A review of The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia by Orlando Figes
Most memoirs or biographies of the survivors of Stalin’s Great Terror concentrate on those who were imprisoned or killed. The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia gives us an intimate look at the devastation experienced by the family members left behind.
The spouses, parents and children of Stalin’s victims also suffered. Many were harassed and persecuted for being related to “an enemy of the people.” Others lost jobs or places to live. Routinely, if relatives of those who disappeared into the Gulag wanted to attend a university or hold a job, they were required to publicly renounce their relative and confirm their guilt:
“I do not know what my father and his brother are accused of…I feel ashamed and do not want to know. … [I]f they have been sentenced, then it means they deserve it. I have no feelings of a daughter towards my father, only the higher feeling of duty as a Soviet citizen to the Fatherland, the Komsomol, which educated me, and the Communist party. “(Page 301).
Chilling and sometimes painful to read, The Whisperers shows how the Terror impacted all of Soviet society and left a tragic legacy of broken families. The hope and healing the survivors now experience bears tribute to the resilience of the human spirit. The Whisperers is an engrossing story that also bears a warning of what can happen when a government attempts to rule every aspect of life.
Most painful to read were the sections that seemed like they should have been the happy endings: when survivors returned home from the Gulag, reunited with their families.
But the children they left behind had become adults during the intervening years, and the prison survivors were not the same people they were when they were arrested. The inability of the reunited families to connect was some of the most difficult to read.
Many of those taken away were targeted for their faith. Enormous pressure was put on those left behind to abandon their beliefs and embrace the communist worldview.
All of this gave me a greater appreciation for the Brynza family and all they endured.
When Gavril returned from six years in a concentration camp, he was welcomed back by his wife and children. Gavril’s family had endured much as relatives of “an enemy of the people” yet they did not succumb to the pressure.
Their example showed what the power of God in someone’s life can do, when compared to example after example in The Whisperers of how the people how had no faith despaired and caved in to the pressure.