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The Ice Forge | The Nation

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The Ice Forge

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Reading The Whisperers, Orlando Figes's massive, ambitious account of private life under Stalin's rule, one comes away with a powerful sense that stigmatization and self-reinvention were central, indeed defining, attributes of the Soviet experience for many Russians of rural as well as urban backgrounds. Building on a documentary trove that includes newly opened family archives and interviews with scores of survivors, Figes presents the collective biography of a generation of ordinary Russians who were born around 1917 and were thus more exposed to Soviet power than any generation that preceded or followed them. As the letters, diaries, memoirs, interviews and photographs assembled by Figes suggest in dramatic ways, this generation experienced an enormous pull into the utopian promises of the regime--especially during the 1930s, the period of its coming of age.

Jochen Hellbeck has visited the city of Norilsk twice: in November 2005 and October 2007.

About the Author

Jochen Hellbeck
Jochen Hellbeck, a professor of history at Rutgers University, is the author of Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary...

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In many cases, Soviet schools took hold of these ordinary Russians in their early years, wresting them from their families and cultural traditions to mold them into revolutionary citizens; Communist youth organizations like the Pioneers or the Komsomol (Young Communist League) cultivated an ethos of public duty through practical activities. Sponsoring a wide range of club activities, from demonstrations to voluntary work, plays and concerts, these organizations had their own banners, flags and songs, as well as their own uniforms. "Every child wanted to become a Pioneer," Figes notes. Those denied membership on account of their "alien" class background developed a tremendous desire to be part of the movement.

For Maria Drozdova, a girl living in a town near Leningrad who was expelled from the Pioneers because she had concealed her kulak origins, this desire was so great that she surreptitiously wore a homemade red Pioneer scarf underneath her shirt for many years. When the father of Antonina Golovina was denounced as a kulak and sent to a labor camp, she and her family were deported from their home in a village northeast of Moscow to a "special settlement" in Siberia. After the father's release, the family moved to a town near their former home. As the daughter of a kulak peasant, Antonina was denied membership in the Pioneer organization, and like Maria she created a homemade version of the scarf for herself. Taunted by her schoolmates, she protested to the school director that she was not to be blamed for her parents and that she deserved a chance to prove herself by studying hard. In a school drama she was allowed to play a peasant nanny in the home of a kulak. The play ended with her defiant adieu to her employer: "You have sucked the life from me, I now see, and I do not want to stay with you. I am leaving you to go to school!" With these words she left the stage--to thunderous applause. Antonina became an outstanding student, and she was chosen to march in parades on Soviet holidays. The book includes a poignant photograph of the 13-year-old Antonina and other outstanding students of her class. She is the only one not wearing the scarf, and she stands to the side of the picture, but with her folded arms and resolute gaze she comes across as the most determined of the group.

The notion of reforging also galvanized the poet and writer Konstantin Simonov, who is the central character of Figes's book. Simonov hailed from a noble family. Like other "class aliens," he yearned to remake himself into a good Soviet citizen. Self-transformation was possible, Communist ideologists preached, if you joined the laboring population and, working in their midst, acquired the purity of consciousness that distinguished the true Communist. To the chagrin of his mother, who upheld aristocratic values and remained skeptical toward the Communist enterprise, the 14-year-old Simonov enrolled in a factory school and became a metal turner. He also wrote poems extolling the White Sea Canal and the reforging of old human material into new, socially useful people. His poems were praised, and he was chosen to join a delegation of young proletarian writers who toured the canal. By all accounts this experience was an epiphany for Simonov--suggesting not only that he was a writer in the making but that the reforging actually worked, that it turned him into a true Soviet citizen.

Communist ideology did not appeal only to the young. Figes recounts the case of Pavel Vittenburg (born in 1884), a well-known Russian geologist who led mining explorations to the Soviet Arctic in the 1920s. Accused of bourgeois deviations, he was purged from the Academy of Sciences. After confessing under duress to belonging to a monarchist organization, he was sentenced to a ten-year term and sent to the White Sea Canal. Vittenburg's geological skills saved him; his sentence was commuted, and he was dispatched to explore mining possibilities in the region. He was reunited with his wife, Zina, who was also a devoted doctor and who began to teach the prisoners to read and learn a craft in the belief that this would help remold their personality. From the White Sea she wrote letters to her family in Leningrad, extolling the "wonderful reforging of people happening here: all the prisoners return to the mainland as qualified, literate and conscious workers. If only we could reforge more like that."

Not all of the people described in The Whisperers embraced Soviet ideals, and some grew up in an atmosphere of outright opposition to the regime. But the book suggests that people made a profound emotional and intellectual investment in the Soviet enterprise. What is curious to me, as someone who has also written about reforging, is that Figes seems to resist accepting this insight. He posits a gap between the thoughts and feelings of his protagonists, on the one side, and their social environment, on the other. As a result, these actors appear strangely external to their historical circumstances. This distancing move considerably reduces the drama of their lives, and it also makes for numerous contradictions in Figes's narrative. As Figes sees it, most people, and especially those of "alien" background, fashioned themselves as Soviet citizens primarily as "a means of survival...a necessary way of silencing their doubts and fears, which, if voiced, could make their lives impossible." Figes's characters perform on a Soviet stage, but their true identity resides offstage, in the private realm of their families, and it is expressed in the fearful exchange of whispered words and silent glances--hence the title of Figes's book.

Few would deny that the Stalinist surveillance regime inculcated formidable self-control and fear among its citizens, but Figes narrowly interprets the type of fear that many protagonists in his book appear to have felt. Fear of arrest, to be sure, was widespread. But there was also another, complementary fear, entertained by the same subjects: that of being expelled from the Communist universe, singled out as an enemy and condemned to a solitary, useless existence. Underlying this fear was a tremendous desire to be recognized as a full-fledged member of the Soviet collective and to help build the future. This desire reached far beyond public utterances; it was expressed in the form of Pioneer scarves worn on the skin, underneath outer garments and invisible to the official eye.

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