Witness Protection

Lewis Siegelbaum

  • The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia by Orlando Figes
    Allen Lane, 740 pp, £25.00, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 7139 9702 6

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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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