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3.0 out of 5 stars WHISPERING IN PARADISE, 23 Jan 2008
This review is from: The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia (Hardcover)


POPULAR HISTORIES in English about Stalin's Russia are on a roll and easily-read titles seem to tumble from their authors every few months. One of the most reliably prolific of these writers is Orlando Figes, professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, who - though barely 50 - already has his name on three major contributions to the genre.

Figes' cultural history of Russia, Natasha's Dance (the title redolent of the famous scene in Tolstoy's War and Peace) is a substantial and delightfully-written contribution to the subject. His history of the Russian revolution, A People's Tragedy, properly puts the Leninist coup d'etat of 1917 in its wider context, and helps deconstruct post-Leninist myth-making about the nature of the revolution. And his Peasant Russia Civil War - a study of the Volga countryside during Civil War and War Communism - tends to read like the diligently instructive post-graduate thesis that it probably was.

Figes' latest contribution is something of a departure from this sort of mainstream history, at least in terms of sources. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, large quantities of private and strictly-unofficial archival material have come to light. Much work has also been done in recording the memoirs of some of those who considered themselves to be victims of the Stalinist Paradise, thanks to the work of the late-Soviet human-rights organisation Memorial. It is on these sources (including 450 interviews) that this present book is based, as a victims' history of the USSR (which might, actually, have been a better title for the book than the one it bears).

Of course, not everyone will agree with Figes' assertion that, "Oral testimonies, on the whole, are more reliable that literary memoirs, which have usually been seen as a more authentic record of the past. Like all memory, the testimony given in an interview is unreliable, but, unlike a book, it can be cross-examined and tested against other evidence to disentangle true memories from received or imagined ones".

Still, The Whisperers is certainly readable enough - given it subject, it could hardly be otherwise, and a writer of Figes' natural calibre makes appropriate use of the marvellously colourful tales of tragedy and treachery available to him.

We read here, for instance, of the onetime-Zionist Ilia Slavin, "Who defended the perpetrators of a working-class pogrom against the Jews in 1919, on the grounds that it was an expression of their class hatred of their Jewish factory managers". This moral degradation extended far into the ranks of the party - and began very quickly. In the very early days of the Revolution, "Marksena was forbidden by her mother to invite friends home from school, because, she said, it was better that they did not see how comfortably the Party's leaders lived". Or as the Great Stalin proudly claimed in 1934, "We Communists are people of a special brand. We are made of better stuff ... There is nothing higher than the honour of belonging to this army".

Already, the Soviet bureaucracy was ten times larger than the Tsarist one had ever been. As early as 1921, there were 2.4 million state officials, "More than twice the number of industrial workers in Russia. They formed the main social basis of the regime". (By 1936, this New Class had grown to number five or six million, according to Trotsky).

Thus, "The problem with Soviet power is the fact that it gives rise to the vilest type of official. All I see around me is loathsome politicising, dirty tricks and people being destroyed for slips of the tongue. There's no end to the denunciations. The less gifted a b******, the meaner his slander".

Thus the Komsomol endeavour to expel a fifteen-year old girl for failing to denounce her mother as "an enemy of the people". Thus the re-introduction of middle-school fees from 1938. Thus valedictions such as, "A steadfast fighter on the ideological front, an iron broom sweeping the vermin from the academic heights".

Thus too (and perhaps not altogether surprisingly) the inveterate survival of religious faith (or superstition). By 1925, half of the members recently expelled from the Party had been thrown-out on the grounds of religious observance. Well into the 1930s, one family had a Christmas tree, although they had been banned in 1929 as "relics of a bourgeois way of life".

But Figes is (at least in this book) no economist, and his oral and memorial sources do not unduly detain themselves with some of the great questions of Soviet history. What if the other parties had not been destroyed in the very early days of Soviet power? What if NEP had been allowed to run its course? What if collectivisation had not happened or had been allowed to work - rather than become a mechanism to squeeze the last ear of grain from the new class of socialist serf? What if Stalin had been ditched by the party leadership in the early `thirties (when that was still possible)? What, indeed, if diplomacy had averted or postponed the German attack of 1941 (also possible)? Or what if the Red Army had not only halted but had destroyed German forces by the summer of 1942 (as it might well have done, had it not been for Stalin's criminal stupidity with regard to his pre-war officer corps and the reports of his own intelligence services)?

And Figes' focus on oral and unofficial sources sheds no light on any of the famous plots with which Stalin's Russia teemed. There is little here which illuminates the alleged military plots of the late 1930s, the various opposition plots of which so much was made, the inner-party and foreign-intelligence plots, or the nationalist plots (within or without the party) from the Ukraine and elsewhere.

In all, this book reminds us that the planned economy was a lot harder than it looked. And the book also reminds us that oral history has its limitations, whether in a Russian or other national context. What, one wonders incidentally, would a victims' oral history of 20th century Britain read like? And isn't it time that someone wrote it?

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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 6 Sep 2008 15:15:30 BDT
Badgergirl says:
If you read the Simon Garfield books - which are collections of diary entries by people involved in the Mass Observation Project during and after the Second World War you will get an oral history of the times when Brits were victims

Posted on 11 Oct 2008 19:48:02 BDT
I believe Grigor is missing the point of Figes' book to some extent. One of the 'limitations' of oral history are the sources themselves, and the arbitrary nature of individual testimonies. Figes has said elsewhere that even today many Russians are reluctant to talk about or even denounce obviously criminal aspects of Stalin's rule, although others will readily express disgust or sorrow at the mere mention of Stalinism. Furthermore, an interviewee cannot be made to reveal things they wish to keep hidden (for reasons of their own) and therefore, any oral history is governed to a significant degree by the individual's personal relationship with the events described, rather than the nature of the events themselves. Figes is aware of this and, I believe, means to allow the interviewees to speak for themselves, for any social or cultural historian ignores personal opinions and beliefs at their peril.

Posted on 23 Oct 2008 15:41:24 BDT
A "victims' history of 20th Century Britain"? Jeebus....
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