Careful, the Great Leader might hear you
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