Booknotes: Stalin's Russia

Before the end of the semester, in a burst of rebellious leisure-reading energy (read: procrastination), I began two books on Russian communism: Travis Holland's 2007 novel The Archivist's Story and historian Orlando Figes' doorstop of a book, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia. This was partly due to seeing, over the Thanksgiving weekend, a local production of Tom Stoppard's play Rock n'Roll at the Huntington Theater. As is the case with all of the Stoppard plays I have seen or read, Rock n'Roll explores the complicated relationship between ideas and the people whose lives are affected by them: in this case, communism and a cast of characters caught up in the realities of life in Prague during the 1970s and 80s.

The devastating affect of Cold War communism on the lives of human beings is the subject of both of these books, one a work of fiction and the other of nonfiction. I am still reading both of them, but thought I would post a couple of quotations to give you a flavor of the texts and hopefully encourage you to check them out yourself.

Holland's novel follows the story of Pavel, a widowed schoolteacher turned archivist, living in Moscow in 1939. In the opening pages, he is sent to interview the writer Isaac Babel, who has been arrested and taken to Lubyanka prison as an enemy of the people. During the course of their stiff conversation, Pavel tells Babel that his wife, Elena, has recently died in a train wreck caused by politically-motivated sabotage. "I can't imagine people intentionally doing that," Pavel says. "You've read my stories," Babel replies:
"Your colleagues, when they came to arrest me at my dacha, they dragged my wife along. Did you know that? They made her knock on the door. In case I resisted. Can you imagine how she must have felt, to have to do that?" An edge of bitterness has crept into Babel's voice. "You are not the only one who has lost his wife" (9-10).
In fact, as Figes tells us in The Whisperers virtually everyone in Russia during the Stalinist period lost at least one family member to violence perpetrated by the men whom the fictional Pavel is ordered to work for. For over six hundred and fifty pages he draws on diaries, oral histories, and other surviving primary sources in an attempt to piece together a picture of private life in a repressive regime. This picture is unquestionably grim. "For the mass of the population there were always two realities," Figes observes writes:
Party Truth and truth based on experience. But in the years of the Great Terror, when the Soviet press was full of the show trials and the nefarious deeds of 'spies' and 'enemies', few were able to see through the propaganda version of the world. It took extraordinary willpower, usually connected to a different values-system, for a person to discount the press reports and question the basic assumptions of the Terror (273).
The strategies used by individual people to keep themselves from being submerged in Party Truth are both interesting, from a psychological and political perspective, and heartbreaking: "My inner self has not gone away -- whatever is inside a personality can never disappear -- but it is deeply hidden, and I no longer feel its presence within me" wrote Yevgeniia, a student of Leningrad Institute of Technology, in 1938, after both her parents had vanished into the Gulag (257). However difficult these stories of personal trauma are to read, I am looking forward to finishing both books for the powerful stories they tell about the behavior of human beings living in inhuman situations.

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