Moray Barclay's Reviews > The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia

The Whisperers by Orlando Figes
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Aug 03, 2011

it was amazing

The Whisperers’ uplifting ending is worth the wait. This compelling tome took me a long time to read, but not in a negative way. Orlando Figes’ oral history of Stalin’s Russia is largely based on several hundred interviews, from which several dozen ordinary family histories emerge at various points in time. The flip side was that, on many occasions, I forgot who was who and kept having to refer to the index, which then directed me to a point two hundred pages earlier. I ended up reading large parts of the book several times. If you have a humanities degree, or the ability to do one, then you won’t have this problem.

But taking so long to read this was no bad thing – the book became a big part of my life for a few months. The stories bring to life the lot of the Russian people between 1917 and 1956, when Khrushchev publicly exposed the truth of Stalin’s dictatorship.

The book is structured in several chapters, each of which covers a different era: each era was largely defined by Stalin’s enemy of the time.

Stalin’s first enemies were, as you may well remember from school, the so-called “kulaks”, or rich peasants. What emerges from the individual interviews is that most of them were not that rich, and in some cases they were identified simply to meet government targets: these are my words and I use them deliberately but they reflect the reality - the secret police had to identify a set number of “kulaks” in each village. This "target-gaming" does not make the mass arrests any worse of course: everyone was innocent from the perspective of a Western liberal democracy.

Early on, and throughout the book, we learn about the gulags. I spent a lot of time looking at maps: it is striking that nearly half the Russian land is north of the Arctic Circle. Use your imagination. But the book concentrates not so much on what happened at the gulags, but its effect on families. Fathers disappeared in the middle of the night. Children were left to fend for themselves because there was so little money. Sentences were often for ten years or more, so when families were finally reunited entire childhoods had been lost. Time and again, interviews described how young children remember their families being torn apart: if you are a parent yourself then you won’t be able to avoid considering the events through the eyes of your own children.

The enemies continue to stack up: next in line were the bourgeois “NEP Men” who were given the freedom to run businesses during the New Economic Policy of the 1920’s, before being turned upon. By the 1930’s most city dwellers were forced into communal apartments, and everyone was encouraged to spy on everyone else. The Kafkaesque nightmares then really began: if you didn’t report on your neighbours enough, then you weren’t being “vigilant”. Associates of those arrested were targeted. With exponential effects, more and more people were sent to the gulags. Then something very odd emerges: gulag work was highly productive to the Soviet economy – huge infrastructure, manufacturing and mining programmes were fulfilled largely on the basis of slave labour in these places - and many prisoners started to take pride in their work. Indeed significant numbers stayed on at the gulags in a voluntary capacity, believing they were helping to build a communist utopia.

In the late 1930’s the enemy changed again. A joke of the time went something like this: a door knocks in the middle of the night and the occupant shouts, “you’ve got the wrong address – the communists are upstairs”. Led by Stalin, the Communist Party membership was purged. Unlike the “kulaks” and “NEP Men”, many of the Communist Party members arrested at this time were simply shot. As a reader, you might expect to have less sympathy with these latest victims. But because, again, many of the stories are personalised, the tragedy continues. By this time many Communist Party Members were second generation, children at the time of the revolution in 1917, and their membership of the Communist Party was less of a political statement and more of a cultural one. Often the wives of those arrested were also sent to ALZhIR: the Akmolinsk Labour Camp for the Wives of Traitors of the Motherland - had George Orwell invented this term, it would have been considered too far-fetched.

During the war, a new enemy emerged, and not the obvious one. It was the Russian soldiers, from generals to infantry, who Stalin feared might lead a revolution post-victory. A despicable image emerges: the secret police followed the Russian Army into battle, at a safe distance. On the orders of Stalin, their job was to ensure that no-one retreated, even temporarily. Many Russian officers bravely disobeyed, retreating tactically, while advancing strategically. But like the gulag prisoners, soldiers never turned against their regime, seeing a greater cause: in this case the defeat of the Nazis.

The post war era brought new enemies including, inevitably, the Jews. Chapter 8 is entitled simply “Return” and it describes the return from the gulags of millions of Russians during the 1950’s, both before and after Stalin’s death. It takes much longer for them to be pardoned as Khrushchev was wary of a backlash. He need not have worried. The rest of the book is about reconciliation, not revenge, and this left me feeling quite uplifted – the human race has this amazing ability to forgive the most heinous crimes. This was well-documented in South Africa, but quite undocumented in Russia. Until now.

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