The Whisperers

In The Whisperers, Orlando Figes, author of the prize-winning A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (1996) and Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (2002), explores the private lives of mostly ordinary Russians from the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution to the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, and beyond. Many studies of Soviet Russia focus on the Communist Party leadership, or they examine particular groups within Soviet society who were, for example, victims of the regime, such as the kulaks or the supposedly wealthier peasants, or those incarcerated in the tentacles of the gulag prison system. Figes attempts to concentrate on specific individuals and their families who were caught up in the Soviet utopian dream, or nightmare, tracing what he calls “the moral sphere” of families through several generations.

Approximately twenty-five million Russians were repressed in the quarter century after 1928, when Stalin came to power in the Soviet Union. Many were executed, others sent to the gulag, others to “special settlements” to be worked as slave labor, and still others were deported to far corners of the Soviet empire. Figes claims that one person for every 1.5 families was subjected to such repression. However, it was not only those officially repressed who were affected; other family members were affected by the stigma attached to the “guilty” and were forced to hide their familial connections by creating fictional backgrounds and by hiding family histories from their children and grandchildren. Even after being released from confinement, former inmates were often unable to restore the wholeness of their families; parents and children as well as wives and husbands remained estranged for decades, often until their deaths.

One consequence was the resulting conformity by Soviet citizens to the regime’s demands. Fear was one cause. Most Russians knew someonea family member, a friend, an acquaintancewho had been arrested, and even ordinary citizens kept a suitcase packed under the assumption that at any time they could be arrested. Also, in totalitarian states like Stalin’s Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and the People’s Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution, the entire society was conditioned to give unquestioning allegiance to the state as represented by its leader. How deep the conditioning went varied, and individuals might conform outwardly but not inwardly. To survive in that environment, where most Russians lived in close proximity, sharing communal kitchens, common living areas, and thin wall partitions, whispering among family members and between friends was necessary for survival.

No work that encompasses several decades and millions of people can be exhaustive, and The Whisperers only samples a small fraction of the total Soviet population. Reluctant to rely on the memoirs of Russia’s intelligentsia, in part because dissident intellectuals do not fully represent the ordinary Russian, the author relied on contemporary diaries and letters and particularly on oral testimony. The recipient of several monetary grants, Figes employed experts who interviewed numerous Russians, usually more than once, on their personal experiences and their family memories. He then chose what he considered to be a cross section of Russian society.

The Whisperers begins in the period of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the costly civil war that followed. Vladimir Ilich Lenin died in 1924, with Stalin emerging as the new leader by 1928. The Bolsheviks demanded the abolition of private life for the collective good, which necessitated the destruction of the bourgeoisie family structure, including affection between parents and children. New collective values were to be inculcated by public schools and youth organizations such as the pioneers and the Komsomol, whose young members were encouraged to denounce their parents. To be excluded because of family background, as were the kulaks, could bring intense shame to a child. Some families tried to maintain their older beliefs, as in religion, and conformed outwardly, but parents kept their traditional beliefs private even from their children, who were encouraged to adopt the ideology and practices of the Soviet state.

If the model for repression and the practice of whispering began in the 1920’s, it became more extensive by the 1930’s, with Stalin’s Five-Year Plan for rapid industrial development and the transformation of Soviet agriculture into giant, collective farms. The poorest peasants were supposedly equivalent to the urban proletariat, while the richer peasants, or kulaks, were its class enemies. The term “kulak” was imprecise and subject to abuse. The kulaks were generally the harder-working and most productive members of the community, and collectivization...

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