Jochen Hellbeck’s Revolution on My Mind, Writing a Diary under Stalin

Revolution on My Mind by Jochen Hellbeck

Jochen Hellbeck’s book, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin, is poignant testimony to the quest for self-transformation and authenticity undertaken by many citizens of the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s. Hellbeck argues that the diaries he discovered in the People’s Archive in Moscow expose the sincere yearnings of their authors to internalize Marxist ideology and Stalinist policy in order to “align” (13) themselves with the heroic trajectory of the new Soviet state, and to find personal fulfillment and satisfaction. Hellbeck uses many personal diaries from this time period to support his thesis, while also providing a solid historical background of social, political, and cultural factors that shaped the lives and perspectives of the people who wrote them.

Hellbeck is not the first scholar to explore the personal experiences of citizens of an authoritarian regime. He does, however, “challenge the Western notion of totalitarian societies” (2), particularly Orwellian ideas of repressed and fearful subjects, hiding their inner-selves from the totalitarian state’s all-seeing-eye. Hellbeck finds the approach of Hannah Arendt more useful, as she encourages scholars to recognize the validity of the “self-understanding” and “self-interpretation” (11) reflected in the words of oppressed people, and warns against the tendency of historians to dismiss their sources’ understanding of their own experiences in favor of more sophisticated or informed interpretations. Hellbeck also uses Michel Foucault’s work on the implications of popular modernity and the desire of many individuals to “understand oneself as the subject over one’s own life”. (9) Aware that the perceptions of his sources were infused with feelings of personal agency and historical significance, Hellbeck gives a voice to many Soviet diarists without marginalizing their understanding of their lives. He also offers his own historically-informed interpretations that fill in the gaps between their reflections and their material reality of five-year- plans, widespread hunger, and lethal purges.

Revolution on my Mind is a convincing and successful analysis of the Soviet experience because of the richness of Hellbeck’s sources the skillfulness of his methodology. First he establishes the cultural importance of diary-keeping in pre-revolutionary Russia by describing the ubiquitous Red Army notebooks used by soldiers during the civil war period, and the children’s diaries that were popular with the reading public soon thereafter. He then addresses the assumption that diaries weren’t kept during the Stalin era by acknowledging that diary-keeping was controversial and potentially dangerous. Through his inclusion of several diaries, however, he proves diary-keeping was not uncommon. Furthermore, the diaries he features are uncanny in their scope and depth, exemplifying Soviet archetypes, such as intelligentsia, kulak and proletariat, while also resonating with hope, longing and other common themes of the human experience, leading the reader to imagine the diaries Hellbeck chose for his analysis are the exceptional finds among many potential sources.

Hellbeck uses the entries of different diarists in the first three chapters of his book to illustrate the values and expectations of many Soviet citizens as they struggled to understand their relationship with their government and their own roles in an exceptional time of change. Wrestling with unwieldy concepts like social and personal purity, consciousness, and collectivity, many Soviet citizens felt obligated to record their experiences in order to leave behind a road map that would assist others in their self-transformation. Often the discrepancy between personal observation and ideologically mandated truth encouraged self-interrogation, and Hellbeck illustrates how this dynamic relationship resulted in the internalization of Soviet ideology until, in many cases, “ideology was a living tissue of meaning”. (28)

After thus establishing the validity and significance of his sources, Hellbeck focuses on four archetypal individuals and their diaries for the remainder of his book. Zinaida Denisevskaya, born thirty years before the revolution, expresses the rejection of the “problematic self” (73) and painful loneliness of a member of the intelligentsia. Denisvskaya’s experience is juxtaposed with that of Steven Podlubny, only three in 1917. His quest for transformation is no less painful, for even though he is still young after the revolution and believes himself adaptable to Soviet ideology, he is the son of a Kulak. His diary reflects that although he hid his origins from his peers, he was sincere in his pursuit of his “inborn essence”. (28) Leonid Potemkin, proletariat and self-conscious participant in his own construction, embraced opportunities to create himself “from nothing” (28). Lastly, Hellbeck delves into the personal experiences of the play-write, Alexander Afinignor, which illustrate the connections between diary-keeping, self-criticism, personal authenticity and Stalin’s purges.

Hellbeck’s book can change people's understanding of life within a totalitarian state. Although aware of the potential for individuals to negotiate with state-sponsored hegemonic projects, it is difficult to imagine the hope, sincerity and personal agency Hellbeck reveals. By believing his diarists while also deftly integrating their experiences into the realities of Stalin’s brutal era, Hellbeck’s insightful contribution creates for his readers a convincing and revealing window into the popular experience of Soviet citizens.