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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.

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