Good Soviet teens hoped to join the Komsomol, where they could denounce their "Trotskyite" parents and inform on their classmates.
In 1932, a boy named Pavlik Morozov became a hero to children all over the Soviet Union. Pavlik and his younger brother Fyodor had been found dead in a forest and word spread that he had been killed by relatives who were angry at him for informing on his father. Their crime was that they were supposedly being "kulaks" or upper-class peasants (a nice little oxymoron), a group that was being eliminated because they were supposedly getting in the way of the collectivization of Soviet farms. Pavlik, described as a "rotten kid" by villagers who knew him, had a reputation as someone who tattled on anyone about anything. His denunciation of his father got Trofim Morozov in a labor camp. However, he and Fyodor were not killed by vengeful family members; rather it seems likely they were killed during a fight with some other boys over a harness and a gun. But the publicity about Pavlik's supposed martyrdom resulted in five Morozovs being put on trial, with four executed. And for a generation of children, Pavlik was upheld as a role model, the ideal Communist who every child should emulate.
In this climate of fear, where parents were scared of their own children, both for what they might say on purpose or say inadvertently, and neighbors worried about who might be listening through the thin walls and corridors of their communal apartments, people learned not to trust each other, to say as little as possible, and when they must speak, to say what they had to say in a whisper. Hence the title of Orlando Figes' book about life under Stalin in the Soviet Union—The Whisperers.
Figes uses personal interviews with survivors of those years to create his portrait of a nation under siege. There are endless stories of families torn apart—parents were taken away from their children because they were kulaks, they were Trotskyites, they were plotting against Stalin, they were plotting with the Germans, they were scheming with other workers, they were heard complaining about something. The children were sent to orphanages, passed around from relative to relative, or left on their own. In the early thirties, the number of parentless children almost overwhelmed the streets of Soviet cities, with some forming criminal gangs as a last measure of survival. The legal age to be tried as an adult was changed to twelve to try to combat this and get some of the kids off the streets. The law was also changed so that authorities could use the imprisonment of their children as a threat against parents whom they were pressing to inform on others or confess to something.
As they grew up, the children of the imprisoned or executed parents had to try to live down their "spoilt biographies." To be exposed as a child of an "enemy of the people" could result in being ostracized by other children; excluded from the all-important communist youth organizations, the Pioneers and the Komsomol; and kept out of desired schools or careers. To be caught lying about one's background and family history was just as bad or worse. In response, some constructed false identities when they could, taking on different names, birthplaces, or stories about their parents; with literally millions of people in prison or executed, it was a good bet that no one would be able to trace whether a parent died from disease or the firing squad. To keep their stories straight, some carried crib sheets with the false information about themselves, so that they could make sure that they were filling out school or job applications with consistency. Many of the adults Figes spoke to talked about the strain of living with the fear that someone would "find out" about them, and feeling like they could never really be themselves. Some didn't' tell prospective husbands or wives about their families until almost the day before their weddings; others never told the people they married.
Some parents ordered their children to publicly denounce them, so they would escape the taint of whatever supposed crime the family had committed. There were children who refused to do this, children who did it with an enormous amount of guilt, and children who did it with conviction. The generation that grew up in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution produced some of the most committed Stalinists, raised in an atmosphere where they were taught in school that there was nothing more important than being the ideal communist. These children thought that if the government was suspicious of their parents then it must be for a good reason; after all, the government was always right. Stalin was more of a parent to these children than their own fathers and mothers. Those whose parents were taken away to prison when they were very young could often find it easy to believe this.
This is a book where every heartening story is countered by an equally disheartening one. There are parents who struggled to make sure their children received letters and gifts from them while they were in the labor camps, kept their hopes alive, and did everything they could to find them afterwards; there are parents who lost track of their children and never saw them again. There are grandmothers, impoverished themselves, who made enormous sacrifices to hang onto their grandchildren when their parents were taken away; there are aunts and uncles who turned away from children in trouble and left them in the streets. There are family friends who took in children left behind when it was difficult enough to take care of their own families; there are "friends" who volunteered to sell family heirlooms to raise money for the child and then kept it all. There are relatives who took in children at their own risk because of the parents' "enemy" status; there are those who informed on families in order to claim their apartments. A last resort for more than a few children was a kind teacher or school official who waived fees, gave an abandoned child food, or told him or her that they had nothing to be ashamed of, no matter what people, including their classmates or even other teachers, said.
I've enjoyed other books by Figes (Natasha's Dance, The People's Tragedy) and this was no exception. He has a knack for being able to set a scene and then find the right stories to illustrate it. I'd recommend this book not just to those studying the history of the Soviet Union, but to people who find themselves enthralled when older relatives start telling stories of long ago days in distant places.
There are heroes and villains of all kinds to be found in this book. What's strangest is the people who don't recognize the villains—it's astonishing how many of the people Figes interviewed accepted what happened to their family members or their own lives, believing that there must be a reason for what was done, and if that reason was that it was for the good of the Party, that was enough. There are people whose families were executed for no reason other than paranoia who wept when Stalin died, because they thought he was so wonderful that he couldn't have been directly involved in anything bad that was done. There are even those who don't recognize their own forays into villainy, shrugging off informing on others or not helping those in need as just a necessary part of doing business. Informing on a few people couldn't hurt, and again, if the government said there was a reason to be suspicious, there must have been. Destroying someone's life or career was okay because it was important to the Party. In an incredibly short period of time—practically one generation, an entire nations psyche was changed, morals upended, and sense of selves remade. It's a scary thought.
What perhaps is scarier is to contemplate your own actions in such a time. It is very easy to tell yourself that you would always be the hero, always be the brave one, always be the one to stand against something or walk away. I know when I read the stories of people acting in an unconscionable, feckless manner, I think I would never do the same thing, I would never be that person. But I worry about what would happen if I really was in a situation where perhaps my survival depended on doing the wrong thing, or doing nothing when something should be done. Sins of commission and omission. Would I really what was right if it was dangerous? Or would I do what was necessary, no matter who else was hurt in the process, and then spend the rest of my life trying to rationalize my actions? That's one of my worst fears, to find out that I am not as brave as I imagine I am, that I wouldn't be the hero of even my own story. Let's hope the world is never in a position where I'm pushed to find out.