Care­ful, the Great Leader might hear you

Ju­dith Arm­strong

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THE Stal­in­ist pe­riod in Rus­sian his­tory is hardly as­so­ci­ated with hi­lar­ity, yet satire ex­isted even when con­fined to the drawer. In one wry ex­am­ple, found in Vladimir Voinovich’s The Life and Ex­tra­or­di­nary Ad­ven­tures of Private Chonkin ( 1975), the epony­mous bum­bling peas­ant drafted into the Red Army dur­ing World War II is sent to an ob­scure vil­lage to guard a crashed plane. Out walk­ing one day, he en­coun­ters a lit­tle girl, and with con­cern in­quires whom she be­longs to. ‘‘ My mummy and my daddy,’’ she an­swers. ‘‘ And who do you love best, your mummy or your daddy?’’ Chonkin asks so­lic­i­tously. ‘‘ Stalin,’’ replies the tot.

Ex­plor­ing the men­tal­ity that lay be­hind this one- liner takes Or­lando Figes con­sid­er­ably more words, but the goal is sim­i­lar: ‘‘. . . the way that Stal­in­ism en­tered the peo­ple’s minds and emo­tions, af­fect­ing all their val­ues and re­la­tion­ships’’.

Figes’s method is es­sen­tially quan­ti­ta­tive, em­ploy­ing a large team of re­searchers to in­ter­view about 700 re­spon­dents. But this award­win­ning ex­pounder of the Rus­sian revo­lu­tion ( A Peo­ple’s Tragedy , 1997) and su­perb in­ter­preter of Rus­sian cul­tural his­tory ( Natasha’s Dance , 2003) writes a qual­ity book. Flow­ing, lu­cid, and amaz­ingly el­e­gant for all the vast de­tail, the text lays bare the mind­set that al­lowed a huge na­tion to be herded not just into com­mu­nal hous­ing, col­lec­tivised farm­ing and an ar­chi­pel­ago of labour camps, but a kind of mass- speak that could only be sub­verted in the ghostli­est of whis­pers, and cer­tainly never in a room, which might be bugged, or in pub­lic places alive with in­form­ers.

Figes’s chap­ter head­ings form a chrono­log­i­cal guide to his vi­sion of Soviet so­cial his­tory. The ‘‘ Chil­dren of 1917’’ had seen the req­ui­si­tion of all private prop­erty ( homes, busi­nesses, farm an­i­mals, pro­duce), and lived through a huge de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in fam­ily life, saved mainly by grand­moth­ers: fre­quently the sole source of af­fec­tion. Par­ents worked long hours and de­voted their ‘‘ leisure’’ to party ral­lies and pa­tri­otic rit­u­als; their chil­dren were in­doc­tri­nated with Soviet ide­ol­ogy from kinder­garten on­wards.

In young adults, scorn for the bour­geois in­sti­tu­tion of mar­riage led less to promis­cu­ity than the urge to save them­selves for the class strug­gle. Long be­fore the Great Ter­ror, peo­ple ad­justed to the knowl­edge that de­vi­a­tion would be de­nounced and per­pe­tra­tors purged.

Af­ter the Great Break ( the im­po­si­tion of col­lec­tivi­sa­tion in its var­i­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions), ‘‘ The Pur­suit of Hap­pi­ness’’ proves dif­fi­cult, given shrunken liv­ing spa­ces, scarce food, wide­spread poverty and the au­thor­i­ties’ de­ter­mi­na­tion to re­mould the hu­man soul through pe­nal labour; but th­ese years are tol­er­a­ble com­pared with the ghastly Great Fear of 1937- 8, when dis­ap­pear­ances were rife but undis­cuss­able and in­di­vid­u­als paral­ysed by mis­trust and para­noia.

‘‘ The Rem­nants of Ter­ror’’ ( 1938- 41) os­mosed into the early years of World War II, when Stalin him­self was be­trayed by an equally evil megolo­ma­niac. So far, so the usual out­line, ex­cept that this view is of the un­der­side of his­tory. In the chap­ter ‘‘ Wait for Me’’, the hugely pop­u­lar song of that name by the writer Kon­stantin Si­monov, whose com­pro­mised ca­reer is fol­lowed through­out the book, sym­bol­ises some­thing new about the feel­ings that tor­mented sol­diers at the front, pris­on­ers in labour camps, and women at home.

Be­fore the war, the private world of in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ships had been si­lenced be­cause it added noth­ing to the five- year plans; now, uni­ver­sal emo­tions such as love, loss and eroti­cism were voiced pub­licly. The im­mense im­pli­ca­tions of the sim­ple state­ment, ‘‘ Wartime Soviet cul­ture saw the grad­ual merg­ing of the private and the pub­lic’’, are un­der­scored time and time again, but most dra­mat­i­cally in a quote from the revered poet Anna Akhma­tova, who barely sur­vived the siege of Len­ingrad, yet wrote: ‘‘ To think that the best years of our lives were dur­ing the war, when so many peo­ple were be­ing killed, when we were starv­ing and my son was do­ing forced labour.’’ Her friend Boris Paster­nak con­firmed the men­ace of real death was a ‘‘ bless­ing’’ com­pared with the ‘‘ in­hu­man power of the lie’’.

It was a dif­fer­ent story af­ter the war, when mil­lions of emo­tion­ally dam­aged sol­diers re­turned from bat­tle, along with some men and women re­leased from labour camps ( al­though it was not yet the end of the gu­lag). Be­yond the usual dif­fi­cul­ties of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, the peace quashed the destal­in­i­sa­tion brought about by the war years, and its un­fore­seen con­so­la­tions: the sense of sol­i­dar­ity in fight­ing for the moth­er­land, the para­dox­i­cal loos­en­ing of fear.

The Cold War pro­vided Stalin with new grounds for main­tain­ing the camps as valu­able pro­duc­tion sites con­tracted out to the con­struc­tion or min­ing sec­tors.

In the cities, ‘‘ or­di­nary Stal­in­ists’’ anx­ious to suc­ceed be­came ca­reer func­tionar­ies and tech­nocrats, the elite re­warded with dachas, over­seas

trips and the right to shop for lux­ury goods in spe­cial shops. But dis­si­dent writ­ers and in­tel­lec­tu­als had dif­fi­culty keep­ing their noses clean, re­quir­ing a hench­man, An­drei Zh­danov, to clamp down on ‘‘ anti- Soviet’’ ten­den­cies in the arts. By the end of the 1940s the coun­try had re­verted to a new state of fear, with many of the two mil­lion ‘‘ cos­mopoli­tans’’ ( as Soviet Jews were dubbed) cru­elly hounded in anti- Semitic cam­paigns.

It is al­most im­pos­si­ble for a Westerner to un­der­stand the out­pour­ing of shock and grief that greeted the news of Stalin’s death in 1953, though Figes shows that much of it was ab­so­lutely gen­uine. When, three years later, Nikita Khrushchev de­nounced the Stal­in­ist ‘‘ cult of per­son­al­ity’’, one mem­ber of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee ad­mit­ted: ‘‘ We al­ready knew a lot, but we were stunned by the way the truth caved in on us.’’

Peo­ple’s lives do not of course end neatly along with po­lit­i­cal regimes. The con­clu­sion brings us up to the present day and the work of Me­mo­rial, the great store­house of in­for­ma­tion gath­ered on be­half of the mil­lions op­pressed by Stalin. Some his­to­ri­ans of the nit- pick­ing type have al­ready done their thing in re­gard to Figes’s vast can­vas, but no one could fail to be moved, hor­ri­fied and en­light­ened by it. He is a ded­i­cated pur­veyor of the so­cial ef­fects of tyranny.

Mas­ter of the deadly lie: Stalin’s in­flu­ence was felt in all ar­eas of life, private and pub­lic

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