Soviet citizens wrote autobiographies in a wide range of official settings. The short autobiography which outlined a citizen’s family connections, education, employment, experience of the Revolution and Civil War, and Party affiliation was a vital document deployed in a variety of situations to prove his or her class identity, legitimacy and entitlement to resources and opportunities. It was also (theoretically) his/her defence against state repression.
For the historian, these documents represent the most stylized type of autobiography which was generated by citizens between 1917 and 1991, ones designed above all to meet the ideal of the new Soviet man and woman and least likely to offer a genuine window into the personal lives of their subjects.
Autobiographical writing took many forms besides this rigid format, but in many ways remained as constrained by Soviet norms of acceptability, whether by the censor’s pen or self-censorship. Thus, historians of the Soviet autobiography must take into account not only the considerations which attend all autobiographical writing including the reliability of memory and the issue of self-presentation, but also the particular political, social and cultural parameters which the Soviet regime created.
While these limitations might seem to prevent the historian from gaining a genuine understanding of an individual’s personal life and their feelings about the Soviet regime, daily life and important events, it is possible to go beyond the ritualized aspects of Soviet autobiography and to explore the way in which citizens appropriated the Soviet autobiography for their own purposes.