Sunday, December 16, 2007

Russia, Once and Future

I've been reading "The Whisperers," Orlando Figes' truly stunning account of private life in the Soviet Union under Stalin. It's a profoundly disquieting book not because the basic facts weren't known before; everyone knows about the insidious NKVD, the purges, the Terror, the Gulag. What's remarkable about this work is how Figes has collected literally hundreds of stories, some already extant in memoirs, many others the product of personal interviews, and woven them into a many-layered political and social history of almost overwhelming sadness. The stories here, though familiar in outline, still have the power to shock, and far more so because they follow breathlessly one on another.

The effect is almost claustrophobic. One after another we see bureaucrats, Party officials, factory workers, artists and peasants brutalized almost beyond comprehension, one family at a time, one career at a time, one prison term and exile at a time. Hearing the story told this way, one wonders if it's possible for an entire country to suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome (or battered-wife syndrome, as the case may be), and if that accounts for why Russians have never gained a sense of true perspective or even moral clarity about what happened to them in the 20's, '30s, '40s' and '50s. So amnesiac is the country that reportedly some Russians, bemoaning their lack of national self-discipline, remember Stalin and his iron fist fondly, longing for his equal today. How terribly disturbing, especially given the country's slow slide into what one Russian historian calls "mild authoritarianism."

It's not entirely surprising that Vladimir Putin calls the Soviet Union's disintegration a terrible mistake, or that the Russian secret police seem to be reopening their old bag of tricks, squashing opponents and critics with impunity. What's surprising is that everyone seems so willing to forgive and forget. Russians and everyone else in the immediate post-Soviet orb needs to read this book to remind themselves what happened, and why it really, really shouldn't happen again.

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