Arrested Development

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia BY Orlando Figes. Metropolitan Books. Hardcover, 784 pages. $35.

The cover of The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia

Early in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s astonishing memoir, Hope Against Hope, she remembers the moment when she registered, for the first time, the full horror of life under Stalin. It was not, as one might assume, when she learned that her husband, the much-persecuted poet Osip, had died in a labor camp during the Great Terror of 1937. It was earlier, in 1934, a less murderous time, when she and Osip were taken to a train station in Moscow and sent into their first exile, to the intellectual wilderness of a small town in the Urals. His crime was a poem, “Stalin Epigram,” that so brutally describes the unspoken sins of the dictator (“One by one forging his laws, to be flung / Like horseshoes at the head, the eye or the groin”) that scholars still debate why he wasn’t immediately shot. What shocked Nadezhda, sitting in the train and waiting for it to pull away, was how perfectly normal their sending off seemed, carried out, she later wrote, “with the greatest style and efficiency, without a single harsh word.” Everything was taken care of, the tickets and the porter were paid for, and the Kremlin’s escort, dressed in civilian clothes, waved good-bye and cheerily wished them a happy journey. This normalcy horrified her. It was “more terrible and sickening, and spoke more eloquently of the end of the world, than the plank beds in the forced-labor camps, the prisons and shackles, and the brutal cursing of policemen, torturers and killers.”

The silence was the most terrifying part. No one screamed; there was nothing to signify the grave injustice of their being ripped from their lives. And Nadezhda wondered what was more appropriate at such a moment: to make noise or to face the situation with prideful silence. She quickly answered her own question: “I decided that it is better to scream. This pitiful sound, which sometimes, goodness knows how, reaches into the remotest prison cell, is a concentrated expression of the last vestige of human dignity. It is a man’s way of leaving a trace, of telling people how he lived and died. By his screams he asserts his right to live, sends a message to the outside world demanding help and calling for resistance. If nothing else is left, one must scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity.”

In his panoramic new book, Orlando Figes sets out to investigate this crime of silence, in which the victim—the Russian people—was also the perpetrator. The Whisperers is the perfect title for this portrait of human society under the Bolsheviks: a nation of the paranoid, fearful, and selfdeluded; an empire of cannibals, quietly chewing away at one another, with immense suffering but very little screaming to be heard. The accounts by those who couldn’t help but scream, like Mandelstam’s memoir and Eugenia Ginzburg’s, are well known, as are the stories of those who were swallowed up by Stalin’s labor camps but lived to tell about it (well chronicled in Anne Applebaum’s recent book, Gulag). Figes has succeeded in doing something much more ambitious and complicated. His book is not about the people who struggled against the world that Communism created; it is about those ordinary Soviet citizens who made their lives within that world, and what it did to them—the girl who was orphaned when her parents were arbitrarily arrested and sent to labor camps, the woman who informed on her husband to save herself, the relative of an “enemy of the people” forced to shut the door in his face when he needed help, the neighbors who felt they had no choice but to spy on one another. The book is a mosiac of just some of these millions of shattered lives.

Marshal Tito and Leonid Brezhnev cooking salo in the Ukrainian country side, 1983. From The Soviet Image by Peter Radetsky (Chronicle Books, 2007).
Marshal Tito and Leonid Brezhnev cooking salo in the Ukrainian country side, 1983. From The Soviet Image by Peter Radetsky (Chronicle Books, 2007).

In his 1997 history of the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy, Figes attempted to introduce a new understanding of the Bolshevik triumph, one in which the Russian people “were not the victims of the revolution but protagonists in its tragedy.” The accepted thinking had been that Lenin and his followers had succeeded in gaining the population’s acquiescence through a combination of cruelty, coercion, and lies. Figes agreed, but he added that “however much the people were oppressed by it, the Soviet system grew up in Russian soil.” And he made a convincing argument that this soil was fertile for an ideology like Bolshevism—a combination of a Russian intelligentsia drawn to apocalyptic ideas and, as he put it, the “backward” and “violent” culture of the Russian peasantry.

The Whisperers is a sequel of sorts, in that it explores the outcome of the Soviet “experiment.” Figes, guiding three teams of researchers from the Memorial Society, in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and Perm, embarked on a vast project to collect interviews from those ordinary people who had lived through Stalin’s reign, along with documentary evidence in the form of diaries and letters. With these, he has constructed a collective portrait of what happened to personal relations, to the family, to people’s sense of themselves, in the Soviet Union. The book jumps from story to story, sometimes in a slightly desensitizing blur. Every once in a while, it lingers longer—as in the case of Konstantin Simonov, the Soviet writer, whose antihero’s biography is threaded throughout and is a case study in the kind of blindness and moral compromise one needed to stay alive and prosper under Stalin. But there are also many small stories that pierce, such as the paragraph about Anna Drozdova, who was so terrorized after her father, a church warden, was arrested in 1937 that she couldn’t use the toilet for fear she might wipe herself with a piece of newspaper containing Stalin’s name.

From the very beginning, the Bolshevik idea was to do away with the bourgeois notion of kinship in order to construct a new person whose allegiance would be to the communal before the familial. One Soviet educational thinker wrote in 1924 that “by loving a child, the family turns him into an egotistical being, encouraging him to see himself as the centre of the universe.” The result: many neglected children, raised by their grandmothers or on their own while their parents attended to party business. The party was meant, in fact, to take the place of family, and it was in the Pioneer organization and then the Komsomol, the Soviet youth movement, that young people often found a sense of belonging, rather than at home. To understand the values the state imposed, just consider the cult surrounding the boy martyr Pavlik Morozov, who purportedly denounced his father to the authorities and was killed by his relatives as a result (Figes proves that the story was more complicated). A generation grew up emulating the boy as a saintly symbol of a good Soviet child, placing the safety of the state above that of his family. And as Figes points out, the Soviet press in the 1930s was full of copycat stories, of sons informing on fathers. One doctor recalled, “I never spoke against Stalin to my boy. After the story of Pavlik Morozov you were afraid to drop any kind of unguarded word, even in front of your own son, because he might inadvertently mention it in school.”

There was the initial rupture of familial bonds in the 1920s and ’30s, based on ideology, but then Soviet society degenerated into paranoia and fear, especially once Stalin launched his Great Terror, in which over half a million people were shot for crimes against the state and a million more thrown into the Gulag. People denounced one another for fear of being denounced themselves. Wives suspected husbands and husbands wives. And children, raised on the Pavlik Morozov myth, were primed to believe the government when it said one of their parents was an “enemy of the people.” The passivity of the population (that crime of silence) was remarkable. People waited at night with their bags packed for the knock on the door, not even attempting to run. And once relatives were arrested, Soviet citizens were more likely to doubt their loved ones and twist logic than to accept that there was no rhyme or reason to the mass detentions. Take the case of Julia Piatnitskaia. Her husband was arrested one night, and she immediately assumed that he might have indeed been an enemy. But then her sixteen-year-old son, Igor, was sent to a labor camp as well. Still she tried to find a meaning for it all, as she wrote in a diary entry: “Perhaps Piatnitsky [her husband] really was bad, and we must all perish on his account. But it is hard to die when I do not know who Piatnitsky really is, nor what crime Igor committed. He could not have done anything wrong. But then why did they take him? Maybe as someone who might become a criminal, because he is the son of an enemy.” Eventually, she, too, was arrested and died in a labor camp.

After World War II, Soviet society eased up, and a bit of individualism and family life returned. Neighbors crammed together in collective apartments still informed on one another, and Stalin did have one more “small terror” in him—a virulent anti-Semitic campaign in the years before he died, in 1953— but the massive upheaval of personal life was over. In his wake, however, Stalin left a traumatized and frightened people who never overcame the sense that someone was following them, listening to their every word.

Some people spent their whole lives afraid. One recurring figure in the book, Antonina Golovina, was the daughter of a man arrested for being a kulak, a small landowner, during the antikulak campaign that expelled over ten million people from their homes from 1929 to 1932. Golovina’s family was destroyed. The house they had lived in for generations was demolished, and she was sent into exile in Siberia, her father to a camp for three years. When she returned to Soviet life, she hid her kulak origins for fear that she would be persecuted for them.

Only after forty years of marriage, in the 1990s, was she even able to tell her husband—who, it turned out, himself had a secret past. It was an immense relief. She talked about what her life had been like before: “I had to be alert all the time, not to slip up and give myself away. When I spoke I had to think: did I forget something? Did I say anything that might make people suspicious? It was like that all the time . . . I was afraid, and I would remain silent. This fear lasted all my life. It never went away . . . Mama always said, ‘When you live with wolves, you must learn to live like wolves!’”

Gal Beckerman, a writer based in Brooklyn, New York, is at work on a history of Soviet Jewry, to be published next year by Houghton Mifflin.