The Whisperers

"Wonderful...I've rarely read anything like it," proclaims Claire Tomalin on the front cover of the paperback edition of Orlando Figes, 'The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia".

It is not the epithet I would immediately reach for. Antony Beevor's 'heart-rending' on the back cover is a more accurate summation of this terrible text.

Terrible in a literal sense - both the terror of people, caught in a system that devoured its own (and many of its victims, at one level at least, appeared resigned to its justification, in a recurrent phrase, 'you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs') and terrible because it seems so beyond comprehension; not least because the broken eggs were not making an omelette! For all its vaunted achievements, Russia stayed behind the living conditions of the West on virtually every front (as it does today).

There is no reason for believing that the liberal/social democracy inaugurated by the February revolution would not have arrived at similar levels of material well-being at significantly lower human cost had not the Bolshevik coup of October 1917 not interrupted and shattered it.

It is the accumulation of individual stories that works Figes' dark magic. You taste communal living. You taste the life always overheard. You taste the fear of the misplaced word or the argument over living space sparking denunciation. You feel for the children abandoned, their parents arrested, and their relatives too fearful to take them in, consigned to swelling orphanages in often appalling conditions. Even the moments of light are subsequently despoiled, the teacher at school who afforded protection, paying your fees out of her own pocket, is subsequently arrested and shot. Figes even makes you feel for the people who made this revolution and were then consumed by it, blinkered by utopian hopes.

It is a terrible tale, made more so by realising that, at depth, neither historically nor societally has it been addressed, spoken of and to. It lingers and you can only guess at what cost.

In my own history, I find myself wondering what impact did my grandfathers' sustained trauma of fighting on the Western Front for four years impart on their children's lives. From my parents' accounts it was significant - their obsessive valuation of silence, their retreat from the challenges of fully making a living (a burden carried by my grandmother) etc. What then the impact of thirty years of waves of terror bringing out the best but more often the worst (or simply the numbing) of our humanity?

I, also, recognised in myself how debilitating such reading is, whatever its necessity, on my own sense of well-being. The psychologists call it a capacity to 'introject' to carry as if my own the feelings of others, sometimes to a crippling extent. It permeates me - the sadness of it - insinuating itself. I was so relieved to stop reading it! But the traces, the traces in memory, and more than memory.


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