February 28, 2008

Now ain't the time for your tears: Orlando Figes's The Whisperers

Sofia Antonov-Ovseyenko was arrested on 14th October 1937, she wrote a letter to her husband Vladimir, not knowing that he too had been arrested on the same day.

M[oscow] 16/X. Prison
My darling. I do not know if you will receive this, but somehow I sense that I am writing to you for the last time. Do you recall how we always said that if someone in our country was arrested it must be for good reason, for some crime- that is for something? No doubt there is something in my case as well but what it is I do not know. Everything I know, you know as well, because our lives have been inseperable and harmonious. Whatever happens to me now, I shall always be thankful for the day we met. I lived in the reflection of your glory and was proud of it. For the last three days I have been thinking through my life, preparing for death. I cannot think of anything (apart from the normal shortcomings that differentiate a human being from an 'angel') that could be considered criminal either in relation to other human beings or in relation to our state and government... I thought exactly as you thought- and is there anybody more dedicated than you are to our party and country? You know what is in my heart, you know the truth of my actions, of my thoughts and words. But the fact that I am here must mean that I have committed some wrong- what I do not know... I cannot bear the thought that you might not believe me... It has been oppressing me for three days now. It burns inside my brain. I know your intolerance of all dishonesty, but even you can be mistaken. Lenin was mistaken too it seems. So please believe me when I say that I did nothing wrong. Beleive me, my loved one... One more thing: it is time for Valichka (Sofia's daughter) to join the Komsomol (youth Communist party). This will no doubt stand in her way. My heart is full of sorrow at the thought she will think her mother is a scoundrel. The full horror of my situation is that people do not beleive me. I cannot live like that... I beg forgiveness from everyone I love for bringing them such misfortune... Forgive me my loved one. If only I knew that you beleived me and forgave me! Your Sofia
Reading that letter, I do not know of any conceivable human reaction but to weep. But of course the fate of Sofia was the fate of millions of Russians, arrested and taken to Labour camps and some of them shot, during the Stalinist terror of the 1930s and 1940s. Orlando Figes, the British historian of Russia, has produced in his new book an account of their lives, particularly the lives of Russia's 'twentieth century' generation who were born in the twenties and lived into the nineties and 2000s. These children lived through the destruction of their parent's lives through the purges, fought in the Second World War, lived through the resumption of Stalinist terror in the forties, then were disorientated by the Kruschev thaw and retired as the Soviet Union trembled and collapsed in the eighties and nineties. The average age of the people that Figes interviewed in coming up with his latest book- The Whisperers was eighty- and his team interviewed them in 2002.

The book takes the form of a series of thematic chapters based around time periods or types of experience under Stalin. What Figes has done is to leave the contemporary accounts to speak for themselves. This is as much a collection of documents as a history- it is a history because Figes provides a compelling narrative, but the long quotations and Figes's approach which is to provide personal stories and accounts of moments of the Soviet past, gives that historical account a wonderful vividness. Again and again, you think that you cannot see a grimmer reality, time after time the barbarity of the Stalinist regime stuns you. For example, at one point during the war, those who turned up 20 minutes late for work were prosecuted for desertion from the domestic front. Tragic stories multiply and following families through the Soviet era you see how unending suffering repeated generation unto generation. Particularly sad though is not the direct destruction of lives: but the realisation that around everyone who went into the machinery of death left behind them mothers, daughters, sons, husbands, fathers, wives and other family members. Family members who immediatly acquired a stigma to their names- but who also lost their family member. Children in particular were left as orphans, often waking up one morning without parents and struggling to continue in schools. Teachers emerge as the heroes of Figes's story. Ida Slavina lost her mother and father, within five months both were arrested. From then on, she was passed round between the families of her classmates, eventually she found a job as a cleaner and worked there in order to raise the money to rent a small room. She was assisted by her teacher Klavdiia Alekseyeva. Klavdiia stopped anyone denouncing 'enemies of the people' in the classroom and noone was expelled for their parents' arrest at school, she sought to inspire her pupils by telling them their parents wanted them to continue at school. In some cases she directly supported them, for example she paid eleven children's school fees so they could continue to stay at school.

Relationships between people changed as a result of the terror. Many prisoners when eventually released just could not come back to families. The terror went on as the pace of urbanisation was raised. Often several families were packed into small living quarters. There was effectively no privacy and the realisation that anyone might inform on you, meant that families kept themselves to themselves. Guarding their portion of the kitchen sink intensely and not speaking to each other about anything that might give them away. In a society where you might be arrested for an anti-Soviet joke, it was not worth saying anything to anyone else. Children were brought up implicitly to keep secrets about their parents, conversations would stop or change direction if someone not from the family came into the room. Figes shows how people were thrown back on their families: for fear that others might hand them into the secret police. Though even families might split- he has stories of children being sent away as their parents were arrested and seeing aunts and uncles shut doors in their faces, terrified of being seen as an enemy of the people. The society of whisperers that was created- hence the title of the book- was a society where private life had to retreat. Everything according to the state was public: and that meant that people withdrew into their internal world- sometimes scribbling diaries in code- in order to protect themselves from being arrested.

Figes's book is a masterpiece because it sketches the unknown, to me, dimensions of this totalitarian silence. But he also sketches its development. The Second World war brought a new kind of liberty and solidarity. The state had to relax its controls. Priests for example were allowed to function once more and prisoners in the Gulag had their conditions relaxed slightly. Many children of enemies of the people were permitted to take up key jobs in order to aid the war effort. Those who had been purged felt useless and suddenly the war gave them a sense of purpose- their contribution they often said was to work hard in the Gulag, to work hard in the army. This kind of sentiment made the war a uniquely liberating experience for the Soviet population- whilst of course being horrific in its other effects. But the forties saw another burst of repression as again people were rounded up and taken into the Gulag. Figes wonderfully creates through the testimony of the individuals who he documents the sense that persisted right through to the present day, that someone was following them and that somehow any period of grace would be ended. Its something that endures today. It definitely effected the population's understanding of the Kruschev thaw as well- and the population were right because under Brezhnev Stalin was rehabilitated. The Soviet state was also very keen not to rehabilitate those it had arrested unjustly. Rehabilitation did happen in the 1950s, and many especially Communist party members desired it fervently: to have a clean passport was something that everyone wanted, because it was a signal that they would not be arrested again. But even then the sense persisted- a population lived with a paranoia about the state, about everyone else in their society sometimes even about their own children.

'One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic', that quote is attributed to Stalin, and it sums up something that is actually very true. What I found particularly poignant about Figes's book is that he brings alive some of those individual stories- some of those tragic stories. Bob Dylan's song about the death of Hattie Carroll told us repeatedly that now ain't the time for your tears as his story dived further into tragedy, this book feels like on every page it has written that now ain't the time for your tears. The stories just stand on each other, one after the other, and the immensity of Stalin's crimes is demonstrated because though we only have a fraction here of the estimate of his effects, we can see the devastation of what he did. Bringing to life these personal stories creates for me at least a much more real sense of what those statistics mean. It also creates a sense of the historical scale of what happened- for the consequences of the Stalinist terror doubled and redoubled down the generations. Millions were imprisoned which meant that millions of children grew up as orphans effectively, millions of relationships were damaged, millions of lives were destroyed, millions of families were left with a traumatic memory of fear and terror. A French psychologist travelling to Russia in the 1970s said he had never seen a population with so many facial tics- he wasn't wrong, I suspect just as the effect of the first and second war endures in the rest of Europe, the effect of the terror endures in Russia. But much more profoundly because the tyranny which created the terror lasted right up until the 1990s- though there were thaws, the Communist party remained in control till Yeltsin and under President Putin efforts are being made to rehabilitate Joseph Stalin and deny the purges. (One reason why I cannot abide or support Putin, is the thought that he wants Russian textbooks to under report the Terror, having read this testimony I'm not sure what words can convey how objectionable Putin's comments about exageration of the Stalin regime's evil are.)

I don't think I can convey the immense nature of what this book does- Figes's reporting isn't central to it, he has done a good job but its a self effacing job. Ultimately the quality of the book is in the collection of primary evidence about the Terror and how it effected people- there are so many other aspects to it as well- he concentrates on the Kulaks and the way they were stigmatised for no reason, on the role of women and the Spartan lives of the early Bolsheviks compared to the new generation of Bolsheviks coming through in the thirties. I just don't have space. But I do have space to say this- go back and read the letter with which I began this review, reread it and remember that millions of Russians in the 1930s could have and did write letters like that. Many of them like Sofia who were committed communists, others who weren't but all incredulous that they had been arrested because they were not guilty. Some of them though lied, they told their children as they went that they weren't guilty so that their kids could fit into Soviet society. Remember that, oh and remember that many Russian citizens only found out what had happened to their arrested family members in the eighties and nineties when the archives were finally opened: wives waited twenty or thirty years for husbands who had been shot the night that they were arrested. Remember and remember that every time you remember, now ain't the time for your tears, there is so much more to remember and to weep over.


Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

Don't start to upbraid yourself with not being able to cover the scope. How can one encompass the whole human condition?

Also, don't forget to get your pic in for the Nightwear Parade. :)

Gracchi said...

True James on the first point!

Unfortunately don't have a digital camera- being a poor PhD student- its something I mean to correct but haven't yet.