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Behind Stalin's statistics,
This review is from: The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia (Paperback)
The phrase, "One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic" is usually attributed to Stalin, though no-one has been able to find a record of him actually saying it. Understandably, most if not all books written about the USSR in the Stalinist period operate on a level that precludes in depth analysis of the everyday lives of the ordinary people who lived through those decades; even an invaluable resource such as Anne Applebaum's "Gulag: A History" - Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps - is necessarily constrained by the focus of its subject matter and can only touch upon those left behind when their friends, families and neighbours were swallowed up into the Soviet labour camp system.
I can only echo the generally positive critiques left here by previous reviewers. This is an eloquently expressed work of fascinating social history. Although the presentation of the material militates against a linear narrative, Figes still manages to present a chronological view of the changing circumstances and attitudes of people who lived in the USSR from the early days of the revolution and civil war through to Stalin's death.
The impact upon the children of the Soviet state and the appalling psychological effects on them of The Great Terror (and other purges) is perhaps one of the most striking, disturbing and moving aspects of the book: there are countless examples of children who never remembered their parents, who were forced to renounce them, who were criminalised themselves even though they were minors, who worked and died in orphanages, and who were brain-washed by the system's propaganda. The case of Mikhail Mironov is a case in point: a talented artist, his parents were arrested when he was ten in 1936 and he died on the streets during the 1941 battle for Moscow. The book contains a plate of his beautifully formed handwriting and sketches in a letter to his mother.
There is much that is frighteningly ludicrous as well - reports that would be laughable were their consequences not so deadly: one resident of a communal apartment in the late 1930s argued with his neighbours, who promptly denounced him to the authorities for allowing Trotsky to live in his tool cupboard in the basement; in any sane society the self-evidently ridiculous charge would not even merit the attention of the lowliest of officials - the hapless carpenter here was sentenced to three years in a labour camp; he was lucky, in fact, not to be summarily shot.
As other reviewers have noted, though, this is ultimately an uplifting read: there are many tales of bravery, of grandmothers who could barely feed themselves taking in their orphaned grandchildren, even of people who weren't relatives hiding and supporting the victims of the system and often at great personal risk to themselves and their own loved ones.
Orlando Figes writes well and I certainly didn't find the text a difficult read at all; unfortunately, the often grim subject was all too compelling and I found this fascinating book hard to put down. I have no hesitation in recommending the work to anyone interested in twentieth century history generally or in Soviet history in particular; indeed, anyone with an interest in human nature and the ability of its finer qualities to endure even the harshest conditions will, I think, find this as edifying and moving a work as I did.