The Whisperers: Private life in Stalin’s Russia | by Orlando Figes | Allen Lane | 2007 | £25

The sub-title of this relentlessly unhappy story – “Private life in Stalin’s Russia” – is somewhat ironic; for as Orlando Figes, Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London, demonstrates so eloquently in his book, the whole point of Stalin’s autocratic rule was that there was essentially no private life for the ordinary citizens of the Soviet Union. Shortly after the death of Lenin in 1924 and until his own death in 1953, Stalin was the undisputed master of the lives of his fellow Russians. Indeed, the “steel” that was his sobriquet “entered all of us”, as one citizen admitted. The soul of the nation, as of its individual members, was warped and disfigured by the processes of practical Communism.

Figes has built his weighty book – over 600 pages – around the lives of 14 families. Much of the evidence he has gathered comes from oral history, the reminiscences of the children and grandchildren of the revolution. This is supplemented by letters, generally sent from the Gulag and often heartbreaking, as well as diaries and memoirs written during the de-Stalinisation that took place after Stalin’s death. Figes’s title suggests with a single word the state of psychological fear experienced by Russian citizens during those decades. There are two words for “whisperer” in Russian: one who whispers out of fear and one who informs or spies. During Stalin’s regime, “the whole of Soviet society was made up of whisperers of one kind or another”.

As has often been pointed out, the difference between fascist societies and Communist ones has not so much to do with the brutality that underpins their ideologies but with the pervasiveness of their effect. In Nazi Germany many people led normal lives, going to work and keeping their heads below the parapet. In Soviet Russia there was no parapet to duck under: the ideology invaded the lives of everyone and there was no public/private distinction. For instance, the apartment blocks built during the period were deliberately designed to undermine family privacy and individuality. As the writer Nadezhda Mandelstam related in her memoirs, living space was so important that crimes would be committed for its sake. In communal apartments there could be 16 or more families sharing one small lavatory and kitchen. In 1928, the average Soviet city dweller had an average of 5.8 square metres of living space; by 1930, this was 5.5 metres; by 1940 it had slipped to 4 square metres. In this oppressive atmosphere whispering, so as not to be overheard by neighbours, became a way of life.

Figes’s book does not simply detail the lives of city-dwellers or those of the old bourgeoisie who had known what life was like before the Revolution and who learned to practise “internal emigration” – a phrase describing their double lives. It also describes the shocking results of Stalin’s policy of collectivisation on the lives of the peasants, most especially the more prosperous ones, the kulaks. This policy deliberately destroyed “a way of life based on family, farm, peasant commune, independent village and its church.” To give some idea of the scale of the operation, during the first two months of 1930, half the Soviet peasantry – 60 million people in over 100,000 villages – were herded into collective farms. The misery and waste of this policy is impossible to record. It led to widespread famine: more than 5 million people died of starvation and disease between 1930 and 1933. Collectivisation, described as “a second serfdom”, was worse than the first, in tsarist Russia; it not only enslaved whole populations but tore them from their roots, their traditions and their families.

The children of kulaks were marked for life unless they expunged their past. Antonina Golovina, the daughter of a kulak, made a new identity for herself, keeping her origins secret from her husband and children for over 50 years. “The fear of being found out lasted all my life. It never went away”. Only in extreme old age was she able to admit to being “a kulak daughter” aloud, while on her own: “I was proud that at last I had spoken. I went down to the river bank and washed myself in the river. Then I said a prayer for my parents.”

This touching reference reflects a deeper poignancy: the betrayal of family members that was commonplace under Stalinism. During the peak years of the Great Terror, as it came to be called, almost anyone could be arrested at any time. Between 1937 and 1938, 1.3 million people were arrested for crimes against the state. Figes calculates that at the very least, 681,629 thousand were shot. This led to a paralysing passivity, the terror “of the knock upon the door in the night.” Children were taught that loyalty to the state was more important than loyalty to the family and were encouraged to denounce their parents. Neighbours settled old scores and then grabbed the vacant room space. Colleagues climbed on the backs of those they had sent to the gulags. Parents who had grown up as Orthodox Christians but who were anxious not to compromise their children, never spoke of their own religious beliefs, hiding their icons while they encouraged their children to become good Soviet citizens.

Even those who had embraced Communism with enthusiasm were forced into a rigid bifurcation of belief. Although they knew they were innocent of the charges against them, believing in “the justice of Stalin… made it easier for us to accept our punishments”, one Gulag survivor admitted. Torn by love of the Party, yet witnessing its voracious need for victims, people rationalised the collapse of their hopes for a new dawn by saying that the end justified the mean. “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” was a much-quoted expression. Intellectuals might take refuge in the pompous notion that “we were realising historical necessity”; in practice people were pressed into small interior accommodations with the regime on a daily basis. Konstantin Simonov, a well-known literary figure of the period, later found it impossible to forgive himself for having “become accustomed to evil.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn, most famous dissident and critic of the Soviet system, stated that “the most widespread form of betrayal was… just not to notice the doomed person next to one.”

In such a pervasive atmosphere of moral corruption, isolated acts of goodness have their own grandeur and nobility. Many a grandmother – the babushka of literature and of the hearth – heroically raised grandchildren when their parents disappeared into the Terror, giving love, transmitting traditional values and struggling to keep together the scattered remnants of their families. In the Gaister extended family, 12 children were effectively orphaned when their parents were arrested; they were lovingly cared for by their babushka in one room of 20 square metres. Sometimes head-teachers, at great risk to themselves, also protected the children of the condemned; Klavdiia Alekseyeva made up a bed for one pupil in her office, and such was the respect in which she was held that none of her staff informed on her.

Figes has compiled so many stories of sorrow and injustice that the book is hard reading. Combined with many photos of unsmiling adults and children with haunted eyes it is a compelling document, bearing witness to the tribulations of a whole nation that took place within living memory. Thus it is ironic that many older Russians, experiencing the unpredictability of life in a fledgling market economy, now feel nostalgic for the old days when their lives were run by Big Brother and where, in the overcrowded apartments “at least everyone knew each other”.

This was (triumphantly) confirmed for me by my one Stalinist friend, an Indian who runs a tiny cadre of Party activists within the febrile capitalist world of New Delhi, and who turned up on our doorstep this week after a trip to Moscow. As this book was dominating my thoughts, I asked him why Stalin was his hero. “He defeated Hitler,” he replied instantly. “But what about life for his own people?”, I persisted. “He turned a feudal society into a modern, 20th century one” was the response. And the body count? “It is greatly exaggerated. It was necessary for him to get rid of, say, half a million people who stood in the way of progress.” You cannot make an omelette…

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.