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Confessing to Leviathan: The Mass Practice of Writing Autobiographies in the USSR

  • Yury Zaretskiy


Yury Zaretskiy's article examines the mass practice of composing formal autobiographies by Soviet citizens. The major part of the study covers the period from the 1950s to the 1980s when the Soviet records management protocol requested this type of document from individuals belonging to different social groups and to different occupations. Zaretskiy reviews the concrete social circumstances in which the narrative structure of formal autobiographies was fashioned before moving on to argue that their final addressee was the Soviet state, that their content changed in line with political and ideological changes in the USSR, that the practice of writing them had much in common with Christian confession, and that the spread of this practice among millions of people functioned as a mechanism of subjectification aimed at “making them Soviet.”



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1. The neologism “file autobiography” was suggested to me by the term of “file self” first introduced into Russian studies by Sheila Fitzpatrick in her book Tear Off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia (Princeton, 2005), 1418 .

2. See Naiman’s, Eric discussion of this area, “On Soviet Subjects and the Scholars Who Make Them,” The Russian Review 60, no. 3 (2001): 307–15; and the interview with Hellbeck, Jochen and Halfin, Igal, “Interv΄iu s Igalom Halfinym i Iokhanom Hell΄bekom,” Mogil΄ner, M., trans., Ab Imperio, no. 3 (2002): 217–60. Scholars working in this field analyze various personal testimonies of the early Soviet period: diaries, letters, autobiographies, and memoirs. In a few cases they also address file autobiographies: see Sheila Fitzpatrick, Tear Off the Masks!, 102–13; Halfin, Igal, “From Darkness To Light: Student Communist Autobiography During NEP,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas. Folge, Neue, Bd. 45, H. 2 (1997): 210–36; Halfin, Igal, Terror in My Soul: Communist Autobiographies on Trial (Cambridge, Mass, 2003), 4349 ; Hellbeck, Jochen, Revolution on My Mind. Writing a Diary under Stalin (Cambridge, Mass., 2006), 2627 ; Studer, Brigitte and Unfried, Berthold, Der stalinistische Parteikader: Identitätsstiftende Praktiken und Diskurse in der Sowjetunion der dreissiger Jahre (Köln: Böhlau, 2001), 18 ; and Unfried, Berthold, “Ich bekenne”: Katholische Beichte und sowjetische Selbstkritik (Frankfurt am Main; New York, 2006), 285308 .

3. Kharkhordin, Oleg, The Collective and the Individual in Russia: A Study of Practices (Berkeley, 1999).

4. Kotkin, Stephen, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley, 1995).

5. Kotkin’s Foucauldian stance thereafter served as an inspiration for some of the works on Soviet subjectivity named in note 2.

6. See Igal Halfin, “From Darkness To Light”: 210–36, esp. 210–11; Jochen Hellbeck defines these texts as “the most widespread type of formalized self-representation of the Soviet system,” which arose in the party environment and were driven by the necessity to assess the political consciousness level of the candidate: Hellbeck, Jochen, “Working, Struggling, Becoming: Stalin-Era Autobiographical Texts,” The Russian Review, 60, no. 3 (2001): 342 .

7. See the most recent publication: Tatarnikov, Kirill, Ofitserskie skazki pervoi chetverti XVIII veka. Polevaia armiia. Sbornik dokumentov, Vol. 2. (Moscow, 2015).

8. See Brockhaus, F.A. and Efron, I.A., eds. Entsiklopedicheskii slovar΄ (St. Petersburg, 1898), 24a:684.

9. First published: Biografiia Aleksandra Vasil΄evicha Suvorova, im samim napisannaia v 1786 godu,” Chteniia v Obshchestve istorii i drevnostei Rossiiskikh (ChOIDR), no 9 (1848): 534–52.

10. First published in: Vasilii Alekseevich Alekseev, Pis΄ma i bumagi Suvorova (St. Petersburg, 1901), 322 .

11. For an overview of this type of document and a guide to corresponding archival resources see: Svetlana Romanova and Irina Glukhovskaia, “Ukazatel΄ vidov dokumentov, soderzhashchikh genealogicheskuiu informatsiiu (XVI v.—1917 g.),” Vestnik arkhivista, 46–49 (1998–99), available online at (last accessed September 19, 2017).

12. In enrolling in the workplace, unqualified workers (if they were not applying to a defense enterprise) and peasants represented an exception. However, file autobiographies could be demanded from them later on when joining the CPSU, being nominated for awards, being promoted to a leading position, or any number of other situations.

13. Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Vostochno-Kazakhstanskoi oblasti (GAVKO), fond 1-p, opis΄ 1, delo 7855. Published in: Oni vozglavliali Vostochno-Kazakhstanskuiu oblast΄. Biograficheskii spravochnik (Ust΄-Kamenogorsk, 2009), entry no. 42. The last names of the authors and of their family members in the autobiographies cited below in the majority of cases have been redacted.

14. A photocopy of the original is published on the site of the Krasnoiarsk local children’s library: (last accessed September 19, 2017), which is reproduced in full above.

15. A photocopy of the original is published on a fan’s site dedicated to the life and work of the composer: (last accessed September 19, 2017).

16. A photocopy of the original was published electronically by the Central City Library of Novokuznetsk, at (last accessed September 19, 2017).

17. For the sake of brevity, other examples of the composing of file autobiography—on admission to the CPSU, before receiving distinguished titles and government awards etc.—will be omitted.

18. The most widely accepted practice is given below in a simplified form. Evidently, there were cases when the process was more complicated, especially as regards the selection of candidates for top positions, as well as low positions in the military industrial complex and state security services.

19. In conditions of a deficit of labor, a lack of attention to the professional qualities of candidates was a mass phenomenon, and in most cases the decision to take on a prospective employee was made at the first meeting.

20. Since for those entering work for the first time the “genre” of file autobiography was unfamiliar, they usually asked the officials questions of clarification, usually receiving as an answer verbal advice about what they should include in their life-account: “Write where and when you were born, what education you received, show the members of your family and so on.” In some rare cases, they were given a sheet of paper with printed questions as prompts.

21. In some cases after the checking of passport details with the questionnaire and other documents, the accuracy of data was authorized by staff department official with a stamp.

22. In accordance with the Federal Law № 125 of 13.05.2008 (paragraph 25, article 3), there is a temporal restriction regarding access to archival documents that contain personal information from the last seventy-five years (article 3.3). This is why at the moment (September 2017) personal files only up to 1942 are openly available in state and ministerial archives. In connection with this restriction the main corpus of documents reviewed in this study are texts that have previously been published in printed and electronic media.

23. In the present case by way of example the anketa of 1938 from Mikhail Andreevich Mishin, who temporarily fulfilled the duties of head engineer of the division of land-surveying of Narkomzem of the Autonomous Karelian Socialist Soviet Republic has been used (published on the forum “The surroundings of St. Petersburg”:, last accessed September 19, 2017).

24. Ibid. Here follows some of them: “8. Were you previously a member of any other political party, of which precisely, where, when, and reason for leaving? 9. Did you belong to anti-party groups, did you or your close relatives share their anti-party views? Which party organizations reviewed the question, when, and their decision? 10. Were you subjected to party searches, for what, when, by which organization? . . . 12. Did you serve in the old army, when, in which division, for how long, in what capacity, and were you commissioned? 13. Did you or your relatives serve in forces or institutions of the white governments (white armies), in which rank (position), where and when? 14. Were you or your relatives on the territory of the whites, where, for how long, and what were you doing?”

25. It has been cited and analyzed in an article by Peremyshlev, Evgenii, “Zaochnaia stavka: L. Ovalov i maior Pronin,” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, vol. 80, no 4 (2006): 221–51.

26. With insignificant changes it continues today to remain a part of the personal paperwork in state institutions (minus questions about membership in the CPSU, VLKSM, and some others).

27. See the photocopy of “The personal file” of the Tartar Soviet poet Zaka Nuri (Zaka Sharafutdinovich Nurutdinov) on the site of the Archives of the Republic of Tartarstan (composed in 1968), available online at (last accessed September 19, 2017).

28. Having said that, when reading file autobiographies from the 1960–70s one should never forget that their authors were often people who had begun their professional career much earlier. This meant that years before they had already had to complete the old draconian questionnaires of the 1930s, which were held in the staff departments and were available to the respective “organs.” This is why in talking about themselves in later autobiographies they often continued to answer questions that had already lost their topicality for the state.

29. Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain, 358.

30. XXIV S’’ezd Kommunisticheskoi Partii Sovetskogo Soiuza, 30 marta – 9 aprelia 1971 goda: Stenograficheskiĭ otchet, vol. 2 (Moscow, 1971), 232 and thereafter.

31. Though repressions based on accusations of “bourgeois nationalism” had vanished after Stalin, “nationalism” as a frightening term was not buried in oblivion in Soviet public discourse at all and steadily reappeared in different forms until the collapse of the Soviet Union. The official task of fighting against nationalism was identified at the Twenty-sixth Party Congress in a speech by Leonid Brezhnev: “The CPSU has fought and will always resolutely fight against such attitudes alien to the nature of socialism as chauvinism or nationalism, against any nationalistic aberration, be it, say, anti-Semitism or Zionism”— Brezhnev, Leonid, Report of the Central Committee of the CPSU to the XXVI Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union . . . (Moscow, 1981), 76 . And this task was later re-actualized in a number of studies by Soviet Marxist scholars, in particular Dzhunusov, Maskhud S., Burzhuaznyi natsionalism: Printsipy kritiki (Moscow, 1986) and Rymarenko, Iurii I., Burzhuaznyi natsionalism i klerikalism (Kiev, 1986).

32. N.Ia. Moskovchenko, V.Ia. Frenkel΄, and G.A. Savina, eds., Fiziki o sebe, Sb. dokumentov (Leningrad, 1990), 24.

33. Ibid., 25. And further: “With the start of large-scale collectivization in 1932, I organized the Physico-agronomical Institute for the application of the achievements of physics in socialist agriculture. . . . In 1940 I entered as a candidate and in 1942 as a member of the CPSU. . . . In the first days of the war, A.A. Zhdanov appointed me chairman of the commission for military equipment under the city committee of the VKP(b). . . . During the evacuation in Kazan΄, I was the chairman of the Military-naval and Military-engineering Commissions.” The strategy of concealing one’s origins without any kind of “justifications” was nonetheless also possible, at least in the period of “developed socialism.” For example, Viktor Nikolaevich Kondrat΄ev managed to avoid them: the academician, laureate of the Stalin Prize and a cavalier of the Order of Lenin who came from a family of merchant Old Believers did not mention his social background in his autobiography of 1976. However, he could not leave out details about trips abroad, including the duration, purpose, and character of the trips.—Ibid., 297.

34. Ibid., 81.

35. Here he meant the armed revolt of Czechoslovak forces in May–August 1918.

36. Moskovchenko et al., Fiziki o sebe, 81–82. Komuch—Komitet chlenov Uchreditel΄nogo sobraniia, the first anti-Bolshevik all-Russian government. “Uchredilka”—pejorative name for Uchreditel΄noe sobranie (All-Russian Constituent Assembly). After this factual data follow attempts at self-justification: his being in the white army did not mean that he actively fought against the Soviet authorities. It was a mistake of his youth, which did not lead to any serious consequences: “Soon I began to understand clearly that there were no stimuli for me to fight against the Bolsheviks and that I needed to get out of the dirty history into which I had fallen due to my own lack of foresight. Using the news of the illness of my father (he died soon after), in the middle of August I managed to receive leave to go to Samara, where I arranged a transfer to a newly formed Ufa battery and, without travelling to Ufa, went (in September) directly to Tomsk, thereby deserting from the White Army.”

37. Ibid., 82. “Kolchakovshchina” – pejorative for the anti-Bolshevik movement under the leadership of Admiral Alexander Vasilyevich Kolchak.

38. Ibid., 84.

39. Ibid., 373.

40. Today we know that the reason of his arrest and exile was a “special operation” against “byvshikh” (former privileged classes), i.e. the author suffered due to his family background, about which he had spoken about so abstractly. See: Ivanov, Viktor, “V svetloe budushchee—bez ‘byvshikh,’” in Beliakov, L.P., Zablotskii, E.M., Orlov, V.P. et al. , eds. Repressirovannye geologi (Moscow and St. Petersburg, 1999), 419–22.

41. Moskovchenko et al., Fiziki o sebe, 373.

42. On the influence of the confessional practices of the Orthodox Church in shaping the individual self in Soviet Russia, see Kharkhordin, Collective and the Individual in Russia, 61–74. On differences between confessions in Russian Orthodox and Catholic traditions, see a recent historical overview: Nosov, Dmitrii, “Istoriia instituta ispovedi i ego vliianie na eticheskoe samosoznanie v katolitsizme i pravoslavii,” Filosofskie nauki, no 2 (2016): 6173 . On parallels of early Soviet diaristic/autobiographical writing with Catholic tradition, see different sections of Unfried’s Ich bekenne, and on their comparisons with Protestant tradition see Hellbeck, Revolution on My Mind, 37–38, and Halfin, Terror in My Soul, 49–51, referred to in note 2.

43. Polnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiiskoi imperii s 1649 goda, vol. 5 (St. Petersburg, 1830), 196 .

44. Antonov, Dmitrii and Antonova, Irina, “Massovyi istochnik: ispovedal΄nye i dukhovnye rospisi,” Arkhivovedenie i istochnikovedenie otechestvennoi istorii (Moscow, 2005), 283 .

45. Polnoe sobranie zakonov, vol. 17 (St. Petersburg, 1830), 346–47.

46. Antonov and Antonova, “Massovyi istochnik,” 284–85.

47. Sheila Fitzpatrick, Tear Off the Masks!, 102–13.

48. Protsess antisovetskogo trotskistskogo tsentra (Moscow, 1937), 177 .

49. Ibid., 126.

50. According to the evidence of Ol΄ga Bessmertnaia, the daughter of the well-known medievalist Iurii L΄vovich Bessmertnyi (1923–2000), in the 1970s her father warned her that every time she had to write a new autobiography she should make a point of writing exactly the same as before since otherwise there could be unpleasant consequences.

51. Confessing faith in diaries and other autobiographical writings mostly discussed by scholars of Soviet subjectivity, has a crucial difference with confessing faith in file autobiographies. In the first case, this is a conscious, deliberate, and private act of a person who decides to write his or her life-story on their own volition and to follow the narrative structure they choose; in the second—an involuntary public act of a person in the text with the given narrative structure, in which confessional discourse is not necessarily verbalized explicitly.

52. Kizenko, Nadieszda, “Written Confession and the Construction of Sacred Narrative,” Steinberg, Mark D. and Coleman, Heather J. eds., Sacred Stories: Religion and Spirituality in Modern Russia (Bloomington, 2007) 93118 .

53. Ibid., 95.

54. Ibid., 94.

55. Ibid., 112.

56. Voloshina, Svetlana and Litvinov, Aleksandr, “Anatomiia deloproizvodstvennoĭ avtobiografii v Noveishei istorii Rossii: Kompozitsiia i soderzhanie tekstov,” Tekst. Kniga. Knigoizdanie, no 1 (2016): 4054 .

57. Ibid, 48–49.

58. Ibid, 49.

59. Ibid, 51.

60. Ibid, 50.

61. The Decree of the President of RF from May 30, 2005, N 609, Paragraph 16. There is no indication on the content the questionnaire, which suggests that it may differ from one governmental institution to another.

62. See the guidelines for processing the personal data in private business: (last accessed September 25, 2017).

64. For an illuminating discussion of these difficulties, see a forum for PhD candidates from 2004: (last accessed September 25, 2017). Confused questions about what to write in an autobiography reappeared on the forum eight years later: (last accessed September 25, 2017).

65. In some cases the Church authorities provide individuals with patterned questionnaires for their file autobiographies. One of such questionnaires from 2015, addressed to matriculates of the Moscow Orthodox Theological Academy, is published on the Academy’s website: (last accessed September 25, 2017).

The article was prepared within the framework of the Academic Fund Program at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) in 2016 (grant № 16–05–0001) and supported within the framework of a subsidy granted to the HSE by the Government of the Russian Federation for the implementation of the Global Competitiveness Program. I express my thanks to Elena Karpenko, Thomas Rollings, and other participants in the Seminar of the Interdisciplinary Study of Autobiography Working Group at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, whose critical comments helped me to refine the conceptual apparatus used in this work. I am also thankful to Ol΄ga Bessmertnaia (Russian State University for the Humanities) and Ol΄ga Kosheleva (Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Sciences) for providing information concerning the practice of composing personal files in the 1970–80s and for important additions to the bibliography. In working on the article, Irina Tarakanova, Head of the Reading Room of the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and officials from the staff departments of a number of enterprises and organizations, especially Vladimir Zelenskii (Taganrog Factory of Electro-Thermal Equipment) and Tat΄iana Dianova (Russian State University for the Humanities) provided valuable practical help. Clarifications of experts for whom the practice of composing file autobiographies is not an abstract notion but part of their everyday professional activities helped to make much better sense of many of the details connected with the circumstances of their emergence. I am also grateful for the comments the earlier version of this article received from participants of the conference “After Stalin: Subjectivity in the Late Soviet Union (1953–1985),” April 25–26, 2014, St. Petersburg, and to the anonymous reviewers of the Slavic Review who more than once meticulously read and commented on different versions of this text. And of course, my special gratitude is to Julia Tkachenko (Russian State University for the Humanities) whose talk at the Russian-French summer school “Autobiographical Practices in Cultural Contexts” (Oshtinskii Pogost, July 7–12, 2008) inspired this study.

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Confessing to Leviathan: The Mass Practice of Writing Autobiographies in the USSR

  • Yury Zaretskiy


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