In the early years of the Russian revolution, theorists in the Soviet Communist Party predicted the emergence of a New Soviet Man, a selfless comrade dedicated to spreading socialism. In fact, communism did change the thinking of the Soviet people, though not as the theorists anticipated. The system taught the people to live by falsehood. Oppression so terrified them that they began habitually hiding their opinions and fabricating their lives. They lied not only to the authorities but also to friends, spouses, neighbours and children. Tyranny created a republic of lies, populated by practised liars.
Orlando Figes of the University of London, in a remarkable new work called The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia (Metropolitan Books), describes in detail the deceptions practised by Soviet citizens in the interests of survival. The 740 pages of The Whisperers say nothing new about Stalin himself. The subject is Stalinism, the mood that took root across the U.S.S.R., encouraged by the intrusions of the secret police -- "the Stalinism that entered into all of us," as a Russian historian, Mikhail Gefter, put it.
Figes's method, which depends on a careful use of the techniques of oral history, breaks through the carapace of demography and political science that often reduces this story to distant abstractions. The result recalls Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. That's a different story, but the two books are similar in one way. You can open either of them at random and find yourself drawn into the horrifying saga of a political system that turned irredeemably odious.
Few of the stories Figes has gathered involve heroic defiance of the state. His subjects aren't intellectuals or poets with contacts abroad and strong views on civil liberties. Most of the people in his book hoped for nothing more than normal, anonymous lives. As he says, many of them silently accepted and internalized the system's values, conformed to its public rules and perhaps collaborated in the perpetration of its crimes. Their opposition to the system expressed itself covertly. If they succeeded in fooling the authorities, no one ever heard of their accomplishment.
Designed originally as a classless society, the Soviet Union instead became a place where class was everything, particularly for those who had somehow managed to own their own farms or stores. Antonina Golovina, for instance, was the daughter of a kulak, a peasant farmer and part-time shoemaker. He was far from wealthy (all his children, including the youngest, worked the land) but because he controlled property he was suspect. When Antonina was eight years old, in 1931, the authorities condemned her father as an enemy of the state and sent him to a Siberian lumber camp. They confiscated his equipment, livestock and household goods and exiled his family with him. Antonina spent three years in wooden barracks with a thousand other kulak families, many of whom died from hunger and typhus.
When her father was released, and the family moved into a one-room house, Antonina discovered she was still a class enemy, bullied by other children in school, scorned by teachers. So she set about lying her way through life. She joined the Communist Youth League and at age 18 rewrote her personal history. She acquired forged papers that indicated she was a member of the proletariat, which made it possible for her to enter medical school. She hid her background from fellow students and from her colleagues during the 40 years she worked at the Institute of Physiology in Leningrad. For extra safety, she joined the adult Communist Party and remained a member until it dissolved in 1991.
She married twice, spending about 20 years with each man and telling neither of them her real history. After her divorce from the first, one of his aunts accidentally revealed to Antonina that he, too, had a secret: He was the son of a tsarist naval officer executed by the Bolsheviks, therefore a class enemy himself. Like her, he had lived in labour camps. Her second husband was also (she learned in the 1990s) an enemy of the people, whose father and grandfather had both been arrested in 1937. For decades, she kept the truth about herself from her daughter Olga, a schoolteacher, hoping that her ignorance would protect her if the Stalinists returned. Olga didn't learn about her grandparents till the 1990s.
Antonina's case illustrates how this government-created drama was acted out in domestic life. Children sometimes blamed their parents for having a background that damaged the children's career opportunities. That gave a terrifying new dimension to parent-child conflict, as did official suggestions that children rat on their parents. Some people denounced their spouses, hoping to save themselves. If anything remotely dangerous came up in conversation, parents spoke in whispers so that their children couldn't pick up anything that could be inadvertently revealed to friends or neighbours. One can imagine the wave of shame that swept over millions of lives.
One man remembers his mother saying his tongue would get him in trouble if he didn't take care. "That's what people said to us children all the time. We went through life afraid to talk. Mama used to say that every other person was an informer. We were afraid of our neighbours." Even in the 21st century he wouldn't let his name be used in Figes's book. In the age of Putin, he's afraid Stalinism might return.