Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Putting Faith in a Man Made Ideal: The Whisperers by Orlando Figes,204,203,200_.jpg

What we overheard the adults say in a whisper...we knew we could not repeat to anyone.

We went through life afraid to talk. Mama used to say that every other person was an informer. We were afraid of our neighbors, and especially of the police....Even today, if I see a policeman, I begin to shake with fear....

(In the introduction of The Whisperers)

The Whisperers is a fascinating account of Stalin's rise to power and the devastating impact his oppressive regime had on the people of the Soviet Union. Instead of giving a dry account concerning how the communists were able to come into control of Russia and the purges under Stalin that were to rid the Soviet Union of “enemies of the people”, Figes focuses on individuals and their families. This up close sampling of specific persons brings to life how Soviet people were affected by the “reign of terror” that sent millions of Soviet Citizens (especially those even remotely related to the old Russian aristocracy) into slave labor camps during the thirties as Stalin, with almost schizophrenic paranoia, sought out anyone who might be a threat to his rule.

One can't solely blame Stalin, however. Countless people took advantage of the situation by turning in their neighbors and even their own family members. Everyone's word was believed. No proof was required. One simply accused another of being an “enemy of the people” and they were never seen again. People did this to co workers they had a grievance against. They did it to neighbors whose rooms in the same house (nobody could have an entire house to themselves) they coveted. They did it to a spouse they wanted to conveniently divorce.

If that is not appalling enough, what is even more so-if not simply confounding- is the passivity with which people accepted intimate friends and loved ones being taken away and sent to camps to pay for “their crimes”. A typical response was, “I didn't know they were an enemy of the people but since they are being taken away it must be so.” Many of the people who were arrested wouldn't fight their sentence, especially the hard line communists. Their belief in the socialist ideal was so great that a number of them would shout, “Long live Stalin!” as they were being executed by a firing squad.

Figes takes you inside the households of different families who lived during Stalin's time. He interviewed thousands of people who were still alive in the eighties and nineties to give a first hand account of what happened to them and their families personally. Because of this, one is drawn into a vicarious experience of what these people endured so many years ago. It was often with relief I quit reading a chapter and reminded myself that I do not live under that kind of regime (not yet, anyway-it seems that there are certain ideologues in this country and in our government who are working hard to take away as much of our individual liberties as possible.)

Still, The Whisperers leaves me with some questions. Is it possible for an entire population to be so completely deceived by an individual leader? Figes doesn't record any dissidents. At least they weren't dissidents during Stalin's regime. In retrospect, many (but not all) saw that Stalin was a despot. At the time, however, according to Figes, the Soviet Citizens firmly believed in the Communist ideal and justified any oppression, even genocide, as a necessary means to an end. A common saying was “you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.”

Another question: where was the church? Was it rendered so ineffectual that it offered no solace, no amnesty? Had absolutely everyone become an atheist? Was Russia truly devoid of Christians back then? I'd like to investigate more into this matter.

In conclusion, The Whisperers is a captivating book filled with the whole colorful spectrum of different people's lives, their emotions, how they survived wondering if they or another family member was going to disappear, how they coped with parents in prison-leaving them as orphans; how spouses endured forced separations and how they themselves survived being a prisoner in a slave labor camp. It's a book that not only will hold you spellbound but one that will leave you seriously thinking about the fragility of democracy when people put their faith in a man made state rather than in moral foundations grounded in Christian principals.


Kristin said...

Sounds fascinating!!

Stumbled you...would love if you could stumble me back:

Kristin :)

Kathleen said...

Stumbled. Great review, very thorough.

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