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Forbidden Memories

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes, Allen Lane, 740pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0713997026

“I remember the grey wall of silent people who watched us walk towards the cart. No one moved or said anything … No one hugged us, or said a parting word; they were afraid of the soldiers, who walked with us to the cart. It was forbidden to show sympathy towards the kulaks, so they just stood there and stared in silence … Mama said farewell to the crowd. ‘Forgive me, women, if I have offended you,’ she said, bowing and making the sign of the cross. Then she turned and bowed and crossed herself again. She turned and bowed four times to say goodbye to everyone. Then, when she was seated in the cart, we set off. I recall the faces of the people standing there. They were our friends and neighbours – the people I had grown up with. No one approached us. No one said farewell. They stood there silently, like soldiers in a line. They were afraid.”

Antonina Golovina herself would come to know their fear. She was only eight years old when she was exiled with her mother and two younger brothers to the remote Altai region of Siberia. The house where the family had lived for generations was destroyed and the rest of the Golovins dispersed – some never to be seen again. She spent three years at a logging camp where, after two barracks were destroyed, some of the exiles were forced to live in holes dug in the ground. The family later returned from exile to a one-room house in Pestovo, a town full of former “kulaks” (peasant-proprietors) and their families, but Antonina was to carry the stigma of “class enemy” like a birthmark through her adolescence. Once she was singled out for punishment by one of her teachers, who said in front of the class that “her sort” were “enemies of the people, wretched kulaks! You certainly deserved to be deported, I hope you’re all exterminated here.”

As she grew up, Antonina strove to gain acceptance in the Soviet regime. She studied hard, joined the Komsomol communist youth organisation and, at eighteen, decided to conceal her background from the authorities. She became a member of the Communist Party – and remained one until its abolition in 1991 – and thrived in her professional life at the prestigious Institute of Physiology in Leningrad. Even in her personal life, she continued to conceal her kulak past. Neither of her two husbands, each of whom she lived with for over twenty years, was told, though eventually she would discover that both men, like her, came from families of “enemies of the people”. It would not be until Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policies were being introduced that she revealed her history to either man, and another few years before she summoned the courage to tell her daughter.

Antonina Golovina’s story bookends The Whisperers, Orlando Figes’s engrossing historical resuscitation of ordinary people’s stories of life under the Stalinist regime. In a cast of hundreds, there are others whose experiences are perhaps more remarkable, and a great many who suffered more unspeakably than she, but the questions posed by Antonina’s life story run to the heart of Figes’s endeavour. Born the year after Stalin’s ascent to power, his rule hung heavily over her life, from that first encounter with the collectivisers as an innocent eight-year-old to her reconciliation, in wizened old age, with the past she had spent her life trying to conceal. She was placed in a situation where she judged silence and moral compromise to be the only response, and so she adapted her values – publicly, at least – to chime with those of a state that was to blame for the cruel repression of her family. If, as the Russian historian Mikhail Gefter suggested, the lasting legacy of the Stalinist system was “the Stalinism that entered into all of us”, then to find meaning in the experience of Antonina Golovina, the reader is invited to conclude, is to learn something about the regime itself.

Figes sets himself a daunting task, then: to peel away those layers of silence and dissembling and to illuminate the inner lives of those, like the Golovins, who lived through Stalinism. Retreating to the private, interior life of the individual, the book is about “the way that Stalinism entered people’s minds and emotions, affecting all their values and relationships”. In other words, how can we understand the “revolution from above” by looking at it from below? How did ordinary citizens understand it? In what ways, and to what extent, did it enter into people’s minds and affect the way they defined their thoughts, their values and their relations to one another?

The obstacles standing in Figes’s way have been piling up since the immediate, heady aftermath of the October Revolution. The primary one concerns problematic sources. As the author notes, for ordinary people in the Soviet Union, including the tens of millions who suffered from repression, their family history was a “forbidden zone of memory” – something they would never talk or write about.

The personal papers collected in official archives were mostly those of writers, public figures or members of the elite, often carefully selected for donation to the state. Although there were notable exceptions, memoirs were generally silent on the life that was lived behind the front door. The important narratives of intelligentsia figures such as Evgenia Ginzburg and Nadezhda Mandelstam had a strong influence on the amateur memoirs written in such numbers after the collapse of the Soviet regime (indeed, a surprising number appear to have “remembered” events that were described in these texts), but they don’t necessarily reflect the stances of those millions of ordinary citizens who “did not share this inner freedom or feeling of dissent, but on the contrary, silently accepted and internalised the system’s basic values, conformed to its public rules, and perhaps even collaborated in the perpetration of its crimes”.

The emergence of Soviet-era diaries from the archives in the past two decades promised much, but despite some scholars’ reliance on them, Figes argues that not many people ran the risk of writing private diaries in the 1930s and 1940s. When a person was arrested, the first thing to be taken was his or her diary. Those that were written belonged, on the whole, to intellectuals, and overall their stock remains relatively small. Historians must also contend with the Soviet-speak in which many of these diaries are written.

And so Figes turns, as have so many historians of the Soviet period in recent years, to oral history. Prompted by a desire to collect the testimony of a generation that was reaching old age, organisations such as Memorial, a historical and civil rights society established in the early 1990s to help victims of the Gulag, have led the drive to record the stories of survivors. Early oral history projects were concerned mainly with the external details of the Stalinist terror and the experience of the Gulag. Their limited success at piercing the veil that hung over the period has been explained by the fact that volunteers often were not trained in interview techniques and that those who had lived through Stalin’s rule were not yet ready to open up: they might be forthcoming on the facts of their arrest and imprisonment, but less so about the ways in which those experiences affected their attitudes or family life.

The Whisperers is the fruit of a large-scale collaboration between Figes and the Memorial Society in Moscow, St Petersburg and Perm. Over five years, three teams of researchers recovered about 250 family archives (letters, diaries, photographs and artefacts) which had been hidden in drawers or under mattresses in homes across the former Soviet Union. Interviews were then carried out with the oldest relatives. The result is an exhaustive, and at times exhausting, narrative of calamitous suffering, only occasionally leavened by reminders of quiet resilience and courage. Figes takes Stalinism in the longue durée, beginning with the aftermath of the October Revolution and continuing to 1956, the year of Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress. The closing chapter, “Memory”, tracks some of the survivors into their present old age and examines the ways in which people sought to make sense of Stalin’s regime – and their own stance towards it – after the collapse of communism.

If the appeal of private life as a subject of historical inquiry lies partly in the Soviet state’s avowed aim to deny it as a meaningful category, that aim is also potentially one of the greatest obstacles in the historian’s path. In the early days of the Revolution, the Bolsheviks’ utopian rhetoric insisted that the creation of the “collective personality” would hinge on the ultimate dissolution of boundaries between private and public life. (Indeed the public-private dichotomy was a priori a false one, for there was nothing in a person’s so-called private life that was not political.) In a way, the Civil War was fought over this very terrain: not only a military confrontation against the White armies but a revolutionary war against the private, individualistic (“bourgeois”) interests of the old society. As Anatoly Lunacharsky, minister for culture and education, remarked in 1927: “The so-called sphere of private life cannot slip away from us, because it is precisely here that the final goal of the Revolution is to be reached.”

Figes has subtitled his book “Private life in Stalin’s Russia” but he might as easily have opted for “Family Life”, for this is the primary site of his rich excavations. It was also one of the first that the Bolsheviks, when they came to power, sought to claim. If the fully developed socialist system was to confer on the state responsibility for all the basic household functions – providing nurseries, laundries and canteens in public centres and communal apartment blocks – it followed that the traditional family itself would eventually ebb away. Communal apartments were to forge a collective way of living, the patriarchal marriage was discouraged, de facto unions were given the same rights as legal ones and divorce was made more affordable (the result was the highest divorce rate in the world).

At school, children were instilled with the ethos of collective (as against private) obedience (games such as “Reds and Whites”, a Soviet Cowboys and Indians, and “Search and Requisition”, Figes notes, encouraged the children to accept the Manichean Soviet division of the world into good and bad). And through the pioneers (scouting movement) and the Komsomol, the state retained and consolidated its paternalistic influence over young people and took responsibility for indoctrinating them in the Soviet ethic. Increasingly, he writes, “there was nothing in the private life of the Bolshevik that was not subject to the gaze and censure of the Party leadership”.

The state’s will to annex the private sphere was to falter, notably from the mid-1930s, when a new generation of Stalinist functionaries led a retreat from the revolutionary asceticism of the first decade of the Revolution. There was less rationing, luxury goods proliferated and a new middle class emerged that was supported by the regime’s about-turn on traditional family values (marriage, for instance, became glamorous). One is tempted to agree with Trotsky’s observation in 1936 that the change in policy was a frank admission by the Soviet regime that its attempt to root out the habits and customs of private life and implant collective instincts had failed. But that is not to say that the regime’s determination to supervise and survey its people was to diminish, and it was this systematic policy of infiltration by the state into every site of public (and, where possible, private) activity, rather than any ideological aversion to the family or personal pursuit, that was to render the private sphere so inaccessible to modern historians.

By the mid-1930s the NKVD had built up a vast network of secret informers in every factory, office and school in the Soviet Union. The knowledge that one’s neighbour, colleague, friend, even one’s spouse or child, could potentially betray, and that a “loose tongue” on the most innocuous subject was enough to bring a knock on the door late at night, instilled in people a deep sense of reticence and fear.

According to one senior police official cited by Figes, every fifth Soviet office worker was an informer for the NKVD secret police. Another claimed that regular informers numbered five per cent of the adult population in the major urban areas, though in popular belief the number was higher still. Such figures do not include informal or casual spies (the millions of students, factory and office workers and janitors who were willing to report overheard snippets of supposedly incriminating conversation to the authorities). Nor do they include the everyday unsolicited denunciations that ordinary citizens, whether out of genuine communist faith or fear of punishment for “lack of vigilance”, were willing to supply. One old woman wrote to the party office of her factory to inform them that her sister had once worked as a temporary cleaner in the Kremlin and had cleaned the office of a man who was later arrested.

Figes generally eschews political narrative except where it is necessary to situate individuals’ testimony in the context of contemporary events. This is often done to great effect: the conception and implementation of Stalin’s war on the kulaks is presented alongside the views of those who were evicted from their homes as well as those who forced them out and others who stood by and watched. The official thinking behind the development of communal apartments (first, to relieve the 1920s housing crisis and later surveillance) leads into a fascinating series of insights into life in these cramped conditions.

In the communal apartment where Minora Novikova grew up in Moscow, there were thirty-six rooms – each with at least one family – on a corridor that ran around three sides of the house. In her room there were ten people living in a space of only 12.5 square metres. “How we slept is hard to say,” recalls Minora.

“There was a table in the room, on which my grandmother slept. My brother, who was six, slept in a cot underneath the table. My parents slept in the bed by the door. My other grandmother slept on the divan. My aunt slept on a large feather mattress on the floor with her cousin on one side, while my sister (who was then aged sixteen), my cousin (ten), and I (eleven) somehow squeezed in between them – I don’t remember how. We children loved sleeping on the floor: we could slide our bodies underneath our parents’ bed and have a lot of fun. I don’t imagine that it was much fun for the adults.”

In these conditions there were frequent arguments over personal property – foodstuffs that went missing from the shared kitchen, thefts from rooms, music played at night – and with everyone in a state of nervous tension it did not take a lot for fights to turn into denunciations to the NKVD. Mitrofan Moiseyenko was a factory worker who supplemented his income by repairing furniture and windows and doing odd jobs for the residents of his communal block in Leningrad. In the spring of 1935, he was involved with an argument with his neighbours, who accused him of charging them too much for his repairs. His neighbours denounced him to the police, claiming that he had been hiding Trotsky in his workshop in the basement of the block. Mitrofan was arrested and sentenced to three years in a labour camp near Magadan.

We learn that life in these microcosms of the communist society was to have a profound psychological impact on some of those who inhabited them; for some, they would forever retain a fear of being alone. Others would suffer from paranoia and schizophrenic delusions.

Some of the most powerful and moving testimonies are those that capture the overpowering sense of fear and mutual suspicion that permeated so many public activities and exchanges during the Great Terror of 1937-38, when at least 1.3 million people were arrested for alleged crimes against the state and almost 700,000 were officially recorded as being shot. The experience, Figes writes, “effectively silenced the Soviet people”.

The book’s title is a reference to the two words in the Russian language for “whisperer” – one for somebody who whispers out of fear of being overheard (shepchushchii), another for the person who informs or whispers to the authorities (sheptun). The distinction arose in the Stalin years, when each citizen invariably fell into one or the other category.

Passivity and silence were the most common responses to the arrest of friends or relatives, and many people, paralysed by fear and unable to contemplate resistance or escape, simply waited for their turn. Viacheslav Kolobkov recalls the panic of his father, a factory worker in Leningrad, when a car stopped outside their house at night.

“Every night he would stay awake – waiting for the sound of a car engine. When it came he would sit up rigid in his bed. He was terrified. I could smell his fear, his nervous sweating, and feel his body shaking, though I could barely see him in the dark. ‘They have come for me,’ he would always say when he heard a car. He was convinced that he would be arrested for something he had said – sometimes, at home, he used to curse the Bolsheviks. When he heard an engine stop and the car door slam, he would get up and start fumbling in panic for the things he thought he would need most. He always kept these items near his bed in order to be ready when ‘they’ came for him. I remember the husks of bread lying there – his biggest fear was going without bread. There were many nights when my father barely slept – waiting for a car that never came.

Often people would not talk about arrested relatives. They scribbled over their faces in family portraits and destroyed their letters, or hid them from their children hoping this would protect them. Figes observes that families learned to speak elliptically, to allude to ideas and opinions in a way that concealed their meaning from others. Children were particularly dangerous, and many parents took the view that the less their children knew the safer everyone would be. One interviewee recalled her father admonishing her gently on a crowded Moscow bus by whispering in her ear: “Never say anybody’s name when you are in a public place.”

Anna was an illiterate peasant. When her father, a church warden, was arrested in 1937, she was overcome with fear and refused to leave the communal apartment where she lived. She became afraid of talking in the room in case the neighbours overheard. “In the evenings she was terrified of switching on the lamp, in case it drew the attention of the police. She was even afraid to go to the toilet, in case she wiped herself with a piece of newspaper which contained an article with Stalin’s name.”

Some children appeared to develop a sophisticated grasp of the need to be discreet at all costs. One boy, whose father was arrested in 1938 when he was nine years old, said he could not recall specific instructions from his mother or his grandparents about how he should behave.

“I knew subconsciously that I had to keep quiet, that I could not speak, or say what I thought. For example, when we traveled in a crowded train, I knew I had to remain silent, that I could not mention anything, not even things I saw out the window … I also sensed that everybody felt the same way. It was always quiet in public places like a tram. If people spoke, it was only about something trivial, like where they had been shopping. They never spoke about their work or serious things.”

Families would rarely be given a reason for the arrest of a father or son, and The Whisperers documents many cases where the fates of a loved one was not known to their children until the glasnost period, when the KGB – successor to the NKVD – finally responded to their requests for information.

As many families were to experience, people were afraid of making contact with relatives of ‘enemies of the people’. Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg recalls that when her husband was arrested,

“People spoke to me in a special tone of voice; they were afraid of me. Some would cross the road when they saw me coming towards them. Others paid me special attention, but this was heroic on their part, and I and they were both aware of it.”

What motivated those who denounced? Some were no doubt driven by a genuine faith in the righteousness of the state’s position on “enemies of the people”. Many of the most earnest informers were people with a tainted biography themselves (the children of kulaks and “class enemies” or former oppositionists), for whom informing became a way to prove their Soviet credentials, and we know that the NKVD deliberately recruited from vulnerable groups. Others were motivated by malice or career interests, removing a rival or a superior by denouncing him as an “enemy of the people”. Sexual and romantic interests could play a part: unwanted lovers, wives and husbands were all denounced. For many, a complex mix of factors was at play.

In so far as possible Figes allows his subjects to speak for themselves. He offers context, structure and, where necessary, an interpretive voice, but in general it is the interviewees’ voices that guide the text. One could argue that there are lacunae – there is relatively little on the actual daily experience of life in the Gulag, and the voices of minorities are mostly absent – but in most respects Figes has scrupulously drawn on representative cross-sections of Soviet society and left room for diverging views of the same events and processes. Readers who wish to consult the sources directly will be able to do so when a wide selection of interview transcripts and audio files are collected online, at www.orlandofiges.com

Amid the unending indictment list of tragedy and horror (in some parts each chapter section seems to end with the subject – a father, a brother – being shot), Figes finds room to train the light on some of the quiet acts of extraordinary kindness that have been long forgotten. Above all, teachers and grandmothers emerge most frequently as the protectors and saviours of children, whether by rescuing orphans from state-run institutions or helping to conceal a child’s tainted biography in order to secure him a good education. Of the grandmothers Figes writes: “Their untold acts of heroism deserve to be counted among the finest deeds in Soviet history.”

Inevitably, Figes comes up against the major question that such an immense collection of source material demands to be asked: why did people believe? Some historians of “Soviet subjectivity”, leaning on Foucault’s concept of the “culture of the self”, argue that Soviet citizens in the 1930s, far from being downtrodden victims, were in fact empowered by learning, in Stephen Kotkin’s phrase, to “speak Bolshevik” (to show that one was a genuine Soviet citizen). More recently, others have emphasised from their reading of literary and private texts (mainly diaries) the degree to which the interior life of the individual was dominated by the regime’s ideology: they internalised the regime’s values and modes of thought, or Sovietised themselves.

Figes is not convinced. The internalisation of Soviet values and ideas was indeed characteristic of many of the subjects in his book, he accepts, but few of them identified with the Stalinist system in the self-improving fashion which these historians have suggested was representative of “Soviet subjectivity”. Some were indeed carried along by their faith in the communist utopia and the intoxicating belief that a new world was being forged. Others were motivated by a more complex interplay of factors: personal ambition, conformism, fear of being exposed as “enemies of the people” or a desire to atone for or conceal a tainted biography.



The remarkable story of the writer Konstantin Simonov, who is cast in the role of the central tragic hero of The Whisperers, is an inspired case study in individual attachment to – and gradual alienation from – the Stalinist regime. Thanks to his access to the family archive, Figes can track not only Simonov’s rapid ascent to the position of the Kremlin’s favourite writer but also the ways in which he rationalised his stance, the effects of his actions on his loved ones and the process by which he eventually came to feel regret and remorse over this Stalin-era choices.

Born into an old aristocratic family, with a classic “spoilt biography”, Simonov spent his early career working in factory workshops before reinventing himself as a proletarian writer in the 1930s. He became, in time, a decorated poet, novelist and playwright – as well as an acclaimed war correspondent – and was a major figure in the Moscow cultural elite. His most famous poem was the wartime favourite “Wait for Me” (1941), inspired by the actress Valentina Serova, the pursuit of whom led him to abandon his wife and child. After the poem’s success, Simonov won the Stalin prize in two consecutive years, was rewarded with a luxury flat in Moscow and became a rich man. He identified with the party and, in particular, with its leader. He grew a moustache, brushed back his hair in the Stalin style and posed with a pipe.

Simonov was not a morally courageous man. Though he often showed kindness to people in his private life, he was far less obliging to those writers who turned to him for help during the repressions of the postwar years, ever reluctant to jeopardise his own position. He felt sorry for his aunts in exile, but found ways to rationalise their fate; writing his memoirs in later life, he ventured that he found justification in the mantra: “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”

Simonov was involved in the official clampdown against “anti-Soviet” (read Western) tendencies in the arts and sciences led by Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s chief of ideology, and showed contempt for intellectuals who shied away from “struggle”. He was not an anti-Semite (as editor of Novyi Mir he had published several writers of Jewish origin, and his first two wives were Jewish) but after initially holding a moderate line he later embraced Stalin’s postwar anti-Jewish campaign which, in the literary world, took the form of a campaign against “cosmopolitans”. In a famous speech, he blamed the Jews for bringing many of their problems on themselves. They had refused to integrate into Soviet society and had embraced “Jewish nationalism” after 1945. He sacked all the Jews from the editorial staff of Novyi Mir and even wrote to Stalin on behalf of the Writers’ Union calling for the exclusion from the union of a long list of inactive writers, all of them Jews. A good friend was included on the list.

On the whole, however, Figes portrays him sympathetically, as someone who inherited the public service values of the aristocracy from his parents and for whom the “ethos of military duty and obedience … in his mind became assimilated to the Soviet virtues of public activism and patriotic sacrifice”. Simonov clung to Stalin, but while honest and sincere (and clearly troubled by some aspects of the “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign), “he lost himself in the Soviet system at an early age and lacked the means to liberate himself from its moral pressures and demands”. In this sense, then, he is seen to embody all the moral conflicts and dilemmas of his generation.

Simonov struggled to come to terms with Stalin’s death. Like many, the Soviet leader had been his only reference point for so long that the future without him was inconceivable. On the night after his death, he wrote:

There are no words to communicate

All the unbearable pain and sorrow,

There are no words to narrate

How we mourn for you, Comrade Stalin!

Gradually, that fervent faith began to wane. He seems to have been above all confused by Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, and he retained a strong emotional attachment to Stalin’s memory – after all, his personal history was closely bound up with that of the regime. But with time he began to question both the regime and his own role within it, and during the last years of his life he became increasingly remorseful about his past. In 1966 he set in motion a process that culminated in the publication of Mikhail Bulgakov’s subversive novel The Master and Margarita. He also took up the cause of many artists who had been repressed in Stalin’s time. His remorse intensified over the years. “There are many things that are hard to remember without dissembling one’s feelings, and many more that are even harder to explain,” he wrote late in life.

Konstantin Simonov died in 1979, but for many of his compatriots the search for meaning in Stalinism goes on. For some, a lifetime’s fear has never passed. Maria Vitkevich, who spent ten years in the Norilsk labour camp after her arrest in 1945, remains frightened. “I cannot rid myself of fear,” she says. “I have felt it all my adult life, I feel it now [in 2004], and I will feel it on the day I die. Even now, I am afraid that there are people following me.”

In his closing chapter, Figes examines the ways in which Stalinism was remembered and how that memory evolved. Survivors carried traits they developed in those traumatic years – stoicism, passivity, fear – into later life, and continued to live out their private ordeals through damaged family relationships and the suppression of traumatic memories. Meanwhile, millions of people who had collaborated in some way in Stalin’s crimes, directly or otherwise, resumed normal lives.

Many Russians, including some of his victims, retain nostalgic feelings for Stalin. According to a survey carried out in January 2005, 42 per cent of Russian people wanted the return of a “leader like Stalin” and 60 per cent of respondents over sixty were in favour of a “new Stalin”. Figes contends that such feelings are only loosely linked with politics and ideology – for older people it has more to do with “the emotions invested in the remembrance of the past – the legendary period of their youth when the shops were full of goods, when there was social order and security, when their lives were organised and given meaning by the simple goals of the Five Year Plans, and everything was clear, in black and white, because Stalin did the thinking for them and told them what to do”.

It is no doubt part of the explanation that nostalgia for the old days of Stalin reflects post-communist uncertainty, soaring inflation and high crime rates. But perhaps it is also symptomatic of a larger problem. The whispering continues, of course. Stalinism is little discussed in modern Russia and few would argue that the moral questions bequeathed by the 1930s and 1940s have been resolved. As Anne Applebaum has pointed out, Russia does not have a national museum dedicated to the history of repression. Nor does it have a national place of mourning or a monument which officially recognises the suffering of victims and their families. And that physical absence reflects a lack of public awareness and discussion of the period. “Sometimes, it seems as if the enormous emotions and passions raised by the wide-ranging discussions of the Gorbachev era simply vanished, along with the Soviet Union itself. The bitter debate about justice for the victims disappeared just as abruptly,” Applebaum writes.

Although there was talk of it in the late 1980s, the Russian government never examined or tried the perpetrators of torture or mass murder. There have been no South Africa-style truth commissions, no equivalent of the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday. While Germany still engages in regular debate over the Nazi legacy, Stalin’s rule generates little public argument and the generation of former communists who are currently in control in Russia have little inclination to initiate the conversation. Across Europe, war memorials and public acts of remembrance have played an important role not only in remembering those who were lost in the great cataclysms of the twentieth century but in helping those who survived to mourn. Given the absence of public recognition or remembrance, it is perhaps less surprising that while the testimonies gathered here brim with grief, they give little sense that people have been allowed to mourn.

In “Instead of a Preface”, written the year after Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin, Anna Akhmatova recalled the seventeen months she spent waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad during the Terror.

One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there): ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said: ‘I can.’ Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face …

By going one step further and giving the victims the final say, The Whisperers can claim to be a monument to the endurance of private remembrance over public forgetting.


Ruadhán Mac Cormaic is a journalist. His interests include early twentieth century French cultural history, and his MPhil thesis focused on Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu and artistic responses to the First World War.

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