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Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Sunday Book Review

As it Soviet times, we in the West know more, and seem to care more, about the history of Russia than those who actually live there. Who can read this review from the Moscow Times and not ask: Why wasn't this book written by a Russian? The answer: Because if it were, nobody would read it, and the author might to to neo-Soviet gulag.

The other day a student told me that he had no memory of the Soviet Union or its collapse. He was only 4 years old when it happened, so for him the Soviet Union and communism are as much parts of history as the American Civil War or the Roman Empire. They have no palpable relevance for his life in the age of the "green menace" of Islam or the iPhone. With periodic visits to the Soviet Union no longer available as a reality check, that student is left with archives, memoirs, diaries and testimonies to recreate what the Soviet Union might have been. Soviet citizens who lived through the trauma of Stalinism and World War II have already recalibrated their recollections of the past, and historians now come to the Soviet experiment knowing how it turned out. Imagination and hard work are more than ever required to resurrect the sense of possibility that inspired -- some would say misled -- those in the first Soviet generations who embarked on the building of a new world.

In "The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia," Orlando Figes sets out to reconstruct nothing less than the interior life of ordinary Soviet citizens during the half century of Stalin's rise, rule and aftermath. A prize-winning historian, Figes is both a prodigious researcher and a gifted writer. His work over time has moved steadily from the academic analytical to broader, more popular and accessible narratives. His first monograph was a stunning study of the Volga peasants during the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War. But it was his second book, a sweeping, almost novelistic treatment of the Revolution -- "The People's Tragedy" -- that made his public name. Some academic critics thought he stumbled with his next foray into more popular work -- "Natasha's Dance" -- an excursion through centuries of Russian culture, but they will be hard-pressed to fault much in his latest, equally ambitious if more time-constrained study of the Soviet psyche.

Figes begins with the generation of 1917 and the Spartan, ascetic family relations of committed Bolsheviks. Officially the ideological drive was to break down the intimacies of parent-child connections and foster dedication to the collective and to the project of building socialism. Hearing her parents talk about "party construction," the young Yelena Bonner, who would later become the wife of Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, thought the party built houses! For Bolsheviks there would be no distinction between private and public, and personal interests would coincide with those of society. Yet privacy and intimacy could not be eliminated, and in response people put on a public mask behind which they hid their personal and private feelings. The whole society was made up of whisperers, both those who spoke to one another sotto voce (here, whisperer is expressed by the Russian shepchushchy) and those who secretly "whispered" to the police, reporting on their friends, relatives and neighbors (here, the Russian sheptun carries the meaning of informer).

During the early years of Stalin's rule, Soviet society was turned upside down. Proletarians were elevated; so-called "bourgeois specialists" -- trained professionals, engineers and economists, were arrested; and the most productive peasants, condemned as "kulaks," were driven from their homes and farms, which were turned over to the poorest villagers. Following the example of the infamous Pavlik Morozov, children denounced their parents. People born into formerly privileged or newly repressed classes concealed their social origins or the fact that a parent had been arrested. Young people strove to Bolshevize themselves, eager to take part in the furious struggle to industrialize the country. Fear mixed with enthusiasm, and those who accepted the need to use violence to break with the old and build the new suppressed their emotional attachments to family and their empathy for the victims of the state's ambitions.

Figes tells multiple stories of the famous, the infamous and the ordinary. He uses a technique that he pioneered in "A People's Tragedy," following characters through the years, bringing them to the fore as their personal tales illustrate the themes of the book. The central figure is the writer known as "the favorite of Stalin," Konstantin Simonov, who reforged himself from son of a noble mother to proletarian poet able to sing the praises of convict labor and of breaking eggs (in this case, human beings) to make an omelet. Later, recalling his awe of Stalin, he said, "You become accustomed to evil." Simonov became a literary deity when his wartime poem "Wait for Me," written as a personal anthem to his lover, was taken up first by his soldier comrades and later by the Soviet media to become the expression of the longing of millions to rejoin those they had left behind.
The stories are poignant, heartbreaking, even terrifying in their depiction of human cruelty, the waste of talent, the abuse of trust and faith. It wasn't the state that withered away -- it grew stronger and more distant -- but the illusions that a humane alternative to capitalism could be built in peasant Russia. "The Great Terror," Figes writes, "effectively silenced the Soviet people." "We went through life afraid to talk," reports the daughter of an arrested father.

The effect of one personal account piled on another is a layered portrait of successive generations -- the fervent communists arrested, exiled or shot; their orphaned children, desperate, despairing and eager to be reunited with the Soviet collective; and the grandchildren who find it impossible to understand either. Even this doorstopper, however, is not big enough to encompass the whole array of Soviet experiences. The victims rather than the victors make up the bulk of the voices heard here. Figes takes issue with historians such as Jochen Hellbeck who claim that the driving ambition of many, if not most, Soviets was to merge with the great aims of Stalin and the Party. For Figes, becoming a Soviet activist "was a common survival strategy." Yet many of Figes' stories confirm Hellbeck's view that acceptance by the Party and the collective was something sincerely desired. One kulak child, Dmitry Streletsky, "despite all his suffering at the hands of the Soviet regime," remained a Soviet patriot, "believed fervently in the justice of the Party's cause, and wanted desperately to become part of it." "To be recognized as an equal human being," he said, "that is all I wanted from the Party."

Figes is a historian of keen and fair judgment. His views on major issues are sober and backed by clear argument and evidence. The Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s was a horror for which the regime in its ferocity and incompetence was responsible, but it was not a deliberately engineered genocide. He explains the purges of the Great Terror as caused primarily by Stalin's perverse drive for social and political unity in preparation for the expected war with Germany. The Russian victory in that war is credited not to the Soviet system, but to the stalwart resistance and fortitude of ordinary Soviet citizens, their love of homeland, and their commitment to neighborhood, village, family and close friends.

Figes has written an extraordinary work of synthesis and insight, carefully contextualizing the varied witnesses to suffering and survival. Professional historians might complain that there are no theoretical breakthroughs or radical new interpretations, but they can hardly fail to learn from Figes' deeply textured narratives. And, besides, this is an awfully good read! I think I will recommend it to my student.

Read another review here.


1 comment:

elmer said...

"Figes is a historian of keen and fair judgment. His views on major issues are sober and backed by clear argument and evidence. The Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s was a horror for which the regime in its ferocity and incompetence was responsible, but it was not a deliberately engineered genocide. He explains the purges of the Great Terror as caused primarily by Stalin's perverse drive for social and political unity in preparation for the expected war with Germany. "


I beg to differ.

Stalin did not expect a war with Germany, and as a matter of fact, that's why Russia was woefully unprepared. That is well-documented.

The Red Army officers led from the rear, and shot anyone who tried to turn around. Also, Red Army conscripts were expected to pick up rifles from wherever they could, including from dead fellow conscripts.

Further, as to the question of a "not deliberately engineered genocide" - bull and horse-hockey.

The famine was deliberately engineered, some say, to trade grain exported at the cost of starvation in Ukraine for money for industrialization.

At any rate, see, for example, the following:

http://www.unian.net/eng/news/news-222452.html

Is there a ”smoking gun” for the Holodomor?