It's 220 years since the French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. It's 20 years since the Soviet Revolution essentially ended as the Berlin Wall came down. We've long known how these revolutions swallowed their own, leaving a legacy of guillotine and gulag-but what was the effect on ordinary citizens as they tried to maintain their personal lives while surrounded by fear, mistrust, and betrayal?
Robert Conquest's The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties (1968; new edition 2007) gave the big picture. A wonderfully researched and written book, The Whisperers by Orlando Figes (Henry Holt, 2007), now complements it. Figes, a University of London history professor, used a vast array of previously hidden family archives to show how Josef Stalin in particular turned the hearts of children against parents-a reverse Chapter 4 of Malachi-and created a land of hatred for his own glory.
What makes this 700-page book so extraordinary is Figes' combination of specific detail with Tolstoy-like sweep, so that we see individual swimmers amid a tsunami wave. We learn about 25 million people repressed or killed between 1928, when Stalin seized control of the Soviet Communist Party, and 1953, when he died. That was about one-eighth of the Soviet population in 1941: Communist officials shot, or made into slave laborers in special settlements, or persecuted in some other way one person for every 1.5 families.
Stalin knew and Figes knows that a million deaths form a statistic but one is a tragedy, so Stalin practiced macro-terror and Figes tells us micro-stories of terrorized individuals. He writes of those who did not sleep because the secret police came in the night to make arrests; of husbands and wives who hid middle-class (kulak) backgrounds from each other for fear that they would be punished for the economic successes of their parents; of children who heard parental whispers and reported on them to the secret police.
Among the many chilling sections is one on Pavlik Morozov, who in 1931 became a hero among the Pioneers (the Soviet youth brigade) for informing on his neighbors and then on his father. When the dad, aghast at his son's denunciation, called out in the courtroom, "It's me, your father," Pavlik told the judge, "I am not acting as a son, but as a Pioneer." The father, sentenced to a labor camp, was shot dead there.
Figes also writes of those who seemed like winners, including Konstantin Simonov, Stalin's pet writer: Simonov protected his position by denouncing those the Soviet government wanted denounced, and later looked back with loathing at what he had done: "It is not only Stalin that you cannot forgive, but you yourself. . . . You saw and heard nothing when people all around you were shot and killed, when people all around you disappeared."
Another of the hundreds of sufferers quoted in The Whisperers is Antonina Golovina, sent to Siberia after her father's arrest in 1930. She returned to her old village 65 years later, with the population having declined from 317 to 13, and also visited the "special settlement" in Siberia to which she had been exiled. There one woman told her, "I am a kulak daughter." Later, Golovina felt ashamed of her own fear and also said aloud, "I am a kulak daughter."
The book ends with Golovina's statement, "It was the first time I had ever said those words aloud, although in my head I had whispered them a thousand times. There was nobody around to hear me. I was on my own on a deserted road. But even so I was proud that at last I had spoken. I went down to the river bank and washed myself in the river. And then I said a prayer for my parents."
The French and Russian revolutions both ended with sadder but wiser survivors praying. The Chinese revolution is coming to an end as millions pray. God reigns.