Unit 15: Era of World Wars / Soviet Union
"Life Is Not Easy, Damn It!"
From Podlubnyi, Stepan. "Diary." As reproduced in Intimacy and Terror, trans. Carol Flath, ed. Veronique Garros, Natalia Korenevskaya, and Thomas Lahusen (New York: The New Press, 1995), 302-307, 330.


In fact, life for most residents of the Soviet Union in the 1930s was far from easy. Stepan Podlubnyi (1914- ), born in Ukraine to wealthy peasants, reveals his extraordinary life under the Stalinist regime in his diary, excerpted below. After 1917 his father was stripped of all but a part of his land because of his "kulak" origins. From 1932 Podlubnyi was an informer for the Secret Police. In this passage, he recalls the year 1937, the beginning of the Great Terror in the Soviet Union, and the arrest of Podlubnyi's mother.

December 6, 1937. No one will ever know how I made it through the year 1937. No one will know because not a single day of my life this year has been illuminated in this so-called diary, I can't even recall the details of my life in this year myself, and if everything turns out all right, and there are only 3 more weeks to go, I'll cross it out like an unnecessary page, I'll cross it out and banish it from my mind though the black spot the massive ugly black spot like a thick blood stain on my clothes, will be with me most likely for the rest of my life.

It will remain because my life during these 341 days of 1937 has been as ugly and disgusting as the clotted blood that oozes out in a thick red mass from under the corpse of a man dead from the plague. The feeling a man has who's not used to the sight of blood and sees a scene like that or recalls it, that's what I experience when I go through my memories of this past year.

A painful and disgusting year. Or rather, my life this year has been painful and disgusting. Maybe it always seems that way, that the unpleasant experience you're going through at the moment is worse than anything you've been through before, but it really does seem to me that this year was if not the worst of all the years I've ever been through at least it was one of the most painful ones. It leaves a miserable impression. It seems to me that the noose around my neck keeps getting pulled tighter and tighter every year. It feels like it's tightening more and more rapidly, at a regularly increasing rate and that it keeps getting proportionately tighter and tighter at the same time, for example I can't remember a time this year when the noose around my throat was loosened and I was given even a day to breathe freely, filling my chest with air.

Maybe I won't be able to express the intensity of the grief that I experienced this year, but I have to say that I expect the noose to tighten even more in the near future, maybe I won't be able to express it all or I won't have the patience to write it all down, for it's all too disgusting, but if I wondered whether it was worth going on living, I'd have to say there wasn't much pleasant or sweet in my life. Right now I am calm and that's why I can just move the pen across the paper, tracing the curving letters of these not altogether pleasant words. Naming the things I've been through.

Mama hardly worked at all all year and I didn't get a stipend. We lived off Kostya and his money.

I finished the school year with terrible marks and I still haven't dealt with all the consequences.

When I came back from vacation I brought Lyvaveta's Anya with me. I went through all kinds of trouble and worry getting her a residence permit and setting her up in school, and when I got everything finally worked out I had to send her back, because of her parents. Her father came to Moscow and tried to establish a place for himself so he could settle here permanently, but he got sick. He spent 2 months in the hospital and left empty-handed.

I lost all my good friends and my friends from the institute and was left all alone. Solitude is no fun. I completely wore out my clothes. I had no shoes and nothing to wear for every day much less for special occasions, and there were many days when I didn't eat a single crust of bread and had to walk to the institute because I didn't have the 10 kopecks tram fare.

That's all just the general scheme of things, it doesn't say anything about my feelings, but what I went through each time something happened in the overall scheme of things and my situation in general drove me to despair. If you add in the daily squabbling with my mother for when there's something wrong in a family there's almost always a lot of fighting, that would give a little rough sketch of what my life has been like recently.

Add to everything else the fact that I'm going to have to drop out of the institute with my current situation being what it is, and even someone who's not in the know about what I've been through will understand that things really don't look too great for the guy and little by little the psychologist will agree! I have to get through this, it's not easy, it's not easy at all. Life is not easy, damn it.

Of course I don't care about living for my own personal pleasure for it's nothing but trouble, but I take some comfort in the need to go on with my life just out of curiosity, to find out what will come next. Well why not, live and learn, you can always stop living but you can only do that one time.

12/18/1937. The noose around my neck gets tighter every day. It's getting harder and harder to breathe, the air stinks and the rotten smell gets worse with each passing day. There's a Ukrainian saying that captures a whole philosophy of life's misfortunes in just a few words. "You've got the runs, all you need now is the cough." All I needed for my state of mind to be complete, with things going the way they were in general and at the institute in particular--and I was already completely broke–was the final blow, and it came December 9 of this year.

From conversations with people who live in our apartment building we heard some alarming news that certain people from the Moscow Criminal Investigation Department (MUR) were very interested in the people we've been associating with and that they were gathering information about Mama. There was talk of a search and they said Mama was going to be arrested. Unfortunately we were not able to take complete advantage of the loose tongues among our domestic secret service--that is we did not draw the necessary conclusions. Or rather I drew a conclusion. I took some preventive measures, but Mama didn't do anything herself. I recommended that for the time being we leave the apartment and sleep in someone else's apartment until the end of the election campaign.

Judging from the way things were done in 1935-36 we knew that such things as exiles from Moscow were done 10-15 days before the October or May holidays, and in this case that meant the elections on December 12 and the voting in May and Mama took comfort in the fact that there was less time left.

Our mistake was that we expected to be exiled but not by any means arrested for there was no basis to assume something that extreme. Well, policies change and it's not my fault that all these decisions are made in secret, I personally hadn't come across such a case before.

Of course I've heard a lot of rumors about various people being arrested, no one is surprised by this anymore, but I just couldn't in my wildest dreams imagine my mama a semiliterate woman being called a Trotskyite, since I know her very well, and even in a fit of the worst possible suppositions I couldn't imagine that for old sins and what the newspapers call "former activities," with her living such a clean life now, that for old sins like that she would be arrested. There wasn't any ground for suspecting that. Of course I expected us to be exiled any day.

What happened was on the night of 12/9 at 4:00 the caretaker came over with an armed representative of the Fourth Section of the MUR and conducted a search after showing his personal identification and a search warrant. All indications were, judging by the way he was going about the search, that he was looking for weapons. Naturally he didn't find anything, as he wrote down on his form, and then he invited Mama to put on her coat and come down to the MUR with him for a minute; first he took her passport and put it in his pocket. Mama didn't have time even to get properly dressed for the cold or to pick up any money, even a kopeck, and she just stood there in the room, terrified by the unexpected shock, all pale with wandering, uncomprehending eyes, undoubtedly sensing instinctively that she would never see this beloved room again. She gazed around silently and couldn't find a word to say in parting.

She glanced around again and looked at me with her eyes pleading and inquiring at the same time, she wanted to ask or maybe say something but she didn't say a word and just held out her hand for me to clasp, and holding back her tears, forcing herself, with the last bit of strength she had left, to be brave and not to show any weakness in the last parting minute, she turned her head and followed the deputy and the caretaker to the door. I gathered my last strength, trying to keep my spirits up and hers at the same time with a carefree and happy expression on my face and making little joking comments, I said don't stay away too long and be back in time for tea, but in my own soul I knew that we wouldn't see each other for a long time. She knew it too and I saw it in her eyes that she understood that I was just putting on a clever act so as not to play out our parting scene with tears which wouldn't help at all but would just upset our nerves.

I took another look at her bent back, she already had turned from me, at her old coat, I caught a glimpse of the tattered backs of her felt boots before they vanished into the black cavity of the outer door. Since I was barefoot and just had my undershorts on and so as not to get into a tearful scene I didn't go out to see her off.

12/19/1937. Exactly 10 days have passed since Mama was invited to go down "for a minute" to the 4th Section of the MUR and that was the last I saw of her. Not only did I not see her; I didn't even manage to find out where she was. . . .

Naturally the question arises as to why people are being put in prison.

There are various reasons. For robbery, drunkenness, drunken brawling, for previous convictions, for a word spoken at the wrong time and place, but many people just don't know the reason. He was arrested and there he is in prison and I don't know why. Maybe he knows, but if he doesn't well then the person in charge of his case or the one who signed his arrest order ought to. A man is not always in control of his fate.

There used to be a saying, "We are all under the will of god." Now this saying goes, "We are all under the will of the NKVD." Oh, what a life! Nothing but trials and tribulations and there's no end in sight.


1/11/1938. There's so much for us to bear and endure, both me and Mama. I was so shaken by today's news that I forgot all my elegant expressions. I can't think straight, only isolated words burst from my chest.

I got to see her today in "Moscow Prison No. 3," as they call it officially. Tears streamed down from her aged, wrinkled eyes, she had trouble getting the words out. "The NKVD troika has sentenced me to eight years." How horrible, 8 years. It's so easy to pronounce, but so hard to live through. And for what?! The official category is "for concealing social origins," but how can you call it concealing when all the official powers knew about her social origin all the way back in 1934. And they say that there is justice in this world. There is no justice in the world anymore, justice died together with the good people, and the devil will leave in peace the scoundrels. The law. I'm not an anarchist by nature and I respect the law, but how can such injustice be done in the name of the law. They consider her a danger to society. You'd think they'd caught a bandit, but even bandits get lighter sentences than that. Well, so what, you can't break down a stone wall with just your head. Can this be the end of justice on earth. No there will be justice. Many people have perished in the name of justice, and as long as society exists, people will be struggling for justice. Justice will come. The truth will come.

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