Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 4


Back in Time

Nadezhda A. Joffe
Back in Time: My Life, My Fate, My Epoch
Labor Publications, Detroit 1995, pp. 245

THE WRITING of memoirs has a special place in the culture of Russia, and the growth of literacy that was achieved under the Bolshevik regime encouraged the practice. The Central Museum of the Revolution, in Moscow’s Tverskaya, houses a large collection of manuscript memoirs assembled from many sources. (The work of mining this irreplaceable resource will take many decades, and historians concerned with the task of understanding and interpreting the October Revolution ought to be as concerned with the regular threats to the budget of this museum from the Yeltsin regime as they are to the problems of the more prestigious venues such as the Institute of Marxism-Leninism and the Lenin Library.) Often during the Stalin terror, revolutionaries were granted a stay of execution in order to be able to write their memoirs, even when there was no hope of them emerging from the capacious files of the Lubyanka. The destruction of memoirs by the forces of the state has always been regarded as an especially vile crime. (Larina’s memoirs were seized and burned several times, and the fate of the manuscripts seized from Serge and Rakovsky remains a subject of active speculation.)

These memoirs serve many purposes, personal, political and literary. For the survivors of the Stalin terror, it has been particularly important to set the record straight, to rescue and preserve the memories and knowledge which Stalin and his regime set out to expunge, and to name the criminals and collaborators who thought the Stalinist regime would last forever.

In his foreword to Nadezhda Joffe’s memoirs, David North points out that the ‘survivor of Stalinism memoirs’ have become a literary genre. Here he echoes Stephen Cohen’s introduction to Larina’s memoirs. And the same point has been validly made elsewhere, in relation to volumes by Nadezhda Mandelstam, Irina Ratushinskaya and all too many others (curiously, North’s list of examples excludes the memoirs of Maria Joffe, One Long Night).

The regime created by Stalin to defeat the October Revolution marked one of the most extreme points of savagery and repression that humanity has ever perpetrated and suffered. It ranks with the Nazi holocaust, the slave trade and the century-long war between the ‘mongol hordes’ and China.

The memoirs of survivors of the Stalin terror are central in shedding personal light on the process of the long civil war which Stalin waged against the revolution. They illuminate and add force to the historical research of writers such as Conquest and Rogovin. But they do more than this. They can, at their best, demonstrate the survival of some tiny kernel of humanity in the face of the most immeasurable oppression. In this sense, Joffe’s memoirs, and others of their kind, go beyond the range with which a revolutionary historical journal is directly concerned, to some of the questions that call up the revolutionary spirit.

It is proper to consider the book in the first instance as historical material. It has to be said that the notes are sadly inadequate, pointing only to well-known public sources. They cannot be the author’s own notes, since the memoirs are dated 1971–72, but the notes refer to later material such as Trepper (1979) and Carr (1981), or to material to which Joffe is unlikely to have had access in Moscow (Trotsky, Deutscher). Of course, there would have been good reason for reticence in the early 1970s, but not in notes prepared for an English edition in 1994. There is also a curious reference (p. 39) to one of Broué’s books on Trotsky. Was this material really available in Moscow in 1972? In another indication that the text was revised later than the 1971–72 sign-off date, she refers to the publication of the Riutin platform. I have not traced any publication of the platform before 1990 in Russia (it is clear from the context that Joffe is not referring to any of the fragmentary publications of 1932).

Joffe’s own words and recollections provide some useful information. The early chapters deal with her early life, and give an account of her father’s life and career. Adolf Joffe was a figure of exceptional importance in the revolution, and in the development of the Opposition. As the Soviet Ambassador to Berlin, he met important personalities, including Mehring. Nadezhda also met Rakovsky, Bukharin and Dzerzhinsky, and recalls these giants as daily visitors during her childhood. She also recollects Trotsky as a warm, friendly individual who had a good rapport with children (contra­dicting Larina’s description of him as a cold, frightening figure).

She also provides us with an all-too-brief glimpse of the dazzling intellectual life of revolutionary Moscow – meeting Lunacharsky, Yesenin and Mayakovsky. She witnessed the famous Lunacharsky-Vvedensky debate, and tells a tale of Lunacharsky delivering a brilliant lecture on Campanella without notes or preparation. These bright days were to come to an early end. Joffe happened to be present for Krupskaya’s announcement of Lenin’s death.

We do not get an analysis from Joffe of the rise of the Opposition – she was very young in the early 1920s. Almost the first we hear from her is her voting against a resolution in 1926 condemning Trotsky. She begins her political material from the death of her father, denied access to overseas medical treatment by the vindictive party bureaucracy. The translation of Trotsky’s funeral oration for Joffe differs from that in the Pathfinder collection Portraits Political and Personal, but does not seem to change any of Trotsky’s meaning.

She also presents the full text of Joffe’s final letter to Trotsky, and adds a few details to the account of Joffe’s funeral – the booing and shouting down of Riutin (the Central Committee representative).

She reminds us of Sedova’s work in preserving antiquities and monuments after the revolution, especially the old quarter between Red Square and the old city wall. Most of this was later cleared by Stalin, and eventually became the site for the huge, hideous and cockroach-infested Hotel Moskva. But little of this is first hand. She was, after all, a teenage girl at the time. She sets down a few memorised fragments of poems dedicated to Trotsky, which were probably excluded from the history of Soviet literature entirely by the mid-1920s.

The beginning of her oppositional activity is briefly described, from the autumn of 1927 in her third year at the Plekhanov Institute (apparently a year after her 1926 vote ended her ‘party career’). She even quotes from a leaflet she wrote for distribution by the Moscow Komsomol Centre – how was this preserved? She shows that when Radek, Preobrazhensky and Smilga began the first wave of capitulations in May 1929, this was not simply an individual political realignment. It triggered a vast new wave of repressions against the Opposition. (They would have known that this would be the consequence of their action, since the same thing had happened a year earlier when Zinoviev and Kamenev ‘repented’.) For Joffe, this resulted in her first arrest in the spring of 1929, leading to exile in Krasnoyarsk in the summer. There she met some notable oppositionists, including Dumbadze (Serge campaigned in his defence after being expelled from the USSR. He cannot have been at Krasnoyarsk long, as a letter published in Cahiers Léon Trotsky refers to him at the Cheliabinsk isolator in the autumn of 1929) and A.S. Yenukidze, but we don’t get any details on their politics or their activities.

She describes meeting Rakovsky in Moscow after his readmission to the party. He convinced her that there existed a layer in the party that could, gradually and carefully, be influenced. She added her signature to his political statement. She tells us nothing more about activity in the Opposition, or how this legal ‘influencing’ in the party was carried out.

She may have maintained some level of activity which even in the 1970s could not safely be written about, because when she was arrested for the second time, in 1936, her flat contained ‘seditious literature’, including Trotsky’s Collected Works. She was charged only in relation to her earlier oppositional work up to 1927.

At this point, the Opposition as such disappears from her account, although we get information about some individual oppositionists that she meets. We are now on grimly familiar territory, the dismal details of interrogations, the bleak architecture of the Butyrka and other prisons, and the dehumanised and dehumanising administration of the gulags.

Along this desolate road, in Magadan, Joffe met Trotsky’s first wife Aleksandrovna Lvovna Bronstein (née Sokolovskaya), and carried her parting message of defiance across the decades: ‘If you ever read somewhere or hear that I have confessed to being guilty, don’t believe it. This will never happen, no matter what they do to me.’ This is probably the last sighting of Sokolovskaya. Joffe was later returned to Magadan, but learned that Sokolovskaya had been moved to central Siberia. A small enough historical detail perhaps, but as an example of indomitable courage and determination, this last message from Sokolovskaya to the future is of incomparable value.

The case of Olga Ivanovna Grebner, whom Joffe met in Kolyma, sheds another grim sidelight on the Stalin regime’s morbid fear of Trotsky’s ideas. Grebner received a five year sentence. Her ‘crime’ was that her husband’s niece had been the first wife of Sergei Sedov, Trotsky’s younger son. Grebner herself had hardly even met Sedov, but even this remote link was enough to strike fear into the regime.

As late as 1938 there are occasional signs of oppositional activity. Joffe met a young Leningrad student who had learned from ‘seditious literature’ how all of Lenin’s closest collaborators had been purged as ‘enemies of the people’, and had been imprisoned for this knowledge. But even before this, most of the Opposition had been stamped out. The mass arrests of 1937, according to Joffe, brought to the camps not Trotskyists but loyal Stalinists with records of action against the Trotskyists, who were sentenced more harshly than previous waves of accused (in fact as early as May 1936 Serge had warned Trotsky that the mass arrests were not of new oppositional elements).

Much of the rest of Joffe’s account is concerned with her eventual release (she long struggled to be reunited with her daughters), her peremptory rehabilitation, and her restoration of her father’s grave at the historic Novodevichy Convent site. (It is only in relation to the grave of A.A. Joffe that she mentions his second wife, Maria – author of another excellent gulag memoir, One Long Night). There is no indication that Joffe took any part in any of the oppositional movements of the 1960s or 1970s, focusing on samizdat publications and occasional illegal demonstrations, and she expresses no opinion on them. (In an undated intro­duction, presumably prepared for the English edition, she does remark that she expected her memoirs only ever to be read in samizdat form.) This would have been difficult in the early 1970s, of course, but it would have been possible for the publishers in 1994 to ask her for a supplementary comment, which would have added substantially to the value of the book.

To summarise, as a work of history, Joffe’s memoirs add some valuable details to our knowledge of the Opposition, but change nothing of substance. As a personal memoir, they present an inspiring example of courage and determination to hold onto whatever can be retained of humanity and decency through one of the most appalling periods of history. And perhaps, too, there is the suggestion that we should not judge those we too casually refer to as ‘capitulators’ too harshly.

J.J. Plant

Updated by ETOL: 30.9.2011