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  • Personal Accounts of the Soviet Experience*
  • Irina Paperno

Since the late 1980s, there has been an overwhelming outpouring of memoirs, diaries, and other personal accounts of life under the Soviet regime. The impulse to speak out arose with glasnost', with its demands to uncover the Soviet past, especially the Stalinist terror. By the mid-1990s, those efforts lost official support and public prominence. But even as political discourse of memory has disappeared from the front pages of newspapers, stories of individual lives continue to appear in large numbers. The texts are many and varied, and so are their explicit goals and the functions they may fulfill for the reader. Even so, I see a common quality: in telling their life stories, concrete people present the Soviet past, or history, as personal experience. It is in this broad sense that I speak of personal (individual, private, intimate) accounts of the Soviet experience. This article attempts to map the evolving corpus of texts and suggests ways of interpreting them as a cultural trend. Performing in-depth analysis of specific texts and drawing distinctions among the ways in which they shape their interpretations is a different task (and an object of an on-going, larger study). Here, while highlighting details, I will point to commonalities and to patterns.

Provided this outpouring marks a cultural situation - the end of the Soviet epoch coinciding with the end of the 20th century - what does it mean? Some answers are obvious. The authors and their readers might be driven by a need to commemorate the dead, repent, accuse, and denounce, or simply talk about traumatic experiences. There is also the writer's imperative to write about himself, the scholar's urge to make his life into an object of investigation, the public demand (or publisher's commission) to disclose the lives of celebrities - all encouraged by the new freedom of speech. In looking at personal documents from Soviet Russia, I have chosen to suspend, as far as possible, explanatory categories that have been readily available in Western academia. These include "memory" and "collective memory," inasmuch as they create an alternative to "historical consciousness" and "history"; the twin notions "testimony" and "trauma," insofar far as they imply the therapeutic nature of recollection and revelation; and "mastering of the past."1 What are other motives, uses, and meanings of the explosion of personal writing in the last two decades?2

Authors, Publishers, Texts, Corpus

First, a comment on the available body of writing. The trend began with the sensational publications of accounts of personal experience of Stalinist terror written in the 1960s-70s and circulated underground, such as, in 1988, the memoirs of Nadezhda Iakovlevna Mandel'shtam and Evgeniia Semenovna Ginzburg. There are reasons to believe that what impressed the public more than the stories themselves was seeing them published: it was now possible, even desirable, for individual people to speak of their horrible experiences. Scores of personal accounts followed, from a wide range of people: the dead and the living; the "grandfathers," "fathers," and "sons" (born in the 1900s-10s, 1920s-30s, and 1940s-50s); public figures and those marked "ordinary people";3 members of the government and inmates of the camps.4 [End Page 578]

It is significant that such publications have been institutionalized. Most "thick journals" opened regular features: "Diaries, Reminiscences" ("Dnevniki, vospominaniia"; Novyi mir), "Reminiscences, Documents" ("Vospominaniia, dokumenty"; Oktiabr'), "Memoirs. Archives. Testimonies" ("Memuary. Arkhivy. Svidetel'stva"; Znamia), "Memoirs of the 20th Century" ("Memuary XX veka"; Zvezda), "Private Reminiscences of the 20th Century" ("Chastnye vospominaniia o XX veke"; Druzhba narodov). The new historical journal Odissei included a section "Historians Reminisce about Themselves" ("Istoriki vspominaiut o sebe"). Book publishers started special series: "My 20th Century" ("Moi XX vek"; Moscow: Vagrius), "The 20th Century from the First Person" ("XX vek ot pervogo litsa"; Moscow: ROSSPEN), "The 20th Century Through the Eyes of Witnesses" ("XX vek glazami ochevidtsev"; Moscow: Olimp/AST), "The Family Archive of the 20th Century" ("Semeinyi arkhiv XX veka"; Moscow: Integraf Servis), "From the Manuscript Collections" ("Iz rukopisnogo naslediia"; Moscow: Knizhnaia palata), "Diaries and Memoirs of St. Petersburg Scholars" ("Dnevniki i vospominaniia Peterburgskikh uchenykh"; St. Petersburg: Ev-ropeiskii dom), "Life Documents. Interpretations" ("Dokumenty zhizni. Inter-pretatsii...


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