The Memoirs of Nadezhda Joffe

Against the Current, No. 67, March/April 1997

Morris Slavin

Back in Time My Life, My Fate, My Epoch
The Memoirs of Nadezhda A. Joffe
Translated from the Russian by Frederick S. Choate
Oak Park, MI.

THE AUTHOR OF these memoirs is the daughter of the well-known Bolshevik, Adolf Abramovich Joffe, a good friend of both Lenin and Trotsky. Unfortunately, since the book was written in 1971-72, that is, during the Brezhnev period, it is obvious that Nadezhda Joffe could say little on the politics of her time in the gulags. She is now ninety-six years old, living in New York. It is too bad that she did not update her memoirs, which are largely limited to her terrible struggle to survive and to keep her four daughters alive.

Nadezhda was born in 1900, being therefore twenty or twenty-one when the Russian civil war ended. It would have been interesting for the reader to have her impressions of this formative period in the history of the Soviet Union. Instead, we are treated to her revelations of life in the Kolyma camps. What a reader wants, however, is more than the struggle to survive in the madhouse that was Stalinist Russia.

When Nadezhda speaks of her father’s ordeal leading to his suicide, we get a glimpse of the counterrevolution that was to destroy the Bolshevik Revolution. Like so many Bolsheviks, Adolf Joffe was an idealistic, self-sacrificing socialist who gave his life for the Revolution. When he became ill and needed treatment abroad the early Stalinist regime refused to give him a visa because he was a Left Oppositionist — that is, a supporter of Trotsky. Moreover, the government limited the funds for his treatment in the Soviet Union.

Nadezhda publishes Joffe’s famous letter to Trotsky just before her father’s death in 1927. (The funeral following his suicide occasioned the last public demonstration of the Left Opposition.) It is a moving apologia for his life and the ideals for which he had struggled. Few works on the early period of Bolshevism contain the full document, which remains worth our attention today.

In addition, Nadezhda gives a sympathetic view of Trotsky, which somehow escaped the censors of her day. She writes that Lev Davidovich (Trotsky) “always spoke of Lenin not only with great respect, but with genuine human warmth.” As for Stalin, Trotsky seldom referred to him, but when he did so, “it always seemed to be incidentally and with a certain feeling of disgust.”

As to why Trotsky “lost the battle” to Stalin, the author writes “that it was precisely this sense of disgust which prevented him from winning” (41) — a bit too simple an explanation, of course.

Unlike other Oppositionists, the author was fortunate to have escaped the physical torture during her many hours of interrogation. Several NKVD agents, who had abused the prisoners, she reveals, were in turn tormented by those who followed them.

That many agents were ignorant of the most elementary knowledge of history and geography may be seen by the kind of interrogation they conducted. Because she had been born in Berlin, one officer demanded to know her relationship to the German fascists. Nadezhda tried to explain that she had been born in 1900, when there were no fascists in Germany, but could not convince him.

Finally, revealing that she had graduated from the Plekhanov Institute of National Economy, she was accused of lying because “Plekhanov was a Menshevik and a wrecker, how could there be an institute named after him!” he shouted. (187)

Nadezhda gives an interesting contrast between capital punishment during the pre-Soviet and the Soviet periods. Between 1876 and 1905, 486 people were executed, that is, about seventeen people per year (on the average, one or two people per month)…From 1905 to 1908, 2,200 people were executed or about 45 per month…From July 1918 through October 1919, more than 16,000 people were shot. That is more than one thousand per month…In 1937-38…about 28,000 people a month were annihilated under Article 58. By January 1939…1,700,000 people had been shot. (209-10)

(Article 58 was a catch-all that accused Old Bolsheviks, Trotskyists, Bukharinists, and others of “betraying the motherland.”)

In 1937 family members of those condemned under Article 58 were arrested. These were mostly wives and children of the condemned. After the end of World War II the same policy was applied to relatives of those arrested.

Nadezhda gives an example of Krestinsky’s grandniece, who had never even seen him. When he was shot in 1936 she was eight years old. Now, in 1950, she was in prison again. Nadezhda writes that “There were many such distant relatives in prison.” (213)

These memoirs are further proof of the counterrevolutionary nature of the Stalinist regime. In many respects life under it for the Old Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries was more precarious, imprisonment was far harsher, and the accident of survival less frequent than under the Tsars.

But “Back in Time” could be the name of a hundred memoirs. It would have been much more appropriate if the title had referred to her background as the daughter of an anti-Stalinist Bolshevik, or her battle to survive in the gulags.

We can only hope that Nadezhda will have left behind a fuller written or spoken record of her youth. The gulf between the Lenin-Trotsky period and its aftermath under Stalin and his successors would only re-emphasize the difference between revolution and its negation.

Names and terms are scattered throughout the book without a word of explanation of who or what they are. Some terms, like “free-hires” should have been translated as “civilian workers,” or “employees,” in contrast to the prisoners and their keepers. The word Mygalka (a lamp) appears as “mangalka,” untranslated. (215) Some of the acronyms are confusing, and several institutions and departments referred to are never defined.

Equally important, the author skips from one epoch to another without transitional explanations. Solitary sentences make do for separate paragraphs, and many incidents that need elaboration are left unexplored. In short, the memoirs could have benefitted from a good editor.

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, William Wordsworth wrote the famous lines:

“Joy was it in that dawn to be alive

But to be young was very heaven.”

Nadezhda gives us a glimpse of such a time in 1917. Unfortunately, like youth itself, it was too brief.

ATC 67, March-April 1997