In Stalin’s Trap

Orlando Figes has a well-deserved reputation for bringing new light to bear on wide-ranging subjects concerning Russian history and culture. His book on the Russian Revolution saw this cataclysmic event as “A People’s Tragedy,” and in Natasha’s Dance he surveyed the remarkable efflorescence of Russian culture in all its forms since its entrance into the modern world under Peter the Great. In his latest book, The Whisperers, he takes on the extremely difficult task of penetrating the lives of several generations of ordinary Russians who lived in the society created by the Bolshevik Revolution and struggled to come to terms with its conditions. What he focuses on is not the appalling Gulag world already well known from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago or Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. He describes the reactions of those who, sometimes for the slightest of reasons, or for no reason at all, were caught in the iron grip of a system that, to achieve its ends, simply had no use for the most elementary human rights. How did such people feel and think?

To answer such questions is by no means an easy task, and Figes turns to diaries, memoirs, and personal papers in his search for insight into hidden thoughts and feelings. A considerable number of such documents, a good many initially collected by Figes himself, have been accumulated in Moscow and St. Petersburg by the Memorial Society, established in 1980 to commemorate the victims of Soviet repression. (The St. Petersburg offices have recently been attacked by police, as Figes comments in a letter published in the January 15 issue of The New York Review.) Figes draws extensively on such sources and also sought out some 450 still-living witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the period. The past thus comes to light not only through the recreation of the historian, but also through the memories of those still able to recall its dominating features.

It is difficult to give a general characterization of The Whisperers as a whole because the material it contains is so copious and so varied. On one level, it is a study of what might be called the history of the growth of Stalinism and of the widespread ravages of an increasingly repressive system that knew no limits to its power and spared no one from its clutches. On another level, it is the intimate history of a population that lived through these events, and tried to fathom them as best it could. For every shift in politics during the years covered by the book (1917–2006), Figes attempts to describe not only its usually disastrous consequences for people’s lives, but also the manner in which it was assimilated and understood. This latter effort leads to personal histories often so detailed that they amount to a series of independent narratives, each one a mini-history that includes letters, diary entries, and often moving photographs as well as verbal responses to questions. These are certainly full of human interest in themselves, and one can well understand Figes’s fascination with the experiences they recount; but a nonspecialist reader may occasionally feel that perhaps they provide too much of a good thing. Still, there can be no question that any student of Soviet society will find them intensely absorbing.


The overall structure of the book is historical, but it has an internal structure as well, following the lives of a number of families whose stories recur and interweave with those of the evolution of Russian society. The history of ten of these families is diagrammed before the book actually begins, but only one is designated as being of particular importance by the author. It involves the man whom Figes himself calls “perhaps…the tragic hero of The Whisperers,” the well-known poet, playwright, novelist, and war correspondent Konstantin Simonov, who later in life became editor of two important Soviet publications, Novyi Mir and Literaturnaia Gazeta. In his memoir, Through the Eyes of a Person of My Generation, left unfinished and published posthumously, Simonov described his acceptance of Stalinism, the struggle with his conscience ultimately caused by this adherence, and his final self-castigation for having so often surrendered to its dictates. Simonov’s second wife, Zhenia Laskina, came from a Jewish family whose history Figes also portrays, and we thus learn a good deal about the fate of the extensive Jewish population in the new Soviet Union.

Figes begins by tracing the attitudes that developed during the period of War Communism after 1918 and were inherited by the next generation growing up in its wake. These were years when everything was sacrificed to the cause of the Revolution, and once the Bolsheviks consolidated their power they continued to advocate a morality based on a complete subordination to its aims. “They made a cult of the ‘selfless revolutionary,’” Figes writes, “constructing a new morality in which all the old commandments were superseded by the single principle of service to the Party and its cause.” The point is illustrated by a story, with which Lenin is said to have been familiar, of a daughter whose father had vanished into the underground when she was five, and who, coming across him as an important official years after the Revolution, hardly mentioned their relationship at all. Stalin is also cited as having said: “A true Bolshevik shouldn’t and couldn’t have a family, because he should give himself wholly to the Party.”

Figes depicts the Revolution, with a good deal of justification, not only as a social-political movement but as one whose larger aim was to create a new type of personality. Wholly devoted to communism, this new personality would have thrown off all the moral rules inherited from a Christian past seen as “bourgeois oppression.” Belief in this new morality was all-important, and Figes suggestively links the Party purges and show trials staged by Stalin with the Orthodox tradition of public penance and confession, “which was so different from the private nature of confession in the Christian West.” In any case, “Communist morality left no room for the Western notion of the conscience as a private dialogue with the inner self.”

The result, however, was to create a split between the public and the private that brought about the society of “the whisperers” even before Stalin took power. Many families led double lives of outward conformity and inner disquietude, of which Figes gives numerous examples. “What we overheard the adults say in a whisper, or what we heard them say behind our backs,” recalled the daughter of a middle-ranking Bolshevik official who grew up in the 1920s, “we knew we could not repeat to anyone…. Sometimes the adults would say something and then would tell us ‘The walls have ears,’ or ‘Watch your tongue.’”

Soviet education was geared to inculcating the principles of Communist morality, and student organizations like the Pioneers and the Komsomol were used for this purpose. Children were taught that it was more important to adhere to the doctrines of the Party than to obey what they may have been told at home, and one “daughter of a prominent Soviet jurist” recalled that “I liked to read the children’s journal Murzilka, which had on its cover the slogan: ‘Mama! Papa! We shall overthrow your power!’” At the age of fifteen, children could go from the Pioneers to the Komsomol, and this latter organization “entailed accepting the orders, rules and ethics of the Communist Party.”

Descendants of non-working-class families had difficulties being accepted in such organizations, and many falsified their family history to gain entrance. Simonov made an attempt to conceal that his mother had been a princess of the Obolensky family, from the highest social rank in pre-Soviet society. Instead of going to a university after completing secondary school, he decided to register at a technical school—listing his mother as an “office worker”—where he learned to become a lathe operator and worked at night in a munitions factory. He thus could take on a new Soviet “proletarian” identity before later gaining fame as a writer.

These years were also those of the New Economic Policy (NEP), forced on Lenin in the early 1920s after the policies of War Communism (the precursor of Stalin’s Five-Year Plans) had ruined the Russian economy and led to a series of revolts, especially among the peasantry. This policy replaced food allotment with a limited return to a market economy, whose result was, as Figes puts it, that both Moscow and Petrograd “suddenly burst into life, with noisy traders, busy cabbies and bright shops lighting up the streets just as they had done before 1917.” But this led to a rise in prices that fostered discontent among the urban proletariat.

Many Old Bolsheviks were also unhappy about the NEP, which they feared was really a return to capitalism; and Stalin used this opposition to whip up the class-war psychology of the previous period, also enlisting the sympathies of the younger Communists who had not fought in the civil war but had been educated in the “cult of struggle.” By 1927, the NEP came to an end, which like all such changes was enforced by harsh police measures and deprivations: “Thousands of NEPmen were imprisoned or driven from their homes,” while “their families were expelled from state housing, and their children barred from Soviet schools and universities.”


With the termination of the NEP, the years 1928–1932 brought “The Great Break,” as Stalin himself called it in an important article announcing the first Five-Year Plan. This was the period when, determined to destroy the grip of the peasants on the Russian economy by controlling the supply of grain, Stalin decided to collectivize the farms so as to bring them under state control. “During the first two months of 1930, half the Soviet peasantry (about sixty million people in over 100,000 villages) was herded into the collective farms.”

Figes describes incident after incident of how this was done by force; the peasants who resisted were labeled “kulaks” (fists) as if they were an objective social-economic category of exploiters themselves. In fact, as Figes writes, “the ‘kulaks’ were peasant individualists, the strongest leaders and supporters of the old rural way of life. They had to disappear.” Lev Kopelev, who ultimately became a dissident and a supporter of Solzhenitsyn, took part in forced collectivization in the Ukraine; and he later wrote that while “it was excruciating to see and hear [the anguished protests of the peasants],” he nonetheless felt that “we were realizing historical necessity…. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland.”

The result was a widespread famine beginning in the spring of 1932 and continuing through the next year. Figes disagrees with some historians like Robert Conquest, who have labeled this a “terror-famine” and implied that it may have been purposefully brought about. In Figes’s view, “the regime [itself] was taken by surprise by the scale of the famine” and was unable to control its results. One result was a huge wave of emigration from the famine-stricken areas to the cities, and the introduction of a system of internal passports in an attempt to control the movement of the population. Figes also notes the large-scale abandonment of children at this time by famine victims, and the growth of children’s gangs that led to the passing of a new law lowering the age of criminal responsibility to twelve. The famine created thousands of homeless children, who were rounded up and sent to “special settlements” in Siberia or other outlying areas of the country. There they lived under the most primitive conditions and served as a supplementary workforce controlled by the political police.

The compulsory requisitioning of grain led to the fanfare over Pavlik Morozov, a fifteen-year-old boy whose father—wounded twice when fighting with the Red Army in the civil war—was one of the peasants arrested for resisting collectivization. At his trial, he was denounced by Pavlik, who said: “Yes, he used to be my father, but I no longer consider him my father.” Pavlik and his brother then became police informers and gave information about peasants who were concealing grain or were hostile to joining the collective farm ( kolkhoz ). Pavlik was finally murdered by his relatives, and their trial, taken up by the press, soon turned him into the object of a cult reinforced even by Maxim Gorky, who called “for the building of a monument to the young martyr.” He had sacrificed family loyalty to the needs of the Revolution, and thus was held up as a shining example for all, an example of how to behave “as a perfect Pioneer, a loyal vigilante of the Party in the home.” Several testimonies in the book, which cite him as having been accepted as such an ideal, illustrate the success of this propaganda, particularly among the huge mass of orphaned children who had no families to provide them with another set of values besides those offered by the Communist state.


Matters began to change slightly for the better between 1932 and 1936, when “the pursuit of happiness” became the aim of “a new political and industrial elite” that had arisen during the first Five-Year Plan, between 1928 and 1932, and whose loyalty to the Stalinist regime was rewarded by material benefits. New apartment buildings, for example, were no longer constructed so as to enforce communal living. Two- and three-room private apartments were now in favor, and for the first time many couples had their own bathroom and kitchen. These years also saw the rise of a consumer culture, quite the opposite of the spartan lifestyle of the Old Bolsheviks, because the second Five-Year Plan invested more in consumer industries and rationing was relaxed. “Millions of children who grew up in these years,” Figes writes, “would recall the mid-1930s as a time when they were given their first pair of shoes.”

There was also a return to traditional family values among the new Soviet elite, “most of whom had risen only recently from the peasantry and the working class” and had not been “reshaped” to abandon completely the moral standards of the world of their origins. These years were later recalled with nostalgia by many who were children at that time, which is amply illustrated by the reminiscences that Figes uses to document the point.

This return to the notion of the family is linked with the rise of the Stalin cult, as Stalin became “the father of the Soviet people” just as Nicholas II had been tsar-father ( tsar-batiushka ) of the Russian people before 1917. Nonetheless, even though Pavlik Morozov was no longer held up as an exemplar, the new amenities of life were available only to the Soviet elite. For others the housing shortage was endemic, and Nadezhda Mandelstam, writing of the conflicts over “living space” that “future generations will never understand,” remarked ironically: “Who could ever leave this wonderful, precious twelve and a half square metres of living space?” Most people still lived in communal apartments whose facilities were shared by several families, and this made it easier to extend “the state’s powers of surveillance into the private spaces of the family home.” As Figes puts it, not even the Stasi state of East Germany “succeeded, as the Soviet regime did for sixty years, in controlling a population through collective scrutiny.”

The personal reactions Figes cites are mixed, though mostly negative. Arguments over the minutiae of daily life were constant, and “the atmosphere was poisonous…. Everyone suspected someone else of stealing.” Others, however, found that the communal atmosphere was an aid in adjusting to the conditions of Soviet group-life. Nonetheless, even these spoke of the “wariness” inculcated by communal living, and one recalled that “the repression I felt in the communal apartment was the repression of my inner freedom and individuality.”*

Soviet life up to this point had enjoyed scarcely any of the happy results predicted to be brought about by the Revolution, but had still experienced nothing comparable to “The Great Terror” of 1937–1938, when former leaders of the Communist Party in Russia, as well as eight senior military commanders, were placed on trial and executed by Stalin. The number of people put to death with so-called “legality” in these years surpassed anything previously known. Figes speaks of it as being “no longer a routine of mass arrests” as in the past but “a calculated policy of mass murder.”

Various reasons have been offered to account for this killing, and Figes suggests two of his own. One was Stalin’s fear of the rise of Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy and his mistrust of the European powers despite the “Popular Front” policies advocated by the Comintern. A second was the “paranoic fear of ‘enemies’” noted by his daughter Svetlana after the suicide of his wife and the murder of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad Party boss to whom he was reputed to have been very close (though the suspicion continues to exist that it was Stalin himself who ordered Kirov’s murder). Those taken into custody were not only supposed “criminals” but members of their family as well, and this “obsession with punishing the kin of his enemies” Figes attributes to Stalin’s Georgian origins: “Vendettas between clans were part of politics in the Caucasus.”

The atmosphere of this period became more suffocating than ever, and one not only spoke in “whispers” but hardly at all. As Isaac Babel wrote, “Today a man talks freely only with his wife—at night, with the blankets pulled over his head.” Another writer, Mikhail Prishvin, remarked that it was “only [to] two or three old men” that he could talk without fear. The distance between the public and the private, which already existed, became unbridgeable, and “some people took to diary-writing during the Great Terror,” using a script they tried to make undecipherable. People informed on each other constantly, and Figes cites “a senior police official” (though without any specific reference) who affirmed that “every fifth Soviet office worker was an informer for the NKVD.”

A good number of such “informers” were people with “spoilt biographies,” that is, children of those classified as “class enemies” (an example is Simonov) who were anxious to improve their status. Sometimes, of course, the motive of denunciation was simple malice, or the desire to promote oneself by removing a rival. But Figes does not overlook that “many people wrote denunciations in the sincere conviction that they were performing their patriotic duty as Soviet citizens.” Others, however, lay awake at night listening for the sound of car engines, or of footsteps that might indicate the imminence of a midnight arrest.

The “passivity” of the population, according to Figes, “is one of the most striking features of the Great Terror.” People struggled with themselves inwardly when those they knew, or members of their family, were suddenly arrested. They could not believe that those taken into custody, whom they might have known intimately all their lives, were guilty of any crimes against the state; but neither could they reject the possibility outright. Elena Bonner, later the wife of Andrei Sakharov, recalled an argument of her parents over the arrest of a close friend. Her mother refused to believe in his presumed guilt, while her father replied “in a strange, pleading voice,…how can I not believe?” The judgment of the Party became the final arbiter, not only of good and evil, but also of what was admissible as “truth.”

The years of the Great Terror ended with the downfall of Nikolai Yezhov, the NKVD chief in charge during these years, who was arrested and shot in 1940. He was replaced by Lavrenty Beria, who threw out hundreds of thousands of convictions and released a similar number from Gulag labor camps and settlements. Simonov was troubled by the arrest and brutal treatment of Isaac Babel and the famous theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold even after Yezhov had vanished; but he reasoned that there might have been some justification for their imprisonment in view of Beria’s correction of the old “mistakes.”


The next years were marked by the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler’s Germany in 1939 and the outbreak of World War II a few days later. Figes outlines the war’s course in considerable detail, referring as he does both to the slaughter of the Jews during the German invasion and also to Simonov’s “great war novel The Living and the Dead,” published only in 1959. By this time,

Simonov had come to recognize that Stalin was to blame for the disaster…because his reign of terror had created so much fear and mistrust that the country was virtually incapable of coordinated action in its self-defense.

This was very far from being his opinion during the war years, which turned him into an ardent Stalinist. In addition, the war years made him famous both as a correspondent who covered all the major fronts and in particular for one of his poems, “Wait for Me.” This is a plea by a soldier at the front to his wife or sweetheart at home not to abandon hope for his return; and it was circulated in millions of copies, becoming a hit song as well as the title of a screenplay that Simonov also wrote starring Valentina Serova, a famous actress who became his third wife.

The emotions expressed in a poem like “Wait for Me” are of course universal, but Figes stresses their particular significance in the Russian context. He cites the remark of the poet Margarita Aliger that the appeal of the poem was its “intensely personal voice,” unmixed in this case with any patriotic exhortations. It was a pure lyric, the kind of poem that Mandelstam had said could no longer be written because “the historical epoch no longer had ‘any interest in the human fate of the individual.’”

Its popularity thus marked a shift in feeling from the public to the private, and Figes emphasizes the extent to which, paradoxically, the sentiments that now came to the surface because of the war could be seen in a similar light. Here he cites the epilogue of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago :

When the war broke out, its real horrors, its menace of real death, were a blessing compared with the inhuman power of the lie, a relief because it broke the spell of the dead letter.

An army doctor at the time, who later became a historian, spoke of the “process of spontaneous de-Stalinization” that took place as a result of the war. A new feeling of solidarity for the defense of the motherland developed, independent of the ukases of the Party and of directions from on high, and the horrors of the war thus became mixed with a sense of at least internal liberation.

Another result of the war was to bring the Russians, whose negative image of the outside world had been completely shaped by Soviet propaganda, into contact with a quite different reality. Simonov himself wrote that “the contrast between the standard of living in Europe and our own in the Soviet Union was an emotional and psychological shock, and it changed the views of millions of troops.” (Figes might well have compared this with what occurred when the Russians returned home from Europe after the defeat of Napoleon: a few years later a group of officers led the short-lived Decembrist insurrection of 1825, intending to establish a constitutional monarchy.) Collaborations with Western left-wing parties during the Popular Front period had already opened the way for books and films to offer a much more alluring image of life in the capitalist West. As a result, Simonov recalled by the end of the war, “a large circle of the intelligentsia was for liberalization” and “there was a general atmosphere of ideological optimism.”

None of this optimism was justified, and the chapter dealing with the postwar years 1945–1953 depicts the differing reactions of various groups to the disillusionments that ensued. Among the numerous other events affecting the climate of the times was the foundation of the state of Israel. This led to an anti-Jewish campaign masked as one against “rootless cosmopolitans,” and Simonov, who became the editor of Literaturnaia Gazeta in 1950, felt obliged to participate in this denigration of Russian writers, artists, and theatrical personalities of Jewish origin. Far from being an anti-Semite personally (two of his wives were Jewish) Simonov nonetheless wrote an article accusing the “cosmopolitans” of “putting [Jean-Paul] Sartre in place of Maksim Gorky and the pornography of [Henry] Miller in the place of Tolstoy.” But when he defended the use of pseudonyms as being harmless (many Russian Jewish writers and artists used assumed names), he was violently attacked and, in a whispering campaign, even accused of being a “secret Jew” himself who was not a member of the once-grand Obolensky family at all. The result of this “anti-cosmopolitan” onslaught, as Figes notes, was to make many Soviet Jews, whose families had left the shtetl and abandoned their traditional way of life, aware once again of their Jewish identity.


The death of Stalin in 1953 marked a new era in Russian life, and Figes describes the various reactions to his demise. It is astonishing to what extent many of those who had suffered under Stalin seemed to genuinely mourn his death, and Figes attributes this to a sense of fear about the uncertainty of the future. Others however, especially those in the labor settlements or camps, rejoiced because they expected an amnesty; and when this was given only to prisoners whose sentences were under five years (mainly criminals), an uprising occurred in Norilsk, a huge industrial and mining complex above the Arctic Circle. The major strikes there were suppressed, but smaller ones flared up sporadically, and the Gulag system finally began to be dismantled; the prisoners were allowed to return to whatever homes continued to exist for them.

Families had been scattered by the Stalinist system of arrests and exile, and Figes provides some striking accounts of the extraordinary efforts that were made to reunite them. Indeed, he believes that since Stalinism had destroyed all the other stable institutions of Russian society, “the family [now] represented the only relationships [those who had been released] could trust.” This was all the more the case because returning exiles were looked on with suspicion by those who had remained relatively undisturbed, and it was not until the speech of Nikita Krushchev in 1956 denouncing the crimes of Stalin that the cloud overhanging them was dissipated.

The disappearance of Stalin also led to the writing of a number of works that marked the beginning of the Thaw, to use the title of a novel by Ilya Ehrenburg that attempted to go beyond the limits of a constrictive socialist realism. Simonov, though, was still an ardent Stalinist, and he continued to remain one for a while. When writers like Ilya Ehrenburg and Vladimir Dudintsev wrote novels containing criticism, even if relatively muted, of the Soviet-Stalinist system, he was highly critical of them, though he published Dudintsev’s book in Novyi Mir after significant alterations.

Worst of all, though, he refused to publish Dr. Zhivago, and wrote Pasternak a letter outlining his political objections to the point of view about the Revolution expressed in the book. It was only gradually, in the last ten years of his life, that his opinions began to change—largely, according to Figes, because of the effect on him of the censorship of his novels and war diaries (some of these latter were even refused publication under Brezhnev). By this time he was active in agitating for the publication of writers like Osip Mandelstam and the lesser-known Vsevolod Ivanov, and helping to pub- lish the brilliant satirical novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, whose manuscript had been hidden for more than twenty years. The memoir left unfinished at his death contains an unvarnished account of his past in which he “judged himself harshly.”

In his final chapter, “Memory (1956–2006),” Figes deals with the aftereffects of these years and the responses of those who both aided and suffered from the years of Stalinist repression. One prison guard in a labor camp established in the far north “For the Wives of Traitors to the Motherland” collected and published letters testifying that he was remembered “as a kind and decent man.” Other officials invented myths about themselves that diminished the importance of the positions they occupied. The victims who suffered also invented myths, or attached their own individual fates to larger myths that gave them meaning and purpose. Such myths derived from readings of Gulag memoirs like those of Nadezhda Mandelstam, Yevgenia Ginzburg, and Solzhenitsyn, and took the form either of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity or the triumph of the Communist ideal—that is, the winning of the war “or the achievements of the Soviet Union.”

So many questions, both historical and theoretical, are raised by Figes’s challenging book that there is no doubt it will continue to provoke discussion for a good many years to come. On one issue, however, there can be no dispute: it deals with a problem that has lost none of its relevance. On the very day I was finishing this review (November 26, 2008), The New York Times published an article whose headline read: “Nationalism of Putin’s Era Veils Sins of Stalin’s.” It reports on the unsuccessful efforts of a Russian scholar to gain access to the files of the KGB in order to investigate a mound in Tomsk that may be the burial ground for an untold number of Stalin’s victims. The article also refers to “the rise of a movement that has sought to idolize Stalin as a leader who defeated Nazi Germany, spurred industrialization and made the Soviet Union a superpower.” A recent study guide for high school teachers, recommended by Putin himself, refers to Stalin as “one of the most successful leaders of the USSR,” although at the same time referring to his “cruel exploitation” of the population. The Russians themselves are thus now attempting to deal with their Stalin years, and they can find ample material to aid their reflections in Figes’s massive, many-sided, and vibrantly written resurrection of the triumph and the tragedy of Stalinism.

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    In the marvelous movie Ninotchka with Greta Garbo, the atmosphere of Russian group living is well conveyed as a source of comedy. But there was nothing funny for those who had to live in such conditions.