October 09, 2009

Review: The Whisperers

by Beth Smith

The Whisperers, Orlando Figes, (Penguin Books, 2007)

The Whisperers, by Orlando Figes, is a book about the lives of ordinary individuals and families in Soviet Russia, concentrating particularly on life under Stalin. What is striking about this book is its emphasis on individual stories rather than on using an abstract, top-down approach to history. Figes focuses how families and relationships were affected in the period. Children lied about their parents’ details on official forms, families were split due to arrests, husbands and wives kept their histories hidden from each other, and from their children. Whilst the book does contain a wealth of information about the policies of the Stalinist regime, its criteria for their evaluation is firmly tied to people’s experience, enabling it to put forward a grounded and human critique of the period.

One recurring theme in the book is, inevitably, fear. Figes gives an excellent account of the culture of fear experienced by many Soviet citizens. At the same time, Figes acknowledges that not all waves of oppression affected all families. He cites a joke popular during the Terror in which, when officials knock at the door of a flat to arrest an inhabitant, the inhabitant replies that ‘You’ve got the wrong door, the Communists live upstairs’. This joke suggests that some saw this wave of oppression in terms of Party infighting.

The book also gives an impression of the often arbitrary nature of oppression. Figes describes the pressure that officials felt to fill ‘kulak’ quotas, regardless of the objective situation. He cites the explanation of one official to a ‘kulak’ family; ‘I have received an order… to find 17 kulak families for deportation. I formed a Committee of the Poor and we sat through the night to choose the families. There is no one in the village who is rich enough to qualify, and not many old people, so we simply chose the 17 families. You were chosen… Please don’t take it personally. What else could I do?’

Some may question why such a book is important. Many of the horrors of Stalin’s regime are widely known and well-documented and to criticise his practices is hardly radical or particularly controversial. However, it is important to read this book, and others like it, for a number of reasons. Firstly, strangely perhaps, I believe such an account of history shows that change is possible. Many people feel apathetic or sceptical about the possibility of changing the ideals upon which the world is run and this is often due to their assumptions about human nature. However, whilst human nature is too complex a topic to engage with here, the fervour with which many believed the Soviet ideology suggests that people’s behaviours and ideas can change; they were just changed in the wrong way, and to the wrong thing.

Secondly, for myself at least, to read the stories of individuals oppressed by Stalin’s totalitarian regime motivates me to act in a way that facts and figures often do not. The reason for this emotional reaction is (at least in part) due to the third, and most important, reason for this book: its reinforcement of anti-authoritarian ideas. Whilst an anti-authoritarian conclusion will seem obvious to many, it has broader implications than may be expected. The messages of this book suggest the dangers of holding to predetermined – almost holy – ends, to the disregard of all else; particularly an awareness of the corrupting effects of power. What strikes me as I read is the insanity and danger of societies in which individuals wield so much power over others. We should be suspicious therefore, of power-relations based in hierarchy and unaccountability. Whilst such relations of course vary in extremity, they include the practices of patriarchy, racism, and homophobia, employer-employee workplace relations and dictatorships (elected or not) across the globe. This principle must also extend to those on the left who believe that socialism/ communism can be created by a minority, and using hierarchical structures. The horrors of totalitarianism and the effects they have on human life should motivate us to fight for a world in which people can control their own lives and cannot control the lives of others. In such a world, but also in our world today, collective action is necessary to prevent elite groups from taking this control from others.

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See also:

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitsyn

A novella which describes the experiences of an ordinary man on one day in a labour camp. The book was influenced by Solzhenitsyn’s own experience in the labour camps. This book was published during the ‘thaw’ under Khrushchev.

Life and Fate – Vasily Grossman

An epic novel about life during the battle of Stalingrad. The novel tells the stories of many individuals and families, giving a broad impression of life at the time and for this style it has been compared to War and Peace. Grossman was told in 1962 by the Politburo chief of ideology that the novel could not be published for two-hundred years. It was published in Russia in 1988.

Into the Whirlwind – Evgenia Ginzburg

The first volume of Ginzburg’s account of her experiences in Soviet prisons and camps. Ginzburg was arrested in 1937 and not released until 1955. Her account was widely circulated in Russia before it’s official publication and many amateur survivor accounts contain (false) claims that they witnessed scenes from the book, incorporating Ginzburg’s memories into their own.


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