'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.
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'Whisperers' of Stalin's Russia Find Their Voice

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'Whisperers' of Stalin's Russia Find Their Voice

'Whisperers' of Stalin's Russia Find Their Voice

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

When Nina Kaminska was a teenager in Stalin's Moscow, she came home late after a party and discovered she'd forgotten her key. She rang her family's apartment doorbell and waited, and waited. Finally, her father answered the door in a full suit and tie. He was a loyal Soviet, but in a way, he'd always expected his doorbell to ring in the middle of the night and he'd dressed to be taken away by the secret police. When he saw that it was only his daughter, his loving father slapped her across the face.

Orlando Figes' new book, "The Whisperers" is about - is a Russian phrase that the Stalinism that entered into all of us. It's how private life in communist Russia reduced people into a breed of whisperers. People scared to give full voices to doubt true dissidents and whispering dark secrets behind the backs of neighbors, friends, even family. Mr. Figes, the author of previous award-winning books on Russia is a professor at Birkbeck College at University of London. And he joins us from our studios in London.

Professor Figes, thanks so much for being with us.

Professor ORLANDO FIGES (Author, "The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia"): It's a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Soviets of distinction and rank were never apologetic about the fact that they were out to make a true revolution, and they saw that as a beginning by making a new human being.

Prof. FIGES: Yeah, absolutely. It was part of the long-term Utopian vision of (unintelligible) to erase the families and institution. I mean, they were quite explicit about that. They saw the family of the private home as spheres of potentially counterrevolution and certainly spheres in which children were still going to be under the influence of traditional values, the sort of values of individualism they wanted to sweep away.

Obviously, they didn't think this could be done overnight, but they instituted policies on marriage and divorce, and especially in the way they planned out communal housing in the 1920s in order to accelerate the demise of the family and bring children into this fear of collective living, to see loyalty to the regime, to the school, to the figure of Stalin as a higher form than loyalty to their own parents in many ways.

SIMON: Parental love was distrusted.

Prof. FIGES: It was. I mean, they even said that it was breeding a sort of egotism to love one's own child.

SIMON: I want to see if I can draw you out a bit in explaining what the people you were able to speak with said about what it was like to live in communal apartments, because I think many of us felt, oh, what does this mean? That everybody could use my towel? But there were something more substantial going on, wasn't there?

Prof. FIGES: Yes, there was. I mean, 80 percent of the urban population lived in communal apartments, which were large apartments subdivided with a family, sometimes more than one family in a single room. And that was partly as a reaction to the housing crisis. But also from the regime's point of view, part of a policy both to inculcate collective ways of living in the population but also to keep the population under closed surveillance. So in every communal apartment, there was a household elder who would report to the police. So in other words, the arms of the state in terms of its surveillance and informing went right down into the private's fear of living.

SIMON: Help us understand the rules that children had to learn about whispering and talking.

Prof. FIGES: Yes, they were brought up very much to be very careful about what they said outside the home. Children, of course, talk in playgrounds and that can bring trouble to the family. So many children in our project talked about being brought up to learn the walls have ears and whispering became a way of life.

SIMON: Whispering not only to contrive perhaps secrets in each other but whispering about other people so they wouldn't hear.

Prof. FIGES: Yeah, that's right. They're actually two words in Russian for a whisperer. One shepchushchii for somebody who whispers for fear of being overheard, as you say, and then another, sheptun, which is a derogatory, sort of gulag term for people who whisper behind people's back, i.e. informing them to the police. And that's why I called the book "The Whisperers" because it seems to me the whole of Soviet society was made up of one form of whisperer or another.

SIMON: At the heart of your story is a man named Konstantin Simonov who came from a - the family suffered repression. He remade himself as a proletarian writer, and I think it's safe to say one of the best known poets of the era in Russia. Could you trace his story for us because you wound up with - I think it's safe to say perhaps not ambivalent, but the thoughts of equal passion on both sides.

Prof. FIGES: You know he's a fascinating figure, the sort of tragic anti-hero, if you like, of the book. As you say, he comes from an aristocratic background. His mother was a princess, Obolenskaya. And while his family is going into exile and suffering from repression in the 1920s and '30s, as a young man Simonov reinvents himself as a proletarian writer.

And after the war, he becomes really probably the senior figure in the writers' union, which is not just a writers' union. It's a major political organization in Stalin's Russia, which led a number of propaganda campaigns one against Jewish writers, which became a campaign against all Jews in the Soviet Union in which Simonov played the leading role.

But, you know, at the same time, he was married to a woman from a Jewish family in Moscow and his son, Aliyosha Simonov(ph), is still alive, and he's the person who gave his access to his father's archive. That Laskin family suffered from these repressions themselves and Simonov did nothing actually to help them. And in later years, he becomes quite remorseful about all of this.

SIMON: You were a grad student in Moscow, was it in the mid-1980s?

Prof. FIGES: That's right, yeah. And that's how, really, I came onto this project because in the evenings after working in public archives. And I would spend my spare time in family homes and got to know many families and saw the degree to which these family histories they were telling me were a moral counterbalance against the sort of official version of Soviet history, not just in Soviet history books, but in Western history books for that matter. And so I sort of have this idea from then even from the 1980s that one needed to recover this alternative history of the Stalinist era by recovering these family histories.

SIMON: Was it dangerous to keep a memoir?

Prof. FIGES: Of course it was. And that's why oral history really was the only way to recover these secret histories because, you know, when someone was arrested the first that would be taken away are any private papers - the diary, letters, a memoir, anything like that that could be use to show what they were really thinking about the regime being able to find out from these people now and the '70s and early '80s, for the most part, what it was like to live this private existence under Stalin.

SIMON: Professor Figes, what's your impression from speaking with so many Russians? Are families more of a unit now with loyalties to each other that supersede the state?

Prof. FIGES: I think so, yes. I mean, I think that's one of the amazing things that came out of the project. There are so many just amazing stories of wives betraying husbands, husbands betraying wives, children renouncing parents who've been arrested. But, you know, there are also just amazing stories of people walking across the country to recover lost relationships of people not giving up hope that husbands who've been arrested 50 years before might still be alive.

So, you know, there are all these terrible stories of families broken up, but at the same time, there are these stories of tremendous family resilience. And in the end, I think the conclusion I came to was that after the Stalinist regime gives up its sort of campaigns of mass repression, the only thing that's left is the family because all the other mainstays of human existence - the village community, the church, and so on - are being destroyed. And so people do go to extraordinary lengths to keep the family together. So, I think, in some ways, although this is a book and a project about the Soviet family, in other ways, I think it's about what we are as human beings.

SIMON: Orlando Figes. His new book is "The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia."

Thank you very much.

Prof. FIGES: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

SIMON: And you can read an excerpt from "The Whisperers" about one of Stalin's victims and see her family photos at our Web site npr.org/books.

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