Terror in My Soul: Communist Autobiographies on Trial

Article excerpt

Igal Halfin. Terror in My Soul: Communist Autobiographies on Trial. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003. 366 pp. Illustrations, tables. $45.00 cloth.

In this, his second book devoted to exploring the eschatological dimensions of Soviet communism, Igal Halfin illuminates yet one more way in which the Utopian dreaming of the first decade of Soviet power fed into the nightmare of the Great Purges. Focusing on the complex inner workings of Communist Party membership, Halfin refuses to lay blame for the purges either on the Party itself or on its individual members. Instead, the author argues for a dynamic model of "Communist 'self-fashioning'," in which coercion on the part of the Party merged with cooptation on the part of its members, so that "Neither the producers nor the consumers of this [Communist] discourse could have fully known the implications of what they were saying and doing" (p. 5). Halfin's argument relies primarily on a deep analysis of several different types of texts: most importantly, the Communist autobiography, which the Party demanded of all aspiring members; popular prose fiction, which fleshes out the sometimes laconic personal narratives composed by would-be Communists; and early Soviet scientific writing, which articulates most clearly the ideological underpinnings of both the Communist autobiography and popular novels. Through this analysis, Halfin describes the emergence of the New Soviet Man as a scientific, psychological, and morally driven construct and demonstrates that, during the 1920s, the culpability for counterrevolutionary activity shifted from the body of the individual to his mind or soul, allowing the Party to criminalize not only the individual's actions, but more importantly his unwitting and even unconscious intentions.

Halfin's reading of the Communist autobiography relies on an analysis of emerging Soviet discourse in the 1920s and 1930s, which he terms "The Communist hermeneutics of the soul-the complex ritual of words and deeds that permitted the Party to determine who was worthy to belong to the brotherhood of the elect" (p. 7). Halfin's assertion that the Communist Party in the early Soviet Union constituted more of a messianic order than a political organization reiterates the conclusion of his first book, From Darkness to Light: Class, Consciousness, and Salvation in Revolutionary Russia (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000). However, Halfin gives this credible contention additional weight in the current study by charting the evolution of a black-and-white vocabulary of good and evil that conflated religious confession with legal declaration of guilt as the 1920s gave way to the 1930s. While the means of expression changed with time and varied greatly depending on the autobiographer's social and political background, Halfin convincingly describes the development of self-introspection and self-criticism within the self-narration of the Communist autobiography.

To support his interpretation of these short, first-person narratives, Halfin examines Soviet science's attempts to understand the individual during the same period. …