“The reader might also explore what the diaries do not tell.”
Safely in the West, we think of journals and diaries as places where everything can be told. Such writing has an audience of one. We can be as candid, sloppy, provocative and tedious as we wish. Some years ago, when I was in constant pain following an automobile accident, I kept a notebook beside my bed, and gushed – frightfully tiresome stuff. That’s about as close as I have ever come to writing-as-therapy. Naturally, I later burned the notebook. But I am a citizen of the United States, where the First Amendment still shields me and goons don’t knock down my door looking for samizdat.
The sentence at the top comes from the introduction to Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s (The New Press, 1995), edited by Véronique Garros, Natalia Korenevskaya and Thomas Lahusen. Translated are nine diaries, sometimes excerpted, kept by Soviet citizens during and immediately preceding Stalin’s Great Terror (1934-39). In many of the diaries, the mundanity of the events recorded – jobs performed, food consumed -- is touchingly human. The editors refer to the “wondrous freedom” typically accorded diarists. Not so, in Stalin’s Russia. The mere existence of such private writing could be cause for arrest, torture and execution. In most cases the writers are not motivated by a Solzhenitsyn-style documentary impulse, and sometimes quite the opposite.
Take the case of Vladimir Petrovich Stavsky, an apparatchik hack: general secretary of the Union of Soviet Writers and editor-in-chief of Novy mir. He joined the party in 1918, served as a commissar during the civil war and took part in the grain confiscation and resulting famine in the Kuban region of Southern Russia. The editors of Intimacy and Terror tell us Stavsky is known as the “executioner of Soviet literature.” He authorized the arrest of hundreds of members of the Writers’ Union. Coolly, without comment, the editors report: “His denunciation of Osip Mandelshtam, which led to the poet’s arrest and eventual death in a labor camp, was published in the newspaper Izvestiya in 1992.” Many years after his death, scholars determined Mandelstam died in a Siberian transit camp on Dec. 27, 1938. In a passage from his diary written late that year, Stavsky says:
“I’d give anything not to have to do my gymnastics. I just barely managed to drag myself out of the house. And I couldn’t get any energy up the whole time I was exercising. The wind rustles. The birches are covered with yellow leaves. The oaks are still at their peak. These are my favorites: three of them, triplets, that grew from a single acorn.”
This is what the editors mean by “what the diaries do not tell”: whining and prose poems from the man who condemned Mandelstam to a lonely, miserable death.