Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas

Ausgabe: 59 (2011) H. 3

Verfasst von: Mark Edele


Irina Paperno: Stories of the Soviet Experience. Memoirs, Diaries, Dreams. Ithaca, NY, London: Cornell University Press, 2009. XV, 285 S. ISBN: 978-0-8014-7590-0.

Glasnost and the breakdown of the Soviet Union released a flood of personal writings about the Soviet past – memoirs, diaries, letters, notebooks, and auto-biographical novels. Many of them were pre-occupied with the catastrophic events of the first half of the twentieth century, in particular the Terror and the War. Some of these texts had collected dust in desk drawers or police files; others were constructed after the end of the Soviet experience, with the benefit of hindsight. Since the 1990s, a growing number of scholars have turned their attention to these “ego-documents.” One of the latest additions to this growing literature is Irina Paperno’s Stories of the Soviet Experience. Memoirs, Diaries, Dreams.

With one exception, the diary of Stepan Podlubnyi, the book is based entirely on published sources, illustrating what rich material is now in the public domain (large sections of this diary have, of course, been published, but the excerpt Paperno quotes on p. 263, fn. 48, entry of 9th of September 1932, is not included in the published version: Tagebuch aus Moskau, 1931–1939. Hrsg. von Jochen Hellbeck. München 1996, pp. 91–92). The book is organized into three unequal parts. First comes a quick overview over some 100 diaries and memoirs, which make up the corpus on which the study is based (p. XV). Next comes a much longer section exploring in depth two texts: Lidiia Chukovskaia’s secret but private surveillance journals, chronicling for posterity the life of her heroine and friend, Anna Akhmatova; and “The War Separated Us Forever,” the compelling notebooks of the peasant Evgeniia Kiseleva, published first in a cleaned up version in Novyi mir in 1991, then in a text-critical, restored edition in 1996. The third part focuses on the interpretation of one motif contained in many texts: dreams.

A literary scholar and intellectual historian, Paperno is not a methodological purist. She is impatient with too clear (and, as she sees it, artificial) genre boundaries between memoirs and diaries, which suggest that the one (usually the latter) is a more pure source for the past than the other, which is constructed post factum. “Diary and memoir,” she writes, “are two different templates for tracking the self in time, for mediating between the past, the present, and the future. Both allow the self to be linked to the evolving historical time” (p. XIII). Such pragmatism permeates much of the book. Given the sometimes heavy-handed theorizing in some of the writings on “self” and “subjectivity,” Paperno’s approach is refreshingly down to earth. Parts one and two are virtually jargon free and the introduction serves as one long counter footnote indicating that, yes, she knows the technical literature, but, no, she does not find it terribly convincing or helpful. Instead, she uses analytical terms in their everyday meaning, relying “on the common language usage of these words” (p. XIV).

It is only in part three, devoted to dreams, when secret language sneaks back in. The reader now gets treated to “oneiric autobiographies” (pp. 173, 182) or “the comparative ontology of waking and dreaming as two states of consciousness” (p. 198). It is in this chapter, too, when the allure of originality was not resisted. “Tempting as it may be,” Paperno dismisses a methodological precursor, “I do not join [Reinhart] Koselleck in claiming that dream stories lead historians into the deepest recesses of the private realm, which even diary entries cannot access. Rather, I try to show how, by including dreams in their narratives […] diarists […] create encounters between the intended and unintended (dreamed) meaning” (p. 165). Readers struggling to understand the second sentence will get further confused as they read on. If Paperno does not want to follow Koselleck into the recesses of her subjects’ psyches, then why did Bukharin as well as Arzhilovskii personalize “their historicism in the image of intimacy with Stalin, internalized in the deepest recesses of their subjectivity – in their dreams, as represented in their intimate writings” (p. 172)? Why did the nature writer Prishvin “find history in the deepest recesses of his intimate life, including his dreams” (p. 173)? Why did one of his dreams testify “to the penetration of the terror into the deep recesses of the life Prishvin had hoped to preserve: not only the world of nature […] but also into the world of his creative imagination” (p. 181)? And why does the chapter conclude that “politicized dreams signify the irresistible penetration of the terror into the most intimate domains of people’s lives” (p. 205)? Paperno seems compelled to indicate that she understands that dreams cannot be accessed directly, but come to the analyst only when recounted by the dreaming subject. Beyond this rather obvious fact, however, her statements seem hardly different from Koselleck’s proposition that “recounted dreams have exemplary character for the niches of the everyday, which are penetrated by the terror’s waves” (“Die erzählten Träume haben exemplarischen Charakter für die Nischen des Alltags, in den die Wellen des Ter­ror eindringen.” Reinhart Koselleck: Vergangene Zukunft. 4. Aufl. Frank­furt / Main 2000, p. 286).

Such bumpy bits should not distract from the value of Stories of the Soviet Experience, however. At its core, this is a book about the Russian-cum-Soviet intelligentsia. Paperno’s deep knowledge of Russian cultural history of the nineteenth century serves her well and prevents a reading which puts too much stress on the Soviet (i. e., novel) aspects of her sources. On one level, this book is about how intelligentsia values survived the multiple breaks of 1914–21, 1928–32, 1937–38, and 1939–45 (embodied by Akhmatova); how they spread beyond their original audience (exemplified by Arzhilovskii and Kiseleva); and how they adapted to the new environment after the Soviet shipwreck of 1991 (illustrated by Kiseleva’s editors). The Stalins come and go, it seems, but the intelligentsia remains.

Despite the overall focus on the literate and the learned, the book’s high-point is the detailed exploration of the memoir of the poorly educated Kiseleva. A life story at the same time ungrammatical and epic, powerful and depressing, it sits a bit oddly in what until that point is a study of the intelligentsia. It is a historiographical and historical gem nevertheless. The fine tools of the literary scholar allow a subtle decoding, making intelligible what first just appears as simple illiteracy. The analysis unveils the extent to which her story telling is beholden to two sources – oral culture and film. It is Soviet visual culture which impressed her, rather than the official literary canon (which she did not seem to have read) – in itself a powerful symptom of the uneven impact of Soviet media on Russian popular culture.

Overall, then, Paperno’s book can serve many purposes: as an exploration into the struggles of the Soviet and post-Soviet intelligentsia; as an analysis of the terror’s consequences for individual lives, selves, and psyches; as a case study of the cult of personality surrounding Akhmatova; and, not least, as a guide to the large corpus of personal writings about the Soviet experience.

Mark Edele, Crawley, Australien

Zitierweise: Mark Edele über: Irina Paperno Stories of the Soviet Experience. Memoirs, Diaries, Dreams. Ithaca, NY, London: Cornell University Press, 2009. XV. ISBN: 978-0-8014-7590-0, http://www.dokumente.ios-regensburg.de/JGO/Rez/Edele_Paperno_Stories_of_the_Soviet_Experience.html (Datum des Seitenbesuchs)

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