When Joseph Stalin became the leader of Russia in 1929, he immediately began a reign of terror that only a madman could have constructed. Under a banner of patriotism and in the guise of modernizing Russia to make it secure and competitive economically and militarily, Stalin laid out his Five Year Plans, which gave state control to all industries, including agriculture.
It was not the control of industry, however, that marks the Stalin years as a nightmare. Stalin had begun much earlier to eradicate anyone he viewed as a threat to his power. While still Secretary General of the Communist Party, he labeled potential rivals as deviationists and was eventually responsible for their execution. His collectivization of farms not only reduced agricultural output by at least a quarter but also was responsible for the death of more than 14 million people. His paranoia led him to murder over a million members of the Communist Party – the same individuals and party that had put him in power. Further, he executed a majority of the military leaders, which left the Soviet Union vulnerable and unprepared to defend itself from German attack under Hitler:
“There were also large-scale ‘national operations’, wholesale deportations and executions of Soviet minorities who were deemed potential ‘spies,’ writes Figes. “So many people disappeared in 1937-8, particularly in the Party and intelligentsia circles of the major capitals, that the arrests appeared random… By the autumn of 1938, virtually every family had lost a relative.”
This rampant paranoia naturally spread to the private citizens of the Soviet Union. Families were forced to house others within their walls, and it was not uncommon for multiple families to reside in one small apartment, jammed together like bodies in a mass grave. Stalin’s aggressive campaign to protect his power led to a nightmare of fear, arbitrary execution, and the complete collapse of families and social units. Orlando Figes’s book The Whisperers explores the effect of Stalin’s tyranny on ordinary Soviet citizens, most of whom still considered him a father figure and protector and who accepted Stalin’s stated goals and assimilated the doctrine so thoroughly that they believed in their own guilt whether or not such guilt existed. Brothers spied on sisters, husbands spied on wives, and children spied on parents, all happily reporting the slightest act or word of possible dissention to the authorities.
According to Figes, the Russian language has two words for ‘whisperer’ – “one for somebody who whispers out of fear of being overheard (shepchushchii), another for the person who informs or whispers behind people’s backs to the authorities (sheptun).” From 1929 until Stalin’s death in 1953, every Soviet citizen was a whisperer.
Figes explores the corruption of traditional family and its far-reaching effects through the interviews, reminiscences, diaries, and memoirs of 14 families who survived the era. The level of destruction can be summed up in the experience of just one of the victims interviewed for this book. Raised in an orphanage while her mother was in a labor camp, Marina admits she had no real idea of what a mother was yet craved one for herself. When they were finally reunited, Marina’s mother reports, “there was no joy at our meeting,” but rather that young Marina looked frightened of this stranger she’d never known. Marina herself explains, “I would not go to her when she called and would never call for her. For a long time I would say ‘vy’ [the formal ‘you’] to her, and would not call her ‘Mama’.”
Figes goes on to say that “Although they lived together for the next twelve years, they never formed a close relationship. They were both too damaged to open up to each other. Marina’s mother died in 1964. She never talked to her daughter about what she had experienced in the labour camps….” And Marina concludes: “She knew that everything that had been done to our family had been an injustice, but she did not want me to think that.”
It is stories like this, told by the victims, that give The Whisperers such a profound emotional impact on the reader. Figes makes few comments on the Stalinist philosophy or on the inexplicable insistence shown by victims to protect both Stalin and the system. Seldom do the victims themselves make emotionally-based charges, choosing instead to relate hard facts that pack a wallop and underscore the destruction of the collective soul of the people.
Author Figes, a professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, has already established himself with titles such as Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia and A People’s Tragedy: The Russion Revolution, 1891-1924. In The Whisperers, Figes achieves a rare literary feat: he goes far beyond facts and dates and uses the characters and their stories to recount the tragic tale of Stalin’s Russia, resulting in an unforgettable and valuable look at historical events that could not be properly told in any other way.