Josef Stalin is commonly credited with the aphorism, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Given the lives lost during his rule, the attribution is fitting regardless of whether the attribution is correct. Yet the latest exploration of Russian history by Orlando Figes goes beyond the deaths as he tries to show us through individuals just how markedly Stalin’s rule affected tens of millions.
With The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, Figes brings documentary, family and oral history to bear in an in-depth exploration of what it was like to live during Stalin’s reign. Executions and deaths in the gulag during purges or The Great Terror are but one aspect of the work. Figes delves into how the person arrested or forced out of their home was not the only victim. The ramifications could range from a spouse being arrested simply because their significant other was (hence the gulag installation actually called the “Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland”) to spending the rest of your life suffering from or hiding a “spoilt biography” because a family member had been arrested. Ultimately, though the victimization extended to the nation as a whole.
Even the title serves to show the societal impact of life under Stalin. The Russian language has two words for “whisperer.” One means somebody who whispers out of fear of being overheard. The other means a person who informs or whispers to authorities behind a person’s back. “The distinction,” Figes writes, “has its origins in the idiom of the Stalin years, when the whole of Soviet society was made up of whisperers of one sort or another.”
Many whispered to avoid being heard by neighbors or co-workers may be informers. Others whispered to the authorities, whether out of party pressure or loyalty, because they felt they had no choice or because they believed what they were doing was right. Even the family unit was not entirely safe. Young children often did not understand the political implications of repeating what was said at home. Moreover, the Soviet state encouraged children, particularly those in party youth organizations like the Pioneers, to inform. In fact, a provincial publication “warned that Pioneers who failed to inform on their families should be treated with suspicion.” Still, many children were taught or learned instinctively not to speak to anyone about their family because “the walls have ears” and, if the wrong ears heard, the ramifications to the family could be disastrous.
The Whisperers gives us firsthand accounts of those ramifications from the the years immediately following the Russian revolution through collectivization, The Great Terror, World War II and even after Stalin’s death in 1953. Thus, Figes notes that one writer’s diary from 1937 indicated “people were becoming so adept at concealing meaning in their speech that they were in danger of losing the capacity to speak the truth altogether.” This, in turn, simply bred more mistrust because “no one knew what was concealed behind the mask.” As a result, many turned to diaries or other outlets as they “sought refuge in a private world of truth.”
Yet these private worlds would ultimately become a bonanza for the historian. Figes relies on letters, diaries, memoirs and the like that several hundred families concealed during Stalin’s reign. This wealth of material was then bolstered and supplemented by interviews of those alive during the Stalin era and their family members. The book lists around 500 different individuals interviewed as part of this project and Figes reports that the average age of the people interviewed and giving archives to the research project — portions of which are now available on his web site — was 80.
The Whisperers is also built throughout on changes of policy, politics and necessity that impacted not only the level of repression but individual attitudes. Surprisingly, World War II was viewed by many as a positive change, one that means the era is still often looked back on with fondness. Quoting Boris Pasternak’s epilogue to Doctor Zhivago, Figes says the horrors of the war “were a blessing compared with the inhuman power of the lie.” Figes calls the relief “palpable” because not only could individuals begin to act to some extent on their own initiative, “they spoke to one another and helped each other without thinking of the political dangers to themselves; and from this spontaneous activity a new sense of nationhood emerged.”
Figes often shows the impact of these various changes and levels of repression on society and individuals by focusing on branches of various families who had those who both suffered and prospered during Stalin’s time. Yet these families are not the exclusive focus. Given the extensive firsthand accounts and interviews, we learn of private life in the Stalin years from everyday people, the underclass, the so-called kulaks (prosperous peasants), those with bourgeois or tsarist backgrounds and even the elite of Soviet society that owed their position and power to Stalin.
Yet while The Whisperers is vast in scope and highly thorough, the concerted effort to show what the Stalin era meant to individuals and individual families keeps our interest. More important, it helps us at least begin to understand the many millions not as statistics, but as individual or family tragedies.
The playground, especially, was a breeding ground of informers.
Orlando Figes, The Whisperers