A windswept hillside on the edge of Norilsk is a good vantage point from which to behold this sprawling mining town in Arctic Siberia. Factories, smokestacks, cranes and industrial debris clutter the terrain to the horizon, blanketed by a misty smog thick with the smell of sulphur. Settled a mere seventy years ago, Norilsk has a short but notorious past, and it comes partly into view on the edge of this hillside. Some local residents refer to this spot as Golgotha. Below ground lie the remains of thousands of prisoners sent here during Stalin’s reign to mine the area’s rich pockets of nickel and platinum. Many died right on this spot. They would slip and fall from the icy ladders leading up toward the mines, shattering their limbs. Only the fortunate were taken to the camp hospital. Some of the injured, lying paralyzed on the permafrost, would have their coats stripped from them while they were still alive. Warm clothing was in short supply in the Norilsk camp.

Today the spot features a smattering of memorial sites honoring the prisoners who died in Norilsk. There is a Polish monument dedicated to Poles, and there are crosses and plates installed by each of the Baltic states honoring their dead, but there is no Russian monument for the Russian victims, nor is there a memorial site devoted to the gulag prisoners as a whole. The few visitors who do come to this forlorn place are local newlyweds, who tour its monuments and have their picture taken. Shivering in their thin formal garments, a young couple and their friends trudge through the snow, giddy and seemingly oblivious to the site’s horrific legacy.

Were it not for the largely forgotten army of peasant exiles who were forcibly made into colonizers of the Soviet Far North, Norilsk and other industrial outposts in the Arctic steppe would not exist. “Not even the traditional three stones mark the crossroad where they went in creaking carts to their doom,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said of their fate. Solzhenitsyn knew of no reliable sources to document what happened to the peasant exiles; his Gulag Archipelago mentions them only in passing: “This wave poured forth, sank down into the permafrost, and even our most active minds recall hardly a thing about it.” As it turns out, the Stalinist state generated and assiduously stored accounts of that wave. Marked “top secret” throughout the Soviet period, these records were declassified in the 1990s. Using them with great sensitivity and skill, Lynne Viola, a leading scholar of the Soviet peasantry, has created a monument to the residents of Stalin’s lost settlements. Her book, The Unknown Gulag, is an indictment of the utopian folly and criminal neglect of Soviet officials, and a moving account of human suffering.

Viola’s story begins in villages across Russia in the late 1920s, when the Communist regime decided to administer its dream of a socialist society free of exploitation and private gain. Stalin’s collectivization campaign targeted those who were identified as kulaks–peasants who were better off than others, who employed seasonal help or who had rubbed Communist officials the wrong way. Varvara Sidorova was a child in the winter of 1930 when “they” came for her family. Countless others went through what she described in an interview conducted decades later. “Pounding on doors and windows,” Viola writes, armed local officials roused the Sidorovas from sleep, herding them into the bathhouse and then expropriating “the household’s stores of grain, oats, hay and firewood.” According to Sidorova, Viola continues, “They took everything. They even took the children’s felt boots and tore the feather pillows from her mother’s arms.” With nothing but the clothes on their backs, the family was sent by cart to the nearest railroad station, where they fell in with scores of other dispossessed peasant families. When Varvara’s parents protested, the police “brandished a whip and roughly shouted, ‘Shut up, you kulak mug.'”

A driving force of the collectivization campaign was ideological hatred. Kulaks, Lenin had said, were “‘avaricious, bloated, and bestial’…’spiders,’ ‘leeches’ and ‘vampires,’ determined to subvert Soviet power.” The local officials charged with the “liquidation of the kulak class” believed in these demonic images, and only after the class enemies had been expelled from their homes did it occur to their tormentors to think about what to do with them next. Secret police chief Genrikh Iagoda came up with the idea of exiling the kulaks to the Far North. Realizing how difficult it would be to maintain a voluntary labor force in the remote and hostile territories, he proposed establishing colonies of “special settlers” who would extract the rich local natural resources for the Soviet state and support themselves through agriculture. That system, he reckoned, would be less costly to maintain than a forced labor camp.

It was in such fashion, as an afterthought to collectivization, that a massive penal system came into being–populated by several million laborers and subsequently eclipsed only by the labor camp as the principal node of the Stalinist gulag. There was a terrible chasm between Soviet Communism’s grandiose goals and the reality of the “special settlements.” That name itself was a horrific euphemism, covering up the conditions under which 2 million peasants were deported, without food or other supplies, to the most distant towns in the most inhospitable climates of the empire. The able-bodied males were pushed farther north to uninhabited forest zones where they were to build the settlements. What they saw, Viola writes, “filled them with dread for their own fate and the fate of their families. ‘They tell us that they will transport you here to us,’ wrote one young man to his family back in a Northern Territory exile town. ‘No matter what, don’t come. We are dying here. Better to hide, better to die there, but no matter what, don’t come here.'” The letter was intercepted by the secret police; it never reached its destination.

The regime was aware of the appalling conditions on the ground. Internal reports addressed the staggering death rate among the exiles, which a special Politburo commission put at “not less than 15 percent.” Proposals for a change in policy followed. By no means humanitarian in spirit, the reports worried that economic growth rates were not being met. Ultimately, Viola writes, the regime’s disregard for the fate of millions of its own people stemmed from the fact that the Communists, along with many members of the Russian intelligentsia, abhorred the peasantry. “You’ll pardon my saying so, but the peasant is not yet human,” Viola quotes Maxim Gorky as saying. “He’s our enemy, our enemy.” With Gorky’s explicit support, the Stalinist regime established forced labor camps, such as the infamous White Sea Canal construction site, where kulaks and petty criminals were to be transformed in spirit by the work they performed “for society.” In reality, the ideology of reforging, while invoked rhetorically, was overshadowed by a much stronger state tradition of repression, lawlessness and negligence.

The peasantry, Viola explains, was Russia’s internal colony–an abundant resource, ruthlessly exploited by a regime fantasizing about an ideal of industrial modernity. Viola notes that the special settlements progressively diminished in size, partly because they proved to be an economic fiasco, partly because many kulak settlers were eventually rehabilitated, having proven their loyalty to the regime during the war against Nazi Germany. She also explains that many settlement school students worked hard enough to win state-sponsored prizes that allowed them to leave the settlements and re-create their lives elsewhere. Yet her absorbing account does not fully explore two issues: what became of those who survived deportation and exile, and whether the exiles embraced or resented the role of colonizers the regime had foisted upon them.

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.

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.

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.

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.

As I read the interview transcripts on Figes’s website, I was struck by how, in at least a few cases, the subjects appear to have been treated to a rather aggressive form of questioning about their thoughts and feelings in Stalin’s time. Yet one interviewee, Dmitry Streletsky, would not yield to these pressures and insisted on his own, decidedly moral, reading of his life under Stalin. Streletsky could have leapt from the pages of Lynne Viola’s book. He was born into a family of peasants who were persecuted as kulaks and exiled to a special settlement in the Urals. The death rate in the settlement was staggering. Streletsky relates how his single most important desire, to prove he was a Soviet citizen like everyone else, was constantly impeded. The Memorial worker interviewing Streletsky understands this to mean that he was driven by a fear of punishment:

Q: Did you fear that they would punish you [for your kulak origins]?
A: There was shame, and there was my conscience, it wasn’t just about the punishment, but about these things.
Q: But you also feared that they might punish you?
A: Who knows? I had doubts, yes doubts. I didn’t feel fear,
Q: And that they would punish you, right?
A: That they would punish me and all the rest. Fire me from work….

A few sentences later Streletsky’s interview partner returns to the same subject: “Tell me, please, what or whom did you fear more, the NKVD or the commander [of the settlement]? Were you afraid?” Streletsky’s response: “Listen, I didn’t feel any fear.”

Streletsky then talks about how he dreamed of joining the Communist Party throughout the years of his exile. When he describes his disappointment about being turned down for party membership in 1952, his voice shakes with emotion, the transcript notes. The exchange between Streletsky and his incredulous interrogator is revealing, for it discloses not only Streletsky’s moral reading of his Soviet experience but also the gap that lies between him and the interviewer, who adheres to a cynical view of Communism more characteristic of younger generations of Russians.

Streletsky finally joined the Communist Party after 1956, and he even became the party secretary of the factory in which he worked. Many others of “impure” background were driven by a similar lifelong quest for integration. One could even include the last general secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, who because he is younger (he was born in 1931) does not appear in Figes’s book. Gorbachev’s paternal grandfather was arrested as a kulak and exiled under Stalin. Young Mikhail excelled as a student and laborer; when he was 15 he was awarded the Order of Red Banner of Labor for his exemplary work on a machine-tractor station. Gorbachev’s biographer Archie Brown suggests that this labor represented a conscious effort to erase his kulak origins. What transpires, then, from both Gorbachev’s life story and from many of the biographies presented by Figes, is the sense of ordinary Russians’ deep and prolonged moral commitment to the Communist project.

Figes doesn’t reflect on the meaning of this commitment, since he believes that the values propounded by the Soviet regime were ethically bankrupt and could not have been embraced by people by their own will. His sympathies lie plainly with prerevolutionary Russian culture, with Konstantin Simonov’s mother and her aristocratic code of behavior and with the Vittenburg family before it entered the maelstrom of the Stalin age. He lovingly relates the testimony of Pavel Vittenburg’s surviving daughter, Yevgeniia, who recalls the happy summers the family spent at their dacha in the 1920s, the “long summer walks, and lazy meals that were beautifully prepared by the nanny Annushka.” This glorification of prerevolutionary culture and morality is in tune with how many Russians today look back on their past, and it predictably surfaces in the oral historical record. Yet unless this record is critically assessed and read against testimony dating from the Stalin period itself, it remains a warren of nostalgia. Many, if not most, of the subjects discussed in Figes’s book appear to have lived through the Stalin period with an ethos of hard struggle and self-abnegation, and they found meaning in their role as makers of history and as creators of a better future who absolved Russia from its backwardness and themselves from their own imputed impurities.

The intense personal commitments generated by Soviet Communism live on in unlikely places, such as the mining town of Norilsk in Arctic Siberia. Figes’s collaborators conducted interviews with several dozen survivors of the Stalinist camp system who chose to remain in this city even after the ban on them was lifted. Their interviews resonate with intense pride about several things: the industrial city that they helped build; the fact that they excavated the precious nickel that fortified Soviet tanks against the Germans (or, as they understood them at the time, against the Fascists) in World War II; and overall, their active role as Arctic colonizers. Figes notes that this form of self-identification with the city and the Soviet system is strongest among the older segments of the city’s population–the generation of 1917, in other words. Ruthlessly exploited as a cheap labor force by a regime that had little to no regard for their humanity, those prisoners faced huge odds, but they kept going, fueled by the promise of integration that was as characteristic of Soviet Communism as was state terror.

Some of the former Norilsk exiles have lobbied for a memorial to honor the special settlers, camp inmates and exiles brought here by force. The scattered memorial sites at Golgotha certainly offers sufficient space for one more monument, a different one–one that would honor them equally, regardless of their national or religious backgrounds, and that would express their sense of not having spent their lives in vain.

The bus ride from Norilsk to the airport leads through the industrial zone, past rows of grim workshops and chimneys belching sulphuric clouds. Then the factory town recedes. The road cuts across an empty, sloping, icy steppe that looks enchanted on this sunny day. The few shrubs and stalks of grass that grow on the permafrost soil are covered with ice and shine brilliantly in the low-lying sunlight. Rows of telegraph poles, bent down by Arctic winds, crisscross the scenery. Through the frosted window panes they appear like dancing crosses, furtively bowing to the countless laborers who lived and died in this ice desert. Near the highway a knotty string of pipelines runs alongside the bus. The pipes are covered with cracked layers of thick insulation. The coating has the look of worn padded jackets hugging the freezing metal.