Talking could be dangerous at the best of Soviet times, but during the Great Terror a few careless words were all it took for somebody to vanish for ever. Informers were everywhere. ‘Today a man talks freely only with his wife – at night, with the blankets pulled over his head,’ the writer Isaak Babel once remarked. [Mikhail] Prishvin wrote in his diary that among his friends there were ‘only two or three old men’ to whom he could talk freely, without fear of giving rise to malicious rumours or denunciations.
The Great Terror effectively silenced the Soviet People….
In his diary of 1937 Prishvin wrote that people were becoming so adept at concealing meaning in their speech that they were in danger of losing the capacity to speak the truth altogether.
Behaviour in Moscow: one cannot speak of anything or with anyone. The whole secret of behaviour is to sense what something means, and who means it, without saying anything. You have to eliminate completely in yourself any remnant of the need to ‘speak from the heart’.
Arkadii Mankov noted a similar phenomenon in his diary:
It is pointless to talk about the public mood. There is silence, as if nothing has happened. People talk only in secret, behind the scenes and privately. The only people who express their views in public are the drunks.
As people drew into themselves, the social realm inevitably diminished. ‘People have completely ceased to confide in each other,’ Prishvin wrote in his diary on 9 October. It was becoming a society of whisperers:
The huge mass of the lower class simply goes about its work and whispers quietly. Some have nothing to whisper about: for them ‘everything is as it ought to be’. Others whisper to themselves in solitude, retreating quietly into their work. Many have learned to keep completely silent … – as if lying in a grave.
With the end of genuine communication, mistrust spread throughout society. People concealed their true selves behind public masks. Outwardly they conformed to the public modes of correct Soviet behaviour; inwardly they lived in a realm of private thought, inscrutable to public view. In this atmosphere fear and terror grew. Since no one knew what was concealed behind the mask, it was assumed that people who seemed to be normal Soviet citizens could in fact be spies or enemies. On the basis of this assumption denunciations and reports of ‘hidden enemies’ became credible, not just to the general public but to colleagues, neighbours and friends.
People sought refuge in a private world of truth. Some people took to diary-writing during the Great Terror. In spite of all the risks, keeping a diary was a way to carve out a private realm free of dissembling, to voice one’s doubts and fears at a time when it was dangerous to speak. The writer Prishvin confessed his greatest fears to his diary. In 1936, he had been attacked by literary bureaucrats in the Writers’ Union for a bitter comment he had made at a New Year’s party, a comment he now feared would cost him his freedom. ‘I am very frightened,’ he wrote, ‘that these words will drop into the file of an informer reporting on the characteristics of Prishvin the writer.’ Prishvin withdrew from the public sphere and retreated to his diary. He filled its pages with a microscopic scrawl, barely legible with a magnifying glass, to conceal his thoughts from the police in the event of his arrest and the seizure of the diary. For Prishvin, his diary was an ‘affirmation of individuality’ – a place to exercise his inner freedom and speak in his own true voice. ‘One either writes a diary for oneself,’ Prishvin mused, ‘to dig down to one’s inner self and converse with oneself, or one writes to become involved in society and secretly express one’s views on it.’ For Prishvin, it was both. He filled his diaries with dissident reflections on Stalin, on the destructive influence of Soviet mass culture, and on the indestructibility of the individual human spirit.
It’s not that different if you’re running for office in the U.S. these days—as if trying to please a million Stalins.