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The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's…

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia (original 2007; edition 2007)

by Orlando Figes

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Title:The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia
Authors:Orlando Figes
Info:Allen Lane (2007), Hardcover, 740 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia by Orlando Figes (2007)

  1. 40
    Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore (mercure)
    mercure: Both books deal with daily life under Stalinism. Mr. Sebag Montefiore looks at Stalin's inner circle, The Whisperers looks at everybody outside that circle.
  2. 20
    Within the Whirlwind by Evgenia Semenovna Ginzburg (meggyweg)
  3. 10
    Informer 001: The Myth of Pavlik Morozov by Yuri Druzhnikov (meggyweg)
  4. 01
    LENINGRAD UNDER SIEGE: First-hand Accounts of the Ordeal by Daniil Alexandrovich (meggyweg)

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During Stalin's reign of terror, 25 million people were either shot by execution squads, or were gulag prisoners, were kulaks sent to special settlements, or were slave laborers. These 'repressed' constituted about 1/8 of the total population, and the figure does not include those who died of famine or war-related causes. In addition to the 'repressed', there were further tens of millions, the relatives, whose lives were damaged with profound social consequences which are still felt today.

This amazing book concerns itself only minimally with statistics. Based on thousands of interviews, documents, letters, diaries and photographs, it is a book of people and their stories. We are immersed in the personal lives of several multi-generational families, from the earliest years of the 20th century to date. We also hear, in their own words, the stories of dozens of others and their experiences during Stalin's reign.

During this time period, no one was safe from condemnation, and no one knew who to trust. Said one man, 'After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party Slogans.'

Many people were convicted for crimes such as simply being 'the daughter of an enemy of the people.' Appealing a conviction was futile--as one former prisoner said, 'There is nothing more to be said about my case. There is no case, only a soap bubble in the shape of an elephant. I cannot refute what is not, was not, and could never have been.'

Wives of the convicted were sent to Akmolinsk Labor Camp for the Wives of Traitors to the Motherland. This camp was opened in 1938, and by 1941 had 10,000 inmates. It was considered a relatively 'good' camp, but rations were given in accordance with meeting work quotas, and failure to meet a work quota for 10 consecutive days meant transfer to the 'death barracks.'

I was particularly moved by the plight of the children during the Stalinist regime. Most labor camps that had female prisoners also had children's homes. The children's compound in Akmolinsk had 400 infants under the age of 4 in 1941, almost all conceived in the camp. One mother who endured the death of her 18 month old daughter in the compound described the treatment of the children thusly:

'I saw the nurses getting the children up in the mornings. They would force them out of their cold beds with shoves and kicks...Pushing the children with their fists and swearing at them roughly, they took off their night clothes and washed them in ice-cold water. The babies didn't even dare to cry. They made little sniffing noises like old men and let out low hoots. This awful hooting noise would come from the cots for days at a time. Children already old enough to be sitting up or crawling would lie on their backs, their knees pressed to their stomachs, making these strange noises, like the muffled cooing of pigeons.'

Describing one nurse responsible for feeding 17 infants, she said:

'The nurse brought a steaming bowl of porridge from the kitchen, and portioned it out into the separate dishes. She grabbed the nearest baby, forced its arms back, tied them in place with a towel, and began cramming spoonful after spoonful of hot porridge down its throat, not leaving it enough time to swallow, exactly as if she were feeding a turkey chick.'

The parents of older children often coached their children on ways and means to avoid being sent to an orphanage in the event that they, the parents, were arrested. These older children could try to fend for themselves with help from friends or teachers. Younger children were not so lucky, and even the older children were often turned over to the orphanges, since it was also a crime to harbor the child of an enemy of the people, and relatives and friends were reluctant to help them.

Very little communication was allowed between exiled parent and child. When and if released, the parent was often unable to locate the children they lost when they were seized. Those who found each other were often strangers, and found it difficult to establish familial relationships again. Not only were parents broken, but children were irreparably scarred.

The effects of Stalin's reign of terror are with the Soviet people today:

'It is not only Stalin that you cannot forgive, but you yourself. It is not that you did something bad--maybe you did nothing wrong, at least on the face of it--but that you became accustomed to evil.'

This book is one of my best reads of the year. I could not put it down. Many of the stories sound unbelievable, yet are confirmed time and again by others. In his afterword, Figes states that upon beginning this project, he feared that older people might be reluctant to share their experiences for fear that harsh authoritarian practices might return. He found that in the early 90's when there was an outpouring of memoirs about Stalinist repressions, people shared the facts of the repression--the details of their arrest and imprisonment. His goal was to illuminate the damage to their inner lives, 'the painful memories of personal betrayal and lost relationships that had shaped their history.' In this he succeeded admirably. ( )
  arubabookwoman | Sep 30, 2015 |
There's a quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that Steven Pinker uses in Better Angels of Our Nature: Macbeth's self-justifications were feeble--and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. And he's right. For it was solely by way of a demented, incoherent ideology that so many millions were starved and killed. (By the by, a new biography, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber, makes compelling, amply sourced arguments that Marx's thought was never a coherent whole but often a reaction to the politics of his day. Engels had to all but horsewhip him to get something publishable; still, it was not until after his death that the final volumes of Capital appeared.) The account given here of so-called "collectivization" and "dekulakization" takes the breath away. The absolute arbitrariness of the suppression visited on anyone, any family, who by dint of hard work had been able to pull together some semblance of a livable life, takes the breath away. Get thee to the Gulag, go! And these were the people who were most efficiently providing foodstuffs to the cities through a simple market mechanism that had been in place for millennia. When they were eliminated, the cities starved.

I wonder if there is a writer of dystopias anywhere who hasn't used totalitarianism as a crutch? Why? Because you simply cannot make this stuff up. Take another problem: housing in the cities. Collectivization brought millions flooding into the cities. They came to flee repression and famine in the countryside, and to assume personal histories more palatable to the State. That is to say, histories with a strong proletarian blood line. Why was there insufficient housing? Why were 17 people living to a single room, 113 people, in one instance, to a single toilet? Well, when you've defaulted on your international debt, scared investors off, and cratered your real estate sector what else could be expected? But, hey, you're Stalin and convinced that you're going to turn all this tragedy around. How will you do it? Simple: slave labor! Yes, that's how you're going to incentivize your people, that's how you'll spur them on the ever great achievements: throw them in jail and work them to death in the frozen tundra, or, if not in the tundra, in areas where you will not feed them enough to survive very long at all. The point I find astonishing is that such penal servitude was sold to the Party as a way of reeducating wayward elements, as a means of building the new Soviet citizen. "Reforging," was the term.

What a joke of a nation! Still, today, it is run with an iron fist. There's been very little development of durable institutions that will perpetuate democracy. Moreover, Russia is now a country without a heritage, because it was deracinated during the era of Stalin. Folkways, musical heritage, etc. etc., all was devastated by Stalin and his goons. Russia is today a shell of a nation, hollowed out, as it were, by more than seventy years of hideous repression and so-called class warfare. (Figes explains here why the concept "kulak" was completely rhetorical as used by the Soviets and did not reflect actual usage of the era.) Poor Russia, when will you become a real democracy? Not as long as Vladimir Putin's in charge, that's for sure. Which is why I close with my best wishes to the inestimable Pussy Riot and their kind. Here's to a true democratic revolution. ( )
  William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
It was Stalin's lasting achievement to create a whole society in which stoicism and passivity were social norms.

650 pages about people seriously hurt by government policies, including the murder of family members, is not always fun. But I could not help myself thinking that it is still much better than living through this era. It was ultimately rewarding: The Whisperers is an excellent oral history.

About one eighth of the population of the Soviet Union, some 25 million people, suffered directly from Stalinist repression through slave labour, imprisonment, deportation or execution. In many people pre-Stalinist values and beliefs were suspended or suppressed. Soviet subjectivity was adopted from a sense of shame and fear.

Leninism saw a segregation between the public and private as backwarded and tried to develop a "collective personality", people should be living for the common good. The personal sphere should thus be subject to public supervision and control. The development of the Communist utopia was a constant battle against custom and habit, a battle was supposed to take decades. The Bolsheviks tried to engineer a more collective way of life by compelling extra inhabitants on flat owners. Divorce became easier, leading to increased casual marriages and the world's highest divorce rate. Children were considered mouldable and should be "nationalised" through socialist education. Lenin worship was part of this. Friedrich Froebel and Maria Montessori had inspired a school system based upon play. This was used to teach children to accept the Soviet division into "good" and "bad". Already in 1925 fairness had made way for hierarchy in school children: the children of party members had the upper hand (p.25). The Pioneer organisation and the Komsomol were other tools. Pioneers would imitate communists and perform the roles of bureaucrats and policemen and denounce teachers. Those who were not compliant enough in the Komsomol were called "rotten intellectuals" or, worse, "self-seekers". It was a bad thing for a Bolshevik to marry anybody not from the Proletariat. Only the Cultural Revolution would emulate early Soviet society, according to Mr. Figes. It also created a new elite with new privileges: "the children of party members had a well-developed sense of entitlement".

Denunciations had been a part of Russian governance centuries and was continued as a civic virtue, albeit more intense. Spying on neighbours, friends and family was encouraged, and meant a retreat of expressed opinion, particularly in the presence of children. Religious symbols were often carefully hidden from outsiders' peaks. Many raised their children as Soviet citizens without a religion, even if they were themselves believers. Denunciations of parents and other family members were sometimes initiated by the denunciated to help their children, who sometimes claimed the Komsomol was their real parent. They were the product of indoctrination, but also declarations of a new identity, often proclaimed on the eve of leaving home for universities or careers. The early 1930's were a time of enormous opportunity and social mobility.

Some 10 million farmers were dispossessed as kulak farmers. Often their relative wealth came from somewhat larger families, in other cases they were the most frugal who worked harder or were more innovative. The campaigns were rooted as much in forced industrialisation as in a deliberate attempt to break the back of the century-old village culture. Farmers should organise themselves in kolkhozes. In the 1930 anti kulak campaign, the Politburo set out targets for the number of kulaks to be exiled. There was little opposition against the measures, despite strong traditions of village solidarity. Still the definition of a kulak was not strict. Some villages drew lots or assigned a family. Families were broken up and many perished in the most appalling of circumstances. Those who stayed on the kolkhoz lost even the incentive to keep up their homes. Managers were selected by party loyalty rather than knowledge or skills. The inmate Naftany Frenkel optimised the economic utility of the gulag.

Below the "order" of Komsomol, kolkhoz and gulag was chaos. The book is full of examples of people who faked their past or gave themselves a new identity, including identity papers. The planned economy and state repression left many people drifting and living off odd jobs, renting a few square metres in some flat in a city. By moving around, people managed to re-fashion their biographies as more "proletarian" (p.137). The notion of "working on the self" was commonplace among the Bolsheviks. People did so by moving to another Soviet and applying for new papers. Provincial officials were notoriously inefficient and corrupt. It did not take away the fear of getting caught:

Unwittingly I'm acquiring the character of a lickspittle, of a cunning dog: soft, cowardly, and always giving in. (p.144)

In the 1930's a new class of vydvizhetsy, workers in administrative posts emerged. With very little education and parroting the Stalinist line, they became the new elite, unhindered by the Spartan cult of the old Bolsheviks (p.157). Brezhnev and Gromyko were among them. The country also developed a consumer culture. Stalin recognised that a person wants to own something for himself. He created an aspirational culture with immediate rewards for industry and loyalty and future rewards for everybody else. Traditional family values were again cultivated, partly out of necessity after a disastrously fallen birth rate. Prudish sexual attitudes were promoted. The Red Army, Komsomol "and even the Proletariat" were reconceived as big families with Stalin as the "father of the Soviet people" with a strong authority (p.162).

In the defence of some privacy, many people in Magnitogorsk lived in dug-outs in the ground. The most common of living space in the cities was multiple families inhabiting a single flat and sharing the kitchen, loo and bathroom. It extended the state's power of surveillance. This was necessary, because the country was too big to police. Mutual surveillance was fundamental to the Soviet system. It created an atmosphere that was often poisonous.

The Soviet Union lived by the idea to "storm" the Five Year Plan and accomplish them in four years. The future was always a factor in the present. Time was subordinated to the proletarian will and thus conquered. The communist utopia was tangible and just around the corner. In Moscow the dream was most clearly (and literally) under construction (p.189).

Mr. Figes considers the Great Terror a coordinated attempt by Stalin to defend the Soviet Union and his regime. Stalin had no qualms about the number of executions to acquire a spy. The NKVD had minimum quotas for arrests. "Stalin played it safe", said to Molotov. The book contains many recollections of the midnight knock on the door. Some people would divorce to safe spouses and children. In many cases that was a fruitless gesture. A mixture of career motives, material rewards, political beliefs and fears and oftentimes romantic interests made people into informers (p.264). A career meant a moral compromise and silent collusion, but many people also maintained their belief in "Party Truth", particularly those under 30 (p.273):

It took extraordinary will-power, usually connected to a different value system, for a person to discount the press reports and question the basic assumptions of the terror.

If only Stalin knew about the mistakes made...

Children of parents in the gulag often turned to family members, often grandmothers. That was better than the Soviet Union's mostly appalling orphanages. Such children often saw admission to the Komsomol as a transition to Soviet Union

For many young Soviet citizens the war with Nazi Germany had already started in 1933 (p.373). The struggle between communism and fascism would lead to a fight to the death between Germany and the Soviet Union. The War seems to have created the same kind of stress on society as the Great Terror, despite strikes against the government in places like Leningrad. The courageous determination of Soviet soldiers has never been satisfactorily explained, but terror and coercion are part of the explanation (p.412). Still, 13.5 thousand soldiers were shot for lacking bravery in a few weeks during the Battle of Stalingrad. Because particularly peasants were fighting for the motherland rather than for the Soviet Union, symbols like Mother Russia were more extensively used in propaganda. Stalin's picture became less conspicuous. Hatred of Germany was the main motivation however. The deprivation of war did not mean so much for those who lived through the 5 Year Plans (p.416). The ones born in the aftermath of the Revolution were particularly high-spirited: only 3 percent of the male cohort of soldiers born in 1923 survived until 1945 (p.417). Veterans recall the intimacy of wartime friendships with idealism and nostalgia. The party lost much of its pre-war revolutionary spirit as the most committed Bolsheviks were killed in the fighting of 1941-2 (p.434) and the people lost their fear of the regime. The regime also relaxed religious and political controls. When the Red Army reached Europe, the standard of living there caused an emotional and psychological shock. It shaped new expectations of the future.

After the war, Stalin called for renewed discipline and sacrifices. Capitalism still existed. General Zhukov was called a Bonapartist threat to the Soviet state and demoted. The gulag system expanded to 2.4 million people. The new prisoners were more militant:

The gulag system was increasingly compelled to resort to material incentives to motivate even its forced labourers. (p.468)

The post-war era also produced a class of educated workers:

The regime was routinised, its practices bureaucratised, and the revolutionary impulses that had led to the Terror were gradually transformed into the stable culture of a loyal professional elite. (...) The art of wearing masks was perfected (p.472)

Many people still had to lie about their background. Fear of foreigners returned with the advent of the Cold War. The regime's attitude to Jews turned negative when the new state of Israel turned out to be pro-American. It opened the floodgates of anti-Semitism.

Stalin’s death in 1953 was a deeply emotional moment for most citizens of the Soviet Union. Younger people had considered Stalin their moral anchor (p.524) and felt disoriented. The people in the gulag rejoiced. When the prisoners were not released some camps rose in rebellion, the first rebellions against the Stalinist regime. Many people came back from the camp with nervous habits and obsessions. Soviet officials generally remained mistrustful of former prisoners and the mass of the Soviet population did not distinguish between prisoners and "politicals". More than 600 thousand people were rehabilitated, often posthumously and after a bureaucratic process. The state gave no apologies and tried to cover up executions.

Cowed and silenced, the majority of Stalin's victims stoically suppressed traumatic memories and emotions. (p.607)

In the early years after Stalin, the "spontaneous de-Stalinisation" of the Second World War was a reason for the regime to downplay its memory. Publications about it were tightly censored. Many people still hid their personal of family history from spouses and children. It also influenced their choice of spouses. ( )
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For my mother, Eva Figes (nee Unger, Berlin 1932) and to the memory of the family we lost.
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Door Bart Funnekotter 9 november 2007 10:31 Laatst gewijzigd 12 november 2007 12:24
Leestijd 00:44

The Whisperers (Allen Lane, € 35,–) van Orlando Figes is volgens Bart Funnekotter een aangrijpende studie over het dagelijks leven onder Stalin. ‘In het monumentale nieuwe werk The Whisperers onderzoekt de Engelse sovjethistoricus Orlando Figes wat het betekende voor gewone mensen om te leven in het Rusland van dictator Josef Stalin. Niet de politieke arena, maar de huiskamer staat centraal in dit ontluisterende boek. Hoewel de bekende, grote getallen voorbijkomen – aantal gevangenen in het goelagsysteem, aantal executies tijden de Grote Terreur, dodental van de Tweede Wereldoorlog – draait het in The Whisperers allemaal om de mensen áchter de statistieken.

Hoe voelt het als je ieder moment verklikt kan worden? Wat doet dat met je privéleven: liefdesrelaties, familiebanden, vriendschappen? Wat voor fluisteraar werd je: iemand die zachtjes sprak uit angst voor verraad, of iemand die met omfloerste stem de buren aangaf bij de geheime dienst NKVD? [...] Figes is in The Whisperers heel dicht op de huid van de Sovjetburger gekomen. Zo dicht, dat je soms denkt de angst daadwerkelijk te kunnen ruiken.’

Orlando Figes: The Whisperers (Allen Lane, € 35,–)

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312428030, Paperback)

A New York Times Notable Book of 2007

"A tremendous achievement."--The Sunday Times (London)

The Whisperers is a triumphant act of recovery. In this powerful work of history, Orlando Figes chronicles the private history of family life during the violent and repressive reign of Josef Stalin. Drawing on a vast collection of interviews and archives, The Whisperers re-creates the anguish of family members turned against one another--of the paranoia, alienation, and treachery that poisoned private life in Russia for generations. A panoramic portrait of a society in which everyone spoke in whispers, The Whisperers is "rigorously compassionate. . . . A humbling monument to the evil and endurance of Russia's Soviet past and, implicitly, a guide to its present" (The Economist).

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:53 -0400)

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A landmark account of what private life was like for Russians in the worst years of Soviet repression.--From publisher description.

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