Collective psychosis

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The Whisperers; Private Life in Stalin's Russia

by Orlando Figes

Allen Lane, 740pp, 30

THE DESIRE TO CREATE A PERFECT society has a long and quixotic history in western political thinking. It's a curious irony that from Plato's Republic onwards, most models have depended on coercive action in order to work. Animated by a fundamental mistrust of human nature, the utopian impulse has sought to reorder humankind and its customs in the name of the greater good, usually with disastrous consequences.

So it was with the Bolsheviks, who in the years after the 1917 revolution mounted an assault against the old Tsarist society with the ruthlessness and fervour of a cult. "What is Soviet power, I ask you?" reflected former gulag camp guard Ivan Korchagin in 1988. "It is an organ of coercion! Understand?"

We do. With the fall of communism the murderous cost of creating the Bolshevik utopia is now evident, in all its staggering scale. Between 1928 and Stalin's death in 1953 at least 25 million people were repressed, an eighth of the Soviet population. During the Great Terror of 1937 and 1938, more than 681,000 people were shot. Commenting on the unbridled murder of these years, Nicolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD, asserted: "Better too much than not enough ... if an extra thousand people are shot that is not such a big deal."

Stalin himself was fond of saying that while one death was a tragedy, a thousand was a statistic. But what of the lives behind these numbers? With freer access to archives, historians have been quick to analyse the politics and ideology of the Soviet years, but Figes's book is the first truly to open the door into the private, inner lives of the Russian people during Stalin's rule.

Drawing on interviews with elderly survivors and their descendants, as well as memoirs and diaries, Figes's social history is a multi-layered work of great depth which tracks the daily experience of a number of Russian families through the twists and turns of Stalin's bloody policies. His principal hero, or villain, is Konstantin Simonov - Stalin's favourite writer; a man whose hands trembled if he did not drink - because he had Stalin in his soul. At one point Simonov even changed his appearance to look like Stalin. But Figes draws his sources from many different backgrounds, so we are able to see into contrasting corners of Soviet society, from the peasantry to the elite. Historical analysis is lightly but deftly rendered, and it is the voices of Stalin's victims which takes centre stage. The chronicle of damaged lives which emerges is deeply moving and extraordinarily poignant.

"The attitude and habits which we inherited from the old society are the most dangerous enemy of socialism," declared Stalin in 1924. Overturning the old political order was only the first stage of an irreversible revolution which was to create a new kind of being, a "collective personality" who recognised no distinction between private and public life. In order to do this the Bolsheviks attacked the family as a unit, believing that its private space was a breeding ground for counter-revolutionaries. Nadezhda Krupskaia, Lenin's wife, asserted that allowing a distinction between private and public life would lead to the betrayal of communism. Educational theorists advised that children should be nationalised. Thus saved from the harmful influence of loving families they were sure to be good citizens. The Bolsheviks were undeniably successful here. "I did not understand what a father was," confesses Maria Budkevitch.

At the same time, private space was transformed by the revolution, with multiple families inhabiting shared flats. In a climate of fear, this created a nation of whisperers. In Moscow there was one informer for every six families. "Today," wrote Isaak Babel, shortly before he was shot, "a man talks freely only with his wife - at night, with the blankets pulled over his head." By the 1930s, living space in Moscow was down to just 5.5 square metres a person. Normal private life was impossible.

Meanwhile 1.4 million kulaks had been transported off their farms to special settlements in Siberia, and 60 million peasants moved on to collective farms. By 1933 the Bolsheviks had destroyed the "wooden Russia" of the countryside, creating famine, swelling the cities and producing a labour force for the five-year plans.

"No other totalitarian system had such a profound impact on the private lives of its subjects," writes Figes. The soviet citizen coped with this onslaught by adopting a complex series of masks that hid their true thoughts, beliefs and personalities. In a climate like this, it was possible to be married for years without ever discussing the past with one's spouse.

Such was the experience of Antonina Golovina, a woman of talent and energy who hid her kulak origins behind forged papers, and never told her family history to anyone, not even her daughter. When finally able to speak the truth in the 1990s, she discovered her husband had also hidden his past, and had spent time in a labour camp as the son of a Tsarist officer. In this sense they were strangers to one another. "I had to be alert all the time, not to slip up and give myself away", she explains. "When I spoke I had to think: did I forget to say something? ... This fear lasted all my life."

The damage this wrought in people's inner lives was profound. "It was some kind of universal psychosis," suggests Nadezhda Grankina, who spent time in jail with cellmates who were still true believers. As the Stalin years rolled on an Orwellian distinction between everyday subjective truth and the higher objective truth of the Party line took root. "A true believer," wrote Iurii Piatakov, begging to be readmitted to the Party from which he had been expelled for Trotskyism, "will readily cast out of his mind ideas which he has believed for years. A true Bolshevik has submerged his personality in the collectivity."

"Communist morality left no room for the western notion of the conscience as a private dialogue with the inner self," comments Figes. Yet when Stalin finally died, Khrushchev's thaw forced many to face up to their consciences. Some, like Aleksander Fadeyev, the alcoholic leader of the Writer's Union, were unable to reconcile what they found. "My illness is not in my liver, he confessed to fellow writer Simonov before committing suicide, "it is in my mind."

Simonov himself was broken by the realisation, painfully arrived at, that he had compromised his moral self, betraying his family and his calling. He spent the latter years trying to help writers he had formerly repressed as the most famous exponent of Soviet Realism.

The Politburo also had a dilemma in dealing with the past. According to Mikoian, a member for 30 years, it was impossible to rehabilitate all the innocent "enemies of the people" after Stalin's death for fear of making it clear that the country was not being led by a legal government, but by gangsters. It's a fitting judgment on a regime that destroyed the families, lives and moral sense of its citizens with such abandon for more than 70 years.

Figes's brilliant account of this terrifying social experiment, and the deformed life it forced on its citizens, brings us close to the heart of the Soviet utopia, a time when to be oneself was all but impossible, even behind closed doors.