Dreams of Terror: Dreams from Stalinist Russia as a Historical Source

By Paperno, Irina | Kritika, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Dreams of Terror: Dreams from Stalinist Russia as a Historical Source


Paperno, Irina, Kritika


Long recognized as a historical phenomenon, dreams may be of particular interest to historians of terror regimes. (1) In A History of Private Life, Alain Corbin wrote of a dramatic change in dream content after the French Revolution, when political themes invaded dreams (even erotic dreams were politicized). (2) In a methodological essay on historical experience, Reinhart Koselleck introduced dreams recounted by the subjects of Hitler's Third Reich as sources that "testify to a past reality in a manner which perhaps could not be surpassed by any source." (3) And what about dreams from the Stalinist terror?

In recent years, personal accounts that purport to provide evidence of the Soviet experience (diaries, memoirs, and other) have been appearing in print in large numbers. Many of them contain dreams; most of the dreams that Soviet people chose to include in their personal accounts have political content. Such publications can be seen as a massive effort on behalf of different people (authors as well as publishers) to open the daily, intimate lives of Soviet citizens-especially in the years of the terror-to the public eye. (4) In this context, political dreams, too, have been presented as historical evidence.

In the pages that follow, I provide interpretations of selected dreams that have been drawn from the recently published autobiographical narratives (mainly diaries) that deal with the Stalinist terror. I treat reported dreams as texts-stories about historically specific experiences. A question arises: in what ways can we speak of dreams as "stories"? And why do dreams seem particularly suited to serve as evidence of living under the terror?

First, I explore these issues by reviewing the theories of dreams that inform my analysis. Sigmund Freud, of course, has left a permanent imprint on our understanding of dreams. Like many others, I have borrowed from Freud his insistence that dreams occupy an exceptional place in psychological and cultural analysis and his hermeneutic approach to dreaming, viewed as a symbolic language of the individual psyche, but in other respects my analysis is not Freudian. (5) I have adopted a notion from the contemporary synthetic approach to dreams: that dreams provide explanatory metaphors that comment on a person's existential situation and emotional concerns. (6) For me, the key word is "metaphor." It has been suggested by psychoanalysts, cognitive psychologists, and philosophers alike that dreaming may be a paradigm or even a source for such operations as the use of images to symbolize thoughts, feelings, and situations; the transformation of one image into an expression of another; the creation of narrative by fusing concordance and discordance; and for the questioning of the reality of our lives (for the idea that "life is like a dream"). (7) In a word, dreaming can be seen as an analogy, or even (as one scholar has put it) the "ur-form of all fiction." Yet a dream is also unlike a fiction "in that it is a lived experience as well as a narrative." (8)

For my purposes-for the historical hermeneutics of dreams-the status of dreams as forms of experience and knowledge is of special importance. (9) As Freud notes, a product of our own psychic activity, the "finished dream strikes us as something alien to us." (10) Jurgen Habermas emphasizes the unique epistemological status of dreams as "texts that confront the author himself as alienated and incomprehensible": after waking, the dreamer, who in some ways is still the author of the dream, does not understand his creation. (11) Thus dreaming may be an experience of confronting one's hidden depth: what one knows, feels, or fears without being fully aware; and what defies control. Dreaming includes the splitting of the subject, and thus the ambivalence of knowledge and feeling. There is a disjunction and an encounter between the non-knowing and knowing self, amplified when the dream is recounted.

Of course, there is another view-the age-old belief in the prophetic nature of dreams, which is relevant for many dreamers to this day. …

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