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Book review: Historian explores life under Stalin

Published: Sunday, Jan. 6 2008 12:29 a.m. MST

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THE WHISPERERS: PRIVATE LIFE IN STALIN'S RUSSIA, by Orlando Figes, Metropolitan Books, 741 pages, $35

Orlando Figes, a University of London professor and one of Russia's finest historians, reveals the personal lives of ordinary Russians in this unusual and important book. "The Whisperers" starts with the Revolution of 1917 and continues past the death of Josef Stalin, peeking into peasant farmsteads in Siberia and Belarus and into communal apartments where multiple families were forced to share a single residence. Family loyalties took a back seat to the government.
Figes has collected a remarkable archive of private papers about family life under Stalin. They come from houses across Russia from people who were willing to share their memories.
The title, "The Whisperers," is purposely taken from a double-edged meaning at the time — when people who talked about their lives literally whispered for fear of being overheard by those who would punish them, or they, themselves, whispered information about their neighbors to the secret police.
This book explores how people reacted when a husband and father, a wife and mother, were suddenly arrested and called "an enemy of the people," or how far human feelings surfaced under the extreme authoritarianism of the Stalinist regime.
Conservative estimates say that at least 25 million people (about one-eighth of the Soviet population) were repressed by the Soviet regime between 1928, when Stalin seized control of the Communist party leadership, and 1953, when he died. These people were shot by execution squads, thrown into gulags, sent to "special settlements," made into slave laborers or punished in other ways.
Tens of millions of people, who were relatives of those who were directly punished, also saw their lives change dramatically. They learned to be silent about their pasts and their families and to never criticize anything they witnessed, especially involving government action.
One woman said, "We went through life afraid to talk. Mama used to say that every other person was an informer. We were afraid of our neighbors and especially of the police ... Even today, if I see a policeman, I begin to shake with fear."
The author includes numerous examples of people such as Nikolai Kondratiev, a peasant who grew up to study economics at St. Petersburg University, who then played a role in developing agrarian reforms. In the '20s, he was an economist advising the government.
But in 1930, he was arrested for belonging to the "Peasant Labour Party" (probably nonexistent) and sentenced to eight years in a prison camp in Suzdal. His health deteriorated badly and he suffered severe headaches, dizziness, deafness, rheumatism in the legs, diarrhea, vomiting, insomnia and depression. By 1936, he was virtually blind.
Yet he continued to do research and to prepare five books. He also wrote 100 letters to his wife, including little notes to his daughter. His pain at being separated from his family was palpable. In his last letter, written in 1938, he gave advice to his daughter, telling her to "study hard, read good books, be a clever and a good little girl. Listen to your mother and never disappoint her. I would also be happy if you managed not to forget about me, your papa, altogether. Well, be healthy! Be happy! I kiss you without end. Your Papa."
On Sept. 17, 1938, Kondratiev was executed by firing squad.


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