A deathly silence


Last updated at 18:28 05 October 2007

The Soviet Union was a disaster all the more terrible because it was deliberate. A bunch of disaffected intellectuals were convinced they could mould a perfect society, and such an end justified all available means.

Once in power they murdered whoever they chose, and wrecked the lives of everyone else. No other experiment has proved quite so emphatically that in order for men to do evil, they need to believe they are doing good.

Stalin addresses the crowd

State propaganda claiming that all aspects of daily life were improving kept the people under control. Genuine information was not available. To ask questions, to complain or to object, invited arrest by the secret police, a guaranteed sentence of up to 25 years in a camp and most probably death. Whole categories of defenceless victims were deemed 'enemies of the people' and 'anti-social elements'.

1937 and 1938 were the years of Stalin's Great Terror. According to incomplete and, therefore, understated statistics, in that period alone a total of 681,692 people were shot. At least another 140,000 died in the Gulag concentration and labour camps, with a further unknown number of deaths during deportation.

Once the Soviet Union had collapsed, its criminal enormities were documented, and at last something could be done to recover the morality and respect for other human beings that had been so ruthlessly stamped on.

Orlando Figes, author of previous studies of the Soviet Union, was inspired to record the experiences of the generations born in Soviet times, before their first-hand stories were lost. He masterminded teams of local volunteers who interviewed many hundreds of survivors and dug out of the archives stories of hundreds more who had been murdered. On page after page are photographs of these men and women, their expressions haunted with suffering.

The thoroughness of the research makes The Whisperers an impressive book. It has to be read slowly, though, partly because of the plethora of unfamiliar names and the mass of detail, and partly because the pity of it all is often overwhelming.

Here are mostly ordinary citizens describing the horrors of systematic injustice.

Some ten million peasants were uprooted from their homes where they had lived for generations. A couple of provincial hairdressers were sent to the Gulag just for mentioning shortages. Wives were sentenced to ten years in special camps merely because their husbands had been purged; their children were abandoned. The Communist Party saw the family as the main institution opposing its ideal state, and this was nothing less than war against it.

Fear of the state and its punishments pervaded everything. One in five office workers was an informer. Those without correct proletarian origins lied to cover up what was known as a 'spoiled biography'.

Equality in poverty, Figes writes, bred a culture of envy. A woman recorded here denounced another simply in order to grab her iron bedstead; one man saved himself by denouncing his own brother. As Figes sums it up: 'People turned against each other in the chaotic scramble to survive.'

A close account of the famous writer Konstantin Simonov provides some sort of standard against which to judge the behaviour of others. A typically disaffected intellectual, he slavishly placed his undoubted talents at the service of the Communist Party, and became a favourite at Stalin's court. But he always had to conceal a 'spoiled biography' because his mother was originally an aristocrat and two of her sisters were to die in exile.

Simonov's first wife was Jewish, but when colleagues were persecuted as Jews, he was not brave enough to defend them. Outwardly a Soviet success, at the end of his career he understood that he had been untrue to himself, a tragic figure.

Communism brought out the worst in everyone, but perhaps only temporarily.

When survivors were at last released from the Gulag, they sought to forget rather than have revenge. Endurance overcame suffering. The family revived.

Fortunate reader, this heart-rending book obliges you to ask yourself how you would have behaved in a catastrophe like this.

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