'Whisperers' of Stalin's Russia Find Their Voice In The Whisperers, Orlando Figes documents stories from victims of Stalin's Russia. During Stalin's dictatorship, many Russians reported on friends, neighbors and even family. Scarred by guilt and shame, many are now telling their stories.

'Whisperers' of Stalin's Russia Find Their Voice

'Whisperers' of Stalin's Russia Find Their Voice

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Orlando Figes enlisted teams of researchers who conducted thousands of interviews with gulag survivors and their families, and collected letters, memoirs and other documents. Niall McDiarmid hide caption

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Niall McDiarmid

Orlando Figes enlisted teams of researchers who conducted thousands of interviews with gulag survivors and their families, and collected letters, memoirs and other documents.

Niall McDiarmid

When Nina Kaminska was a teenager in Stalin's Moscow, she came home late after a party and discovered that she had forgotten her key. She rang her family's apartment doorbell and waited ... and waited.

Her father finally answered the door in a full suit and tie. He had always expected his doorbell to ring in the middle of the night, and he had dressed to be taken away by the secret police. When he saw that it was only his daughter, he slapped her face.

In The Whisperers, Orlando Figes' new book about the impact of communism on ordinary citizens during Stalin's rule, Figes methodically documents the vast number of victims like Kaminska and her family who silently internalized the communist system's ideology.

Figes, a professor at Birkbeck College of the University of London, relied heavily on oral history to gather intimate stories of moral degradation and humiliation suffered during Stalin's purges. In the 1930s, millions of Russians were deemed to be opponents of Stalin's regime and dispatched to labor camps, exiled to remote settlements or executed.

Figes also enlisted teams of researchers who conducted thousands of interviews with gulag survivors and their families, and collected letters, memoirs and other documents. With help from Memorial Society in Russia, Figes and the researchers compiled their work in an extensive archive.

Private life in communist Russia, he says, reduced people to a breed of whisperers — people scared to give full voice to doubts or dissidence, and whispering dark secrets behind the backs of neighbors, friends and even family. Stalin's regime relied heavily on "mutual surveillance," urging families to report on each other in communal living spaces and report "disloyalty." Many people did what they could to survive, but they dealt with shame and guilt long after Stalin's reign.

Scott Simon spoke with Figes about how Russians survived in the 1930s under Stalin's severe repression.

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Excerpt: 'The Whisperers'

Book Cover, 'The Whisperers'

The otlichniki, or outstanding students, of Class B, Pestovo School, 1936. Antonina Golovina is seen at far left at age 13. Courtesy of the Znamenskaia archive hide caption

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Courtesy of the Znamenskaia archive

The otlichniki, or outstanding students, of Class B, Pestovo School, 1936. Antonina Golovina is seen at far left at age 13.

Courtesy of the Znamenskaia archive

Antonina Golovina Znamenskaia in 2004. Courtesy of the Znamenskaia archive hide caption

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Courtesy of the Znamenskaia archive

Antonina Golovina Znamenskaia in 2004.

Courtesy of the Znamenskaia archive


Antonina Golovina was eight years old when she was exiled with her mother and two younger brothers to the remote Altai region of Siberia. Her father had been arrested and sentenced to three years in a labour camp as a 'kulak' or 'rich' peasant during the collectivization of their northern Russian village, and the family had lost its household property, farming tools and livestock to the collective farm. Antonina's mother was given just an hour to pack a few clothes for the long journey. The house where the Golovins had lived for generations was then destroyed, and the rest of the family dispersed: Antonina's older brothers and sister, her grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins fled in all directions to avoid arrest, but most were caught by the police and exiled to Siberia, or sent to work in the labour camps of the Gulag, many of them never to be seen again.

Antonina spent three years in a 'special settlement', a logging camp with five wooden barracks along a river bank where a thousand 'kulaks' and their families were housed. After two of the barracks were destroyed by heavy snow in the first winter, some of the exiles had to live in holes dug in the frozen ground. There were no food deliveries, because the settlement was cut off by the snow, so people had to live from the supplies they had brought from home. So many of them died from hunger, cold and typhus that they could not all be buried; their bodies were left to freeze in piles until the spring, when they were dumped in the river.

Antonina and her family returned from exile in December 1934, and, rejoined by her father, moved into a one-room house in Pestovo, a town full of former 'kulaks' and their families. But the trauma she had suffered left a deep scar on her consciousness, and the deepest wound of all was the stigma of her 'kulak' origins. In a society where social class was everything, Antonina was branded a 'class enemy', excluded from higher schools and many jobs and always vulnerable to persecution and arrest in the waves of terror that swept across the country during Stalin's reign. Her sense of social inferiority bred in Antonina what she herself describes as a 'kind of fear', that 'because we were kulaks the regime might do anything to us, we had no rights, we had to suffer in silence'. She was too afraid to defend herself against the children who bullied her at school. On one occasion, Antonina was singled out for punishment by one of her teachers, who said in front of the whole class that 'her sort' were 'enemies of the people, wretched kulaks! You certainly deserved to be deported, I hope you're all exterminated here!' Antonina felt a deep injustice and anger that made her want to shout out in protest. But she was silenced by an even deeper fear.

This fear stayed with Antonina all her life. The only way that she could conquer it was to immerse herself in Soviet society. Antonina was an intelligent young woman with a strong sense of individuality. Determined to overcome the stigma of her birth, she studied hard at school so that one day she could gain acceptance as a social equal. Despite discrimination, she did well in her studies and gradually grew in confidence. She even joined the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League, whose leaders turned a blind eye to her 'kulak' origins because they valued her initiative and energy. At the age of eighteen Antonina made a bold decision that set her destiny: she concealed her background from the authorities – a high-risk strategy – and even forged her papers so that she could go to medical school. She never spoke about her family to any of her friends or colleagues at the Institute of Physiology in Leningrad, where she worked for forty years. She became a member of the Communist Party (and remained one until its abolition in 1991), not because she believed in its ideology, or so she now claims, but because she wanted to divert suspicion from herself and protect her family. Perhaps she also felt that joining the Party would help her career and bring her professional recognition.

Antonina concealed the truth about her past from both her husbands, each of whom she lived with for over twenty years. She and her first husband, Georgii Znamensky, were life-long friends, but they rarely spoke to one another about their families' pasts. In 1987, Antonina received a visit from one of Georgii's aunts, who let slip that he was the son of a tsarist naval officer executed by the Bolsheviks. All those years, without knowing it, Antonina had been married to a man who, like her, had spent his youth in labour camps and 'special settlements'.

Antonina's second husband, an Estonian called Boris Ioganson, also came from a family of 'enemies of the people'. His father and grandfather had both been arrested in 1937, although she did not discover this or tell him about her own hidden past until the early 1990s, when, encouraged by the policies of glasnost introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev and by the open criticisms of the Stalinist repressions in the media, they began to talk at last. Antonina and Georgii also took this opportunity to reveal their secret histories, which they had concealed from each other for over forty years. But they did not speak about such things to their daughter Olga, a schoolteacher, because they feared a Communist backlash and thought that ignorance would protect her if the Stalinists returned. It was only very gradually in the mid-1990s that Antonina at last overcame her fear and summoned up the courage to tell her daughter about her 'kulak' origins.

The Whisperers reveals the hidden histories of many families like the Golovins, and together they illuminate, as never before, the inner world of ordinary Soviet citizens living under Stalin's tyranny. Many books describe the externals of the Terror — the arrests and trials, enslavements and killings of the Gulag — but The Whisperers is the first to explore in depth its influence on personal and family life. How did Soviet people live their private lives in the years of Stalin's rule? What did they really think and feel? What sort of private life was possible in the cramped communal apartments, where the vast majority of the urban population lived, where rooms were shared by a whole family and often more than one, and every conversation could be overheard in the next room? What did private life mean when the state touched almost every aspect of it through legislation, surveillance and ideological control?

Millions of people lived like Antonina in a constant state of fear because their relatives had been repressed. How did they cope with that insecurity? What sort of balance could they strike between their natural feelings of injustice and alienation from the Soviet system and their need to find a place in it? What adjustments did they have to make to overcome the stigma of their 'spoilt biography' and become accepted as equal members of society? Reflecting on her life, Antonina says that she never really believed in the Party and its ideology, although clearly she took pride in her status as a Soviet professional, which entailed her acceptance of the system's basic goals and principles in her activities as a doctor. Perhaps she led a double life, conforming to Soviet norms in her public life whilst continuing to feel the counter-pull of her family's peasant-Christian values in her private life. Many Soviet people lived by such dualities. But equally there were 'kulak' children, not to mention those born to families of noble or bourgeois origin, who broke completely with their past and immersed themselves in the Soviet system ideologically and emotionally.

The moral sphere of the family is the main arena of The Whisperers. The book explores how families reacted to the various pressures of the Soviet regime. How did they preserve their traditions and beliefs, and pass them down to their children, if their values were in conflict with the public goals and morals of the Soviet system inculcated in the younger generation through schools and institutions like the Komsomol? How did living in a system ruled by terror affect intimate relationhips? What did people think when a husband or a wife, a father or a mother was suddenly arrested as an 'enemy of the people'? As loyal Soviet citizens how did they resolve the conflict in their minds between trusting the people they loved and believing in the government they feared? How could human feelings and emotions retain any force in the moral vacuum of the Stalinist regime? What were the strategies for survival, the silences, the lies, the friendships and betrayals, the moral compromises and accommodations that shaped millions of lives?

For few families were unaffected by the Stalinist Terror. By conservative estimates, approximately 25 million people were repressed by the Soviet regime between 1928, when Stalin seized control of the Party leadership, and 1953, when the dictator died, and his reign of terror, if not the system he had developed over the past quarter of a century, was at last brought to an end. These 25 million — people shot by execution squads, Gulag prisoners, 'kulaks' sent to 'special settlements', slave labourers of various kinds and members of deported nationalities — represent about one-eighth of the Soviet population, approximately 200 million people in 1941, or, on average, one person for every 1.5 families in the Soviet Union. These figures do not include famine victims or war dead. In addition to the millions who died, or were enslaved, there were tens of millions, the relatives of Stalin's victims, whose lives were damaged in disturbing ways, with profound social consequences that are still felt today. After years of separation by the Gulag, families could not be reunited easily; relationships were lost; and there was no longer any 'normal life' to which people could return.

A silent and conformist population is one lasting consequence of Stalin's reign. Families like the Golovins learned not to talk about their past — some like Antonina even hiding it from their closest friends and relatives. Children were taught to hold their tongues, not to speak about their families to anyone, not to judge or criticize anything they saw outside the home. 'There were certain rules of listening and talking that we children had to learn,' recalls the daughter of a middle-ranking Bolshevik official who grew up in the 1930s:

What we overheard the adults say in a whisper, or what we heard them say behind our backs, we knew we could not repeat to anyone. We would be in trouble if we even let them know that we had heard what they had said. Sometimes the adults would say something and then would tell us, 'The walls have ears,' or 'Watch your tongue,' or some other expression, which we understood to mean that what they had just said was not meant for us to hear.

Another woman, whose father was arrested in 1936, remembers:

We were brought up to keep our mouths shut. 'You'll get into trouble for your tongue' — that's what people said to us children all the time. We went through life afraid to talk. Mama used to say that every other person was an informer. We were afraid of our neighbours, and especially of the police . . . Even today, if I see a policeman, I begin to shake with fear.

In a society where it was thought that people were arrested for loose tongues, families survived by keeping to themselves. They learned to live double lives, concealing from the eyes and ears of dangerous neighbours, and sometimes even from their own children, information and opinions, religious beliefs, family values and traditions, and modes of private existence that clashed with Soviet public norms. They learned to whisper.

The Russian language has two words for a 'whisperer' — one for somebody who whispers out of fear of being overheard (shepchushchii), another for the person who informs or whispers behind people's backs to the authorities (sheptun). The distinction has its origins in the idiom of the Stalin years, when the whole of Soviet society was made up of whisperers of one sort or another.

The Whisperers is not about Stalin, although his presence is felt on every page, or directly about the politics of his regime; it is about the way that Stalinism entered people's minds and emotions, affecting all their values and relationships. The book does not attempt to solve the riddle of the Terror's origins, or to chart the rise and fall of the Gulag; but it does set out to explain how the police state was able to take root in Soviet society and involve millions of ordinary people as silent bystanders and collaborators in its system of terror. The real power and lasting legacy of the Stalinist system were neither in the structures of the state, nor in the cult of the leader, but, as the Russian historian Mikhail Gefter once remarked, 'in the Stalinism that entered into all of us'.

Historians have been slow to enter the inner world of Stalin's Russia. Until recently, their research was concerned mostly with the public sphere, with politics and ideology, and with the collective experience of the 'Soviet masses'. The individual — in so far as he appeared at all — featured mainly as a letter-writer to the authorities (i.e. as a public actor rather than as a private person or family member). The private sphere of ordinary people was largely hidden from view. Sources were the obvious problem. Most of the personal collections (lichnye fondy) in the former Soviet and Party archives belonged to well-known figures in the world of politics, science and culture. The documents in these collections were carefully selected by their owners for donation to the state and relate mainly to these figures' public lives. Of the several thousand personal collections surveyed in the early stages of the research for this book, not more than a handful revealed anything of family or personal life.*

The memoirs published in the Soviet Union, or accessible in Soviet archives before 1991, are also generally unrevealing about the private experience of the people who wrote them, although there are some exceptions, particularly among those published in the glasnost period after 1985. The memoirs by intellectual e´migre´s from the Soviet Union and Soviet survivors of the Stalinist repressions published in the West are hardly less problematic, although they were widely greeted as the 'authentic voice' of 'the silenced', which told us what it had 'been like' to live through the Stalin Terror as an ordinary citizen. By the height of the Cold War, in the early 1980s, the Western image of the Stalinist regime was dominated by these intelligentsia narratives of survival, particularly those by Yevgeniia Ginzburg and Nadezhda Mandelshtam, which provided first-hand evidence for the liberal idea of the individual human spirit as a force of internal opposition to Soviet tyranny. This moral vision — fulfilled and symbolized by the victory of 'democracy' in 1991 — had a powerful influence on the memoirs that were written in enormous numbers after the collapse of the Soviet regime. It also had an impact on historians, who after 1991 were more inclined than they had been before to emphasize the forces of popular resistance to the Stalinist dictatorship. But while these memoirs speak a truth for many people who survived the Terror, particularly for the intelligentsia strongly committed to ideals of freedom and individualism, they do not speak for the millions of ordinary people, including many victims of the Stalinist regime, who did not share this inner freedom or feeling of dissent, but, on the contrary, silently accepted and internalized the system's basic values, conformed to its public rules and perhaps collaborated in the perpetration of its crimes.

The diaries that emerged from the archives seemed at first more promising. They are of all kinds (writers' diaries, working diaries, literary almanacs, scrapbooks, daily chronicles, and so on) but relatively few from the Stalin period reveal anything reliably — without intrusive interpretative frameworks — about their writer's feelings and opinions. Not many people ran the risk of writing private diaries in the 1930s and 1940s. When a person was arrested — and almost anyone could be at almost any time — the first thing to be confiscated was his diary, which was likely to be used as incriminating evidence if it contained thoughts or sentiments that could be interpreted as 'anti-Soviet' (the writer Mikhail Prishvin wrote his diary in a tiny 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). On the whole the diaries published in the Soviet period were written by intellectuals who were very careful with their words. After 1991, more diaries — including some by people from the middling and lower echelons of Soviet society – began to appear from the former Soviet archives or came to light through voluntary initiatives like the People's Archive in Moscow (TsDNA). But overall the corpus of Stalin-era diaries remains small (though more may yet be found in the archives of the former KGB), far too small for broad conclusions to be drawn from them about the inner world of ordinary citizens. An additional problem for the historian of private life is the 'Soviet-speak' in which many of these diaries are written and the conformist ideas they express; without knowledge of the motives people had (fear, belief or fashion) to write their diaries in this way, they are difficult to interpret.

In recent years a number of historians have focused their attention on 'Soviet subjectivity', emphasizing from their reading of literary and private texts (above all diaries) the degree to which the interior life of the individual citizen was dominated by the regime's ideology. According to some, it was practically impossible for the individual to think or feel outside the terms defined by the public discourse of Soviet politics, and any other thoughts or emotions were likely to be felt as a 'crisis of the self' demanding to be purged from the personality. The internalization of Soviet values and ideas was indeed characteristic of many of the subjects in The Whisperers, although few of them identified with the Stalinist system in the self-improving fashion which these historians have suggested was representative of 'Soviet subjectivity'. The Soviet mentalities reflected in this book in most cases occupied a region of the consciousness where older values and beliefs had been suspended or suppressed; they were adopted by people, not so much from a burning desire to 'become Soviet', as from a sense of shame and fear. This was the sense in which Antonina resolved to do well at school and become an equal in society — so that she could overcome her feelings of inferiority (which she experienced as a 'kind of fear') as the child of a 'kulak'. Immersion in the Soviet system was a means of survival for most people, including many victims of the Stalinist regime, a necessary way of silencing their doubts and fears, which, if voiced, could make their lives impossible. Believing and collaborating in the Soviet project was a way to make sense of their suffering, which without this higher purpose might reduce them to despair. In the words of another 'kulak' child, a man exiled for many years as an 'enemy of the people' who nonetheless remained a convinced Stalinist throughout his life, 'believing in the justice of Stalin . . . made it easier for us to accept our punishments, and it took away our fear'.

Such mentalities are less often reflected in Stalin-era diaries and letters — whose content was generally dictated by Soviet rules of writing and propriety that did not allow the acknowledgement of fear — than they are in oral history. Historians of the Stalinist regime have turned increasingly to the techniques of oral history.18 Like any other discipline that is hostage to the tricks of memory, oral history has its methodological difficulties, and in Russia, a nation taught to whisper, where the memory of Soviet history is overlaid with myths and ideologies, these problems are especially acute. Having lived in a society where millions were arrested for speaking inadvertently to informers, many older people are extremely wary of talking to researchers wielding microphones (devices associated with the KGB). From fear or shame or stoicism, these survivors have suppressed their painful memories. Many are unable to reflect about their lives, because they have grown so accustomed to avoiding awkward questions about anything, not least their own moral choices at defining moments of their personal advancement in the Soviet system. Others are reluctant to admit to actions of which they are ashamed, often justifying their behaviour by citing motives and beliefs that they have imposed on their pasts. Despite these challenges, and in many ways because of them, oral history has enormous benefits for the historian of private life, provided it is handled properly. This means rigorously cross-examining the evidence of interviews and checking it, wherever possible, against the written records in family and public archives.

The Whisperers draws on hundreds of family archives (letters, diaries, personal papers, memoirs, photographs and artefacts) concealed by survivors of the Stalin Terror in secret drawers and under mattresses in private homes across Russia until only recently. In each family extensive interviews were carried out with the oldest relatives, who were able to explain the context of these private documents and place them within the family's largely unspoken history. The oral history project connected with the research for this book, which focuses on the interior world of families and individuals, differs markedly from previous oral histories of the Soviet period, which were mainly sociological, or concerned with the external details of the Terror and the experience of the Gulag. These materials have been assembled in a special archive, which represents one of the biggest collections of documents about private life in the Stalin period.**

The families whose stories are related in The Whisperers represent a broad cross-section of Soviet society. They come from diverse social backgrounds, from cities, towns and villages throughout Russia; they include families that were repressed and families whose members were involved in the system of repression as NKVD agents or administrators of the Gulag. There are also families that were untouched by Stalin's Terror, although statistically there were very few of these.

From these materials, The Whisperers charts the story of a generation born in the first years of the Revolution, mostly between 1917 and 1925, whose lives thus followed the trajectory of the Soviet system. In its later chapters the book gives voice to their descendants as well. A multi-generational approach is important to understanding the legacies of the regime. For three-quarters of a century the Soviet system exerted its influence on the moral sphere of the family; no other totalitarian system had such a profound impact on the private lives of its subjects — not even Communist China (the Nazi dictatorship, which is frequently compared to the Stalinist regime, lasted just twelve years). The attempt to understand the Stalinist phenomenon in the longue dure'e also sets this book apart. Previous histories of the subject have focused mainly on the 1930s — as if an explanation of the Great Terror of 1937–38 were all one needs to grasp the essence of the Stalinist regime. The Great Terror was by far the most murderous episode in Stalin's reign (it accounted for 85 per cent of political executions between 1917 and 1955). But it was only one of many series of repressive waves (1918–21, 1928–31, 1934–5, 1937–8, 1943–6, 1948–53), each one drowning many lives; the population of the Gulag's labour camps and 'special settlements' peaked not in 1938 but in 1953; and the impact of this long reign of terror continued to be felt by millions of people for many decades after Stalin's death.

The family histories interwoven through the public narrative of The Whisperers are probably too numerous to be followed by the reader as individual narratives, although the index can be used to connect them in this way. They are rather to be read as variations of a common history — of the Stalinism that marked the life of every family. But there are several families, including the Golovins, whose stories run throughout the narrative, and there is a family tree for each of these. At the heart of The Whisperers stand the Laskins and the Simonovs, families connected through marriage, whose contrasting fortunes in the Stalin Terror became tragically intertwined.

Konstantin Simonov (1915–79) is the central figure and perhaps (depending on your view) the tragic hero of The Whisperers. Born into a noble family that suffered from repression by the Soviet regime, Simonov remade himself as a 'proletarian writer' during the 1930s. Although he is largely forgotten today, he was a major figure in the Soviet literary establishment — the recipient of six Stalin Prizes, a Lenin Prize and a Hero of Socialist Labour. He was a talented lyric poet; his novels dealing with the war were immensely popular; his plays may have been weak and propagandistic, but he was a first-rate journalist, one of Russia's finest in the war; and in later life he was a superb memoirist, who honestly examined his own sins and moral compromises with the Stalinist regime. In 1939, Simonov married Yevgeniia Laskina, the youngest of three daughters in a Jewish family that had come to Moscow from the Pale of Settlement, but he soon abandoned her and their baby son to pursue the beautiful actress Valentina Serova — a romance that inspired his most famous poem, 'Wait For Me' (1941), which was known by heart by almost every soldier fighting to return to a girlfriend or a wife. Simonov became an important figure in the Writers' Union between 1945 and 1953, a time when the leaders of Soviet literature were called upon by Stalin's ideologues to take part in the persecution of their fellow writers who were deemed too liberal, and to add their voice to the campaign against the Jews in the arts and sciences. One of the victims of this official anti-Semitism was the Laskin family, yet by this time Simonov was too involved in the Stalinist regime to help them; perhaps in any case there was nothing he could do.

Simonov was a complex character. From his parents he inherited the public-service values of the aristocracy and, in particular, its ethos of military duty and obedience which in his mind became assimilated to the Soviet virtues of public activism and patriotic sacrifice, enabling him to take his place in the Stalinist hierarchy of command. Simonov had many admirable human qualities. If it was possible to be a 'good Stalinist', he might be counted in that category. He was honest and sincere, orderly and strictly disciplined, though not without considerable warmth and charm. An activist by education and by temperament, he lost himself in the Soviet system at an early age and lacked the means to liberate himself from its moral pressures and demands. In this sense Simonov embodied all the moral conflicts and dilemmas of his generation — those whose lives were overshadowed by the Stalinist regime — and to understand his thoughts and actions is perhaps to understand his times.

*The personal collections held in the archives of science, literature and art (e.g. SPbF ARAN, RGALI, IRL RAN) are sometimes more revealing, although most of these have closed sections in which the most private documents are contained. After 1991, some of the former Soviet archives took in personal collections donated by ordinary families — for example, TsMAMLS, which has a wide range of private papers belonging to Muscovites.

**Most of the archives were collected by the author in collaboration with the Memorial Society, a human rights and historical association organized in the late 1980s to represent and commemorate the victims of Soviet repression. Housed in the archives of the Memorial Society in St Petersburg (MSP), Moscow (MM) and Perm (MP), most of them are also available on line (http://www.orlandofiges.com) together with the transcripts and sound extracts of the interviews. Some of the materials are available in English. For more details on the research project connected with this book see the Afterword and Acknowledgements below.

Copyright © 2007 by Orlando Figes. All rights reserved.