The Whisperers, By Orlando Figes

At last, the statistics speak
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Almost everyone alive and conscious during Stalin's Great Terror had a story to tell about their experiences, but until recently many went unheard. Fear and guilt worked to silence victims and their families. Sometimes people concealed their suspect past for decades, even from husbands, wives and children.

After "rehabilitation" in the post-Stalin era of those considered state criminals, stained reputations sometimes still proved hard to salvage. Those now recognised as innocent might have problems obtaining work and resettling in major cities. In a society that constantly demanded recitations of the personal past as proof of probity – through rituals such as supplying one's "autobiography" when registering for study or work – it was safer to edit memory, to create a new self where suffering was hidden from view.

Orlando Figes's new history of the Terror "from below", subtitled "private life in Stalin's Russia", gives space to unprecedented numbers of those formerly suppressed stories. The outline of what happened during the Terror has been familiar to Westerners for a long time: Solzhenitsyn and Robert Conquest, among others, recorded the midnight searches, the brutal interrogations, the summary executions and swingeing terms of imprisonment. But Figes benefited from access to a far wider range of documents than were available to these predecessors. His book also draws on an unmatched quantity of oral testimony by survivors, several hundred of whom were interviewed. Though a clear sense of policy at the top is given, the book is essentially a montage of personal narratives, always gripping and often moving.

Unlike some other recent commentators on the Terror, such as Martin Amis in Koba the Dread, Figes avoids histrionic moralising. It is not needed: accumulation gives an overwhelming sense of how appalling, how unspeakable, this experience was. "Every night he would stay awake – waiting for the sound of a car engine," Pyotr Kolobkov recalled of his father, a factory worker in Leningrad. "When it came he would sit up rigid in his bed. He was terrified. I could smell his fear... He was convinced that he would be arrested for something he had said".

Yet Kolobkov's father was lucky: no one ever arrived to arrest him. "Luck" of a different kind was enjoyed by Nikolai Lileyev. First arrested aged 18, he served ten years in the Komi labour camps, and was able to return to his native Leningrad only after nine years' exile. Lileyev considered himself fortunate to have escaped the Finnish War and simply to have survived, and particularly, "that I did not die on the convoy to the labour camp, though I weighed only 48 kilograms and was 1.8 metres tall". Lineyev's account smacks of black humour, but was meant in complete earnest.

Not everyone could remain optimistic. The testimony cited by Figes includes many details that escape written memoirs, composed with a sense of what ought to be said. An important case is the chapter on "Return", recording the difficulties camp survivors often had in readjusting to life beyond the camps.

Returnees were, at best, often withdrawn. Their families might have difficulty overcoming physical repulsion when they arrived, stinking and covered in lice. Emotional damage was harder to deal with. Elena Martinelli was forced to abandon living with her mother Fruza, so fractured was the latter's psyche by what she had endured. "She was always swearing, hitting us and breaking things in one of her temper fits." Asked whether she had been beaten in the camps (as the autopsy when she died in 1960 confirmed), Fruza simply said, "There are things one cannot talk about."

Oral history, impossible in any real sense before the glasnost era, is now a boom area of historical research in Russia. Elza Guchinova has done remarkable work on the punitive exile of the Kalmyks during and after the Second World War; an entire school of oral historians has grown up at the European University, St Petersburg. However, most of the work (a group study of the Leningrad blockade aside) has been done by scholars working alone and citing perhaps two dozen informants. Something is lost by stitching many private narratives together. Individual ways of telling vanish when people become quotations in narrative history. But much is also gained in the wider view.

The vast corpus of evidence on which Figes draws could have been created only by teamwork. Simply conducting and transcribing the interviews would have taken one person a decade or more. The range of voices included is not exhaustive – Russian Jews are the only ethnic minority considered in detail – but it is remarkably broad. Notable too is the sympathetic treatment of widely differing individuals, including informers (many of whom had what Figes terms "spoilt biographies") and the poet and literary apparatchik Konstantin Simonov. A silky scion of the Obolensky dynasty, a fervent supporter of Stalin, and a sybarite who enjoyed English suits and sex with his mistresses on a captured Nazi flag, Simonov was at the same time a man with a "hypertrophied sense of public duty" who spent the post-Stalin years trying to make partial amends.

The Whisperers' subtitle suggests too broad a focus. Testimony here comes mainly from associates of "Memorial", a charity supporting survivors of repression. Other members of the first Soviet generations shape their narratives differently. Often, deprivation figures as strongly as oppression; some informants are nostalgic for a different vision of the past, when there was a real sense of community and celebration.

This should not be taken simply as evidence of brainwashing: the governing myths of discipline, duty, communality and, above all, self-sacrifice gave people a genuine sense of purpose. But, in the words of Galina Medvedeva, the widow of the poet David Samoilov, "Life is always broader, richer, and more unexpected than retrospective descriptions would suggest". It is Figes's achievement to have given, in The Whisperers, a sense of the diversity and unpredictability attendant even on one of the darkest phases of 20th-century history. Above all, his book is a worthy tribute to the humanity of the victims of the Terror, those whom Stalin himself, notoriously, dismissed as mere "statistics".

Catriona Kelly is professor of Russian at Oxford University; her book 'Children's World: growing up in Russia' is published by Yale next month

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