Stalinism reduced the Soviet Union to a nation of whisperers. Fearing denunciation by neighbors, colleagues, friends, and even relatives, citizens across the country spoke in hushed tones behind closed doors and, in many cases, not about politics at all.
When children under Stalin asked certain questions, parents would respond: "The walls have ears" or "You'll get into trouble for your tongue." Evasive phrases were the norm; the arrest and deportation of millions of Soviet citizens were dismissed with the aphorism "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."
Stories of living under Josef Stalin are the focus of Orlando Figes's remarkable new book, "The Whisperers" (Metropolitan Books, 784 pages, $35). Few other Western historians of Stalinism have gone beyond the facts and figures to the emotional toll captured by Mr. Figes, a professor of history at the University of London and the author of the well-received "A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924" (1996) and "Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia" (2002). Quoting the Russian historian Mikhail Gefter, Mr. Figes writes that the power and legacy of the Stalinist system was "neither in the structures of the state nor in the cult of the leader," but "'in the Stalinism that entered into all of us.'" Millions of ordinary Soviet citizens, even victims of Stalinist repression, "silently accepted and internalized the system's basic values, conformed to its public rules and perhaps collaborated in the perpetration of its crimes," Mr. Figes writes.
With help from the Russian human rights organization Memorial, Mr. Figes and a team of interviewers have amassed personal recollections from hundreds of elderly survivors and, in some cases, informers. The project came just in time. "In most cases, they were approaching the end of their life and wanted to use the interview as a confessional to set the record straight," Mr. Figes said in a recent interview with the Guardian newspaper. "Already, the window we had is almost closed, as 25% of our subjects have died."
Many of them were what he calls the "children of 1917," born around the October Revolution. Educated in communist schools, they learned that private life was to be rooted out as counterrevolutionary and that they should be prepared to rise up, if necessary, against their parents. Social inclusion was found in the form of the Pioneers, adapted from the Scout movement and, later, the Komsomol, which a lucky percentage joined at 15. This was a career path toward membership in the Communist Party, Mr. Figes writes. "All moral questions were subordinated to the Revolution's needs."
Young communists cheered as Lenin's New Economic Policy, which encouraged private trade and was viewed as a last reprieve for the old way of life, was replaced with requisitioning and the First Five-Year Plan (1928–32). They had been indoctrinated in the "cult of the struggle," Mr. Figes writes, and believed that drastic measures were needed to create the perfect society they dreamed of.
Denunciations quickly became a cornerstone of life under Stalin. "Vigilance was the first duty of every Bolshevik," Mr. Figes writes, and the leadership promoted snitching as a public-spirited duty. Some parents began to fear their children after the cult of Pavlik Moroz, a boy who denounced his father, spread across the Soviet Union.
The communal apartments where three-quarters of the population of Moscow and Leningrad lived in the mid-1930s extended the state's powers of surveillance, Mr. Figes writes. People were afraid to talk to their neighbors about politics, fearing that any spat could lead to a denunciation. As day-to-day conversations were audible between adjoining rooms in the kommunalki, families adapted by whispering amongst themselves.
The peasantry — 82% of the population — remained a significant last bastion of individualism. When they were forced to give up their livestock and land as farms were collectivized in the late 1920s, many believed they were returning to serfdom. A person who opposed the policy was denounced as a kulak, the Russian word for "fist," which was used against any peasant, rich or poor, who was against collectivization. With passive resignation born out of fear, Mr. Figes writes, villagers watched as their neighbors disappeared. Ten million kulaks were exiled from their homes during the First Five-Year Plan to be "reforged" through hard work as model Soviet citizens in special settlements, a forerunner of the gulag, in the Urals, the north, or Kazakhstan.
As Mr. Figes describes the first decade of Soviet socialism and continues through the 1930s — which saw the famine, the growing prison system, the rise of a new political and industrial elite, and the Great Terror of 1938–39 — he weaves in survivors' recollections, following families and individuals through the years. Central among these characters is the writer Konstantin Simonov (1915–79).
Like many sons and daughters of the nobility, Simonov, whose mother was a princess, enrolled not in a university but in a factory apprentice school as a way of fashioning for himself a new "proletarian" identity, Mr. Figes writes. Simonov gained fame writing from the front during World War II, when he published his most famous poem, "Wait for Me." He went on to become the editor of the prestigious Soviet publications Novy mir and Literaturnaya gazeta, and a favorite of Stalin's.
Living comfortably among the elite, Simonov found a way to rationalize and even justify the arrest of his stepfather and the deportation of three of his mother's sisters to Orenburg. Mr. Figes writes that Simonov saw the arrest of his relatives as necessary acts, mistakes — because were innocent — but understandable considering the state's need to eradicate counterrevolutionaries. "Perhaps I thought, 'You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs,'" he later wrote. "It was rare to have a conversation without recourse to that phrase."
Simonov, who had reaped rewards from the Stalinist system, believed in it. But others, even victims of repression, also wanted to be accepted by the system. Mr. Figes writes that sons an daughters of exiles became Stalinists over time, not much from a burning desire become Soviet as from a feeling of shame and fear, of wanting to be full citizens. They their "spoiled biographies" an effort to move on with their lives.
It was easier to believe in coming communist utopia to be swept up in the feeling of "hurtling toward the future," Mr. Figes writes, than to confront the reality of Stalinism.
Through the show trials, World War II, the doctors' plot an repressions against the Jews, and the thaw of Nikita Khrushchev, released exiles and their families kept silent, afraid to invite further punishment. Now their voices can be heard in Mr. Figes's valuable work.