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OpenEdition Books Ledizioni Di/Segni Reading russia, vol. 3 The ‘Other’ Readers of the 1920’s...

Reading russia, vol. 3

Damiano Rebecchini
Raffaella Vassena

Part III. After the Bolshevik Revolution

The ‘Other’ Readers of the 1920’s: Three Portraits

Oleg Lekmanov

Texte intégral

  • 1   For obvious reasons, we call the period in the history of Russia from November 7, 1917 to Decembe (...)

1It is very difficult to give a general description of the readers who lived in Soviet Russia in the 1920s1, owing to the heterogeneous composition of the readership at that time. A significant part of it consisted of so-called new readers, i.e. representatives of the working class and peasantry, whom the Soviet state was striving to educate and elevate. However, there was still a fair amount of skilled readers, including intellectual readers and former nobles, present in the country. And we can talk not only about those whose intellectual habits were formed at the end of the nineteenth and the first decade of the twentieth centuries, but also those who was a child in 1917—the tradition of intellectual reading in a family circle continued in Russia after the October Revolution.

  • 2   See E. A. Dobrenko, Formovka sovetskogo chitatelia. Sotsial’nye i esteticheskie retseptsii sovets (...)

2A unique political value was placed on ‘molding’ this novice reader,2 per Evgeny Dobrenko’s well-known account of how high-skilled readers were overshadowed newer ones. In the 1920s, the state strove to change readers ideologically in word but, as a rule, failed to do so in deed. Soviet political workers of different kinds still did not reach to such readers.

3In much research literature from the last several decades, outsized attention was likewise given to the new Soviet reader and his interrelations with the state. Soviet magazines and their sections specially designed for such readers, various state directives, reports, regulations, readers’ questionnaires etc., were described and analyzed in great detail by scholars, who expanded their theme from “The State and the Molding of the ‘New Reader’” to “The State and the Molding of a ‘New Person.’”

  • 3   Among the works on the types of the Soviet reader, we will distinguish the above-mentioned E. A. (...)

4Within this interpretive framework, intellectual readers once again found themselves rendered almost invisible. The present article is aimed at partially addressing this injustice. We would like to remind you that global generalizations and conclusions should not replace the study of specific reader practices. Accordingly, we do not claim to perform in this article the description and systematization of the entirety of the Soviet intelligentsia of the 1920s; rather, we focus on three particular types only:3 an old reader, a young woman (specifically a scientific worker) and an adolescent provincial boy. Further, this gallery should be undoubtedly enhanced with portraits of other types’ representatives no less significant for the general situation of that time: former officers of the tsarist army, actors, housewives, engineers, doctors, adolescent and adult emigrants from Soviet Russia, etc. However, this is a topic for future research, and in the following chapter, the material for analysis consists solely of three personal diaries of these specific readers, fully consistent with three types listed above. We are interested not only in that which is typical in these diaries, but also individual to their authors, and, more precisely, the ratio of that which is typical to that which is individual. We will try to show how something typical in each reader’s strategy was supplemented, and sometimes significantly enhanced, by the personal ones.

5A very important requirement for the choice of subjects of this article was the fact that none of them had ever published fiction or poetry, i.e., they were not professional writers, as we seek to examine the experience of intellectuals who lived in Soviet Russia in the 1920s, and not writers as readers.

1. An old reader

  • 4   The biographical information about Oreshnikov is taken from the publication: A. V. Oreshnikov, Dn (...)

6In the first section we will speak about Aleksei Vasilievich Oreshnikov (1855–1933), a well-known collector of ancient coins and researcher. He was born to a Moscow merchant family, and was a native of the city Liubim in the Yaroslavl’ region. From the age of ten, the boy was fond of collecting old coins. When Oreshnikov was twelve, he was sent to a secondary educational institution that trained financiers, the Moscow Practical Academy of Commercial Sciences. Having graduated from its gymnasium department, the young man studied trade science course for one year in a special form, but then he was forced to suspend his training for health reasons. He spent three years abroad, and when he returned to Moscow, he combined collecting activities with the scientific numismatics. Oreshnikov had to run his father’s business for a long time, but after his death in 1885, the son gradually ceased trading. By this time, he had already become one of the most active workers in the State Historical Museum in Moscow for two years; however, he did so unofficially, since Emperor Aleksandr III personally crossed Oreshnikov off the list of employees since he was a person of non-noble origin. He was officially accepted to the museum staff only in 1887. For some time, Oreshnikov was also a secretary of the Moscow Archaeological Society. After October 1917, his life and work went on without incident, and in 1928 Oreshnikov was even elected a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.4

  • 5   However, Oreshnikov treated the ‘non-Soviet’ Bloc with interest and sympathy. Please refer to his (...)

7Nevertheless, Oreshnikov never accepted the October Revolution, and this fact can be considered his quintessential feature as a “typical” old reader. In his diary, Oreshnikov was often cautious in his assessments of Soviet modernity. However, it is easy to draw clear conclusions about his attitude to the new government based on his reader’s comments (there are 212 of such comments in his diaries of the 1920s.) At first Oreshnikov makes a dry and non-evaluative note in a diary of 1919: “I read Lenin’s speech,” then, in the diary of 1925, his judgment towards the famous revolutionary poem of Aleksandr Blok “The Twelve” [“Dvenadtsat’”] looks quite unambiguous: “M. V. Picheta came and read me some lady’s article about Blok: the parallel between Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman [Mednyi vsadnik] and the Blok’s poem ‘The Twelve’; I really do not like the latter, so, in my opinion, no parallel here is acceptable.”5

  • 6   For more details on this persecution, please refer to: F. F. Perchenok, “Akademiia nauk na ‘velik (...)

8We can assume what kind of feelings were triggered by the memories on the last Russian Tsarevich Aleksei Romanov, which Oreshnikov read in 1921: “I’m reading The Tragic Fate of the Russian Imperial Family. Memoirs of the Former Tutor Pierre Gilliard of the Heir Tsarevich Aleksei Nikolaevich [Tragicheskaia sud’ba russkoi imperatorskoi familii. Vospominaniia byvshego vospitatelia Naslednika Tsezarevicha Alekseia Nikolaevicha P’era Zhil’iara]. Revel, 1921 (70 pages).” Soviet newspapers’ feuilletons surely made painful impression on Oreshnikov in 1929, as they defamed politically undesirable scientists and members of the Academy of Sciences: “From N.P. Likhachev I received a letter with newspaper clippings of articles on the persecution of many people serving in the Academy of Sciences. It is impossible to read them indifferently.”6

9It is possible to derive three basic premises of his reader’s experience from the facts of Oreshnikov’s biography. It is necessary to start with the fact that Oreshnikov did not receive a regular higher education: the level of culture that he achieved was almost entirely the result of his independent efforts, primarily as a reader, and hence he attached special significance to reading. Then it should be noted that he was a collector of cultural artifacts and a professional merchant; hence the attention he paid to descriptions of everyday life, subject details, and, in general, the most diverse information that could be gleaned from the books read. And, last but not least, Oreshnikov’s reading habits were primarily derived from his pre-Revolutionary life; thus his obvious indifference to contemporary Soviet fiction. If, for example, Maiakovskii is mentioned in the diary of Oreshnikov in 1925, it is reported that it was a friend of his who read his poems aloud, not himself.

10Moving from our presuppositions to our conclusions, we would consider it worth asking what reading meant to Oreshnikov in his capacity as an old reader.

  • 7   “I read P .K. Stepanov’s The History of Russian Clothing [Istoriia russkoi odezhdy] (about Scyth (...)

11First, reading meant the constant practice of cognition and research. The exceptional rationalism and positivism that defined the second half of the nineteenth century, as well as the personal experience of Oreshnikov as a coin collector, researcher, and a merchant, are reflected in his particular interest in reading books for the sake of acquiring useful information. It is clear that Oreshnikov read many works directly related to his interests as a researcher and collector: “… read A. N. Zograf’s About the Types of Kherson Coins [O tipakh khersonskikh monet]” (from the diary of 1922); “I read the articles of Zograf, Berthier-Delagard and my own in the numismatics of Khersoniana (from the diary of 1929); “The other day Pisanko brought me a manuscript about rare Russian coins of the XVIII–XIX centuries; in the foreword he wrote about the Russian numismatics of the XVII–XX centuries; I haven’t read anything more ridiculous in this area, it is extremely mediocre and ignorant” (from the diary of 1929), etc. However, Oreshnikov sought out information about which he was curious not only in historical works,7 but in fiction as well. For example, in 1923 he wrote, “Read The Fiery Angel [Ognennyi angel] by V. Briusov; the author is thought to be a talented, educated person; I found out many interesting things about everyday life in sixteenth-century Germany.”

12This diary entry expressively demonstrates the feature of Oreshnikov’s intellectual personality which simultaneously unites him with many old readers and distinguishes him from them: in books, first of all, he looked for a detailed depiction of the life of the era the author wrote about. Oreshnikov’s perception of the carefully-read text was oriented primarily in the direction of domestic material culture: “I was reading The Golden Ass the whole day; the parts describing the mysteries of Isis, the ballet ‘The Court of Paris,’ and the tale of Cupid and Psyche are highly interesting; and there are so many curious features of domestic life!” (from the diary of 1921); “Reading Kakash and Tiktander, Journey to Moscovia in 1602; there are a few domestic details” (from the diary of 1926); “I am reading Gogol’, how many everyday features there are in his stories, especially in Taras Bulba” (from the diary of 1927); “I spent the whole day reading Kliuchevskii and Solov’ev about Russia before the beginning of the 12th century; trying to understand the family life of this era” (from the diary of 1929).

13His second, more pleasurable approach to the book does not contradict to the first, utilitarian one. Indeed, the word ‘delight’ or the formula ‘great aesthetic delight’ is often found in Oreshnikov’s notes about the books he read: “I read Dickens’s novel Great Expectations; full of improbabilities; I didn’t experience any aesthetic delight while reading” (from the diary of 1918); “I read The Tale of Igor’s Campaign [Slovo o polku Igoreve] with D.N. Dubenskii’s comments, got great delight” (from the diary of 1926). We quote another similar entry: “I’ve read with delight Woe from Wit [Gore ot uma]. What a mind and observation the writer has!” (From the diary of 1927). But the important thing is that Oreshnikov derived his greatest aesthetic delight from books that enable him to immerse himself in the life of the past. (This rich past was possibly opposed in his mind to the barbaric destruction of the established pre-Revolutionary life in Soviet Russia in the 1920s). “I am reading Anna Karenina I enjoy the highly artistic pictures of everyday life that Tolstoi shows,” Oreshnikov writes in a diary of 1924.

14The paradoxical consequence of the fact that Oreshnikov did not receive a regular higher education is that his reading habits drew him to an unusually wide variety of works. Acquiring daily pleasure from reading, Oreshnikov was not constrained by any fear of breaking cultural taboos. If the book he read was not obligingly Soviet, Oreshnikov was grateful to its author for the fact that this book at the very least distracted him from the present, and sometimes simply entertained him. “I am sitting at home and reading The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas; I cannot read something serious,” Oreshnikov writes, for example, in a diary entry from 1919, a very difficult year for him. “I’ve read Where the Oranges are Ripening [Gde apel’siny zreiut] by Leikin (the 18th edition!!), one of the most vulgar books that I’ve ever read, but there can be no doubt about the liveliness of certain sections,” he says in a 1920 entry.

15It is probably Oreshnikov’s blissful ability to receive positive emotions from the ‘liveliness’ of various books that can explain a very wide repertoire of his reading, as well as a certain eclecticism in his tastes. Among the authors that Oreshnikov read with interest were Valerii Briusov and Konstantin Staniukovich, Homer and the yogi Ramacharak, the polar explorer Nansen and Suetonius, Rudolf Steiner and Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, Mark Twain and Dmitrii Merezhkovskii.

16But, thirdly, ‘delight’ is a too weak word to describe Oreshnikov’s reading experience. For Oreshnikov’s autodidact, reading, of course, was not just a simple leisure activity or even a function of his beloved occupation; on the one hand, it was almost a physical need, and on the other hand, almost a religious rite. One of the more tragic leitmotifs of Oreshnikov’s diaries in the 1920s is his inability to read due to his health conditions and/or the environment: “A strong melancholy feeling; I cannot read” (from the diary of 1924); “I feel [that I am having] a strong nervous breakdown, I could not concentrate on reading (I was reading Troilus and Cressida by Shakespeare)” (from the diary of the same year); “Eczema hurts, especially at night. I feel a great weakness, I cannot even read at night” (from the diary of 1925); “With such a life I cannot read at all, my head does not work” (from the diary of the same year).

  • 8   Here is another similarity between Oreshnikov and other old readers, many of whom lived in the 19 (...)

17Fourthly, the book remained for Oreshnikov—as it did for many other old readers—the main source of consolation and comfort throughout the 1920s. “A dreary feeling, which prevented me from concentrating, didn’t let me read; I spent an hour playing solitaire, then went to the A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens, and my head returned to a normal state” notes Oreshnikov in a 1925 diary entry. However, Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin certainly had the most life-giving impact on him.8 “I was reading Eugene Onegin [Evgenii Onegin]; Pushkin makes me so calm, no matter how excited I am when I read him, I calm down,” admits Oreshnikov in a 1924 entry. “I read Lermontov in the morning, re-read all my favorite poems from the last years of his life; what a great talent. Then I read Pushkin, my mind relaxed; my favorite poet gives me great calmness,” he writes in a 1926 entry. “Before breakfast I read Chekhov, got bored and began to read Dubrovskii by Pushkin,” notes Oreshnikov in an entry from the same year. It is interesting that Oreshnikov also used Pushkin’s works as a healing treatment in communication with his close friend. “...I went to L.V., she had pains in her heart; I read her excerpts from the Captain’s Daughter [Kapitanskaia dochka] by Pushkin aloud,” he wrote in his diary in 1924.

18What is the common denominator of all these reader’s modes? Let’s pay attention to the impulse with which Oreshnikov moved from the dreary world of the present to the world of the past. “I’m reading the beautiful description of the Roman Forum in Le Forum Romain by Ch. Huelsen (Roma, 1906); I bought this book during my unforgettable days in the eternal city in 1913,” he writes in his diary of 1920. “...I read Saltykov-Shchedrin’s letters, they are very interesting; I finished reading [the letters from] [18]76, I’m going through that time,” he notes in a 1925 entry. “The whole day I was reading Letters to My Brother [Pis’ma k bratu] by Gershenzon [...] The book is interesting as it makes me go through the time that I experienced myself,” Oreshnikov writes in 1927. All this points to a defining trait of the old reader type in the 1920s—emigration into reading, constant and consistent withdrawal from the Soviet life into the world of literature.

2. A young woman – A scientific worker

  • 9   The Information about Nechkina’s biography is taken from the publication: E. L. Rudnitskaja, S. V (...)

19A fundamentally different type of Soviet reader in the 1920s is represented in the diaries of Militsa Vasil’evna Nechkina (1899/1901?–1985). She was born in the Ukrainian city Nizhyn. Nechkina’s mother came from a family of rich merchants, and her father, a technical engineer, was the director of the Nizhyn Technical School before the revolution. Nechkina received her secondary education in the Ekaterina Women’s Gymnasium in Rostov-on-Don and in the Second Ksenia Women’s Gymnasium in Kazan, at which she finished with a gold medal and the title of ‘home instructor’ (in mathematics). In 1918, having received the matriculation certificate for the course at the male gymnasium, Nechkina became a student in the History and Philology Faculty of Kazan University. In 1921, having graduated, Nechkina remained there to prepare for a professorship in the department of Russian history. In 1922, Nechkina published the book Russian History in the Coverage of Economic Materialism (Russkaia istoriia v osveshchenii ekonomicheskogo materializma) in Kazan, and in 1924 she moved to Moscow. As a scientist Nechkina was a strong supporter of the official Soviet Marxist historians leader, Academician M. N. Pokrovskii. She taught political economy and history in the workers’ faculty of the First Moscow State University, as well as the history of the USSR in the Communist University of the Workers of the East. At the same time, Nechkina worked as a senior research fellow at the Russian Association of Research Institutes. In 1927 her monograph Community of United Slavs (Obshchestvo soedinennykh slavian) was published. Later in life, Nechkina renounced the officially criticized concepts of Pokrovskii in the USSR, she worked for many years (from 1936 to 1985) at the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and gradually turned into the coryphaeus of Soviet historical science, crowned with the State Stalin Prize of the Second Degree in 1948 and was elected a Full Member (Academician) of the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1958.9

20Obviously, unlike Aleksei Oreshnikov, Nechkina was purposefully pursuing a career as a Soviet scientist in the period we are interested in. The way to make this career for herself was first to get a higher education at a reputable nearby university (Kazan University), then move to Moscow, and finally teach in Soviet universities (and to write scientific articles, of course). Proceeding from these assumptions, we might highlight two conditions which determined Nechkina’s early reader’s experience.

  • 10   Cf. Nechkina’s entry in 1919: “I tried to read Sappho in Greek, but it turned out to be pointless (...)

21Firstly, with a single significant exception (which we’ll speak about later on), Nechkina’s sphere of reading consisted of books and articles she had to read as a student, or a teacher, or a person who studied foreign languages (books in English, French and Italian);10 or, alternatively, texts that she had to read as an author of scientific reports, articles and books. The occasions of non-task-based, on-a-whim reading were so rare in Nechkina’s practice that she made special notes about them in her diary: “I read Edgar Poe’s book and (by chance) Sluzhkov’s pamphlet on mathematics” (from her diary of 1919); “I read / looked through Plekhanov’s The History of Russian Social Thought [Istoriia russkoi obshchestvennoi zhizni].” “I read Kuzminskaia’s children’s book From the Life of a Serf Girl [Iz zhizni krepostnoi devochki] St. Petersburg, 1911, which accidentally came into my hands,” (from the diary of 1920); “Reading Rozhkov’s articles from Education [Obrazovanie], I read all the rubbish from there as well” (an entry from the same year); “I was reading some not very good story in Awakening (Probuzhdenie) when I was waiting for the dentist” (an entry from the same year).

22Secondly, modern Soviet literature was also a part of Nechkina’s compulsory reading, and works that confirmed Soviet ideology would have been positively evaluated by her a priori. Of course, Nechkina, in contrast to Oreshnikov, read the agitational poem of Vladimir Maiakovskii 150,000,000 voluntarily in 1921, and in 1920 she re-read Blok’s The Twelve.

23Nechkina’s attitude towards reading was developed by years of study and teaching. She perceived reading as an occupation requiring considerable discipline and will, which influenced even her acquaintance with those fiction works that she read beyond any program, for her own entertainment only. In 1921, she felt bored reading a rather voluminous novel by P. Melnikov-Pecherskii and made the following entry in the diary: “I read In the Woods [V lesakh] by Pecherskii, not always willingly, sometimes as a kind of duty: it’s necessary to know. It’s bad.” A few days later, a note appears in the diary indicating Nechkina’s strong-willed efforts to continue reading the book: “I read In the Woods quite a lot.” And later she reports she has started reading another multi-page novel by the same writer: “I began to read On the Mountains [Na gorakh].”

24These premises point to Nechkina’s main reading tendency: reading is not only ‘otium’ for her, but also ‘negotium’; not only a blissful goal, but means of social self-realization, a career tool. How did Nechkina’s readership features evolve during the 1920s?

  • 11   Nechkina’s diaries are cited according to the publication: “... ‘I muchilas, i rabotala neveroyat (...)

25Unfortunately, once she moved to Moscow in 1924, Nechkina recorded her reader’s impressions irregularly for some time. Notably, there are only four entries in her diary of 1929 and not a single one is about the books she read. Her diaries of the Kazan period, though, were constantly filled with notes and impressions of books and articles she had read. All in all, there are 396 records of this kind in Nechkina’s diaries between 1918 and 1928.11

26In Kazan, her reading consisted of an inexpressive variety of books that could be easily classified into thematic clusters.

27The first consists of books and articles according to the university program, which, in turn, are divided into historical and philological ones: Nechkina couldn’t immediately make her final choice of the specialty. The fourth reading-related entry from her diary of 1918 illustrates the situation of the professional intersection where Nechkina found herself at the beginning of her scientific path:

I read Vernadskii’s article “The Sovereign Service and Industrial People in Siberia in the seventeenth Century” (The Ministry of National Education Journal) [“Gosudarevy sluzhilye i promyshlennye liudi v Sibiri 17 veka.” Zhurnal Ministerstva narodnogo prosveshcheniia]. There I also read about the sources of Lermontov’s poetry, and was excited by the recent thinking about unconscious plagiarism; I re-read the instance of plagiarism by E. Keller and was thinking a lot.

  • 12   “I read Balzac” (from the diary of 1919); “I read Walt Whitman. In the morning in Vera’s place I (...)
  • 13   Books that were read for better mastery of foreign languages could be singled out as a separate m (...)

28Later, she made her choice favor of history, but it seems that Nechkina still considered for some time the possibility of returning to the philological path. Was that the reason that in 1919-1920 she was active in reading western fiction of the past?12 (The number of Western classics sharply decreased in her reading between 1921-1924.) If Nechkina eventually took up the profession of a foreign philologist, a good knowledge of several foreign languages could have served as her trump card.13 However, perhaps she may have simply been preparing for her upcoming examinations in foreign literature.

29Nevertheless, the lists of studies regularly appear in the general list of her student readings, which Nechkina, being an excellent student, did indeed attend to before her exams. The listed titles are, for example, to be found on the vast registers of books and articles on Western painting that she read before taking her university exam in the history of art in 1920.

30The second cluster which stands out from Nechkina’s reading list from her Kazan period includes books and articles she engaged while preparing for her studies as a teacher. “Yesterday I gave the girls a lesson about Babylon and read them ‘The Lamentations of Jeremiah’,” she writes in a diary of 1919. “I was preparing a lesson for girls—the first lesson on the history of Greece,” Nechkina notes in her diary of the same year. Subsequently, her home lessons with young students would be replaced by her lectures and seminars for Soviet students; those lectures also required preparations using thematically selected books and articles. Here are two entries from her Moscow diary of 1923: “I read excerpts from Capital in class, I am pleased” and: “I was preparing for a lesson in literature—read Turgenev (different works!)”

  • 14   Here is, for example, an entry from Nechkina’s diary in 1921: “Velidov and Anuchin ran to me in t (...)

31The third cluster includes a variety of materials that Nechkina was studying while working on the texts of her reports, articles, and books14for example, a report on a large study of the historian Vasilii Kliuchevskii. “I read V. Khvostov’s The Evolution of Historical Science and its Present State [Evoliutsiia istoricheskoi nauki i ee sovremennoe sostoianie] for my work about Kliuchevskii, and I took notes. I looked through Falkenberg, Kuno Fischer about Hegel. I read about L. Ranke in the lithographic course of the new history of Professor Forsten, took notes. Made some notes from the ‘plekhanovets’ article “Notes of the Reader on the Book of Comrade Bukharin The Theory of Historical Materialism” [“Zametki chitatelia o knige tov. Buharina Teoriia istoricheskogo materializma”] (Under the banner of Marxism [Pod znamenem marksizma] 1922, 11–12) — for Kliuchevskii,” Nechkina noted in her diary in 1923.

  • 15   In 1922 Nechkina even writes in her diary about her fatigue at this kind of reading, which, howev (...)

32At the end of the above entry, we can clearly see the methodological foundations of Nechkina’s labors by that time. It is necessary, however, to pay attention to the fact that Marxism had turned into an ideology which she did not immediately confess. The notes from her diary of the early 1920s show that she was then examining the main—and the only—ideology of the Soviet state, and was still wondering if this ideology could become her own. “I read the biography of Marx a little,” Nechkina notes in her diary in 1919. “I started reading Tugan-Baranovskii’s article ‘What is Socialism?’ [‘Chto takoe sotsializm?’]” she writes in an entry from the same year. “I began to read the Communist Manifesto,” Nechkina wrote after a while. “I read the article by G. V. Plekhanov ‘Herzen the Emigrant’ [‘Gertsen-emigrant’] in Istoriia russkoi literatury the day before,” she writes in another 1919 entry. These and other entries from Nechkina’s early diaries are non-judgmental (she usually was lavish with her judgments); the fact of her acquaintance with the Marxist literature and methodology is recorded, but nothing more.15

33However, in her first book published in Kazan in 1922, Nechkina already acts like a true-believing Marxist, and her diary of 1923 was almost lyrical: “I read newspapers and magazines in the editorial office library (Prozhector’s edition, devoted to Lenin) (I love Lenin), No. 14 for 1923.”

34Thus, Militsa Nechkina would represent an exemplary intellectual reader as formed by the Soviet state—if it wasn’t for one important circumstance of her biography. The fact is that in Nechkina’s reader’s repertoire of the 1920s there is still an extra large, fourth cluster of texts that absolutely does not fit into the biography of the Soviet career academic, and even partially compromises its integrity—namely, the works of the Russian Modernists.

35One can state, with no exaggeration, that at the end of the 1910s and the beginning of the 1920s it was precisely the Modernist poems that constituted Nechkina’s most cherished readings, that figured most prominently in her hierarchy of texts. Being treated for fatigue in a sanatorium in August 1919, she tried to completely abandon reading for a time; this proved too difficult, and she read a number of authors superficially and in small doses. The only book she made an exception for was a collection of poems by a contemporary poet:

On August 3, at 9:00 pm, I arrived at a sanatorium. During the entire period of my stay, I was fundamentally detained from any kind of reading and writing. This was not quite possible: a book will turn up occasionally and you’ll read a few lines or several pages. […] Among those writers I read by pages and lines I remember Chekhov, Rodenbach […] Maupassant, Igor’ Severianin (let’s say I read properly his Goldlira [Zlatolira]), Hoffmann.

  • 16   “I read Blok (Aleksandr Blok.’ Poems’ [‘Stikhotvoreniya’]. Vol.2, 1904-1907, Moscow, 1916)” (from (...)
  • 17   “I read [...] Gumilev (Bonfire [Koster]. Poems, St. Petersburg, 1918)”; “I read Gumilev’s Pearls (...)
  • 18   “...I read The Sounds of Spring ([Zvuchal vesnianki], poems by Vasilii Kamenskii”); “I’ve finishe (...)
  • 19   “I read ‘Goluben’ by S. Esenin, Moscow, 1920”; “I read the ‘Treriadnitsa’ by Sergei Esenin, in 19 (...)
  • 20   “I read Lozina-Lozinskii’s The Pious Journey (Blagochestivye puteshestvia), St. Petersburg, 1916” (...)
  • 21   To learn more about Annenskii’s readers of 1920s: Please refer to R. D. Timenchik, Podzemnye klas (...)

36According to the diary, Nechkina preferred the verses and prose of the Russian Symbolists16, but she also read the poems of the Acmeists17, Futurists18, and Imaginists19 with interest, as well as modern poets who did not belong to any of the listed schools.20 Nechkina was interested in Modernist authors not only of the first, but also of the second, and even of the third tier (for example, Georgii Chulkov, the early works of Vadim Shershenevich, Aleksei Lozina-Lozinskii, Maria Moravskaia, Marietta Shaginian). However, her absolute favorites poets were the three most beloved of the whole generation of 1920s readers—Aleksandr Blok, Anna Akhmatova, and especially Innokentii Annenskii.21

  • 22   “I read The Cypress Chest [Kiparisovyi larets] by I. Annenskii”; “I’m completely ill, no toothach (...)

37Her reading of his play is recorded in one of the most open and touching entries in Nechkina’s diaries of the 1920s (1921): “I was reading Annenskii’s Famira-Citharede [Famira-Kifared], feel terribly tense and upbeat, overworked, understood Famira, as if I had a hunch. A lot of happiness.” Reading Annenskii’s verses and articles about him is one of the leitmotifs of Nechkina’s diary in 1920–1921.22

  • 23   “... I’ve been at Radimov’s for approving an examination-and-test register,” Nechkina wrote in he (...)
  • 24   Presumably that was Erlikh who instilled in Nechkina her love of Annenskii (see one of the cited (...)

38The reason for her heightened interest in the Russian Modernists is explained very simply. The fact is that Nechkina’s characteristic ambitions of the Soviet historian were combined with her claims of being a poet for several years—and, what is more, a poet of a Modernist orientation. She did not publish any of her poems during her lifetime; nevertheless, Nechkina performed some of these poems on the stage during poetic evenings in Kazan. “A Poets’ meeting, disputation on Futurism. I recited poetry,” she writes, for example, in her diary in 1920. Nechkina sent her poems to Mikhail Kuzmin in Petrograd, spoke with a former member of Gumilev’s ‘Guild of Poets’ Pavel Radimov23 in Kazan, and was in love with the newcomer poet Volf Erlikh24 (later a close friend of Sergei Esenin).

  • 25   We give here one more excerpt from Nechkina’s diary of 1919: “I began to read A Contribution to t (...)
  • 26   According to Nechkina’s diary of the early 1920s it becomes clear that she was going to write art (...)
  • 27   Please refer to: A. I. Iaroslavtsev, Militsa Nechkina: Literaturno-psikhologicheskii ocherk (Mosc (...)

39We see that Nechkina, as a reader of the early 1920’s, stood at the crossroads of two hypothetical vocations, choosing between the fields of Marxist scholar (Soviet historian) and the ‘paths’ of the Modernist poet. This was reflected, in particular, in the reader’s notes from her diary. “I read Sombart’s Modern Capitalism and described The Cypress Chest [Kiparisovyi larets],” Nechkina notes in her diary of 1921.25 What determined her final choice of readership strategy? It was not so much the personal inclinations of young Nechkina as her understanding of the logic of social order. When the historical vector was clearly outlined as a vocation by about 1923, she rejected the path of marginalization and relied on the ideological highway. Having realized that neither writing Modernist poetry, nor scientific research26 would provide her a safe place in the Soviet modernity, Nechkina, from 1923 on, no longer contributes to her diary entries about reading contemporary poetry and prose and lands firmly on the position of the true-believing Marxist historian.27 It is typical that one of the last entries in her 1923 diary, which contains references to a poet-modernist, is the information about reading a vulgar sociological abusive article by Boris Arvatov about Anna Akhmatova, who was once so beloved by Nechkina: “... I read the latest issue of a magazine Molodaia gvardiia I think No. 5 (Arvatov’s article about Akhmatova and others).”

  • 28   L. I. Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki. Vospominaniya. Esse (St. Petersburg, 2002), 60.

40Thus, reading for Militsa Nechkina —unlike Aleksei Oreshnikov— was, first of all, a social practice and a method of career self-affirmation. Listening sensitively to the social order of the Soviet era, Nechkina did not hide from it in a book; on the contrary, she used it as a springboard, climbing the ladder of prestige through reading. Thus, her reading, if we use the formula of L. I. Ginzburg, became the ‘fate’ of a person—the “point of intersection between universal tendencies” and was finally defined as “the pressure of the times.”28

3. A developing provincial boy

41If Oreshnikov and Nechkina embodied the opposite adult readers types of the early Soviet period, the example of Anatolii Fedorovich Starodubov (1909–1979) helps to identify and describe specific stages of a boy becoming a reader (and only later—an adolescent and a young man); that is, a boy little affected by the influence of Soviet ideology.

  • 29   We took Starodubov’s biographical facts from the preface article by A. K. Fomenko “Ob avtore i eg (...)
  • 30   Elementary political science
  • 31   Let us also quote Starodubov’s opinion on the novel by B. Chetverikov (from the diary of 1926): “ (...)

42Born in the Penza province to a tax inspector and a teacher, he moved to Ekaterinoslav (since 1926, Dnepropetrovsk)29 at the age of eight. Tolya Starodubov stoically endured the Soviet backdrop of his early life, and regarded reading books from the Soviet canon as an inevitable and dreary duty, performed for the sake of a successful transition from one school form to another. In his diary of 1925 Starodubov wrote: “Here they are, the days before the end of the term! Apparently every single student spent a sleepless night learning politgramota30, culture, or algebra. Oh, how bitter these days are!” The following entry was made in the 1927 diary: “Belitskii suddenly showed up today […] According to him, the theme of Russian and public writing will be ‘The Beginning of the Labor Movement’ and Gor’kii’s Mother [Mat’]. I started to read Mother today.” Starodubov underscored his unenthusiastic impressions of this premier social-realistic novel in a later entry from the same year: “I was reading Gor’kii’s Mother for almost the whole day. I remember in the spring, a week before the exams, I devoured this book, read some pieces, and there was so little time...and now I’m reading the book ‘with feeling, with sense’...the book is ruined by endless conversations, but still it worries me in some parts (the search, the escape, May 1, beating Rybin).”31 “... I went to the garden and read...oh, dear! Babel’: Red Cavalry [Konarmiia],” Starodubov noted in his 1929 diary. “As for books, I read a boring chronicle of J. Reed, Ten Days.” At this point, he shared his feelings about the ultra-Soviet book by the American journalist John Reed Ten Days That Shook the World, which concerns the October Revolution. “I read Lenin’s ‘Imperialism’ and did not understand anything,” Starodubov wrote angrily in his diary of the same year.

43Perhaps the only exception to the rule was a social-realistic novel by Fedor Gladkov which impressed Starodubov. “Finished reading Cement [Tsement]. I liked the novel. The life of the workers, military communism, etc., are described true to life,” he wrote in a 1926 diary entry. But Starodubov was usually attracted to completely different books.

44In 1918-1922 he, like every child, read and listened to what was recommended by adult—his father and mother, older brother and sister, a teacher, a priest... In Starodubov’s diary of that time, there are very few critical judgments about the books he read; the main evaluative statements are generally confined to the phrases “I liked it” and “it was interesting”: “I read A Little Woodman [Lesovichok] by L. A. Charskaia, an interesting book” (from the diary of 1919); “I read The Trifles of a Bishop’s Life [Melochi arkhiereiskoi zhizni] by N .S. Leskov. I liked this book very much” (from the diary of 1919); “Yesterday I read the book The Fortunes of Nigel, and now I took it to my teacher. She gave me 2 volumes of Gogol’ to read. I began The Government Inspector [Revizor]. Terribly interesting” (from the diary of 1920); “In the evening we all went to bed, and my father read the tragedy Henry IV; I like Falstaff, his fatness” (from the diary of 1920); “My elder brother Kirill went to the Soviet library and brought D. S. Merezhkovskii’s Death of the Gods: Julian the Apostate [Smert’ bogov. Iulian otstupnik] [...] In the evening I read Julian the Apostate. A terribly interesting book” (from the diary of 1921); “I read Dead Souls [Mertvye dushi]. Very interesting” (from the diary of 1922). If Starodubov did not like some books at that time, he tried to be delicate in his assessments and, like Nechkina, read all the boring works to the end: “I finished the novel No Way Out in the evening. The novel is not that great, but you can read it” (from the diary of 1920).

  • 32   “I’ve been reading Rolf in the Woods by Thompson Seton. It’s a very interesting book.”
  • 33   “The whole evening I was reading H. Rider Haggard’s novel Montezuma’s Daughter and I finished it. (...)
  • 34   “I was sitting at home and reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s a very interesting bo (...)
  • 35   “During the whole next day I was reading Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It’s a very interesting sto (...)
  • 36   “...I’ve been reading Herbert Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes and I’ve finished the book. It turned out (...)

45Starodubov’s first uncompromising ‘protest’ decision in his reader’s practice was made in 1923 when he was fourteen years old; this decision was connected—as was typical—with an attempt to cope with a Revolutionary Soviet play by Vsevolod Ivanov, Armored Train 14-69 (Bronepoezd 14–69). “I began to read Armored Train by Vs. Ivanov and dropped it—it’s boring,” he noted in his diary. Since that time, the books which he had to become acquainted with for educational purposes, began to alternate in Starodubov’s reading practice with typical teenage reading, i. e. with adventure and fantasy novels. He eagerly absorbed the books of Ernest Thompson Seton (in 1923),32 Rider Haggard,33Mark Twain,34 Mayne Reid, Robert Louis Stevenson,35 James Fenimore Cooper, Louis Boussenard, Edith Nesbit, H. G. Wells,36 Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as many of his imitators (in 1924). Interestingly, the reading of adventure literature prompted Starodubov to expand the volume of the reader’s notes in his diary considerably: short evaluations were replaced by retellings, and sometimes by attempts to analyze what he had read.

46The highest point of Starodubov’s enthusiasm for adventure literature and, at the same time, his first, transitional step into the next stage (love affairs and poetry) was his acquaintance with the works of Alexandre Dumas père, especially with The Three Musketeers in 1924. “Zdanevich came in the evening. I gave him The Counterrevolutionary Movement Led by Kolchak [Kolchakovshchina] and The Robbers of the Seas to read and he gave me The Three Musketeers. I started reading this book,” Starodubov says in his diary. “I was reading The Three Musketeers. I’ve read 27 chapters today,” he wrote in a diary the next day. “Today I finished the first part of Musketeers and read 8 chapters of the second part. I’m reading slowly for pleasure’s sake...,” he added another entry in his diary a few days later. Starodubov noted parting with The Three Musketeers with such an extensive record:

I’ve finished reading The Three Musketeers on the 1st. D’Artagnan... Brave D’Artagnan strikes with his courage, purity, good nature. He is completely devoted to his comrades. How indecisive and at the same time desperately brave and generous he is, coming to Paris. Planchet, Grimaud, Bazin and Mousqueton also enrapture me, as well as de Treville, who always cares about his musketeers. But you remember the others with disgust... Anne de Breuil, Athos’ former wife, is a branded criminal... Count Winter, Mrs. Bonacieux, Buckingham, the Lillian executioner’s brother fall from her revengeful hand. Felton, Winter’s officer, a strict puritan, becomes a criminal because of her. Or the formidable image of Cardinal Richelieu... Repentance hardly ever strikes his soul (when D’Artagnan talks about ‘milady’ Anne de Breuil’s death during the interrogation). In general, this book is extraordinary!

47Before proceeding to the description of the next stage of Anatolii Starodubov’s development as a reader, it is necessary to mention an important and tragic circumstance of his biography, which left a purely individual imprint on his reader’s experience. In January 1919 Starodubov hurt his leg badly, and often suffered pain in the following years. He did not go to school for months, and in 1926 he was diagnosed with osteoarticular tuberculosis. As a result of the operation, one of his legs was shortened, and he began to walk on crutches, and later, when he got better, with a stick. Therefore, Starodubov’s school education took longer; he entered the institute only at the age of twenty-eight, in 1937.

48All this resulted in a significant increase and expansion of the role of reading in Starodubov’s life; for this reason, Starodubov’s reading habits cannot be considered identical to the functions that reading performed in the life of his most well-read peers. The world of books turned into the space where his unachievable dreams and desires could be realized. This primarily explains a very large number of readers’ entries in his diary—356. Cinema became another such space for the young man; Starodubov became passionately interested in it in 1925. From that time on, reading and cinema became closely intertwined in his life—not only because he now spent a lot of time examining cinema brochures and film actors’ biographies, but also because Starodubov now perceived literature through the prism of cinema art. In his diary of 1927, he wrote: “Verochka gave me Alaskan Adventures to read (I saw the film The Spoilers, based on this novel). Therefore the book acquired a special interest and ‘picturesqueness’. I finished in the evening.”

49The role of reading in his life increased greatly when he started falling in love. For obvious reasons, Starodubov was not very confident in his relations with girls, so he often benefited from examining possible romantic milestones by finding close and distant analogies to these events in the books he had read. This is how many insecure young men and women behave, but this became a therapeutic habit for Starodubov. In the diary of 1927 he wrote:

I was sitting in the park next to the central garden bed behind fir trees and reading Kuprin—The Duel [Poedinok]. I was reading and I couldn’t put the book down. I was moved deeply by the image of Shurochka Nikolaeva. How strongly this woman reminded me of another! And Romashov, this dear, close person! And his pointless end. This book revived so many memories of joys and sorrows.

50In the same year, Starodubov read Fedor Orlov-Skomorovskii’s book Platonic Love (Platonicheskaia Liubov’) and reflected on what he had read:

A particularly interesting part is the author’s diary. Abandoned, mutilated physically and morally, he was brought back to life by the love of a girl... All this is so close to me: his suffering, the desire to get free from illness, these painful desires of sex... Platonic love... The mistyc ideal of a woman… After all, I experienced such love, love with no physical contact with a woman. Well, at least he kissed his schoolgirl, I did not dare to do it, he talked, and I moaned... Skomorovskii was disappointed in his love. He did not find the ideal that he was looking for. The girl he loved was “not free from all the commonplace women’s quirks”... That could be the reason why I felt such aloofness, disappointment, watching the smartness, frivolity and inner emptiness of another woman—Nata.

51Significantly, Starodubov’s most timid courtship for the main love of his youth—Nata (Anastasia Zarzhevskaia) was founded on discussions of books and movies. In the diary of 1927, Starodubov wrote:

Today I had a ‘continuation’ of yesterday’s talk with Nata (as I mentally call her). In the evening, when sneaking into my room (again, there is nobody there and she is alone with the book...) I stopped. “What are you reading?” She smiled, and said the name of the author. “And you are reading movie brochures again, as I can see. Do you like cinema that much?” I confessed... [...] Finally, she gave me George’s novel A Bed of Roses to read. The fact that she neglected the heroine increased my interest immediately: “What couldn’t she like about this woman, what does she condemn?” However, the fact that she had read this book made it a sacred object for me...

52Later Starodubov continued to seek out special meanings in the novels Zarzhevskaia gave him to read. In 1928, he wrote in his diary:

  • 37   Starodubov had a keen interest in fictional characters, who suffered from lameness like him. In a (...)

Today I finished reading Almond Blossom by Wadsley. And strangely, I am at the mercy of the vaguest thoughts. She wrote: “the hero is my sort of man”: Rex—a nice clever young man, an ideal—at least for me. He’s lame (!). Wasn’t this the reason she compared me to him? Maybe this was the reason for my useless dreams of the previous year, my impulses for ‘ideals’; do I really mean something to her? And can I possess the qualities that one can love? And wasn’t it a hint that Dora had been an actress before! (Like her!) What did she want to emphasize with these associations? My being too far from the ideal hero or vice versa—identification with him according to some ‘anemic’ qualities?37

53Poetry in general and love lyrics in particular played a distinctive role in Starodubov’s reading pantheon of the late 1920s. He first mentioned his voluntary reading of poetry in the diary of 1926, but at that point it was just a record of him copying several poems at the request of his brother: “I copied the poems from the book 100 Poets for Kirill. I read Esenin.” The situation changed dramatically after Starodubov met Zarzhevskaia. That experience was inseparable from the poems; the most powerful erotic experience recorded in his diary of 1927 was intertwined with the impression of reading the poems (Starodubov’s older sister Tanya is also mentioned in the entry):

After the beach, about two o’clock, when Tanya came from the town where she had bought a book of poetry by Sologub, we got together to read it. Tanya and Nata were sitting on my bed... I was sitting on the chair next to them. Nata was leafing through the book, stopped in some places and read: ‘Sniff, sniff, sniff! A little child whimpered.’ Between the readings she patted her knee with her palm, uncovering her leg high... The recollection of this snow-white body...

54At this point, the entry in Starodubov’s diary breaks off. We must mention that in Fedor Sologub’s poems and prose, the descriptions of naked bodies, and bare legs in particular, occupy a very significant place.

55After that, one should not be surprised when reading Starodubov’s diary in 1929 about his deeply personal perception of Akhmatova’s love lyrics: “I read poetry by Akhmatova. Sometimes — due to the rush of feeling— I grabbed my chest. It’s so good! Especially memorable are: ‘I have a special smile,’ ‘As plain courtesy enjoins,’ ‘True tenderness cannot be confused’”

56Therefore, young Starodubov’s life as a reader unfolds by means of a double existence: the book reveals to him parallel worlds that romantically illuminate the boy’s everyday life or, alternatively, compensate the young man’s daily traumas. At the same time, his attitude towards the book evolves from the boyish world duality —the opposition of the book world and the banalities of Starodubov’s existence—to the youthful search for lofty analogies between these worlds as a form of sublimation and therapy.

57To sum up, reading played a much greater role than usual in Anatolii Starodubov’s fate, as well as in the fates of Aleksei Oreshnikov and Militsa Nechkina. This, in fact, might lead to the complication and individualization of quintessential reader “types” of the 1920s, as demonstrated by their diaries. For Oreshnikov, reading became a way of emigrating from Soviet modernity (typical) and gaining positivist knowledge about the world (individual). For Nechkina—a way of adapting to Soviet modernity (typical) and a means of self-discipline (individual). For Starodubov—an exciting alternative to boring everyday routine (typical) and a means of autotherapy (individual). All three of them, despite their different attitudes towards contemporary Soviet reality (Oreshnikov’s disgust, Nechkina’s enthusiasm, and Starodubov’s indifference), are united by the fact that they were not new readers fostered by Soviet authority. Even Nechkina combined her careerist knowledge of Marxist sources with enthusiastic reading of Modernist poems during the 1920s. While under the ideological pressure of the Soviet school curriculum, Starodubov continued to read adventure novels, film reviews, and love lyrics for the sake of his soul. And Oreshnikov tried not to look into the pro-Soviet books at all. Therefore all three distinctively stand out from the archetypal image of the Soviet reader, which is described in the works of many contemporary researchers.


1   For obvious reasons, we call the period in the history of Russia from November 7, 1917 to December 31, 1929 as ‘the 1920s’ in this chapter.

2   See E. A. Dobrenko, Formovka sovetskogo chitatelia. Sotsial’nye i esteticheskie retseptsii sovetskoi literatury (St. Petersburg, 1997, Engl. transl. The Making of the State Reader: Social and Aesthetic Contexts of the Reception of Soviet Literature (Standford, 1997). Among the recent works see A. V. Gerasimova, “Vzlet i padenie: Ob izuchenii chitatel’skikh otzyvov v 1920-kh gg”, Russkaia Filologiia, 29. Sbornik nauchnykh rabot molodykh filologov (Tartu, 2018), 221-236.

3   Among the works on the types of the Soviet reader, we will distinguish the above-mentioned E. A. Dobrenko’s monograph, which contains an excellent bibliography on our point of interest.

4   The biographical information about Oreshnikov is taken from the publication: A. V. Oreshnikov, Dnevnik. 1915-1933, 2 vols., comp. P. G. Gaidukov, N. L. Zubova, M. V. Katagoshina, N. B. Strizhova, A. G. Iushko; ed. by P. G. Gaidukov (Moscow, 2010). We quote Oreshnikov’s diary in this edition.

5   However, Oreshnikov treated the ‘non-Soviet’ Bloc with interest and sympathy. Please refer to his diary entry of the same year, 1925: “In the evening I went to L.V., she read to me from Blok’s ‘Retribution’ [‘Vozmezdie’], there were some beautiful extracts.”

6   For more details on this persecution, please refer to: F. F. Perchenok, “Akademiia nauk na ‘velikom perelome.’ Zven’ya. Istoricheskii almanakh,” 1 (Moscow, 1991), 163-235.

7   “I read P .K. Stepanov’s The History of Russian Clothing [Istoriia russkoi odezhdy] (about Scythian clothing)”; “For the whole day I was reading passages from Karamzin, Kliuchevskii, Bagalei, which related to the Kiev period of Russian history; I’m looking for a connection between the economic side of the era and the issue of the first stamped coins; my searches are unsuccessful, but archaeological data lead me to believe that earlier in the twelfth century, no coins were stamped except ‘Iaroslav’s silver’ which was minted in Novgorod while Iaroslav the Wise was reigning there. This is a strange phenomenon. I made note of some information,” and other examples.

8   Here is another similarity between Oreshnikov and other old readers, many of whom lived in the 1920s at the behest of the last poem by Aleksandr Blok “To Pushkin House” (“Pushkinskomu domu”), in which the poet addressed his great namesake: “Give us your hand in wind and weather, / Help us in our mute struggle”.

9   The Information about Nechkina’s biography is taken from the publication: E. L. Rudnitskaja, S. V. Mironenko (eds.), ‘Istoriia v cheloveke’ – Akademik M. V. Nechkina: Dokumental’naia monografiia (Moscow, 2011).

10   Cf. Nechkina’s entry in 1919: “I tried to read Sappho in Greek, but it turned out to be pointless, because I do not have a dictionary.”

11   Nechkina’s diaries are cited according to the publication: “... ‘I muchilas, i rabotala neveroyatno’: Dnevniki M. V. Nechkinoi,” ed. E. I. Pivovar; comp., opening chapter and comments by E. R. Kurapova (Moscow, 2013).

12   “I read Balzac” (from the diary of 1919); “I read Walt Whitman. In the morning in Vera’s place I began to read Le Docteur Pascal by Zola” (from the diary of 1919); “I read Survill and Hugo—about Balzac” (from the diary of 1919); “I read Edda” (from the diary of 1919); “Read Edgar Poe” (from the diary of 1919); “... read a vulgar novel by Mirbeau” (from the diary of 1919); “Began to read Une vie by Maupassant” (from the diary of 1919); “I began to read A. France’s Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard” (from the diary of 1920); “A was reading a little of Maupassant’s Girls Who Got Married (in the Political Department)” (from the diary of 1920); “In the library, I began to read the Russian translation of A. France’s Rebellion of the Angels and I’ve read more than half of it. Remarkably deep and witty, in places—sculpted” (from the diary of 1920); “I read excerpts from The Song of Roland in The Anthology on the History of West European Literature by Kogan and Marten (Marten ‘Leçons De la littérature française’)” (from the diary of 1920); “I began to read Dante. I read and browsed Inferno in Chuiko’s translation” (from the diary of 1920); “I Read Federn’s Dante and his Time, ed. ‘Biblioteka dlia samoobrazovaniia,’ Dante Alighieri ‘La Divine Commedia,’ Firenze, 1864, ‘The Divine Comedy’ in the translation of Chuiko and Golovanov, Courses of Storozhenko and de La Bart about Dante. I moved on to the Renaissance, and read the introductory chapters from Storozhenko” (from the diary of 1920).

13   Books that were read for better mastery of foreign languages could be singled out as a separate mini-circle of young Nechkina’s readings: “Yesterday was a special day: I read Shakespeare in English for the first time in my life—an excerpt from Julius Caesar” (from the diary of 1918); “I was training hard in Italian (a little): I read Verga’s Novelle rusticane, wrote down and learned words, rehearsed the old ones” (from the diary of 1919). Nechkina was fluent in French since her childhood.

14   Here is, for example, an entry from Nechkina’s diary in 1921: “Velidov and Anuchin ran to me in the morning, they intrusively asked me to make a report on the History of Prostitution, I read 3 volumes about prostitution. Encyclopedias of Practical Medicine edited by Shpierer. I visited V. Ditiakin to take books about prostitution, and went to Troshin for the same reason and I was there for about three hours, he studied reflexes and ‘made interrogations.’ I read about prostitution in the small Granat [Encyclopedic Dictionary] (“v malom Granate).”

15   In 1922 Nechkina even writes in her diary about her fatigue at this kind of reading, which, however, is not surprising, considering the number of Marxist books and articles she read in a very short time: “ / looked through, made notes: Plekhanov’s ‘The Diary of a Social-Democrat’ [‘Dnevnik Sotsial-demokrata’], 1916, No. 1; also his ‘Our disagreements’ [‘Nashi raznoglasiya’], St. Petersburg, 1906; N. Kamenskii (Plekhanov) ‘On the Materialistic Understanding of History’ (‘O materialisticheskom ponimanii istorii’), in the Novoe Slovo magazine, 1897, September; and his ‘Destiny of Russian Criticism’ [‘Sud’by russkoi kritiki’], ibid. October; S. Ushakov (Plekhanov) ‘A few Words in the Defense of Economic Materialism’ [‘Neskol’ko slov v zashchitu economicheskogo materializma’], Russkaia mysl’, 1896, vol. 9; Tugan-Baranovskii’s ‘The factory’s struggle with the handicraftsman’ [‘Bor’ba fabriki s kustarem’], Novyi mir, 1897, October; Elnitskii’s ‘G. V. Plekhanov’, Obraz, 1906; Pokrovskii’s ‘The Reflection of an Economic Life in Russkaia Pravda’ [‘Otrazhenie ekonomicheskogo byta v Russkoi pravde’] (in Russian History from the Ancient Times to the Time of Troubles [Russkaia istoriia s drevneishikh vremen do smutnogo vremeni], an anthology of articles edited by N. Storozhev, 1, Moscow, 1898, ed., Biblioteka dlia samoobrazovaniia, No. 13); Kievan Rus’ [Kievskaia Rus’], edited by N. Storozhev, an anthology of articles, Moscow, 1910, ed. ‘Biblioteka dlia samoobrazovaniia,’ No. 13. I tired almost to the point of losing consciousness.”

16   “I read Blok (Aleksandr Blok.’ Poems’ [‘Stikhotvoreniya’]. Vol.2, 1904-1907, Moscow, 1916)” (from the diary of 1919); “I looked through the Symbolism [Simvolizm] of A. Belyi, I grasped the difference between the meter and the rhythm”; “Read [...] G. Chulkov’s The Golden Night [Zolotaia noch’]; “I’ve read the Song of Destiny [Pesn’ sud’by] by A. Blok, ed. Alkonost, Pb., 1919”; “I read Une vie and Urbi et Orbi by Briusov”; “I read poems by V. Briusov”; “I reread Blok’s The Twelve”; “I read Briusov” (from the diary of 1920); “I read [...] Gold in Azure [Zoloto v lazuri] by Andrei Belyi” (from the diary of 1920); “Read Bal’mont ‘Let us be like unto the sun’ [‘Budem kak solntse’] in ed. of Pashukanis, 1918”; “I read [...] A. Belyi ‘Urn’ [‘Urna’]”; “I read Belyi a little, ‘Ashes’ [‘Pepel’], 1909”; “Read […] Splinters [Iverni] by Maksimilian Voloshin”; “I read Blok”; “I read Blok and M. Voloshin’s Splinters” ; “I read Infancy [Mladenchestvo] by Viacheslav Ivanov, ed. Alkonost, St. Petersburg., 1918”; “I read Splinters of M. Voloshin and his ‘Verhaeren’,” Moscow, 1919 “; “I read poems by Gippius, Sologub and some others in the third volume of The Reader-Declamator [Chtets-deklamator]”; “I read Incense [Fimiam] by Sologub, 1921”; “I read Blok’s ‘A Gray Morning’ [‘Sedoe utro’], Alkonost, St. Petersburg, 1920, I also looked though his ‘Beyond the Past Days’ [‘Za gran’iu nashikh dnei’]”; “I read Andrei Bely’s The Princess and the Knights [Korolevna i rytsari], ed. Alkonost, 1919”; “Then I read Petersburg of A. Belyi”; “I read Notes of Dreamers [Zapiski mechtatelei], No. 2-3 (A. Belyi’s epic Me [Ia]).”

17   “I read [...] Gumilev (Bonfire [Koster]. Poems, St. Petersburg, 1918)”; “I read Gumilev’s Pearls [Zhemchuga]”, “I read Akhmatova’s White Flock [Belaia staia]”; “I re-read White Flock”; “... I read poems by Anna Akhmatova”; “I read [...] Anna Akhmatova”; “I read the White Flock by Anna Akhmatova”; “... I read Pillar of Fire [Ognennyi stolp] by Gumilev”; “I read the entirety of Gumilev’s poem Mik”; “I read and copied from Anna Akhmatova’s.”

18   “...I read The Sounds of Spring ([Zvuchal vesnianki], poems by Vasilii Kamenskii”); “I’ve finished reading ‘Victoria Amazonica’ [‘Victoria Regia’] by Igor’ Severianin”; “...I read Carmina [Karmina] by Vadim Shershenevich, vol. 1, Moscow, 1913”; “... I read and looked through [...] Pasternak”; “I read 150,000,000 by Maiakovskii”; “I read Thing [Veshch’] , No. 1, 2, 1922, the avant-garde magazine which is published in Berlin.”

19   “I read ‘Goluben’ by S. Esenin, Moscow, 1920”; “I read the ‘Treriadnitsa’ by Sergei Esenin, in 1921, and read ‘Imaginist girl’ [‘Imaginistka’] by Ippolit Sokolov, 1921”; “I read some Imagisnists”.

20   “I read Lozina-Lozinskii’s The Pious Journey (Blagochestivye puteshestvia), St. Petersburg, 1916”; “I read [...] ‘The Mundane Chasuble’ [‘Zemnaia riza’] by P. Radimov”; “I was delighted with the ‘The Pristiad’ [‘Popiada’]”; “I read ‘On the pier’ [‘Na pristani’], the poems of M. Moravskaia, Petrograd, 1914”; “... I read and looked through M. Shaginian’s Orientalia”; “I read Kuzmin’s poems in The Poet-Declamator,’ vol. 3, ed. 2”.

21   To learn more about Annenskii’s readers of 1920s: Please refer to R. D. Timenchik, Podzemnye klassiki. Innokentiy Annenskii. Nikolay Gumilev (Moscow, 2017); See also Timenchik, “Early Twentieth-Century Schools of Reading Russian Poetry”, in Volume 2.

22   “I read The Cypress Chest [Kiparisovyi larets] by I. Annenskii”; “I’m completely ill, no toothache. I read The Cypress Chest by I. Annenskiii a lot, Moscow, 1910”; “I read The Cypress Chest by I. Annenskii after sewing, I remembered a lot by heart”; “I both read and recited The Cypress Chest by Annenskii a lot [...] I read an article by Viacheslav Ivanov about Annenskii in the anthology Channels and Boundaries [Borozdy i mezhi]. I looked through the Bibliography of Innokentii Annenskii [Bibliografiia Innokentiia Annenskogo], compiled by Arkhipov, ed. Zhatva, 1914 (the edition is numbered, Podliachev gave it to me, No. 218)”; “Erlikh was there. We talked a lot, read Annenskii”; “I read The Cypress Chest a lot”; “I read Annenskii and Lorenzo de Medici”; “I read Annenskii and Anna Akhmatova”; “I read a lot, I copied Annenskii and reflected on him […] I’ve taken from Podliachev articles about Annenskii by Arkhipov and Mitrofanov and I’ve read them”; “I read Arkhipov’s article about Annenskii’s ‘No one and nobody’s’ [‘Nikto i nichei’] again” (from the diary of 1921); “I copied the poems by Annenskii”; “In the evening I studied Turgenev. I read [...] Annenskii’s article ‘The Dying Turgenev’ [‘Umiraiushchii Turgenev’] in the anthology devoted to Turgenev. ‘Russkaia i inostrannaia kritika.’ Compiled by P. P. Pertsov, Moscow, 1918.”

23   “... I’ve been at Radimov’s for approving an examination-and-test register,” Nechkina wrote in her diary in 1921.

24   Presumably that was Erlikh who instilled in Nechkina her love of Annenskii (see one of the cited above entries from her diary).

25   We give here one more excerpt from Nechkina’s diary of 1919: “I began to read A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy by K. Marx. I read ‘Catilina’ (‘Katilina’) by A. Blok.”

26   According to Nechkina’s diary of the early 1920s it becomes clear that she was going to write articles about Blok, Andrei Belyi, and Annenskii.

27   Please refer to: A. I. Iaroslavtsev, Militsa Nechkina: Literaturno-psikhologicheskii ocherk (Moscow, 2010).

28   L. I. Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki. Vospominaniya. Esse (St. Petersburg, 2002), 60.

29   We took Starodubov’s biographical facts from the preface article by A. K. Fomenko “Ob avtore i ego dnevnike,” A. F. Starodubov, Zapiski ochevidtsa. Ekaterinoslav, 1918-1923, 2 vols., edited by A. F. Fomenko (Dnepropetrovsk, 2001), I. Starodubov’s diaries are quoted on both volumes of this edition.

30   Elementary political science

31   Let us also quote Starodubov’s opinion on the novel by B. Chetverikov (from the diary of 1926): “I read Chetverikov’s Aleksei Sakulov. This is the Soviet Martin Eden: the laborer who succeeds in writing. However, this book is for sure incomparably weaker.”

32   “I’ve been reading Rolf in the Woods by Thompson Seton. It’s a very interesting book.”

33   “The whole evening I was reading H. Rider Haggard’s novel Montezuma’s Daughter and I finished it. It’s a very interesting book! I went to bed at midnight.”

34   “I was sitting at home and reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s a very interesting book!”

35   “During the whole next day I was reading Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It’s a very interesting story”.

36   “...I’ve been reading Herbert Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes and I’ve finished the book. It turned out to be very interesting. It describes future in 2 centuries from now. Giant airplanes fly in the sky, and there are small but lethal airsaws. Auto-moving streets are described there, and the cables through which people fly. Workers rebel against capitalists.”

37   Starodubov had a keen interest in fictional characters, who suffered from lameness like him. In a diary of 1927, he noted: “What a wonderful book I was reading today! This is The Lame Master [Khromoi barin] by A. Tolstoi. Grigorii Ivanovich, of course, is the closest character to me.”


Oleg Lekmanov is Professor of the Faculty of Humanities at National Research University – Higher School of Economics of Moscow. He has published more than 600 articles and 10 books, including the monographs Mandelstam, (Boston, 2010);  Samoe glavnoe: o russkoi literature ХХ veka, (Мoscow, 2017);  Russkaia poeziya v 1913 godu, (Мoscow, 2014). His academic interests are: Russian literature of XX-XXI centuries; Mandelstam’s poetry; Russian acmeism; history of cinema.


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