children of the gulag


For many years, Orlando Figes observes, the memoirs of intellectual dissidents, like Eugenia Ginzburg and Nadezhda Mandelstam, and the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “were widely greeted as the ‘authentic voice’ of ‘the silenced,’” telling us “what it had ‘been like’ to live through the Stalin Terror as an ordinary citizen.” Their books did indeed reflect the experience of people like themselves, who were “strongly committed to ideals of freedom and individualism.” But they did not represent what happened to millions of other people who were not opponents of the regime and did not engage in any kind of substantial dissent, but were still dispatched to labor camps, to exile in remote settlements or to summary execution. As Figes, a leading historian of the Soviet period, concludes in “The Whisperers,” his extraordinary book about the impact of the gulag on “the inner world of ordinary citizens,” a great many victims “silently accepted and internalized the system’s basic values” and “conformed to its public rules.” Behind highly documented episodes of persecution, famine and war lie quieter, desperate stories of individuals and families who did what they could to survive, to find one another and to come to terms with the burden of being physically and psychologically broken. But it was not only repression that tore families apart. The regime’s reliance on “mutual surveillance” complicated their moral burden, instilling feelings of shame and guilt that endured long after years of imprisonment and exile.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.