Orlando Figes on Stalin’s Collaborators

In the NYT Sunday Book Review, Joshua Rubenstein reviews The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2007).

For many years, Orlando Figes observes, the memoirs of intellectual dissidents, like Eugenia Ginzburg and Nadezhda Mandelstam, and the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “were widely greeted as the ‘authentic voice’ of ‘the silenced,’” telling us “what it had ‘been like’ to live through the Stalin Terror as an ordinary citizen.” Their books did indeed reflect the experience of people like themselves, who were “strongly committed to ideals of freedom and individualism.” But they did not represent what happened to millions of other people who were not opponents of the regime and did not engage in any kind of substantial dissent, but were still dispatched to labor camps, to exile in remote settlements or to summary execution. As Figes, a leading historian of the Soviet period, concludes in “The Whisperers,” his extraordinary book about the impact of the gulag on “the inner world of ordinary citizens,” a great many victims “silently accepted and internalized the system’s basic values” and “conformed to its public rules.” Behind highly documented episodes of persecution, famine and war lie quieter, desperate stories of individuals and families who did what they could to survive, to find one another and to come to terms with the burden of being physically and psychologically broken. But it was not only repression that tore families apart. The regime’s reliance on “mutual surveillance” complicated their moral burden, instilling feelings of shame and guilt that endured long after years of imprisonment and exile.

The widespread use of communal apartments facilitated government oppression. Initially designed to address a severe housing crisis, the apartments turned into “a means of extending the state’s powers of surveillance into the private spaces of the family home.” Families could monitor one another, reporting any hint of disloyalty. Spouses and children could be sent away after an arrest or an execution. The age of criminal responsibility was lowered to 12 in order to reinforce pressure on adults to cooperate with interrogators and spare their children. A wife was expected to divorce her arrested husband….

The case of Aleksandr Tvardovsky exemplified the way families could be torn apart by moral degradation. Tvardovsky is remembered for being an accomplished poet and the courageous editor of Novy Mir (New World), a literary journal that, during the Khrushchev period in the late 1950s and early ’60s, published outspoken material about the Stalin years, including work by Solzhenitsyn and the memoirs of Ilya Ehrenburg.

But Tvardovsky had his own troubling background. His father and brothers had been arrested on political grounds in 1931, and Aleksandr, wanting to pursue a literary career, refused to maintain contact. As he wrote to them: “I am neither a barbarian nor an animal. I ask you to fortify yourselves, to be patient and to work. The liquidation of the kulaks as a class does not mean the liquidation of people, even less the liquidation of children.” He concluded by insisting they not communicate with him. Two months later, his father fled his place of exile to find his estranged son. Tvardovsky betrayed him to the police. Compelled “to choose between one’s family and the Revolution,” Tvardovsky, like many others, refused to give in to “abstract humanitarianism.”

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