The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, like millions of his countrymen, was doomed to come face to face with both of the great evils of the 20th century. During World War II, he survived the Nazi occupation of Poland; afterward, he served for several years as a diplomat for Communist Poland. After defecting to France in 1951, Milosz devoted the rest of his long life to exploring the spiritual and intellectual damage that totalitarianism inflicts on what he called "the captive mind."
The first casualty, he made clear, was our innate sense of the holiness of every human life. Milosz, who died in 2004, once recalled a conversation with a Communist friend in which he expressed "reservations" about Stalin's terror, only to receive the reply: "A million people more, a million people less, what's the difference?" That Communist was a perfect pupil of Stalin, who was once heard to murmur, while looking over a list of people to be executed: "Who's going to remember all this riffraff in 10 or 20 years' time? No one."
It is impossible, of course, to undo the tyrant's crimes. But one of the tasks writers have set themselves, in the last 50 years, is at least to preserve the memory of the dead, and so to resist the tyrant's historical arrogance. As Milosz put it, in his great work "A Treatise on Poetry": "Whoever, in this century, forms letters / In ordered lines on a sheet of paper / Hears knockings, the voices of poor spirits / Imprisoned in a table, a wall, a vase." The poets, especially, are the ones who have been attentive to those voices, and when we think of the literature of resistance to communism, the poets are the ones who first spring to mind. In addition to Milosz, there is Osip Mandelstam, whose poems against Stalin earned him death in a labor camp; Marina Tsvetaeva, who committed suicide after her husband was shot; and Anna Akhmatova, who was terrorized for decades by the Soviet government that killed her husband and imprisoned her son.
Yet as Hiroaki Kuromiya writes in "The Voices of the Dead" (Yale University Press, 288 pages, $30), his remarkable new study of the victims of Stalin's Great Terror, there is something subtly distorting about turning only to writers for historical testimony. We remember the poets and study their lives because they were exceptional; but they became exceptional by writing on behalf of the millions of victims who were not exceptions. Akhmatova said as much in the famous preface to her poem "Requiem": "In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent 17 months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day someone in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold ... Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there): 'Can you describe this?' And I said: 'I can.'"
We know that woman thanks to Akhmatova's poem. But what about her own voice, her own story? It would seem to be irretrievably lost, along with the 700,000 lives destroyed in the Great Terror of 1937–38 by the agents of Nikolai Yezhov, head of the secret police organization NKVD. That is why there is something uncanny about the historical rescue operation undertaken by Mr. Kuromiya, a professor of history at Indiana University. As the title of "The Voices of the Dead" suggests, the book is a kind of séance, in which the historian-medium allows a select group of victims to speak from beyond the grave. These are not the famous or articulate dead; "most of the people discussed here," Mr. Kuromiya writes, "are 'unremarkable': they left no conspicuous imprint on history." His subjects include a cook, a furniture repairman, several peasants, a handful of priests, and a ballerina — average people who were swept up by the sheer randomness of Soviet terror.
Ironically, it is the murderers themselves who allow us to hear the victims speak. Mr. Kuromiya's book is based on the Kiev NKVD's archives, which he has been allowed to read and study for several years. In the years 1937–38, about 3,500 people were executed in Kiev for various political crimes, almost all imaginary; in Ukraine as a whole, some 125,000 people perished. Out of these, Mr. Kuromiya has chosen a few dozen individuals to focus on, and he pursues their stories as far as the records permit. He tells us as much as he can find out about each victim's origins, family life, and career; he tries to determine why they were arrested and what happened while they were in prison; and he reveals their fates, which in almost every case was execution and burial in a mass grave.
His most important resources are the handwritten records of interrogations. These are extraordinary windows onto the darkest corners of modern history, documenting the mendacity, cruelty, and sheer stupidity of the Soviet regime. For that very reason, however, they present a difficult challenge for the historian, who must try to identify the substrate of fact beneath the wildly incoherent fictions of the interrogator. As Mr. Kuromiya writes, "the records of the Great Terror appear to be little more than stacks of falsification." What's more, "the confessions of broken men and women do not reflect their true voices."
But by reading the records carefully, Mr. Kuromiya can offer a provisional account of what really happened behind the prison walls. Take, for instance, the case of Antonina Ivanovna Zhelikovskaia, who was shot on May 10, 1938. Zhelikovskaia, like most of her fellow victims, was arrested not for something she actually did, but because her background and connections made her suspect to the paranoid Soviet state. She was a 67-year-old widow whose husband had died 17 years earlier; but because he had been a policeman under the tsarist regime, she was permanently branded as a potential monarchist. Worse, her two sons had fled to Yugoslavia during the civil war period, and periodically sent money home to their mother. Such innocent foreign connections, Mr. Kuromiya emphasizes, were lethally dangerous under a regime that saw itself, not without reason, as surrounded by enemies on every border.
Given the strikes against her, it was almost inevitable that the Kiev NKVD, looking to fill the quota of executions imposed from Moscow, seized on Zhelikovskaia. The charge against her was "engaging in anti-Soviet activity as a member of a counter-revolutionary organization." No proof of such membership was ever presented; in other cases, Mr. Kuromiya shows, people were forced to confess to membership in Polish or Ukrainian nationalist groups that never existed except in the imagination of the NKVD. (In one bleakly comic case, a gang of peasants was pressed to admit that they belonged to the Polish Military Organization, or POW. They didn't understand that it was an acronym, and thought that "pow" must be some kind of foreign word.)
One piece of material evidence was introduced in Zhelikovskaia's case: a handwritten document that denounced the government in colorful terms, including the suggestion that the acronym SSSR really stood for "Council of Old Siberian Robbers." Yet as Mr. Kuromiya points out, with characteristic attention to forensic detail, the writer of the document used the new-style Russian orthography introduced after the revolution. A monarchist, especially one of Zhelikovskaia's generation, most likely would have used the old orthography, out of habit or protest. It is quite likely, then, that the document was a forgery or a plant.
In any case, it hardly mattered. After a month in custody, and God knows what unrecorded threats and tortures, Zhelikovskaia confessed to her "crime." Yet the very language of her confession, as recorded by the interrogator, is so unreal that it seems to disprove itself. "I have expressed discontent with the Soviet system," she allegedly said. "Experiencing material privation and discontent with the policies of the Soviet government concerning class discrimination ... I led anti-Soviet agitation to show that these measures of the government were wrong." This is the cumbersome, formula-ridden language of Soviet propaganda and bureaucracy, not real human speech. Clearly, the NKVD interrogator either prompted Zhelikovskaia to say these words, or else simply made the confession up out of whole cloth.
Even after confessing to a capital crime, however, Zhelikovskaia preserved a last measure of humanity. Six days before her execution, she was pressed to implicate her son. But she steadfastly refused to make this last concession: "In spite of the fact that I lived with my son in the same place," she insisted, "I hid [my counterrevolutionary convictions and actions] from him." She was trying as best she could to avoid dragging her son into the Terror.
Yet the most depressing aspect of "The Voices of the Dead" is its portrait of the sheer randomness and irrationality of Soviet persecution. Some of the victims, at least, engaged in actions that they should have known to be dangerous, even if they would have been completely innocuous in any just society. Olga Semenovna Vasileva, for instance, had a love affair with a carpenter who worked at the German consulate — exactly the kind of contact that, to the NKVD, was proof positive of espionage. But then there was Nikita Kravchenko, a beggar who was executed for complaining about his hard life under the Soviet regime. The two priests who gave him permission to beg at the church door were also killed, as his accomplices in "counter-revolutionary agitation." And there was Nikolai Bigotskii, who lost his temper at some Komsomols (members of the Communist youth organization) when they put on a play in the yard of his apartment building. When he exclaimed, "A moment will come when I'll hang these cursed Komsomols on a bayonet," he was denounced by a neighbor, convicted of "conducting revolutionary agitation," and executed.
Even the protocols of legality, which the NKVD so uselessly maintained, could not be relied on. Confessing to a crime guaranteed a death sentence, but maintaining one's innocence was usually useless. On the other hand, some people who refused to confess did end up receiving lesser sentences of 10 or five years in the Gulag — so the accused did not even have the solace of knowing that his fate was out of his hands. The ordinary Soviet citizen was in exactly the position of Joseph K., from Kafka's "The Trial": accused of crimes he did not commit, unable to mount a defense, at the mercy of laws he didn't know existed.
Under such circumstances, it begins to seem that the greatest madness of the NKVD was its insistence on keeping records of its own proceedings — as though these shoddy transcriptions of judicial murders were the records of an ordinary legal system. It is a kind of poetic justice that those records, intended as evidence of the guilt of the victim, should now be used by Mr. Kuromiya to prove the guilt of the regime. "Biographies of Stalin are legion," Mr. Kuromiya writes, "whereas those of 'ordinary' Soviet citizens are few and far between. ... Yet I am convinced that the lives of the 'ordinary' people discussed in this book are no less memorable and no less worthy of being written about than that of Stalin, their killer. Without them, history is incomplete."