Silence and suffering

The Whisperers

December 21, 2007

Richard Overy is moved by narratives of stoicism and betrayal.

This remarkable book is the fruit of a project to try to record the recollections of an elderly generation of former Soviet citizens before they disappeared as witnesses to the long history of the Soviet regime. Using about 450 interviews, with a central cohort of subjects whose average age was 80 (some of whom died while the book was being researched and written), Orlando Figes and a team of Russian colleagues and assistants have attempted to breathe life into what is often presented as a set of dry statistics of deaths and camp inmates. The result is an extraordinary exploration of the inner lives of a cross-section of Soviet society as they first experienced and then reflected on the 20 years of Stalinist dictatorship.

The technique chosen is to present the history of the whole period from 1917, when many of the interviewees were born or else very young, through to the end of Soviet communism and the slow emancipation of memory from the many factors that still inhibited it years after Stalin's death and the half-hearted effort to "rehabilitate" many of the victims during the Khrushchev years.

The central experience in most of the personal narratives revealed here was the mounting terror of the 1930s and the explosion of state violence in 1937-39, which took the lives of at least 681,000 victims. Few families, Figes explains, were untouched by the scale of the violence, which is why so many of the narratives concern absent or dead parents or returnees from the camps who were scarred mentally and physically for the rest of their lives.

The title The Whisperers is intended as a play on the Russian word. It can mean speaking low to avoid being overheard, or it can mean denouncing what has been overheard to the authorities. The first of these devices became habitual in the 1930s as people came to realise that a wrong word, even to close colleagues or friends, could mean a spell in the camps. Children were taught not to listen and not to repeat what they inadvertently heard.

Indeed, silence seems to have been as prevalent as whispers. Those who later returned from incarceration found it extremely difficult to say anything of their experiences, and families colluded in drawing a veil over the past. Figes found that not all his interviewees could be persuaded to open up, but the ones he has used finally did so, though it seems sometimes with the deepest of emotional effort. If children found out that their parents had been killed or imprisoned as "enemies of the people" this, too, could induce a new kind of silence. Those touched by the state seem to have carried with them a permanent stigma. Inna Gaister, arrested in 1949 and in trouble with the KGB again in the 1970s, describes it as "a feeling of inferiority, of some vague defectiveness".

Denunciation is a subject that has attracted a good deal of recent research both on Soviet practice and on the two German dictatorships. Figes shows that denouncers approached what they did from a variety of perspectives - some from a misplaced idealism or sense of civic duty, some from malice, but many from fear of what might happen if they did not do what the security police asked them to do. Becoming a denouncer was also no guarantee that at a later date the authorities would not arrest you regardless. Officials of the Gulag organisation itself ended up in camps in the late 1930s, and their children had the problem of coming to terms with two distinct family legacies, one of complicity and one of victimhood.

The paradoxes of Soviet terror are now well known and seem difficult to comprehend with the passage of time. Maria Drozdova was captured by the Germans and forced to work, then on her return, despite evidence of the violence done to her body by the enemy, was sentenced to ten years in a camp. Another case study, of the geologist Pavel Vittenberg, explores his passage from prisoner with special privileges working to locate precious minerals for the regime to a volunteer geologist working the same terrain on his release.

Figes is alert to some of the problems of dealing with family narratives, particularly where "private life" is rudely interrupted by the state. The question of how representative any sample of Soviet survivors will be depends to some extent on what story they have to tell. Although there are narratives of committed communists, including the central figure of the book, the writer Konstantin Simonov, who later regretted his lack of civil courage under Stalin, most of those interviewed had a story of victimisation to tell.

The tone of the book is relentlessly pessimistic, and the Soviet state appears relentlessly oppressive. It is difficult to recapture from these accounts any sense of a degree of normality, although Soviet families did survive, sometimes flourished, bore children, and in many cases benefited from wide opportunities for social mobility and education. Social experience was a patchwork, but the cumulative impression of so much enforced misery makes it difficult to grasp what made Soviet society work at all.

What needs to be distinguished in these narratives are the many factors that arose from the exceptional conditions of Soviet social and economic development and the impact of the war of 1941-45. Even without the terror, this was a society undergoing a seismic social revolution, with exceptional levels of spatial and social mobility and, at times, high levels of casualty.

Some of the chronic poverty and deprivation was shared with peasant and proletarian populations elsewhere. Even if the state had been less politically puritan and vicious, many of these narratives would have had families torn apart, absentee fathers, orphaned children.

Reading these often painful family histories will raise for some readers the old idea that what the Russian people are good at is suffering. Figes observes how urban victims during the terror made little effort to escape but often kept small suitcases packed ready for when the summons came. This passivity is a characteristic that deserves more explanation. Dissidence and non-compliance certainly existed, but the capacity of the Soviet people to accept the conditions under which they had to live cannot simply be a result of terrorisation on a colossal scale. Rich and demanding though The Whisperers is, it leaves questions still to be answered.

Richard Overy is professor of history, Exeter University. He is the author of Dictators (Allen Lane, 2004).

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia

Author - Orlando Figes
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 784
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 9780713997026

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