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5.0 out of 5 stars An Indictment of Communism, 27 April 2010
This review is from: The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia (Hardcover)
Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union access to State archives increased knowledge of Stalinist Russia. Details of the wholesale repression of Soviet citizens by its own government became more widely known and was supplemented by oral histories. The latter are horrific accounts of disappearances fuelled by greed, jealousy, careerism, dogma and willful blindness, created by a regime which indoctrinated people to believe that Stalin and the Party were always right. Within the upper echelons of the Party Stalin was always right, the dictator ruling by fear.

The extent of the indoctrination was such that informers produced false reports to get rid of people they personally disliked and when, decades later, the truth was revealed, denied they were wrong in sending innocent people to their deaths. Even after Khrushev's revelations of Stalin's crimes at the 20th Party Congress, "the vast majority of ordinary people were still too cowed and frightened by the memory of the Stalinist regime to speak (openly)." Many of those actively involved in the repression insisted there was truth in charges against "enemies of the people" - no matter how ridiculous the charges were - and sought to blame those executed for having made false confessions of guilt, notwithstanding the fact that the confessions were literally beaten out of them. Some victims of the Great Fear did not need to confess, they were shot immediately upon arrest without trial or legal verdict.

Party ideology venerated class and to be designated a class enemy was to face eviction, deportation, starvation and, in many cases, death through exhaustion or firing squad. Antonina Golovina was eight when her father was arrested. His crime was that he was a kulak with his own land. The family's house was destroyed, all tools and livestock transferred to the collective farm and Golovina's mother given one hour to pack. Relatives fled when they heard the news knowing that any relationship with "enemies of the people", no matter how tenuous or distant, would be used as an excuse for killing. At school one of her female teachers shouted in front of the class, saying "her sort" were "enemies of the people, wretched kulaks! You certainly deserved to be deported, I hope you're all exterminated here!" Golovina never lost a sense of social inferiority and joined various Party organisations as a way of hiding it. She was married twice but did not discuss her background with her spouses, only learning, sometime after he died, that her first husband, like herself, had been deported. Her case was unexceptional.

The poet Konstantin Simonov was phoned by Stalin after an early draft of a play was sent for official approval. Stalin went over some points and said, "That is how I see the play....You need to correct it. How you do it is your own business. Once you have corrected it, the play will be passed." Thirty years later he admitted he was ashamed of his action. He also recalls (p.508) an example of how Stalin's presence struck terror into people. Simonov's actions came at a time of the post war mini-terror directed at cosmopolitans, another word for Jews. The nationalism of the Great Patriotic War against the German invaders released a torrent of anti-Semitism. Many of the Old Bolsheviks were from Jewish backgrounds, as was Trotsky. In the post war world Jews became classed as outsiders and further represssion was only interrupted by Stalin's death in 1953.

The title refers to the widespread practice of whispering during the Stalinist regime in order to avoid being overheard, reported and repressed. In some respects it was a continuation of the infiltration of dissident groups which happened under the Tsarist regime. It was, however, far more intrusive as it infiltrated private life. Party ideology demanded complete unquestioning loyalty to the Party at the expense of everything, including family ties. Mutual surveillance was fundamental to the Soviet system and by the mid 1930's the secret police (NKVD) had built up a huge network of secret informers in every factory, office and school. Pavlik Morozov was depicted as a hero of the Soviet Union for denouncing his father who was later shot. Embolded by his successful appearance in court Pavlik and his younger brother Fyodor, began informing on others. In a rare act of retribution both boys were stabbed to death. Five of the boys' relatives were executed as class enemies.

There's a cruel irony that at a time when well heeled western academics were praising the new civilisation in Russia, the liberal values which allowed them to do so were being destroyed in the Soviet union. Yet Figes's book provides many examples of people who retained their humanity when the Communist Party called upon them to reject it. This book should be compulsory reading for everyone as a primary example of human nature in action. No brief summary such as this can do justice to the book. It demands to be read. Figes has produced a masterpiece which should adorn the shelves of everyone interested in the real world. Recommended for immediate purchase with a five star rating.
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