"A human being survives by his ability to forget," Varlam Shalamov declared with authority in his Gulag story collection, "Kolyma Tales." Considering the unprecedented horrors unleashed by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and his loyal minions during their reign of terror, blessed forgetfulness is a tempting option. But the historian, as opposed to the survivor, must be forever remembering, gathering up recollections both pleasant and painful and saving them for posterity.
Orlando Figes, perhaps the preeminent Russian historian in the English language, has made it his life's work to preserve and understand the nightmarish Soviet century, and in doing so has been forced to acknowledge the historian's conundrum regarding that era: In a time when the state sought to control every aspect of its citizens' lives, from birth to death, what remained of private life?
Most previous histories of the era have concentrated on Stalin himself, or the machinations of government functionaries, with the abundance of documentation allowing for the smooth unfolding of those narratives. The experience of average Soviets under Stalin, being mostly bereft of written material, remains far murkier, but Figes has done his utmost to capture the essence of what it was like to be alive in that dark time, and "The Whisperers" is the remarkable, deeply moving result.
Leaning heavily on oral histories conducted with the aging Stalin-era cohort, the book achieves precisely what Stalin sought, at all costs, to prevent: to give a voice to the terrible torments of those swept up by the Communist whirlwind and battered by its blinkered utopian vision. With so many voices heard, there is little in the way of structure. Figes follows broad chronological order and organizes his material thematically, but it is essentially impossible to follow any one subject's life. Instead, this is a collective oral history and nothing less than a total rebuke of Shalamov, asserting that human beings can survive only by their ability to remember.
Figes is wise enough to allow his subjects room to tell their own stories, and perhaps the most affecting aspect of this compendium of sadness and horror, drizzled with tears and blood on nearly every page, is the remarkable plainspokenness of its survivors. Taking a cue from them, Figes carefully strips his narrative of false sentimentality, leaving only the harsh contours of truth.
At the same time, this is a book about families: torn apart, brutalized, weakened by Stalinist orthodoxy, but families nonetheless. About 25 million people were repressed (murdered, imprisoned, sent to special settlements for "kulaks," or held back personally or professionally) by Stalin between 1928 and 1953, a number that translates to 1 in 8 Soviet residents. No one was left unaffected by Stalin's terror - even Stalin himself, whose daughter-in-law served time in a labor camp. It was a time in which the most basic truths of daily life - that one half of Soviet society was dedicated to the destruction of the other half - would not, and could not, be mentioned. Children informed on their parents, and workers on their colleagues. A knock at the door in the middle of the night was a harbinger of imminent doom. One interviewee is haunted by a foolish mistake from her blinkered adolescence: Locked out of her family's apartment late one night, she rang the doorbell repeatedly to be let in. After a long wait, her father came to the door, fully dressed in a suit and tie. Seeing her, and not the secret policemen he expected, he slapped his daughter across the face.
There are superhuman heroism and astoundingly callow lackeyism here. There is Ilia Slavin, who was so depressed and shaken after seeing the slave laborers building the White Sea Canal that he refused to write the upbeat report he had been commanded to pen and was arrested for that. There is also Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the Stalinist poet who turned his own father in to the police after he came begging to be saved from the starvation conditions of his special settlement camp.
The book is crammed full of humanity, like a Dostoevsky novel brought to terrible life. It seems impossible for a book of this size to contain as much human suffering as this does. While it is a scholarly work of history, reading it was one of the most emotionally draining literary experiences I can remember. "There are no petty things in politics," a dedicated Stalinist said in her defense after denouncing her mentor to the authorities over a minor offense. Figes understands that there is nothing at all petty about private life, and "The Whisperers" is his heroic attempt to save what remains of the lives of the forgotten.
Saul Austerlitz is a frequent contributor to the Globe.
The Whisperers: Private
Life in Stalin's Russia
By Orlando Figes
Metropolitan, 741 pp., $35