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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.3 (2003) 709-734

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Sergei Sergeevich Dmitriev and His Diary

John Keep

"Iz dnevnikov Sergeia Sergeevicha Dmitrieva," Otechestvennaia istoriia, no. 3 (1999), 142-69; no. 4, 113-28; no. 5, 135-53; no. 6, 117-34; no. 1 (2000), 158-72; no. 2, 142-53; no. 3, 151-64; no. 4, 149-60; no. 5, 160-82; no. 6, 151-64; no. 1 (2001), 154-67.

The significance of diaries for our understanding of Soviet citizens' "subjectivity" is today generally acknowledged. Memoirs, even when they are based on earlier journal entries, are inevitably colored by hindsight, whereas the diarist ideally commits to paper personal observations about his or her family and friends, occupational experiences, and events in the public sphere generally, on a day-to-day basis, for the writer's own purposes and with utter honesty.

In its early years the Soviet regime actually encouraged diary-keeping, but from the 1930s onward the practice was not without its dangers. If confiscated, such a record could serve as incriminating material should the writer's political loyalty be called in question. Under Stalin secret police investigators took the view that a suspect's inner thoughts, insofar as they did not conform to the official view of reality, were evidence of counterrevolutionary intent; and it was but a step from the uncovering of such a propensity to the assertion that a "terrorist" act was in preparation, or had indeed been carried out, by the individual concerned. For these reasons a diarist needed to be circumspect, to hide any compromising material, and perhaps to destroy what he or she had written. In the post-Stalin era, independent-minded citizens no longer feared physical liquidation and the intellectual climate improved. Scholars and other intellectuals might meet privately to discuss matters of mutual interest. But any attempt to give permanent organized shape to such informal circles (kruzhki) was speedily crushed--even before 1965, when the party line hardened again. Under both Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev and Leonid I'ich Brezhnev the expression of deviant opinions by an academic might as a rule lead to loss of privileges and party card, perhaps dismissal and relegation to some provincial outpost. (So far as is known, no historian landed in a "special psychiatric hospital," the fate of several hundred dissidents.) [End Page 709]

In recent years the conventional view that Soviet citizens (and not only they) had a "private" and a "public" face has been challenged by practitioners of postmodernist literary criticism and historiography. Jochen Hellbeck, the foremost authority in this domain, argues that "the private literary voice [is]a fictional device," for "even the most privately conceived self is staged." We should see a diary "in terms of a genre of private discourse, as a medium through which the diarist could cultivate--rather than simply express--a private self" and consider "the categories employed by Soviet diarists to conceptualize their social existence" instead of trying to distinguish between different aspects of a writer's persona. In support of this approach Hellbeck points out that some diarists of the 1930s noted, with evidently sincere pleasure, that they were participating in the activities of public organizations such as the Komsomol, or else (like the now well-known Stepan Podlubnyi, a kulak's son from Ukraine) felt guilty about their "alien" class background and personal inadequacy to fulfill the requirements of the new "socialist" society, defects which they strove purposively to overcome. 1

Hellbeck's postmodernist approach seems better fitted to diaries kept by those who rose up from the worker-peasant mass in the 1930s as a result of Stalin's "revolution from above" than it does to that kept in the postwar years by a professional historian such as Sergei Sergeevich Dmitriev, a senior member of the academic establishment, which we propose to explore here. It will be argued--going by the published extracts, which cover the years 1949-61 (and, more briefly, 1985-91)--that it reveals a man whose "soul" was deeply divided between his public...