Diaries of a Survivor
AST Publishers, 2017. 500 pp.
(English excerpt available)
Nina Lugovskaya’s pre-gulag “Diary of a Soviet Schoolgirl: 1932-37” was translated into more than 20 languages and later many readers wondered what happened to her after the prison camp. Her post-gulag diaries were later found and published as "Diaries of a Survivor".
Book One: The Diary of a Soviet Schoolgirl. 1932-37
Unearthed in the archives of the NKVD in the 1990s, Nina Lugovskaya’s diary provides a rare window into the daily routines of an educated Moscow family during the 1930s when fear of arrest was a fact of life. Nina’s father, a leader of the Left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries, had embraced Lenin’s New Economic Policy and prospered under it as the joint owner of several bakeries. But NEP and its “Nepmen” were short-lived: Nina’s diary begins in 1932, after her father’s return from three years exile in Siberia. Her family is still living in their large apartment, her older sisters are still singing and drawing, but money is scarce while knocks at the door are cause for alarm.
Like Anne Frank, 13-year-old Nina Lugovskaya is conscious of the extraordinary dangers all around her yet preoccupied by ordinary adolescent concerns: boys and parties and who she wants to be when she grows up (she wants to be a writer). Traumatized by her father’s first arrest, she hates Stalin and abhors his dictatorship but cannot discuss her feelings with her exhausted mother or her friends. Her diary is her confidant, personal and political. Unlike Anne Frank, Nina is neither pretty nor outgoing and she is tortured by feelings of self-doubt. Her diary is as much a portrait of her lonely inner world as it is of the Soviet outer one – the lies, the hypocrisy, the arrests and injustice.
The diary ends in January 1937, the day before the NKVD conducted a thorough search of her family’s apartment. Her diary was seized and carefully studied, the “incriminating” passages underlined (these markings have been preserved in the book). After her arrest in March, these passages were used to convict her as a “counterrevolutionary” who was “preparing to kill Stalin.” She spent five years in a Kolyma prison camp and seven more in exile. This silenced her forever and instead of a writer she became a painter. She died in 1993. Her plainspoken diary is an unprecedented document of Soviet totalitarian rule.
Book Two: Diaries of a Survivor. 1940-1993 (post-gulag diary).
This is a book about overcoming and extraordinary vitality, about a spiritual victory over fate and adverse circumstances, about a passionate love for nature that saved the sanity and adorned the life of this remarkable woman. Nina courageously endured Stalinist camps followed by exile in a squalid provincial town, she fought to save her beloved husband from alcoholism and nursed him after his stroke, and in her old age she never breathed a word of complaint about her own infirmities always finding a bright side to everything. She lived long enough to see the perestroika in Russia but mistrusted its intents and did not believe in its success.
Nina’s pre-gulag diary (“Diary of a Soviet Schoolgirl: 1932-37”) was translated into more than 20 languages and later many readers wondered what happened to her in her later life, after the prison camp. Nina, her mother and her twin sisters were arrested on 20 June 1937 and convicted to 5 years of hard labor. Their prison term ended in June 1942 but they were detained in the camps because of the wartime. In late 1940s, in the Far-Eastern city of Magadan, Nina married another ex-convict, the artist Victor Templin. They were released only in 1954 and finally settled in the Central Russian town of Vladimir where they both worked as set-designers in the local theater before joining the local Artists Union and devoting their full time to painting.
In her youth Nina dreamed of studying Philology at Moscow University and becoming a writer, but after her prison term it was out of the question. She had to sit low and keep silent. She became an artist instead. However, her urge to write, to take notice and describe the details of life around her compelled her write a diary all her life. Her literary sketches provide a priceless document of everyday life in Soviet Russia. They paint a vivid portrait of this passionate staunch woman who remained unbound in the face of all adversaries.
Even in the years of perestroika she avoided to recall her prison experiences. She always lived in the here and now and had never let the past poison her present. Only knowing what she had gone through one can appreciate Nina’s love of life, her disregard for creature comforts, and her ability to focus on the spiritual and intellectual values that made her independent of the depressing life around her.
In 1989 she wrote to a childhood friend who had also served a prison term as a political convict. It was one of those rare cases when Nina talks about her prison experiences. “Reminiscences about the fateful 1930s and 40s have assumed such wide proportions that I’m in constant fear lest some dame publish her notes and mention my name. It would be very upsetting for me. We never talk about it at all. It may cause unnecessary questions and conjectures. … In the past years I almost forgot about those hardships as if it had all happened to someone else, not me. But now due to all this literature and then television on top of it – this is too much… And from the depths of my mind, from its innermost recesses, of which I was not even aware, some heavy thoughts and images arise, like a disease. You understand that it’s quite different to feel sorry for others and be indignant about their lot or to be an object of such pity. There were too many humiliations and losses. I don’t want it all to come into the open. Every misfortune is badly demeaning and one does not want to admit such things.”
"A striking diary by a Russian Anne Frank, a mirror of free self-expression and alienation from the ruling system... The maturity of her critical assessments and precision of her characteristics and diagnoses, coming from a country that has never known freedom, are simply mesmerizing. One does not expect such intellect and passion from a schoolgirl." – Corriere della Sera
“Witness to bloody history Nina Lugovskaya is Russia's answer to Anne Frank. Her teenage diaries mix girlish hopes with bitter political rage. Nina's diary resembles Anne Frank's in the way it blends the obsessions of a typical teenage life with a candid record of the political emergency on the doorstep. Both logs of private thoughts are about totalitarian horror obtruding on secret, girlish dreams of love and independence.” – The Financial Times
"…a voice crying in the wilderness -- a powerful, life-affirming voice that transcends the propaganda, insecurity, and terror of a horrific era. Nina had an acute and observant eye. Her descriptions of the countryside have more than a hint of Turgenev's delicacy. She could enter and capture the pace and rhythms of rural life, and recognized the strengths, dignity, and decency that so many peasants possessed.” – Foreword (USA)
“It is a very articulate record by an adolescent girl, living in an ever more threatening totalitarian environment, of her fears and frustrations, and it mingles the emotional pains of a girl going through puberty with the anguish of a trapped animal feeling the hunters getting nearer. … The diary remains a monument to a girl’s reckless defiance of indoctrination and intimidation.” – Donald Rayfield (Chekhov scholar)