Orlando Figes. The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. Metropolitan Books. 2007.
Western visitors to the Soviet Union at the height of Stalin’s terror often saw what they wanted to see in the masses: a happy, bustling people confident they were the wave of the future. George Bernard Shaw wrote of the “glowing admiration the people have for Stalin.” Henry Wallace, after a wartime tour of a kulak village, saw “human brotherhood that was accomplishing what Christ wanted.”
Had these authors chosen to gaze closer, they may have noticed the smiles had a twitchy quality to them. A society that turns its citizenry into whisperers, both in the form of those who fear being overheard (shepchushchii) and “the person who informs or whispers behind people’s backs to the authorities” (sheptun) is not an inwardly happy one. It is this society -- not the worker’s paradise imagined by ideologically sympathetic foreigners but the real-life fear society -- that historian Orlando Figes examines in his highly readable new book, The Whisperers.
Unlike many historians writing about the Stalin years, Figes does not allow the outsize figure of the dictator to overshadow the masses on whose behalf the revolution was supposedly waged.
Eschewing a top-down approach, Figes concentrates on those who had to live under him—not the party functionaries and loyalists—but the ordinary families. More so than the communist elite who would become targets of Stalin’s purges and the intellectuals writing rehabilitation letters to satisfy their captors, the families were especially hard hit by the Stalin years. It is estimated that one person for every 1.5 families in the Soviet Union, and some 25 million in total, was either shot or sent to Gulags during Stalin’s rule.
Figes attempts to recreate what ordinary life was like during Stalin’s time. It is no easy task. His interview subjects, aged kulaks and other heretics who were scooped up in arbitrary arrests and imprisoned in the Gulag, or the grievers for those who didn’t make it out, are akin to rape victims: they have internalized their feelings to the point where they are difficult to dig out. For many, the only way out of either their origins as peasant kulaks was join the Communist Party.
Typical is the case of Antonia Golivina, who at the age of eight was repatriated with her father and mother to a Siberian labor camp, a victim of Stalin’s Five Year Plan to industrialize the Soviet Union. As an adult, she joined the Party and hid her past in order to go to medical school.
But even these conversions did not guarantee security. The author of Konstantine Somanov, despite his membership in the state-run Writers Union, was unable to save his in-laws from being murdered for their “heresy” of Western tendencies. Many other families were similarly killed for “crimes against the state.”
Since diaries were among the first objects to be confiscated as exhibit A in secret police raids, there are few Winston Smith-like pronouncements (“Down with Big Brother! Down with Big Brother!”) for Figes to draw upon as authentic feelings. Instead, he has to coax his subjects in interviews -- no easy matter with a microphone and tape recorder, the usual instruments of the KGB, staring at them. As one interviewee, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells the author, “We were brought up to keep our mouths shut. ‘You’ll get into trouble for your tongue’—that’s what people said to us children all the time. We went through life afraid to talk. Mama used to say that every other person was an informer. We were afraid of our neighbors, and especially of the police…Even today, if I see a policeman, I begin to shake with fear.” So much for the “human brotherhood” that Westerners like Lillian Hellman saw on their visits.
The Whisperers draws readers into a world of those who felt, in Stalin’s memorable phrase, “the weight of the state.” Figes shows us the pervasive fear that still lurks in people who lived through that terrible time of purges and arbitrary arrests and who fear that they are still not safe, that Stalinism could one day reappear Russia. This, finally, is the true horror of Stalinism: even its survivors must whisper about the past.