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The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia.

THE WHISPERERS: Private Life In Stalin's Russia

by Orlando Figes

(London: Penguin)

Paperback: 780 pages

Rec. price: AUD$29.95

There are many books about different aspects of the Stalin era (1928-53) in the USSR. They include general histories, biographies and studies of specific phenomena such as the Five-Year Plans, the Gulag system, the Great Terror, the Great Patriotic War and the origins of the Cold War.

These are big themes, but there have also been attempts to present life at the grass-roots level, such as Sheila Patrick's Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, which aimed at describing "extraordinary everydayness", including relationships and family life.

Orlando Figes (whom some National Observer readers might have heard reading the poems of Anna Akhmatova in St Paul's Anglican Cathedral during the recent Melbourne Writers' Festival) goes a step further, and considerably deeper. Using primary sources such as diaries, letters and interviews, he brings to light the hidden, unofficial and, in their day, "politically incorrect" interpersonal and interior experiences of Stalin's cowed subjects.

The title refers to the passivity, stoicism and silence which were inculcated in the Soviet population of this era, and which became the conditions of survival. Such communication of sensitive and forbidden subjects as took place, was carried out in whispers. Many children were admonished, "Your mouth will get you into trouble", but many others just absorbed the habit from the adults surrounding them. Informers were ubiquitous.

These habits of fear and reticence were relaxed for many citizens, during the period 1941-5 (when death seemed so constantly imminent that it was harder to terrorise the population), and then again after Stalin's death. In many other cases, however, the obsessive caution persisted for decades after 1953, and in some instances was passed on to the victims' sons and daughters.

Figes's most moving stories concern children. Some involve those with "spoiled biographies", i.e., a noble or "kulak" background, who had to fight discrimination in the areas of education and employment, often by falsifying their origins. Others were orphaned or abandoned during the deliberate famines, or left destitute when parents were arrested, and placed in state children's homes with siblings carefully separated.

In some cases, children had been prepared by parents, who knew their arrests were imminent, to fend for themselves, and even for their little brothers and sisters for whom they suddenly became responsible.

Children made prodigious efforts to find parents who had disappeared into the gulag, sometimes locating them after years or decades. The final result of a search was occasionally the discovery that the term "without rights to correspond" on their parents' records, had been Soviet code for "was shot immediately".

The state-sponsored cult of renunciation of parents who were "enemies of the people" saw some children enthusiastically disowning their fathers and mothers. Even worse was Stalin's principle that children (the age of criminal responsibility was reduced to 12 in 1935) could be punished for their parents' crimes. Worst of all was the torture of children to make parents "confess".

Old Bolshevk Stanislav Kosior, a figure hard to sympathise with on any other count, withstood severe mistreatment after his arrest during the Great Terror, but broke down after his teenaged daughter was raped in front of him.

Mothers and fathers, too, travelled huge distances, stood in endless queues, and endured bureaucratic obstruction and contempt, in order to find each other and their children.

During the years of forced rural collectivisation, families were arbitrarily classified as "kulaks", uprooted at short notice from villages where their ancestors had lived for centuries, and sent off hundreds or thousands of kilometres with only what they could carry, to live, literally, in holes in the ground.

Conditions in the new industrial cities were not much better. Workers were housed in blocks of flats, two or three families to a vermin-infested apartment with no electricity, running water or sanitation, not to mention privacy.

In these circumstances, mothers, especially, fiercely and miraculously maintained some semblance of normal domestic life. Grandmothers, too, emerge time and again as heroic preservers of family stability and cohesion, defying communism's centrifugal tendency to scatter and destroy all normal relationships. Because of their age, they were more resistant to the state's ethically corrosive propaganda, having internalised traditional or liberal moral principles which predated the revolution.

Sadly, many citizens succumbed to the all-pervasive Stalinist corruption, or allowed their fears to override their innate humanity. There are many bleak instances of betrayal, ostracism and exploitation of those who fell foul of the authorities--by spouses, siblings, parents, children, neighbours, colleagues, teachers, erstwhile friends ...

Against this background of social disintegration, the examples of loyalty and decency toward pariah victims of the regime, on the part of those who could easily be arrested for assisting an "enemy of the people", stands out with special luminosity.

It is difficult to choose a representative quote from the many on offer, but one in particular illustrates Paul Johnson's famous line that "An intellectual is a person for whom ideas matter more than people". A woman reminisces about her mother, who started out as an austere and ideologically rigid Bolshevik, but then lived through the Stalin era:
  Could I have ever imagined that my mother, a Party worker,
  anti-bourgeois and maximalist, who had never allowed herself to use a
  tender word to me, could turn into a "crazy" grandmother, for whom
  her grandchildren would be the justification for all the losses of
  her entire life? Or that she would turn in her Party card with a
  certain pride and challenge? With that difficult, almost impossible
  step, she fully gave us her warm, living love, which was higher and
  greater than abstract ideas and principles.

This a powerful and often emotionally wrenching and moving chronicle. The faces which stare out of the monochrome photos, some torn and crushed, constitute a forceful complement to the text.

In the preface to her Requiem, Anna Akhmatova describes waiting in a queue of prisoners' relatives outside a Moscow jail. "Can you record this?" asked the woman behind her. "I can", she replied.

Figes, too, has been able to distil and immortalise in The Whisperers something essential to the record of human experience, for which all civilised people will be grateful.

Reviewed by Bill James

Bill James is a Melbourne writer.
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Author:James, Bill
Publication:National Observer - Australia and World Affairs
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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