The Whisperers: Private lives in Stalin's Russia, By Orlando Figes

A new history of Stalinist Russia tells the hidden stories of everyday betrayal and loss
Click to follow

Deported from his Siberian village, Aleksei Okorokov walked 900 kilometres home. When he arrived, the peasant smallholder found his wife, two young daughters and parents had been expelled to a settlement 800 kilometres away. Aleksei set off again. Reunited, the family escaped. They trudged for 10 nights until they collapsed from exhaustion and were rounded up by a patrol. Once more Aleksei, his wife and children fled. After days of travelling, they met a tribe willing to help them... if they agreed to leave behind nine-year-old Tamara. Aleksei did so but stole Tamara back. When the Okorokovs were transported to another camp, Aleksei bolted with his daughters. Amazingly, his wife joined them by leaping on to a train passing near where she was labouring. Repeatedly re-arrested, Aleksei kept escaping. His desperate wife almost died after giving herself an abortion. But in 1934, by chance, the family ended up together as penal labourers at a metal works. It was here that Aleksei's traumatised daughters "learned to whisper rather than to talk".

Whispering meant surviving. The practice of denunciation evolved in Tsarist Russia, but in the USSR became so commonplace that even infants knew careless chat could lead to detention. According to Orlando Figes, the Russian language has two kinds of whisperer – one who doesn't want to be overheard and one who reports behind others' backs. Both words have their origins in Stalinist idiom. This impressive book on private life under Stalin suggests the dictator's lasting legacy is "a silent and conformist population". As one woman confesses, "We were brought up to keep our mouths shut... Even today, if I see a policeman, I begin to shake with fear."

It took glasnost to expose what had happened to many victims of the Great Terror (1937-38) and the five other major purges that occurred between 1917 and 1955. Relatives remained unaware that "without rights to correspond" was a gulag euphemism for execution. Irina Dudareva continued to write to the authorities about her husband until her death in 1974. It was her daughter who, in 1995, read KGB files disclosing that the senior Party official had been shot on the night of his arrest, 58 years earlier.

Consulting archives of diaries, letters, personal papers and using a team of researchers to record hundreds of oral histories, Figes has written a remarkable book which is painful to read and, because of the sheer numbers of oppressed, occasionally difficult to absorb. It begins in 1917, when the Bolsheviks set about destroying old ties and loyalties. The first line of attack was the family. Tackling the urban housing shortage with a policy of "condensation" (cramming everyone into communal apartments) the Bolsheviks struck at the "egotism" of the family. Relations between parents and offspring were weakened further by political indoctrination. Children were steered into the Pioneers and Komsomol, while the cult of Pavlik Morozov, a teenager who denounced his own father who then faced a firing squad, showed young activists where their true loyalties should lie.

Stalin waged war on the peasantry, forcing them on to collectivised farms and herding the dispossessed "rural bourgeoisie" into camps. The church was persecuted too, and the traditional way of life systematically swept away. The children of supposed counter-revolutionaries were stigmatised as "filth". Denied education and jobs, in order to survive they frequently had to conceal their social origins. Many reinvented themselves. The writer Konstantin Simonov, whose mother was a princess, recast himself as a proletarian. Others, such as Leonid Saltykov, a priest's son, renounced their parents. By becoming ardent, hard-working Stalinists (sometimes informers or apparatchiks) they proved themselves model Soviet citizens. Although his father was shot when he was 10, Saltykov still revered Stalin.

"Psychologically it made life much easier to bear," explains Dmitry Streletsky, "believing in the justice of Stalin. It took away our fear." People told each other that mistakes were bound to be made, even as they were hauled into custody and confessed to specious crimes for the sake of the Party they loved.

Figes illustrates his account with abundant anecdotal evidence, but several personal histories stand out. Beautiful, highly strung Julia Piatnitsky didn't know what to believe about her "traitor" husband, leader of the Comintern. Her diary entries reveal her despair. Abandoned by everyone, Julia died alone on a frozen field in a labour camp. And then there's the feted Simonov, whose journey of moral compromise runs throughout the book. With his English suits and taste for sex with uniformed girls on a Nazi flag, Simonov's lack of civic courage came to haunt him.

It is the small details that haunt us. Four-year-old Angelina was so hungry that, when her grandmother rescued her from an orphanage, she tried to eat her new red shoes. The economist Nikolai Kondratiev filled tender letters to his young daughter with animal illustrations and pleas for her not to forget him.

Released from the gulag, inmates returned home, unloving and also unlovable. The violent and cruel Fruza Martinelli could never talk about her experiences. (An autopsy revealed that her heart had actually been beaten out of place.) But talking about them is what Figes does so well. The whisperers come together as one echoing, clamorous voice – a powerful testimony to the horror of private life under Stalin.