- 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.
Vol. 30 No. 8 · 24 April 2008
Lewis Siegelbaum commends the Memorial Society for the ‘public deed’ of interviewing survivors of the Stalinist regime, but attacks Orlando Figes for ‘self-promotion’ in posting these interviews on his website (LRB, 10 April). The suggestion is that Figes merely used materials collected by Memorial. In fact, he initiated the project, organised the interviews and oversaw the collection of the family archives. He should be applauded for making these materials available on his website, so that schools and historical researchers may benefit from them in years to come.
Memorial Society, Moscow
Vol. 30 No. 10 · 22 May 2008
Audiotapes of the interviews with Leonid Saltykov, carried out by Memorial in Perm, do not show any evidence of the hectoring that Lewis Siegelbaum imputes from extracts of the transcripts available on orlandofiges.com (LRB, 10 April). Nor is there any evidence that Saltykov was interrupted or that the transcript was edited to cut out information that does not fit a particular political viewpoint, as Siegelbaum also suggests. When it is indicated on the transcripts that ‘no substantive information’ was forthcoming, it simply means that the interviewee ceased to talk about the subject of the interview, talked ‘off-microphone’, made some trivial remark, mumbled, coughed etc.
Siegelbaum voluntarily or involuntarily misinforms your readers about the circumstances of the project Figes carried out with the Memorial Society. He applauds Memorial for the ‘self-sacrificing public deed’ of interviewing survivors of the Stalinist regime but attacks Figes for ‘self-promotion’ in posting these interviews on his website. We are grateful for these words, as we have been engaged in this work for many years, but we do not agree with his criticism of Figes. Siegelbaum’s suggestion is that Figes merely used materials collected by Memorial. In fact, Figes initiated the project, put the research on a scientific basis, organised training for interviews and oversaw the collection of the family archives. We feel that he has performed a valuable public service by making these materials available on his website, and merits the gratitude of repression victims and Memorial researchers.
Robert Latypov and Aleksander Kalikh
Memorial Society, Perm
I will leave it to readers of my review to determine whether the portions of the transcript of Saltykov’s interview that it cited contain evidence of hectoring. I also wrote of ‘incomprehension’ on the part of that particular interviewer, a characterisation that I would now extend to Robert Latypov and Aleksander Kalikh. Nobody could deny that Memorial has honourably represented the victims of repression in the former Soviet Union. But one of my main contentions was that not everyone whom Memorial has so identified would wish to be seen as a victim. Here I would refer readers to Jochen Hellbeck’s Revolution on My Mind (2006), a sensitive and sympathetic reading of Soviet citizens’ diaries from the Stalin era that Orlando Figes breezily dismisses. In the case of Saltykov too much of his self-identity was bound up with having been a hard and successful worker to accept that he was victimised. Neither the interviewer from Memorial nor Figes seems able to comprehend this.
I did not attribute – or even suggest – a sinister motive to the indication on the transcripts that ‘no substantive information’ was forthcoming, but rather tried to point out that oral history is tricky because what the interviewer thinks is the subject of the interview may not coincide with what the interviewee understands it to be. Likewise, what may seem a ‘trivial remark’ to the interviewer might be terribly important to the interviewee and vice versa. Such differences of intention and comprehension make it difficult sometimes to determine exactly whose story is being told. And all this is aside from the point that what someone says in an interview about events sixty or seventy years in the past needs to be treated with the greatest of caution.
Finally, in response to Alyona Kozlova (Letters, 24 April), whose letter now reappears, barely amended, as Lapytov and Kalikh’s second paragraph, I never questioned whether Orlando Figes initiated the project, organised the interviews and otherwise did what historians typically do when engaged in research for their books. What struck me as odd was the decision to display the interview transcripts on his personal website along with encomia culled from reviews of The Whisperers and advertisements for his other books, rather than storing the transcripts (which, after all, are in Russian) on Memorial’s website and directing interested readers there. But the alacrity with which Memorial’s staff has come to Figes’s defence is touching.
Wassenaar, The Netherlands