15 December, 2007Issue 7.1EuropeHistory

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The Red Tsar From Below

Paul Sonne

Orlando Figes
The Whisperers: Private Life of Stalin’s Russia
Allen Lane, 2007
740 pages

ISBN 978-0713997026


Nikita Khrushchev’s shocking ‘secret speech’, delivered to the Twentieth Party Congress of the Soviet Union in 1956, denounced the cult of personality surrounding Josef Stalin and the terror that defined Stalin’s reign. Though Khrushchev had participated in the terrors of the Stalin era with enthusiasm, he sought to make a break with the past. Local officials soon bludgeoned statues of Stalin across Russia, because in the eyes of Khrushchev, Stalin was no longer to be revered.

That same year, the Soviet writer Konstantin Simonov, an ardent communist who had become the darling of Stalin’s court, composed a poem:

The editor can ask to cut away
The name of Stalin from my verse,
But he cannot help me
With the Stalin who is left within my soul.

Though Khrushchev removed Stalin’s corpse from display on Red Square, he could hardly exhume the Stalin that had violently wormed its way into the psyche of Soviet citizens. Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers, a book that synthesises thousands of personal stories from the Stalin era, does just that: it exhumes Stalin from the dirt of his subjects’ memories, and in doing so, constructs an agonising ‘history from below’ of Stalin’s fierce ‘revolution from above’.

The subtitle of The Whisperers—‘private life in Stalin’s Russia’—is deceiving. The Whisperers implicitly questions the existence of private life under a regime that invaded the private lives of its citizens with a manipulative ferocity unprecedented in modern history. Through a vast patchwork of personal diaries and oral histories, the book deftly crawls through the lives of those who toiled at once helplessly and opportunistically under Stalin, and it depicts hopeless attempts to maintain private lives in a place where the private had become the strict domain of the state. The story that results is harrowing. Families grope their way to their own demise; desperate men betray others to save themselves. The morally-upright struggle to keep their heads down, while the morally-compromised mark the heads of their compatriots for attack.

From 1924 to 1953, Stalin’s ‘revolution from above’ overturned Russian society with the goal of extracting the Soviet Union’s enemy elements in order to build the socialist future. Stalin waged an unbridled campaign to convert a largely illiterate and war-ravaged Russia into an industrialised and communised Soviet society. Terror, coercion and illogical idealism greased the wheels of progress at every juncture.

The facts of the Stalin era astonish and stupefy. In order to eradicate the peasant elite (known as kulaks) and create collective farms, Stalin deported or killed almost 2 million peasants between 1929 and 1932. Though estimates vary, roughly 14.5 million peasants died between 1930 and 1937 as a result of Stalin’s collectivisation-dekulakisation campaigns and the resulting famine. The 1937-38 Great Terror, Stalin’s purge of enemies of the people and high-powered Communist Party members, claimed the lives of about 1 million people, and hundreds of thousands more were sent to the Gulag. Three years after the Great Terror, in 1941, the Nazis invaded Russia and the USSR entered World War II. Between civilian and military deaths, the Soviet Union lost about 13 per cent of its population, with an estimated 24 million dead. In the years after the war, between 1949 and 1953, Stalin launched a rampage against so-called rootless cosmopolitans, a euphemism for Soviet Jews. Only after Stalin’s death in 1953 and Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ in 1956 did the despotism begin to recede.

The numbers convey the plot, but they hardly tell the story. The story, as it were, germinates in the memories of those who lived under Stalin’s regime. During the Soviet era these memories were frozen, with individuals locking away their personal histories for years, refusing to re-traumatise themselves or fearing a return of despotism whereby a spoilt biography could cause serious danger. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, those memories re-emerged in a new time, and stories that Stalin’s subjects had internalised began to thaw, trickling out of storage as the Cold War unfroze. As Figes himself says, the early 1990s became the ‘heyday of oral history’, and The Whisperers is the product of that heyday. With newly available documents and oral histories as his tools, Figes functions as a careful ‘contextualiser’, weaving his way in and out of an array of lives, using some as one-time examples of a particular phenomenon and others as reappearing narratives that illustrate a chronological transformation through the years. By clumping together hundreds of stories en masse, Figes runs the risk of making them as dispassionate as statistics. Despite this risk, he still manages to formulate an aesthetic masterwork of memoir synthesis. What emerges is just what he had wanted: stories that ‘read as variations of a common history—of the Stalinism that marked the life of every family.’


In his 1840 novel Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov wrote the story of Pechorin, a Russian anti-hero sufficiently void of moral conscience, who uses his bravado and cunning to conquer the hearts of women and wiggle his way to ephemeral triumph. Pechorin is hardly a noble hero, but neither is he expressly a villain either. Lermontov’s readership expressed dismay about Pechorin’s amoral anti-heroism, and Lermontov responded in his Author’s Introduction:

A Hero of Our Time, gentlemen, is indeed a portrait, but not of a single individual; it is a portrait composed of all the vices of our generation in the fullness of their development. … If you have admired fictions far more frightful and hideous, why does this character, even as fiction, find no quarter with you? Is it not, perchance, because there is more truth in this character than you would desire there to be?

In short, Lermontov asks his nineteenth-century Russian readership: is there not perhaps a little bit of Pechorin in each of you? Is Pechorin not the symptom of Russia’s universal societal disease?

In The Whisperers, the writer Konstantin Simonov plays the ‘red’ Pechorin. By following Simonov’s life from start to finish, Figes offers the portrait of an everyday anti-hero who manipulates his own morality to succeed in making a career for himself under Stalin. Indeed, Simonov ascended to great heights of literary fame, first as a correspondent on the front during World War II, then as secretary of the Soviet Writers’ Union, and later as an influential editor. Interspersed among the pages of The Whisperers, Simonov’s nasty Soviet künstlerroman details one man’s lust for professional success in a political and ideological climate that asked him to make serious moral compromises. The systematic unfeeling aggressiveness with which Simonov pursues his career indicts the Soviet system but simultaneously suggests that perhaps there was, indeed, a little bit of Simonov in every Soviet subject who wished to succeed. As Simonov struggles to make a name for himself under Stalinism, he hews close to a prototype of the ‘successful’ Homo Sovieticus—and the emergence of Simonov’s professional advancement calls into question what exactly ‘success’ meant in the Stalin years. More importantly, Simonov’s coming-of-age story brings to life the machinations of a particular species: the hero of Stalin’s time.

With a Western literature dominated by the voices of courageous dissidents and heroes alike, Figes’s choice to assign a leading role to Simonov—a man fundamentally lacking in courage—is to be commended. Simonov was not a daring dissident like Andrei Sakharov, nor was he an unabashed monster like NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov or like Stalin himself. Like thousands of opportunistic and talented young Soviets during the Stalin era, Simonov operated in an obfuscated grey area that tempted him to reconfigure good and bad, always looking out for himself while claiming to be looking out for the Soviet system. He is a properly tainted lens through which to view a morally amorphous time, and like Pechorin, he represents aspects of a species not uncommon during his age.

Simonov was exactly what an emerging writer had to be in order to succeed as an artist in the Stalin era: not too good, not too bad, but most of all, willing to compromise. With aristocratic roots, Simonov was born with a classic ‘spoiled biography’, the kind that should have ensured him a miserable life of constant persecution as a class enemy. But Simonov undertook great efforts to conceal his biography, enrolling in a school for factory workers to cultivate a ‘proletarian background’, joining the Komsomol and indoctrinating himself in Stalinist Marxism-Leninism. He exercised what Figes calls ‘a cold and rational capacity to cut people out of his life’ when they threatened his professional advancement, abandoning his wives and children when he felt it necessary to do so. During the Great Terror, he stepped aside as the authorities denounced his mother’s formerly aristocratic sisters as ‘enemies of the people’. While reporting on the war, ‘He lost himself in the Stalinist system,’ says Figes, allegedly having sex on a Nazi flag during his years as a war correspondent so as to feel the sensual power of Soviet victory. After the war, he became an editor. Though he had married a Jewish woman and fathered a child by her, he readily transformed himself into an anti-Semite on command during Stalin’s post-war campaign against ‘rootless cosmopolitans’. He denounced Jewish writers, rationalising that he could renege and help the Jews once he attained the power to do so.

Though his conscience periodically troubled him, Simonov never managed to resist the allure of the Stalinist elite, and a system that encouraged his actions constantly provided him with the tools to rationalise his choices. To listen to his conscience would have been to risk a personal and professional downfall. Moreover, like much of his generation, he believed in Stalinism through and through. After Stalin died, Simonov gradually changed—conveniently at the same time as popular sentiment about Stalin shifted—and he came to serious realisations about his own past. Out of feelings of self-loathing and contrition, he cultivated what Figes calls a ‘late repentant liberalism’ and professed remorse about his Stalin years before his death in 1979. He became more despondent. ‘He could not deny Stalin any more than he could deny himself,’ Figes says.

Figes befriended Simonov’s son Alexei in the 1990s, and Alexei helped Figes excavate Simonov’s life and those of his relations. Despite Figes’s friendship with Alexei, the revelations made in The Whisperers provoked Simonov’s family members to seal Simonov’s archive in Russia until 2025. In the eyes of many descendants and survivors of the Stalin Era, some memories are better left frozen, particularly when they might defrost a chilling complicity. To be sure, today most Russians know nothing of Simonov’s compromises beyond his celebrated Stalin-era success. A street that bears his name still exists in Moscow.


In a 2005 poll, forty-two per cent of Russians said they would welcome the return of a ‘leader like Stalin,’ and sixty per cent of respondents over the age of sixty wanted a ‘new Stalin’ to lead Russia, the All-Russia Public Opinion Research Centre reported. Certainly Russian victory in World War II and Stalin’s cult of personality contribute to these responses. Equally influential, however, is the older generation’s desire to return to an age when ‘their lives were organised and given meaning,’ Figes says. Yes, they suffered under Stalin, but it was hopeful suffering endured stoically in the name of building the communist future. For some, life in the 1990s was as bad as it had been under Stalin, however, there was no messianic hopefulness to justify the suffering.

The Soviet regime propagated the general idea that proletarians were to build and perfect Socialism, which would eventually give way to Communism, a heaven-like state of being that would emerge out of hard work and fanatic dedication. ‘The bright future,’ or svetloe budushchee, to some extent, became a promised payoff much like heaven, but with one marked difference: it was tangible and attainable in the here and now. The dream became a metaphysics for the masses.

The lingering respect for Stalin today hinges on the way that people rationalized suffering during his reign. Given that the dream would necessitate immediate suffering and hard work in the short term, people operated under a mentality encapsulated in the expression, ‘One cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.’ Indeed, this truism echoes throughout the many memoirs in The Whisperers. People felt as if they were hurtling toward the future. The government undertook colossal industrial projects like Magnitogorsk and the Belomorkanal, relying on the invisible hand of the secret police rather than the invisible hand of capitalism to drive industrialization. The idea of the bright future intoxicated Soviet citizens, and it allowed both Stalinists and their victims to justify the unjustifiable. Everyone was to be on board. ‘A man who knew that you cannot build the present out of the bricks of the future was bound to resign himself beforehand to his inevitable doom and the prospect of the firing squad,’ wrote Nadezhda Mandelstam.

A fierce hypnotised illogic reigned. A girl named Marksena—named in memory of Marx and Engels—watched her loyal Bolshevik parents carted off and shot by the regime. An artist whose husband died in the purges specialised in portraits of Stalin, painting the image of her husband’s murderer over and over again. Parents deemed class enemies would convince their children to denounce them publicly so as to avoid prejudice. Figes brings these everyday paradoxes of Stalin’s rule to light. Pervasive asymmetric information and a bogus press allowed people to construe the tragedies occurring around them as isolated incidents. It was nearly impossible for a person to know that the arrest of his neighbour in Lvov was connected to a whole string of arrests, including that of another person’s neighbour eleven time zones away in Vladivostok. The lack of information persisted. Some realised that their parents had been shot during the purges only after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. A Soviet breed of stoicism became a method of coping. As one woman said, ‘To this day I cannot weep. In Stalin’s time people did not cry’.

Reading the memoirs collected by Figes, one gradually realises the extent to which the simple ‘breaking of eggs’ engendered a massive breaking at the very roots of Soviet society that shaped the popular psyche for generations after Stalin’s death. Stalin created a whole nation of dutiful tattletales, and this induced people to break ties with anyone considered a potential informant—by the end of World War II, everyone was broken. Even complicit conspirators in the Stalinist enterprise could consider themselves victims of the epoch, because indeed, almost everyone was victimised.

As Stalin crushed society, different pieces shattered in different ways. Contemporary Western historians have taken up the study of ‘Soviet subjectivity’, which theorises the ways that Soviet subjects reacted to the psychological stimuli of the Soviet enterprise. Stalin’s Kremlin was not simply a strong-willed military junta with a thirst for power: his regime propagated a particular ideology with the expectation of mass epiphany. The ‘revolution from above’ sought to overturn people’s inner selves, to recalibrate their moral compasses, to empower them through a new set of beliefs that could justify everyday toils and seeming ethical compromises. It was a strict re-education camp. The Soviet subject was ‘produced by power rather than repressed by it,’ write historians Christina Kiaer and Eric Naiman. The Soviet agenda, particularly under Stalin, did not simply overturn the system, it overturned the individual psyche, and each Soviet citizen internalised Stalin’s ‘revolution from above’ by cultivating or rejecting a personal revolution within. Where one person became a defector, another became an ardent Stalinist, another a dispassionate camp guard at Kolyma, and still another a closet non-believer who still registered for Party membership just to reap rewards. This is why Figes says, ‘The Whisperers is not about Stalin, although his presence is felt on every page.’ The individual subject’s Sovietisation was subjective, and Figes’s book carves out the story of this ‘Soviet subjectivity’ in relief.


Dating back to the time of the tsars, a current in Russian thought has attached great importance to the idea that Russians are ‘destined’ for a different path. Under Stalin, this feeling of specialness and otherness—the idea that the Soviet Union was blazing a never-before realised path toward a new egalitarian world order—fuelled unthinkable capacities for evil and misjudgement. Stalinism indeed achieved what history had never achieved before, but not in the way that the young intoxicated idealists of the era had expected.

In order to help answer a fundamental question that looms large throughout The Whisperers—namely, how this all happened—highlighting the exceptionality of Stalinism seems crucial. Granted, the instruments of Stalin’s terror were not altogether new, nor were the types of evils perpetrated. The crimes of Stalinism grew out of the unfortunately common human propensity to succumb to what Hannah Arendt calls the ‘banality of evil’. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union under Stalin was not simply a variation on a theme.

In Power of the Powerless, the Czech dissident and former president Vaclav Havel likens communist ideology to a ‘low-rent home’, a metaphysics that allowed people to eradicate all ‘mysteries, unanswered questions’ and ‘anxiety’. ‘One pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason to a higher authority,’ he says. The power of the bright future dulled the sharpness of evil. The Soviet social contract was one in which citizens agreed to let the regime do the thinking for them. As a result, the phenomenon of Stalinism resulted not simply from the confluence of circumstantial forces, but also from a never-before realised capacity for systematic psychological exploitation. The system rewarded a man for bringing about the ruin of his neighbour, and many were forced to do so to save their own lives. In Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argues that it is ‘the development of this device to its farthest and most fantastic extremes’ that makes the Bolshevik system something ‘which we have never seen before and which events or catastrophes alone would hardly have brought about.’ In this sense, to confine Stalinism to the realm of ‘variations on the theme of dictatorship’ would be to refute, as it were, the striking preternatural nature of the stories relived in Figes’s book.

People living under Stalin knew they were not living ‘normal’ lives, says historian Sheila Fitzpatrick. While every generation in every epoch and locale conceives of itself as living the crucially diverging present of a textbook linear past, the generation that lived under Stalin perhaps could levy the most rightful claim to that distinction. Yet, for as anomalous as the Stalin period was, people somehow adapted. The question, then, is how one of the most ‘historically divergent’ epochs in modern history becomes ‘life as you know it’, that is, how people come to accept Stalinism as their everyday existence. The Whisperers does not answer this question explicitly, but it does reveal the psychology of a nation under the duress of that transformation. In the process, many people lost a proper basis of comparison for what was normal, and this corrupted the entire societal model.

The Stalin era, or perhaps the whole Soviet era, might best be viewed as a rupture, particularly when thinking about how to cope with its legacy. The Stalinist system violently reconfigured normal horizontal relationships into a forced vertical relationship. Experts continue to explore how a combination of time and new governmental systems might recalibrate Russia in a way that will lead to a healthier relationship between state and subject. Some believe it is impossible; others believe it is unnecessary; still others believe Stalin got it right. Regardless of today’s prescriptions for the ailments of Stalinism’s lasting disease, what the stories of The Whisperers make clear is that Stalin’s time is a time worth remembering. It is worth remembering not only as an era of catastrophic loss or sordid power politics, but also as a tragedy of human psychology. Figes’s compilation of memories gives a voice to that tragedy.

Paul Sonne is an MPhil student in Russian and East European studies at New College, Oxford. He is the Senior Non-Fiction Editor of the Oxonian Review of Books.