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The Ice Forge

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With respect to Simonov, Figes treats his poems about the White Sea Canal as a means to a single end: "the reconstruction of his political personality." Yet Simonov did not merely reforge his political personality. By embracing the writer's profession, he hoped to become an "engineer of human souls," as Soviet writers were called at the time. He made his own soul his first workshop, purging it of the soft and refined elements he believed were natural to his noble background. His fellow students at the Gorky Literary Institute, where Simonov enrolled in the mid-1930s, nicknamed him the Iron Bottom because he was the hardest worker of them all. He must have been pleased with the name, with its allusions to proletarian metal. Understanding how much Simonov cultivated toughness as a virtue and how central it was to his quest for self-transformation helps to explain the exceeding harshness he exhibited in later years--as a military correspondent during the war and as a literary official in the postwar era. Figes, by contrast, flatly describes Simonov's evolution as a progressive character failing. Statements such as "[Simonov] lost himself in the Soviet system at an early age" are void of historical understanding, which is achieved by locating actors in the value systems of their own times, not ours.

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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Figes finds it difficult to believe that the language of Soviet ideology--he refers to it as "Soviet speak"--could have possessed deep personal meaning for Russians. He thinks an individual's participation in the Soviet system was often shadowed by ulterior motives, so he turns to Soviet family archives out of the belief that the family constituted a separate moral sphere and that its traditions were the most important source of resistance to official Soviet norms. Yet the defenses of many of the families described by Figes were not impregnable. Communist ideology was astoundingly effective in cutting through families and tearing them apart. Elena Bonner, the dissident and wife of Andrei Sakharov, remembered that when her father, a Communist Party member, was arrested, her younger brother exclaimed, "Look at what those enemies of the people are like. Some of them even pretend to be fathers."

Many, if not most, of the young people discussed by Figes accepted the idea of sacrificing themselves for a better future and subordinating their personal views and needs to those of the collective. Young class aliens like Antonina Golovina, whom the distrustful regime tended to keep at arm's length, appeared to throw themselves into collectivist projects with particular zeal. In so doing they embodied an idea of integration that Communist rhetoric never disavowed, despite the fact that the regime's punitive practice spoke another language.

The investment of some Soviet citizens in the moral goals of the revolution continued beyond the Stalin years. It surfaced, for instance, when gulag prisoners began to return to their homes after Stalin's death. Figes grippingly describes the conflicts that would erupt when fathers and mothers returned to families from whom they had been separated for decades. Many of the returning parents remained staunchly committed to the Bolshevik ideals of the 1930s. Disciplined and austere, they would chide their children for embracing the more relaxed culture of the Khrushchev thaw. This attitude, generated in the equally coercive and idealistic climate of Stalin's reign, persists today, such as in former places of Stalinist confinement like Norilsk and in the oral history transcripts generated for Figes's book.

The source material marshaled by Figes is extraordinary. It includes several hundred family archives that survived through the years of Stalin's Terror in private homes across Russia. There are also the interviews conducted with the oldest surviving family members about their experience of the Stalin period. Figes embraces oral history as the least compromised window onto past experience; he is generally wary of written sources produced during Stalin's reign, since they could have been vehicles of conformist striving. The testimony he has gathered is indeed deeply insightful. Rich in color and detail, the interviews conducted with survivors from the Stalin era evoke the unspeakable horrors of earlier times. But Figes is too quick to assume that these retrospective accounts capture an authentic experience of the Stalin era. He fails to consider fully how the sense of the past conveyed by an oral history is shaped by the present, and he seems unaware of how his own research design has shaped the responses of his informants.

To carry out his enormous research task, Figes hired researchers from the Memorial Society, a Russian nonprofit dedicated to human rights and the memory of the victims of Stalinism. (Memorial's English website, www.memo.ru/eng/index.htm, describes the activities of this important civic association.) Memorial workers located most of the families, inventoried and digitized their archives, conducted the face-to-face conversations with the survivors and furnished Figes with edited interview transcripts. In all but a few cases, Figes was not present during the interviews. Some of the principal insights that oral history can offer were thus lost to his project: the hesitations and pauses during the conversations, the changing timbre of the subject's voice, emotional gestures and other forms of body language. The finished written Russian transcripts of the interviews, which Figes has housed on a website (www.orlandofiges.com), are cleansed of repetitions and breaks, and they note just a few extraverbal signs. Moreover, Figes evinces no sense of the researchers' intrusive presence in the interviews. He does not discuss how his or his collaborators' presuppositions about the historical period may have influenced the answers provided by his informants. Nor does it occur to him that many of the people interviewed for this project had a prior history of being interviewed--not by oral historians, to be sure, but by interrogators from the NKVD (or its successor, the KGB). Conducting oral history in such a morally and politically charged climate requires a great deal of reflection and sensitivity.

No less striking is the fact that the wealth of material generated for this project appears to have impeded Figes's narrative powers. His two previous books, A People's Tragedy, a panoramic history of the Russian Revolution, and Natasha's Dance, a sweeping survey of imperial Russian history and culture, earned him the reputation of being a gifted writer. He favors what might be called a Tolstoyan method of placing chosen people, whose lives are richly documented, on the highway of history. Those books featured a relatively small number of protagonists, and the approach worked very well, as it told the history of an entire age through the observations, feelings and actions of these exemplary individuals. But in The Whisperers, Figes seems to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of subjects and informants. He tries to cover them all, and the effect is an endless series of snapshots, pasted together in a hectic fashion.

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