HISTORY | SOVIET UNION

The Destruction of Memory

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Reviewed by Vladislav Zubok
Sunday, February 17, 2008

THE WHISPERERS

Private Life in Stalin's Russia

By Orlando Figes

Metropolitan. 740 pp. $35

For decades Russians old enough to remember Stalinism despaired whenever a foreigner asked: How was life in those times? The best way to respond was to roll one's eyes and spread one's arms. Where to begin? The enormity and extremity of experiences totally alien to a Westerner (unless, perhaps, he or she had fought on the front lines in World War II or survived the Holocaust) defied explanation. How could you express why so many of Stalin's victims wept when the tyrant died on March 3, 1953? Writers and poets who had been tormented in the gulag mourned his death as "all our people's loss." And they were sincere!

Orlando Figes is known for exploring Russian history in eminently readable books. He has unwrapped the mystery inside the enigma of Stalinism with the help of Memorial, a Russian non-governmental organization dedicated to preserving the memory of victims of Soviet repression. Figes and Memorial's researchers interviewed more than 1,000 members of the "generation born in the first years of the Revolution, whose lives thus followed the trajectory of the Soviet system." The result is a riveting pastiche, at once solemn and lively, of the stories of barely literate peasants and sophisticated urbanites, executioners and collaborators, prisoners and children.

Russians who had only whispered to their closest kin about their tribulations spoke to Figes or Memorial's researchers. Marina Ilina was reunited after World War II with her mother, who had been arrested as an "enemy of the people," but they never grew close. Having grown up in an orphanage, Ilina says, "I had no real idea what a mother was." Valentina Kropotkina made a career of informing; married to a naval officer, she befriended the wives of other navy officers and then reported on their private lives and opinions, leading to numerous arrests. Today, Figes writes, she is still proud of the honors she received for what Kropotkina calls her work in "counter-espionage."

Stalin's victims and their relatives shared diaries, letters and photographs, some not merely faded but literally defaced. On the book's cover is a family portrait with the central figure blotted out. This is the father -- arrested at night, shot in some secret police dungeon, expunged even from the family album.

Fear led to the destruction even of memory. It is stunning how many voices in the book belong to people with pedigrees going back to czarist aristocrats or generals, merchants or priests. Yet they grew up knowing little or nothing about their ancestry. Their parents were too afraid to tell. In Stalinist Russia, everyone had to fit into a few categories: workers, soldiers, collectivized peasants, the party, the intelligentsia and the group that struck fear in all the rest: the "chekists," i.e., over 1 million secret policemen and camp guards.

Secrecy became habitual, for it was easy to betray oneself. The majority of city dwellers resided in kommunalki, or communal apartments, one room per family. Grandparents slept on a divan, parents on a "regular" bed (half of a queen-size) and children sometimes on the floor. In the next room, behind a thin wall, lived another extended family, and so on. As Figes notes, "rooms used for the most intimate functions were shared by everyone. The clothes line in the kitchen, the personal items in the bathroom, the night-time trips to the toilet -- these told neighbors everything." In the paranoia of the time, each occupant was a potential informer who might denounce the neighbors in order to take over their coveted space. "The communal apartment," Figes correctly observes, "had a profound psychological impact on those who lived in them for many years."

If there is a shortcoming to this excellent book, it is its focus on city residents and camp inmates, to the near exclusion of collectivized farmers, whose private lives remain to this day better described in fiction and under-studied by historians. The book also does not mention pets. Dogs, cats and birds were hard to feed, but many people took joy from companions that could never betray them; they held on to their pets for as long as they could. Still, what happens to a dog whose master is hauled away in the night? By the end of Stalin's era, Moscow and other cities were full of strays.

In his final chapter, Figes explores popular nostalgia for Stalin. He attributes it to the emotional capital invested in the beliefs of one's youth, an inability to face up to "common guilt" and a particular brand of Russian stoicism. As I finished the book, I recalled my own childhood in Moscow -- the Stalinist way of life immured in many kommunalki, but rapidly becoming a fossil. The resettlement of millions of families to separate apartments did more to de-Stalinize Russia than did all of Khrushchev's denunciations. My grandparents lived in a communal apartment in Moscow's downtown until 1978. I will never forget going there for the last time, for a party with my university classmates. The tenants had all moved out; the old building was scheduled for renovation. In hollow booming rooms with barren walls, we performed the tribal dances of our new era to the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. *

Vladislav Zubok teaches history at Temple University and is the author of "A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev."


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