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Critical Biography

From Women in European History

Nina Lugovskaya

The diary narrative written by Nina Lugovskaya grasps the reader with the sincere portrayal of a girl’s intimate reflections on life, and is further embellished by her intriguing philosophical meditation on gender identity and controversial politics. Lugovskaya began writing her diary in 1932, at the age of thirteen. Her pessimistic, but at the same time hopeful, narrative is loaded with the usual self-centered adolescent problems – crushes on boys, despair about school grades, and family tragedies. The negativistic approach of her thoughts develops as a side effect of her facial irregularity – her squinted eyes. It is due to this abnormality that Nina’s teenage journey seems to be depicted in gray tones, and it might be the cause of the sporadic hysteria expressed in her diary. However, her writing does not take a fully egoistic turn. Instead, Nina’s interests were specifically directed toward the discussion of social and political issues: the propagandized Bolshevik regime and the difference in gender identities. Through her diary, the young girl tried to textually define herself in relation to the society and political ideologies that embraced her. At the same time, while Nina adopted her diary as “[her] dear friend,”[1] its politically-controversial content later became a paradoxical traitor accountable for her imprisonment.


Nina Lugovskaya was writing her diary in the most extraordinary periods of Russian history – between the Bolshevik’s victory and the beginning of Stalin’s Great Terror (1936-1937). Her diary was not only a personal friend, but grew to become a collection of critical essays seasoned with a touch of personal experience. Her participation in the Bolsheviks’ experiment on children contributed to her anger and philosophies of the current events that formatted her daily life and her identity. Surveillance and police raids were described by Nina as a normal part of Soviet life, which were nevertheless very stressful for her and her family. The family tragedy, which shook many other friends’ families, was the exile of Nina’s father because of his counter-revolutionary believes. Nevertheless, from the philosophical analysis and description of family values, we understand that Nina’s family (her father in particular) was part of the Russian intelligentsia. In her frequent expression of disdain for the simple workers, Lugovskaya even stated “we were the only members of the intelligentsia”.[2] Adequately, the NKVD focused their raids and arrests on bourgeois specialists and wealthy land-owning peasants, whose actions and status was considered counter-revolutionary to the Bolshevik ideologies.[3] The exile of her father, the disdain for the simple worker’s blinded subjection under the regime’s ideology, and her own complex about what she perceived as her own hideous appearance forced Nina to feel incessant anger and spite. In her critical narratives, Nina particularly attacked the new regime’s educational ideologies, the forced participation in political holidays and groups such as Young Pioneers, the sheepish submission of the Russian population and the barbaric reign of the Bolsheviks. In contrast to her two sisters, Lugovskaya portrayed a very sober view of the political propaganda and we see that in order to separate herself from the slavish submissiveness of the common folk, she completely isolated herself – physically and mentally. In her rage, she said:

            “Even schools, these little children’s worlds, which you’d hardly           
            think would be infiltrated by the oppressive influence of ‘workers’  
            power’ haven’t been left out of it. Bolsheviks are partially right. 
            They are cruel and barbarically crude in their cruelty but, from 
            their own point of view, they’re right. If they didn’t intimidate 
            children from an early age, they soon wouldn’t have any power left. 
            But they raise us as submissive slaves, ruthlessly exterminating 
            any spirit of protest.”[4]

Nina’s intellect made her different from the schoolmates, which she described, and also kept her sober from the ideological propaganda that her sisters blindly followed. Her opposition to the regime’s forceful strategies is expressed in her decline to participate in the First of May marches, and to withdraw from the heavily enforced membership in the Young Pioneers. The celebration of May First and the anniversary of the October Revolution were political holidays that particularly involved children with the express goal of making them “future fighters for communism,” states Lisa Kirschenbaum.[5] Nevertheless, Nina’s disdain for what she saw as Bolshevik superficiality encouraged her to isolate herself from the “children of the revolution”[6] and to become what she later called herself: “a double monster – physical and moral”. [7] (Lugovskaya, p.68) It is interesting to see the dissonance between the formation of Nina’s personality and the rest of the children that are described by her. Even though, she lived in a ‘heroic period’ of Russian history, which indulged in scientific and socially experimental methods to create a new utopian society (relying heavily on formatting children’s characters), Nina didn’t seem to imbibe the Soviet pride and soul. Instead, she seemed to remain unattached to the world that stayed so distant from her. Nina presented the opposite of the ideal Stalin youth as she expressed her disdain by becoming a hooligan at school, organizing petitions, and clearly choosing the path of the counter-revolutionaries, which later brough on her imprisonment. Propaganda-laden books, films, and songs illustrate the positive results of the Soviet discipline and the unmatched happiness of the Stalin youth. (See video I) [[4]]

Nina’s diary, however, was a pure counter-example, which portrayed the laziness, the drunkenness and perplexed appearance of students at her age. It showed the existence of unconformity, social resistance, and collective criticism toward the regime. The children's parades, the patriotic holidays, or the propagandized image of ‘grandpa Stalin’[8] (See image I) were like distant scenery that failed to format her character. The slogan “Thanks to Comrade Stalin for our happy childhood” rang without irony for the children who were cared for and believed in the society that cared for them, if they accepted the structures of authority.[9] Nina’s only patriotic feeling is observed in the celebration of the pilots who rescued the crew of the steamship Cheliuskin in 1934. There, for the first time she expressed patriotic ecstasy in connection with one of the heroes, Slepnev. The 1930’s was time of great space exploration with the goal of dominating and showcasing monstrous Soviet technological innovations in front of the Western world. However, instead of falling into patriotic ecstasy, Nina’s inspiration came from her purely teenage emotions and the beauty that she extracted from literature pieces, such as Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood and Youth and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. These influential texts further provided her with tools to create her own masterpiece – her diary.

(Image I) “Thank you, dear Stalin, for our happy childhood!”(1936)[1]


“My dear friend! ...Nobody that I can talk to, nobody but you…. Well, anyhow, I am used to telling you everything.”[10] Nina’s narratives took sporadic turns; at times, her writing was lively and poetic, and other times it was dark and pessimistic. Nevertheless, she adopted her diary as a true friend with whom she could share her utmost anguish and desires. Even though it started off as a document of ‘unimportant’ childish complaints and dreams, Lugovskaya’s diary became one of the most important primary documents that contributed toward understanding the history of children from the period of the Soviet Union. In her book Children’s World: Growing up in Russia 1890-1991, Catriona Kelly writes of the important contribution toward understanding of children's history during the Soviet Union made by diaries, drawings, and letters. These private documents were most often produced by “atypical individuals”[11] – isolated and introverted, which effectively describes Nina’s individuality. In this sense, her diary stands as a very important primary source for sociological and historical research that examines the role of youth and children’s psychological existence during the Stalin years. The pages of Nina’s diary were a place for her escape into another world where she could be alone and spend time meditating on issues that concerned her. Dominating personal themes that reoccured throughout the whole narrative are: 1) constant crushes on boys that actually inspired the energy and life in her; 2) her constant debates between dedication in studying or in enjoying life by being more frivolous; 3) her struggle in the inability to meet her own ideals in life; 4) her philosophy of how life should be lived and her struggle to escape the superficiality of the female gender. Time seems to have stopped and daily events are portrayed in rather gray tones. Nina’s childhood was one of constant worries and anguishes, at times intermingled with sparks of energy and love that enlivened her. Even though the family tragedy of her father’s exile affected her, such events seemed to become more habitual with the progression of her narrative. Frequent police raids were expected, her father’s visits became regular and their existence became progressively automatized. Nevertheless, the new regime created specialized higher educational institutions, such as the Polygraphic Institute and the Textile Institute, where the new Constructivists movement was born and which later infiltrated society with new textile forms and propaganda lithographs carrying symbols that were to alter the visual social consciousness. Even though she was against the barbaric forms of the Bolshevik regime, Nina’s incessant struggle was how to enter one of these two specialized academies, where she would have eventually become a part of the propaganda-production machine. In this sense, Nina’s diary was a sincere account of acomplicated childhood during the Stalin years, in which society underwent great range of changes – both physical and ideological. Nina’s diary is in these terms both a physical struggle concerning her appearance, and an ideological fight concerning her gender identity.


Lugovskaya’s intellectual struggle combined both political criticism and an internal battle with her female identity. Through her encounters with schoolmates and her observations of her mother, Nina developed a pessimistic opinion of women on the base of their intellectual inferiority. Being a girl in a period of new-found equality, Lugovskaya couldn’t escape the limits of her gender role. At times, she even expressed the wish to change her gender and to escape the biological determinism of her female body. It was Nina’s reoccurring disappointment with the limited intellectual capability of the females that sprung her desire to become an intellectually powerful male. Observing the role and identities of her mother and sisters, Nina tried to define herself as a young female. However, with the progression of her diary, she gradually tried to deviate from the ‘traditional’ female model that she saw, and fought for more intellectual freedom, which she observed in men. The ambition to write her diary as a philosophical text speaks of her desire to find intellectual stimulation. Writing and reading are here two intellectual challengers, which would have given her the achievement of power and equality that she sought with men. Writing such text also gave Nina the sense of unique freedom, which the political ideology of the regime suppressed. Her struggle also portrays how Stalin's policies of gender equality broke down. The communist ideology stated that women and men were supposed to be equal. However, the female gender, as we see, didn't necessarily feel on the same level as the male gender. In Nina's case we witness a tension, in which she rejected the experiences of her mother and sisters, while also moving towards the goal of gender equality. At times, Nina fully identifies with the emotional states of her female gender, and then later totally rejects and humiliates the female inferiority.

(Image II)Adolf Strakhov, "March 8, Liberation Day of Enslaved Women"(1923)[2]

The Bolshevik revolution opened up a way to reconfiguration of the family and addressing the woman question. The 1930’s saw a large number of women drawn into the workforce, which was interpreted as presenting irrefutable evidence of the new-found equality under socialism. (See image II) While entering jobs that were not traditional for their sex, women also had to be mothers. So, “success in the workplace was inevitably hindered by multi-motherhood”.[12] The dearth of contraceptives and the ban of abortion in 1936 created contradiction to the idea of women’s roles. “The Stalinist mythology depicted the new Soviet woman …[as] divided between production and reproduction.”[13] Proletariat children sparked more interest than the status of women. “Women embodied all the problems of the past, but children were the hope of the future.”[14] Elizabeth Wood further states: “ the history of the woman question in Russia has usually been written as if it were about real women… it is really about myths”.[15] (See image III)

(Image III)V. Baiuskin, "Children are Happiness for a Soviet Family"(1940)[3]

Nina’s description of her mother adequately matched the contradictory understanding of women’s roles. She portrayed her mother simply as a woman who took care of the three children, and it was Nina’s understanding that once a woman became a mother, she had to give up her whole life to watch over her children. The further observations of her girl schoolmates became the major focus of her fierce disagreement with the female gender. Nina’s moods fluctuated between simply enjoying herself in the company of other girls, to drastically feeling humiliation for the stupidity of these girls’ limited interests. In times of intellectual fury, Nina wrote: “Now, it’s clear why women are so much stupider than men. They spend time idly and irrationally. Their conversations are nothing but discussions of boys…”[16] On the other hand, Lugovskaya fancied boys’ intellectual ability to argue over wars, cars and films. While she disagreed with the narrow ‘boys-talks’ that her girlfriend led, Nina also despised the weakness of her own female emotions, which neverthless defined her identity. Nina's struggle was a complex one - she despised the inferiority of women, while she herself embodied many of the weaknesses, which she fought against. The text presents us with a girl’s silent conflict between her interpretation of the inferiority of her female mentality and her desire for intellectual power and challenge. Her diary became the perfect partner and an endeavor to her intellectual escape.

In seeking an intellectual escape through her diary, Nina also tried to find a space where she could hide away from her disturbing appearance. Her “alien” appearance also gave rise to her internal intellectual development, which made her even more unique as a character and a representative of her gender. As Nina earlier states, it is the physical deformity which remade her soul, and created her as a double monster. Nevertheless, Nina’s intellectual capacity appeared as a stark difference between her and the rest of her classmates. Her natural ability to scrutinize and write about psychological details and the gender differences made Lugovskaya’s diary a special kind of critical analysis of history, gender and childhood.

“What is a woman? A dog trying to rise to the level of her master, to occupy the same position as him, but can’t get there. What is the liberation of women? It’s a mirage, nothing more than a hallucination.”[17] Here Nina clearly agrees with Elizabeth Wood’s point that women emancipation is rather a myth than reality. Nina also stated her desire to posses the intellectual power of men; however, what she saw as female mental inferiority didn’t allow her to do so. In the beginning of her diary, Nina’s internal struggle was to understand herself as a woman. She expressed the desire to know what other girls and women thought about, so that she could finally understand and define her own self. Nevertheless, Nina pointed out that all great writers were men, and it was their literary works which defined the women's identity through a masculine viewpoint. Could it be that Nina was striving to write a narrative that would one day function as a literary work, which could define women through a woman’s viewpoint? Lugovskaya’s interest in reading authors like Tolstoy and Lermontov enriched her writing skills and further challenged and developed her intellectually. It was the power of writing that Nina held against the rest of the submissive Russian society, and with which she directly challenged the view of women’s intellectual capacity. Not only is Nina Lugovskaya’s diary a fine piece of literary work, but it also grows to become a powerful narrative of primary historical resource. As a part of the "Stalin's Youth", Nina's personal account of the period gives us a real inside to the idealistic external appearance of the Soviet society, which was depicted in lithographs, paintings and textbooks. Through her narrative, we see that there were people who didn't conform to the masses, there was laziness, drunkenness, and counter revolutionary activities, almost daily. It is important to see that the idealistic childhood under 'grandpa' Stalin was not as ideal as paintings depicted.

Nina wrote for herself, maybe with the unspoken hope for her piece to match Tolstoy’s masterpieces. Her diary was a space of personal escape, a sphere for open criticism and a dear friend, whose hidden secrets one day become the primary reason for her arrest by the NKVD(later called KGB) on January 4th, 1937. The earlier exile of her father kept the family under suspicion for anti-revolutionary activities. The family history was supplemented by Nina’s unconformity in socialist youth activities, and later the explicit anti-revolutionary text of her ‘dear’ diary. During some of the frequent police raids, Nina’s diary was found, confiscated and used as leverage against the whole family.

Nina’s diary has recently been discovered in the newly opened KGB archives. Passages that were considered unpatriotic and treasonous were underlined by the NKVD. Miraculously, Nina survived the years of exile and even married a fellow prisoner in Siberia. Maybe due to the fear of writing, this blossoming young author never wrote again, and instead pursued a career in the fine arts.


  1. Lugovskaya, Nina. I want to live: the diary of a young girl in Stalin’s Russia. (London: Doubleday, 2006)237.
  2. Ibid., 99.
  3. Daniels, Robert V. A Documentary History of Communism. v.1, (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1984) 91.
  4. Lugovskaya, Nina. I want to live: the diary of a young girl in Stalin’s Russia. (London: Doubleday, 2006)154.
  5. Kirschenbaum, Lisa A. Small Comrades: Revolutionizing childhood in Soviet Russia, 1917-1932. (New York: Routledge Falmer, 2001)125.
  6. Ibid., 2.
  7. “Nobody will ever realize that my monstrous ugliness has made me the way I am. And now, I am a double monster: physical and moral. One monster has created the other. One – the physical deformity – has mutilated and remade my soul after its own fashion, turned into some kind of terrible tangle of contradictions, quarrelsome and suffering.” (68)
  8. The year 1934 was the onset of the artistic movement known as Socialist Realism. Its ideology was to depict, and glorify the proletariat's struggle toward socialist progress. The art produced under socialist realism is realistic, optimistic, and heroic, like we see in the image of ‘grandpa Stalin’ (above). Grandpa Stalin and Father Lenin were the two paternalistic figures that preoccupied the art space and propagandized these figures as the founding fathers of the revolution and caregivers to the new revolutionary children.
  9. “Childhood under Stalin: Raising Children in Stalin’s Russia,” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. 2009. Macalester College. 10 May, 2009. <http://soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1936children&Year=1936&Theme=596f757468&navi=byTheme>.
  10. Lugovskaya, Nina. I want to live: the diary of a young girl in Stalin’s Russia. (London: Doubleday, 2006)224.
  11. Kelly, Catriona. Children’s World: Growing up in Russia 1890-1991. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008) 20.
  12. Catriona Kelly and David Shepherd. Ed. Constructing Russian culture in the age of Revolution, 1881-1940. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 280.
  13. Ibid., 281.
  14. Kirschenbaum, Lisa A. Small Comrades: Revolutionizing childhood in Soviet Russia,1917-1932. (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001)2.
  15. Ibid., 3.
  16. Lugovskaya, Nina. I want to live: the diary of a young girl in Stalin’s Russia. (London: Doubleday, 2006)205.
  17. Ibid., 62.

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