A Voice to the Victims

In collected testimonies from victims of Stalin's Soviet regime, historian Orlando Figes was fully aware that people tend to 'borrow' stories from each other, which lends their stories a certain similarity .

"The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia," Orlando Figes, Metropolitan Books, 740 pages, $35

In the introduction to his descriptive book about the life of ordinary Russians living under Josef Stalin's reign of terror, Orlando Figes explains how he decided upon the book's title, which has an ambiguous meaning in its Russian usage. Not only does it describe those fearful that their words were being heard by the wrong ears; it also refers to the state informers - who numbered many and hailed from all walks of life - who made sure to notify the authorities of any rumor or even the slightest seed of doubt as to possible criminal wrongdoing or plain old opposition to the Soviet regime.

Among historians, Figes has gained prominence in researching and describing modern Russian history. In his latest book, he turns his attention to the individual, in the form of the family structure, both of which were threatened by the demands of the Russian revolution. "The Whisperers" is not a sociological or anthropological work, and to label it as merely "a book" does not do it justice. It is unique in that it serves as a shocking witness account of the victims' stories, impressive in its scope and keen observations, rendering it a fitting monument.

Yet the author is first and foremost a historian, who is fully aware of his own weaknesses and flaws when it comes to oral documentation. In summing up his work, he is one step ahead of his critics in acknowledging the shortcomings of collective memory.

In looking at post-communist Russia, Figes identifies a phenomenon known as "borrowed memories," which gripped the entire country. He writes of the great similarity between the victims' stories, as well as their tendency to "borrow" experiences from one another. The memoirs written by the likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Yevgenia Ginzburg, which have since become canons in public consciousness, undoubtedly created a template for recollection and the borrowing of experiences. And yet, as opposed to the historian who assumes their words, letters and documents to be beyond further probing, Figes says he sat down and interviewed hundreds of victims, knowing when to cut them off in their recollection of their fictitious pasts, knowing how to ask those questions that occasionally - though not always - revealed details that had yet to see the light of day, nuances that enriched and added color to the testimony thus far on record.

The fall of the Soviet Union gave rise to hopes that perhaps the removal of the restrictions on expression would allow for a detailed, unfettered accounting of the horrors. In contemporary Russia, there are those who scoff at the notion that those hopes have been realized. There are too many interested parties at the highest levels of government who would likely find themselves compromised if they were to allow unlimited access to the past.

Once there is more research into this topic, scholars will need to redefine basic assumptions on key issues, including who qualifies as a "victim" and how many victims there were. Does that category include only those who were executed? What about those sent to the gulag? And prisoners of war captured by the Germans who returned home only to find that they had been stripped of their status as fighters and were now considered potential traitors, "enemies of the people"?

"Enemy of the people" is a key concept, both in this book and in other works researching the reign of terror. "Enemy of the people" refers to those whose fathers served the czarist regime. It refers to a farmer given the label "kulak" (a term broadly applied to prosperous farmers, although the question of "who is a kulak?" has never been resolved), his children, and his children's children. "Enemy of the people" is also someone fingered by a neighbor for saying "something" about the Soviet regime. The term was mainly used to describe those whom the regime wanted to stigmatize.

The Bolsheviks were always very flexible in their characterizations. When they set up the Third International, otherwise known as the Comintern, whose task it was to foment global revolution, they established 21 preconditions that had to be strictly adhered to by any political party interested in joining. Potential applicants, however, also got wind of a secret "22nd clause," which stated that Moscow reserved the right to nullify the previous 21 preconditions, or to alter them in any way it saw fit.

The stories of the witnesses, as relayed by Figes, are extraordinary in their monotony. Even the stories of their suffering are similar, as are their stories of liberation.

The victims of Stalin's terror continue to live in perpetual fear. Even years after the collapse of the Soviet regime, they are still not convinced that the evil apparatus is indeed a thing of the past. They worry that if they reveal details of their past horrors, they will be exposed to renewed terror, worse than what they experienced back then. Silence, Figes writes, is not an unusual response. Rather, it is to be expected.

Invariably, silence is accompanied by the lie. The victims of the past return to the world and cling to it with all their strength. The stain of being labeled "enemy of the people" remains the biggest obstacle in their path to rehabilitation. Thus, a mother won't dare tell the truth to her daughter, and a husband and wife could lead a warm, serene household and live satisfying lives for dozens of years, leaving their children to discover the truth about their hidden pasts only after their demise.

It is remarkable how many such witness accounts Figes uncovered. One story involved a man, who was the son of a senior clerk who had been employed by the czarist regime - a serious defect in Stalin's book - and his wife, who was the daughter of a village shoemaker pegged as a capitalist. Their daughter completed her university studies and joined the Comsomol (the Communist youth organization).

This is another characteristic of the "whisperers." It is remarkable how many of them justify everything that was done to them, and how after so many difficult years of suffering, they continue to believe in the rightness of the regime and its actions. What was done to them belongs in the realm of a bureaucratic error, and one must not lay the blame at the feet of Stalin and the regime he built. Because it was Stalin, one must never forget, "who was the leader that led us to the glorious victory over Nazi Germany."

Dozens of interviewees, each from a different period and sub-period, were selected to tell their stories. Those sentenced to the gulags, and the experiences they underwent, are key messengers in the story. Figes focused on families, ostensibly since one man's suffering invariably affected those closest to him. One of the more tragic outcomes of the Stalinist regime is the legacy of broken families. The Comsomol and the Pioneer organizations made sure to separate the children from their parents. The extreme ideologues were convinced that the idea of families was a bourgeois invention that would disappear in the Soviet-dominated new world order.

Figes is hardly surprised at stories of witnesses who recall how sons and daughters turned their parents in to the authorities if they were found to have strayed off the straight path. He is also able to explain the psychological mechanism that compelled many of the regime's victims to publicly justify what was done to them. In hindsight, and with the benefit of knowing all we know now, it is easy to understand why the authorities were so fearful of the family, this unit of people which at times showed signs of great resiliency in its will to survive and a fierce desire to adhere to tradition in a world of terror and lies, a world in which parents were afraid of their children, yet all the same did everything in their power to ensure their children a place from which they could integrate into the new regime.

The grandfathers and grandmothers are the keepers of the flame, the impenetrable walls that seek to block out the waves of destruction wrought by the new world. In this society, where people disappeared and nobody knew where to, the grandparents were often left as the last resort for abandoned youth. Even in seemingly normal families, the grandmother was often the primary caretaker. The parents fearfully and respectfully led their children down the path of acclimation into the new world even though they themselves did not believe in the regime or its messages. The parents made sure their children read the recommended literature of the Communist youth movements. The grandmother, quietly and in secret, offered her grandchildren the forbidden classical works of the 19th century. She planted the seeds of doubt and raised her eyebrow, at times even taking her granddaughter to church.

The axis around which Figes centers his subplot is the affair surrounding the well-known Stalinist poet, Konstantin Simonov. His famous poem "Wait For Me" accompanied the soldiers of the Red Army to the bloody battles of World War II. The soldiers were said to have kept a copy of the poem in their pocket as they headed off to battle, and they were all convinced that Simonov's beloved was the most precious of all the loved ones left behind.

Figes' decision to write his book using the backdrop of Simonov's life was by no means a fait accompli. Could it be that he was trying to say that Simonov's life and fate were somehow indicative of the lives of those who comprised "the whisperers"? Simonov died comfortably in his bed, he was never persecuted, and throughout his entire life he enjoyed the perks and status granted him by the government. Nonetheless, it is clear why Figes chose him as an example to illustrate what it meant to be a victim during that time.

Simonov chose his path consciously. Nobody forced him to serve Stalin and his policies, and he enlisted into the cause of his own volition, eventually becoming a mouthpiece for the regime.

Simonov lost his soul and his freedom, and when he reached old age, he concluded that his entire life had been devoted to the service of a bloodthirsty, insane dictator. And so he had lost everything, most importantly the ability to influence the lives of others and to shape their consciousness. In order to achieve what he did, Simonov was compelled to betray all that was dear to him. He eschewed a relationship with his mother due to her aristocratic-czarist background, and he did not raise a finger to aid his loved ones, who bore the brunt of the government's oppression. He abandoned his first wife, a Jew whose family was persecuted and broken. He even cheated on his second wife, the beautiful actress Valentina Serova, who was the inspiration for "Wait For Me," when her health began to deteriorate and she took up drinking. Toward the end of his life, he refused to recognize his son, who was Jewish according to religious law, and who sought to reconcile with his father.

In order to prevent the reader from jumping to simplistic, rash conclusions, Figes is keen to remind us that portraying Simonov as a scoundrel lacking both principles and a backbone hardly serves to solve the problem. During World War II, Simonov was a courageous war correspondent who reported from all the fronts. Following the war, he continued his efforts to perpetuate the memories of the fallen soldiers. "The Great Patriotic War," as it was called in the Soviet Union, was a singular event, a turning point. In Simonov's view, and that of many of his contemporaries, Josef Stalin was the great victor of this brutal war. Later, when Stalin's failures in managing the war and his role in the unnecessary loss of lives were revealed, Simonov lost his ability to judge right from wrong. As a result of his long years of service he turned into "a whisperer," a man who had completely lost his freedom.

The closing chapter of Figes' riveting book deals with the significance of memory and recollection in a traumatized society. As mentioned above, Figes doesn't discount the limits of oral testimony, and he enunciates the deficiencies and weaknesses of human memory. He also explicitly hints that his findings can be used to evaluate other societies that have fallen victim to serious trauma in the 20th century. Figes dedicated his book to his mother, nee Unger, from Berlin and "to the memory of the family we lost." To him, the craft of documentation and writing is near sacrosanct.