Staying on the topic of books, I am currently reading an immense work about private lives in Stalin’s Russia. Orlando Figes has already written some of the best contemporary history of the country. A People’s Tragedy is the most complete account of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War which I have read. Natasha’s Dance is a magisterial cultural history and is required reading for anyone who aspires to begin to understand Russia or Russians.
The Whisperers synthesises countless personal histories of those who lived in Stalin’s Russia. Throughout this myriad of recollection and anecdote are woven several more substantial narratives following the life stories of, for example the poet Konstantin Simonov. The effect is in turns awful, compelling and enlightening.
Figes challenges the perceived wisdom that the terror of the 1930s was an outburst of illogical paranoia. His view is that the death and arrests that characterised that period were born of a terrible but rational campaign to sweep away anyone who could possibly become an enemy. His contention is that the implication of innocent people was a result all too well understood by Stalin his henchmen.
“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” is the refrain issuing not only from the authorities, but from countless ordinary people who accepted Bolshevik ideology. It is the all pervasiveness of this ideology that is one of the most startling aspects of the book. Those whom Stalin oppressed were in many cases convinced communists. This was the case not only when the purges were directed at the party, but also when the terror encompassed the most ordinary Soviet individuals. Figes demonstrates how the children of “Kulaks” and other “enemies of the people” were frequently the most eager to conform, succeed and take on board the ideology of the Soviet Union. Actual dissent, even in the privacy of one’s own home, was exceptionally rare and usually restricted to religious communities or those older people brought up amongst Russia’s liberal noble intelligentsia.
The book is a valuable addition to the considerable literature on Stalin and his regime. It fills a gap which a lack of source material has created regarding the inner world of those who lived in a society where self-expression could mean death.