Secrets of the state

<strong>The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia</strong>

Orlando Figes <em>Allen Lane, th

It is rare that a book title so accurately captures the nature of a society. It was not to murmur sweet nothings that the Soviet "whisperers" - almost 200 million people - habitually lowered their voices. It was to make sure no one heard them expressing their thoughts, or to report to the NKVD/KGB about other people's whispers, those of neighbours, friends, even relatives.

Now, 16 years after the collapse of the Soviet empire, Orlando Figes's gripping work transports the reader into the collective memory of the Soviet people. This is not the faceless mass so frequently appealed to by Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, but a distinct people made up of faces, fates, tragedies and hopes.

This hefty volume's 700-plus pages of personal stories and photographs allow the reader to trace the evolution of the Soviet people's collective psychology under Stalin and better understand today's Russia. The brief, personal experiences recounted to the author by those who lived through that period create a precise and moving image of everyday life under the Stalinist regime.

Nina Kaminska, daughter of a well-known lawyer, remembers an episode in 1937:

She had come home from a party late at night and had lost her key. There was nothing for it but to ring the bell and wake up her parents. For a long time there was no response, so she rang a second time. Soon she heard footsteps and the door was opened. There stood her father, dressed as though he had not been to bed at all but had just come in or was on the point of going out again. He was wearing a dark suit, a clean shirt, a neatly tied necktie. On seeing his daughter he stared at her in silence and then, still without a word, slapped her across the face.

He was a cultivated man, without any violence in him. His violent reaction to the late-night knock was obviously sparked by his initial thought that "they" had come for him.

That period (until December 1938) was commonly known as "Yezhovshchina", after Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD at the time, under whose rule the number of people in the prisons and camps of the Gulag soared so that the Gulag became a country within a country. At the end of 1938, Stalin sanctioned Yezhov's arrest - apparently afraid that the imprisoned population would soon outnumber free citizens. By this time all Moscow was whispering quite credible rumours about Yezhov's homosexual and bisexual orgies, drunkenness and rages. On top of that, Yezhov's wife was "discovered" spying for the British and eventually Yezhov himself was arrested and branded "an enemy of the people". There was "proof" he had spied for Poland, Germany, Britain and Japan, and he was shot in the building he had had constructed specially as a venue for the execution of enemies of the people.

In place of Yezhov came Beria - "the liberator". On his instructions more than 1.5 million criminal cases were reconsidered, 450,000 convictions were overturned, 128,000 cases were thrown out and hundreds of thousands of convicts returned home from the Gulag.

Statistics are used sparingly in this book, but they serve to emphasise the scale of the events and their consequences. In 1937 alone, the number of children living in Soviet orphanages nearly doubled, from 329,000 children to 610,000, not including orphans of 14 years old and above, who were sent to work in plants, in factories and on collective farms. All the children of the "enemies of the people" were scattered throughout the USSR. Siblings were routinely separated. In the face of the Soviet terror everyone was equal: children and generals, workers and top journalists.

Alongside the stories of ordinary people, Figes describes in detail the personal and professional life of the leading Soviet writer Konstantin Simonov. I was particularly struck by one episode from his biography. He once helped a well-known theatre critic, Alexander Borshchagovsky, escape to Moscow from Kiev, where he was banned from publication because he had written a review which upset Khrushchev's favourite dramatist, Alexander Korneichuk.

Borshchagovsky quickly found his feet in Moscow and became very popular there, but in 1949, when the fight against "cosmopolitism" - the victims of which were mostly Jewish - was at its fiercest, Simonov agreed to deliver a speech at the plenum of the writers' union that lasted several hours and roundly denounced "the rootless cosmopolitans". Simonov had warned Borsh chagovsky not to attend the plenum, but, having agreed to take part in the fight against "cosmopolitism", he had to throw many writers, including Borshchagovsky, out of the writers' union.

Borshchagovsky was then sacked from his jobs with the main literary journal, Novy Mir, and the Red Army Theatre. In the end he and his family were even evicted from their Moscow flat and had to move in with friends. All the while, Simonov and other writers gave financial support to Borshchagovsky and when, four years later, the ban on his works was lifted, it was Simonov who helped him publish the patriotic novel The Russian Flag, set at the time of the Crimean war.

Figes met Alexander Borshchagovsky in 2003. "One grows accustomed to the pain," said the old critic, recollecting the events of 1949.

This book is one of the best literary monuments to the Soviet people, on a par with The Gulag Archipelago and the prose of Shalamov. The Whisperers is a fascinating encyclopedia of human relations during the Stalinist Terror.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic