The NKVD came for Angelina and Nelly Bushueva’s father in 1937, when they were one and three years old. Nine months later, the sisters were sent to different orphanages when their mother, Zinaida, was sent to the Akmolinsk Labour Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland, along with their baby brother, Slava. Zinaida’s own mother found Nelly several weeks later but didn’t recover Angelina until the spring of 1940. The girls were then reunited with their mother and brother in the labour camp, where they went to school and joined the Pioneers. After Zinaida’s release in 1946, the family moved to a small settlement outside Perm because Zinaida didn’t have a right of residence in the city itself. She worked in a state insurance office while Nelly, who was then 12, ran messages. In 1951, Angelina enrolled in Perm’s Pedagogical Institute, where she became secretary of the Komsomol. She eventually married a Communist official in the factory where she worked from 1962 until her retirement in 1991. That same year, Nelly and Angelina learned that their father, who had been working for a steamship line at the time of his arrest, had been executed as an ‘enemy of the people’ in January 1938. Their mother died in 1992.
Orlando Figes tells in piecemeal fashion the stories of hundreds of such families across the 700 pages of his book. The Whisperers brings Stalinist Russia squarely into the ‘era of the witness’ (as the French historian Annette Wieviorka has called it), in which witness testimony is believed to be the way to convey historical truth. Most of Figes’s witnesses are ‘ordinary’, though a few belonged to families that had been among the political, military and scientific-cultural elites before (but rarely after) their unwelcome encounters with the security apparatus. All had relatives who did time in special settlements, labour camps or as forced labourers. The book relies heavily on survivors’ memories, as recorded in interviews with members of Memorial, a historical research and human rights organisation, that were conducted between 2003 and 2006. Supplemented by letters, photographs, personal documents and official reports, these oral histories give us some idea of what it was like to live with a ‘spoilt biography’ in Stalin’s Russia.
Organised chronologically, the book tells the Soviet experience in terms of family history across two and sometimes three generations. The story begins with the ‘children of 1917’, who were exposed to the full thrust of Bolshevism’s revolutionary asceticism, its antipathy towards the institution of the ‘bourgeois’ family and optimism that it would wither away, as Engels had forecast, sooner rather than later. Some of their parents embodied the new Communist morality, but many either found it impossible or considered it reprehensible to live by the new code. According to Figes, they led double lives of outward conformity while ‘concealing their true selves in a secret private sphere’. In this way the foundations were laid for a society full of whisperers: the shepchushchie who whispered for fear of being overheard and reported; and the sheptuny who served as informers, whispering behind people’s backs. Figes questions the witnesses’ stories sufficiently to complicate the picture: some of the most vulnerable shepchushchie, as well as their children, became some of the most reliable sheptuny.
The stories move into another gear – as did the USSR itself – with the three ‘Greats’: the Great Break of 1928-32, when Stalin pushed ahead with collectivisation and industrialisation, the Great Terror later in the 1930s, and the Great Patriotic War. The chapters dealing with them, accompanied by photographs worn and cracked like the lives of the people they depict, are the core of the book. Families of kulaks and priests expropriated by neighbours and sent to remote regions of the country; children encouraged to imitate the martyred 15-year-old Pavlik Morozov, who denounced his own father; children inventing new life stories for themselves in an attempt to escape their parents’ fate; husbands who expected to be arrested urging their wives to divorce them; wives asking themselves who their arrested husbands ‘really’ were; friends and relatives turning their backs on families of ‘enemies of the people’; children, like the Bushueva sisters, sent to orphanages: such are the life-changing/life-ending experiences of Figes’s middle generation.
One of the central characters in the book is Konstantin Simonov (1915-79), a talented and much decorated writer morally scarred by his proximity to power. His ancestry was aristocratic and military; he survived by reinventing himself as a factory worker while also studying poetry. His literary career took off during the purges, but reached its zenith during the war with his poem ‘Wait for Me’. He didn’t escape unscathed, however. At 15 he witnessed the arrest of his stepfather; when he was 19 his three maternal aunts were expelled from Leningrad: two of them were subsequently sent to labour camps and one was shot. In his memoirs he recalls feeling overwhelmed by such injustice but rationalising it in terms of omelettes requiring the breaking of eggs – a metaphor that crops up in other memoirs. After the war, as an editor and Writers’ Union official, Simonov could have defended Jewish writers, some of them his friends, from accusations of disloyalty and treason, but he didn’t. According to one, he was ‘simply too devoted to Stalin, too infatuated with the aura of his power’.
The last part of the book is the most painful to read. Camp inmates were released from the labour camps and met their families again only to discover how difficult such reunions are. The Bushueva sisters’ mother was unwilling to tell them about her time in the camp and incapable of giving them any affection; she accepted uncritically everything she was told by the Soviet regime and feared ‘all her life that the Terror might return’. Such families – the ‘heroes’ of The Whisperers as Figes describes them – sustained themselves by relating their own experiences to one of two larger narratives: either the survival of the human spirit in the face of inhuman brutality; or the self-sacrificial contribution to the Soviet national achievement.
Figes’s own narrative is constructed around the idea of the family as a site of ‘human feelings and emotions’, a ‘moral sphere’ that was opposed to the ‘moral vacuum of the Stalinist regime’. The antithesis is striking but unsustainable. First, it is based on an ahistorical notion of the family. Millions of abandoned and orphaned young people roamed the cities of Russia in the early 1920s not because of Bolshevik hostility to the family but because the combination of war, revolution, civil war, penury, epidemics and famine had carried off their parents. In these historical circumstances attempts by the state to take over responsibility for functions previously associated with the family both assumed urgency and attracted widespread interest abroad. Figes is silent about them.
Second, associating the family with morality and the ‘Stalinist regime’ with its absence may give us a comfortable feeling that we are on the right side of history, but historians have a responsibility to try to explain what those alien beings from the past thought they were doing. This is not a matter of ‘tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,’ but of granting Stalinists – yes, even Stalinists – the capacity to believe they were acting morally. Claudia Koonz entitled her book The Nazi Conscience: why is the notion of a Communist morality impermissible? Figes puts the words in inverted commas and asserts the impossibility of being ‘a Stalinist in public life’ without letting ‘the morals of the system infect personal relationships’.
There is another reason why the dichotomy cannot be sustained. From the middle of the 1930s, as Figes says, ‘the Party adopted a more liberal approach towards the family and the private home.’ If not exactly a volte-face, the ideological promotion of the family – including images of Stalin as the ‘father’ of the Soviet people and a ban on abortion – made it possible for male members of the elite to tell their wives that their place was now ‘in the home’, even while most urban families continued to live in communal apartments. The family, it turned out, was very adaptable. So adaptable that Figes can claim it ‘emerged from the years of terror as the one stable institution’, the only place where people ‘felt a sense of belonging’. I suppose many people did feel this way, but there is evidence of other customs and social institutions emerging from the years of terror, everything from the keeping of pets and the cultivation of friendship to the strengthening of ties among people from the same village or district (zemliachestvo) or the bonds forged in desperate circumstances between soldiers, workers and camp inmates. Many of Figes’s witnesses cite these new forms of association, which in some cases were a substitute for the family. Figes, though, reads into their testimony evidence of split identities. On the one hand, ‘millions’ of children bearing the ‘stigma of a tainted biography’ needed to ‘prove themselves as fully equal members of society’. On the other, they ‘could not help but feel alienated from the system that had brought such suffering on their families’. They were thus ‘constantly torn’. Figes presents this as a Manichean struggle, made all the more tragic by the capacity of the system to ‘infect’ personal relationships with its perverse morality. This evidently is what Mikhail Gefter, the Russian historian quoted here, meant by the ‘Stalinism that entered into all of us’. To adopt Stalinist ways was ‘a necessary way of silencing . . . doubts and fears’, a ‘way to make sense of . . . suffering’. The whispering of the parents thus resulted in a ‘silent and conformist population’, the ‘one lasting consequence of Stalin’s reign’.
Leaving aside the question of how to explain the Stalinism of other people, what we have here is a modified picture of the individual in a totalitarian society: not the brainwashed automatons of Cold War nightmares, but surreptitiously resisting liberals assuaging their fearfulness and shame by becoming complicit in their own and others’ victimisation. ‘It was impossible to be oneself,’ one of the interviewees says, as if such an authentic self existed. This may have been the case in some instances, but applied universally it flattens out all complexity. People were fearful not only of persecution or arrest but of being excluded from the giant project of building socialism, of being out of step with history at a time when the capitalist world appeared hellbent on destroying itself. They lived ‘in the expectation of a happy future’; they believed that ‘Soviet history was correct’; they yearned to be ‘part of an enormous “We”’.
Figes does not indicate whether remarks such as these provoked surprise (or dismay) among Memorial’s interviewers. His assertion that, because witnesses can be cross-examined, oral testimonies are more reliable than written memoirs remains an article of faith – unless one consults the transcripts provided in the original Russian on Figes’s website, orlandofiges.com. There one can find not only cross-examination but occasionally hectoring on the part of the interviewer; or incomprehension, as in these extracts from an interview with Leonid Saltykov, the son of a priest who was shot in 1938:
Q: What did you think of Stalin in the 1930s after the arrest of your father, and in the 1940s?
A: Well, first of all, we knew little of politics, very little; second, even if my father suffered and so many others did too, we related to Stalin better than to our leaders now. He was an honest man . . .
Figes renders the passage somewhat misleadingly: ‘Yes, my father suffered, and so did many others too, but Stalin was still better than any of the leaders that we have today. He was an honest man.’ The interviewer continues:
Q: So it didn’t occur to you that the country’s repressive policy was mainly at Stalin’s initiative? That your father suffered because of Stalin, such thoughts didn’t arise?
A: We weren’t given to such philosophising. First, throughout the country factories and roads were being built. Practically every year Stalin was lowering prices, bread arrived and there was no more hunger, we could buy things . . .
After Saltykov has explained that he didn’t learn of his father’s execution and posthumous rehabilitation until 1962, the interviewer asks at what point he changed his opinion of Stalin:
A: Well, we felt that under him there was more order, although granted, he was guilty of many things.
Q: But I’m asking when did you start to feel that he was guilty?
A: [Sighs deeply. Begins to speak very emotionally] I will tell you something else. A lot of people are saying on the contrary that if Stalin were around now there would be order, more order . . .
Saltykov then starts talking about the way Stalin related to his own children, is interrupted, and gets onto the subject of the army. Again he is interrupted and asked about his own family: ‘A: We did our work, we fulfilled our duty as people, we fulfilled . . .’ Although Saltykov had more to say, the transcript indicates that ‘no substantive information’ was forthcoming. The interviewer tries one last time:
Q: So, throughout your entire life, when you were working in the 1960s and 1970s, it never occurred to you to be sceptical about the Soviet system?
A: No. Now there are few hard workers like those with whom I worked, whom I directed, and who when we meet will always say: ‘Oh, Leonid Konstantinovich, how well we worked with you.’ They trusted me and I trusted them.
Again, ‘no substantive information followed.’ This is a good example of the trickiness of oral history: it all depends on what one is looking for. Figes speaks of ‘nostalgia’, noting (twice) that Saltykov kept a picture of Stalin on his desk right up until his retirement. What seems to be difficult for him and the interviewer to accept is that Saltykov’s identity as a hard and successful worker, an identity intimately and inextricably tied up with that of his country, may have nothing to do with the victimisation of his father and his own ‘spoilt biography’. Whether it should or should not is another matter.
Figes evinces deep sympathy towards his informants, although long-term acquaintances inevitably earn more than those he has never met, and some might feel he has gone too far in excusing Simonov’s foibles. But, try as he does to interpret the psychological makeup and motives of people from another generation in another society where the rules were observed quite differently, what made them act and feel as they did eludes him. He is not alone. Most Western scholars of Soviet history came into contact with witnesses to Stalinist repression rather late, certainly by comparison with those who study Nazi persecution. As Figes notes, ordinary people had tended to figure in historians’ work primarily as ‘workers’, ‘peasants’, ‘youth’ – categories that we treated in aggregate. The narratives we constructed about them, of class formation and atomisation, gender discrimination, accommodation with the regime, and (once we gained access to previously secret Soviet archives) resistance to it, tended to exclude the Gulag. Almost twenty years on, we have gone too far in the opposite direction, of equating the Stalin era with the Gulag and of seeking to bear witness, or better still, to find real witnesses to ‘the Red Holocaust’.
The further removed we are temporally and temperamentally from that time and place, the harder it is to imagine any animating forces other than terror and victimisation. The witnesses themselves are not exempt. Under cross-examination and knowing that much has happened over the past fifty years to discredit their earlier commitments, many describe themselves as having been powerless, resort to clichés and otherwise try to protect themselves. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t applaud the work of Memorial’s researchers in locating these survivors and recording their voices. It is a podvig, a self-sacrificing public deed, one of the Russian values that survived – or some would say was exploited by – the Soviets.
Figes, by contrast, seems to be setting a new standard of authorial self-promotion. The website on which he has posted some ninety of these interviews also includes introductions to each of the selected families, English translations of interviews with four individuals, extra photographs and other documents, links to various oral history and sound archive collections, and, to cap it all, information about how to buy Figes’s other books, about his recent and forthcoming lectures and radio interviews, and on ticker tape at the bottom of the home page: ‘Click here to read the reviews for The Whisperers.’ In case you haven’t got the point, a ‘News’ page informs the reader that ‘critical acclaim for The Whisperers continues throughout the world.’ The era of the witness meets the age of digitised academic commodification.