not fit his original interpretive scheme, although he does not ignore or discuss them away. The extremely anti-Stalinist Nina Lugovskaia is mentioned three times: once as an example for how widespread diary writing was and twice as an example that opposition was steeped in revolutionary rhetoric and that even critics of the regime wanted to belong to the (or at least a) revolutionary collective (pp. 60, 63, 106–7). Her daydreams of killing Stalin and her indebtedness to the alternative revolutionary patrimony of the Socialist Revolutionaries (and populist radicalism more generally) is mentioned. The stress, however, is not on the remarkable fact that this tradition was alive and well in a teenage schoolgirl born after the Bolsheviks took power, but on the extent that she, too, participated in the practices of her society. Ignat Frolov – a peasant more interested in potatoes and the weather than what he termed the “godless communists” – appears once, as “an exemplary case of premodern consciousness” (pp. 62–63). While the associated footnote lists more examples of such diaries (p. 379 note 19), this line of investigation is not followed further, as it has nothing to add to an exploration of introspection and working on the self.

Hellbeck is at his best when analyzing revolutionary belief, socialist belonging, and ideological conformity. Probably the most impressive point this reader took away from this book is how extremely hard it was to be a Communist, to become a Stalinist, and to remain one despite the constant challenges the believer was exposed to both by a recalcitrant social reality and a regime which did not make it easy for those who wanted to belong. Everybody who thought that conformity is easy and opposition hard will have to think again after reading this book. It might well be the other way around.

Mark Edele, Crawley, Australien

Zitierweise: Mark Edele über: Jochen Hellbeck Revolution on my mind. Writing a diary under Stalin. Harvard University Press Cambridge, MA, London 2006. XI, Abb. ISBN: 0-674-02174-6, in: Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas. Neue Folge, 58 (2010) H. 2, S. 302: (Datum des Seitenbesuchs)