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Life Under Stalin's Boot : Diaries from the Soviet Union in the '30s let sound the small voices of history : INTIMACY AND TERROR: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s, Edited by Veronique Garros, Natalia Korenevskaya and Thomas Lahusen (The New Press: $27.50; 414 pp.)

November 05, 1995|RICHARD EDER

From the Soviet newspaper Izvestiya, March, 1937: "Imagine the excitement that ran through the crowd standing atop the Volga Dam when the Director of Construction issued the order: 'Close the sluice gates tight. Don't leave even a 25-centimeter crack!' . . . And then the Volga, stopped by the dam, panting heavily through a single narrow crack, began gasping for breath. The 150-ton sluice gates gripped her by the throat."

From the diary of Ignat Danilovich Frolov, March, 1937: "There was a light frost with a northeast wind between 9 and 10 it looked like snow. . . . Today Manya went to the railway station in Kolomna to get pressed Straw for the collective farm And today we took the Cow to the bull for the second time."

There are those who produce history--the Attilas, Lincolns and Volga-tamers (and the historians, of course, perhaps even only the historians)--and those who live through it, or if you like, consume it. For the Soviet Union, over many decades, we had the producers' large words (official discourse, underground discourse, the international discourse of the Cold War) but fewer of the consumers' small ones.

In recent years the opening of Soviet archives has freed an unexpected trove of these small words. Out of about 200 diaries found in state and private depositories around Russia, the editors of "Intimacy and Terror" have winnowed passages from 10. All were written in the 1930s, when Stalin consolidated his grip through massive displacement, mobilization, imprisonment and killing.

The voices are disparate: a dissident St. Petersburg intellectual, a maniacally ambitious young party star, a housewife in the middle ranks of the new Establishment, a student who is a police informer, an actor who recounts only his dreams. They write from their positions or predicaments; but many, and it is the book's particular virtue, give a revealing glimpse of the counter-currents in a private world that exists beneath the public one.

"In a diary everything has meaning: the weather, the prosaic details of life, the political event, memory, the sequence of time itself," write the editors: a French journalist, a Russian writer and scholar, and an American professor of Slavic languages and literature. "We believe that the essence of a diary is the space of tension between different--often heterogeneous--times, between the personal, the intimate, sometimes the bodily, and the social."

The collection begins with a contrapuntal exercise. For the year 1937, there are excerpts from Izvestiya alternating with three-line diary entries by a collective farmer. The former is licensed talk. Some excerpts are repellent: an abusive description of the defendants, all former Bolshevik leaders, at the second Moscow show trial. Some--the dam, for instance--seem comically inflated; yet one can see how they would raise the spirits and pride of a suffering people. Some--a description of carnival celebrations, an account of 12 men arrested for getting a zoo bear drunk--are color. The editors seem to like this, but it is administered color, and creepy on that account. It contrasts, of course, with the farmer's spontaneous drone: weather, prices, work, a neighbor dead from drink.

Among the full-fledged diary excerpts that follow, there are the youthful outpourings, half repugnant and half comic, of Leonid Potyomkin, who would rise to become a vice minister. Beneath the lyricism is sharp-toothed ambition. At school, he has done so well in dialectical materialism--the critical course for a future party member--that the female students fall in love with him, he boasts. He is the football hero as nerd. Drilling his reserve unit, "my pure, clear, resolute voice turbulently concentrates the attention of the platoon."

More complex are the entries of Stavsky, who headed the Writers Union and denounced Osip Mandelshtam and others who were then arrested and shot. He mentions none of this; instead, he writes some genuinely beautiful passages about winter at the dacha he earned by his party service. His passionate sense of snow alternates with sweaty maneuvering among the party bosses, and a deep alcoholic despair.

The diary of Lyubov Shaporina, founder of the St. Petersburg Puppet Theater and aristocratic member of the intelligentsia, is a desolate record of the vanishing of friends. Like the poet Anna Akhmatova, she was apparently too prominent to be touched--the editors' notes are deficient here and in a number of other places--but she writes of a world falling to the barbarians. There is grief and a touch of arrogance. She blames the Jews for the Stalinist disaster, and is astonished that people will queue for hours to buy herring; she, apparently, was less in want.

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