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Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia is in its most literal sense an act of collective memory, and the only quibble I have with the author’s tremendous achievement is that homage to those he rightly calls “the heroes” of his book comes not at the beginning but at the end in “Afterword and Acknowledgements” where he scrupulously describes how The Whisperers came to be written.
The project really began as a series of interviews by Figes when he was a graduate student in Moscow in the mid 1980s. Ultimately, after Figes began work in earnest on this book in 2002, he had several teams in the former Soviet Union searching through previously closed archives (some of which have now gone back under lock and key) locating notebooks, albums, diaries — assembling the vast case of characters, over a thousand of them, who contribute their memories. Masterfully composed and controlled as a narrative by Figes, this is a collective testimony in which you can hear, voices through a doorway open at last, the hopes, fears and numberless awful tragedies of the Soviet era. As Figes himself says of the families who gave him his book, “These people are the heroes of Whisperers. In a real sense this is their book. For us these are stories, for them it is their lives.”
As overture, we hear from the children of 1917 and memories of the idealism of those early years. Even then it had a sinisterly prophetic cast.
When Sonia Laskin was rejected by the Komsomol — the Communist youth organization — in 1927 the three girls in this Jewish family formed a reading circle with their cousin Mark and other little friends and would “discuss politics and hold “show trials” of characters from literature. Once they held a trial of the Old Testament.” Even as the kids held their trials, the Bolsheviks were methodically destroying the livelihood of Sonia’s father, Samuil who owned a herring stall on Botnaia Square, not far from the Kremlin.
Taking off from the theories of the Montessoris, Soviet educators invented improving games such as “Search and Requisition”, with the boys playing the role of Red Army units looking for hidden grain in the countryside and the girls acting as the “bourgeois speculators” or “kulak” peasants hiding it. Fantasy melted into reality with horrible speed and Figes soon plunges us into the horrors of forced collectivization of the Russian peasantry, seen centrally through the experiences of the Golovin family.
We meet them amid pastoral contentment: “On 2 August 1930, the villagers of Obukhovo celebrated Ilin Day, an old religious holiday to mark the end of high summer the Russian peasant held a feast and said their prayers for a good harvest.” They all went off to the house of the Golovins, the biggest family in the village, headed by Nikolai,an excellent farmer. The Golovins were not rich. Their net assets add up to two barns, several pieces of machinery, three horses , seven cows, few dozen sheep and pigs, iron bedsteads and a samovar. Alas for the Golovins, such modest possessions doomed them as “kulaks”, a word that originally used by peasants to designate usurers and wheeler dealers. The Bolsheviks transmuted it into the absurd designation–a death sentence to millions — of “peasant capitalist”, and ultimately a term dooming any peasant opposing forced collectivation.
The pleasant supper in Obhokovo notwithstanding, the destruction of rural Russia had already begun. In two months at the start 1930 half the Soviet peasantry — 60 million people in 100,000 villages — were herded into collective farms. The specific ruin of the Golovins commenced, courtesy of Kolia Kuzmin, a loutish 18-year old son of a failed farmer and local drunk. At the head of a posse of 12 armed teenagers, he becomes the local agent of of the Komsomol. By September Obukhovo, in existence since 1522 was gone. And the kolkhoz (i.e.,collective farm) “New Life” was in its place. The peasants had lost their land Kuzmin, drunk, violent and incompetent, was chairman of the kolkhoz,. The first winter saw half the horses dead and the peasants paid 50 grammes of bread a day each. Nikolai Golovin was in a distant prison, with one son in the Gulag, working on the White Sea Canal. Nikolai’s wife Yevdokiia and two daughters were still in “New Life”,in a hovel with one cow, which Kuzmin a few months later confiscated along with everything else, leaving them one iron bedstead. They were deported on May 4, 1931, given one hour to prepare. Koia confiscated the 8-year old Antonina’as shawl. “No one hugged us or said a parting word, “Antonina recalls. “They were afraid of the soldiers.”
Figes correctly calls his chapter on forced collectivization “The Great Break”, and writes, Stalin’s destruction of the kulaks was not only an appalling human tragedy, but “an economic catastrophe” for the Soviet Union, from which Soviet agriculture never recovered. In the ensuing famine of the early 1930sanywhere from 4 to 8 million died.
The strength of The Whisperers is the range of the individual testimonies. On the one hand,”Dmitry Streleys who was 13 in 1930 remembers Serkov, chairman of his village Soviet in the Kurgan region of Siberia telling his father that he’d been designated a kulak and was being sent into exile: “I formed a committee of the poor and we sat through the night to chose the families. There is no one in the village who is rich eough to qualify, ad not many old people, so
we simply chose the 17 families. You were chosen. Please don’t take it personally. What else could I do?”
Only the other we hear one of the requisitioning Red Army men, Lev Kopelev, a young Communist remembering the screams of children, and the glare of the peasants and telling himself “I mustn’t give in to debilitating pity. We were realizing historical necessity.”
The family sagas in this vast canvas are of scarcely believable tenacity and endurance. No novelist would dare invent such feats and such coincidences. Take the Ozemblovskys, a family of six, in the Minsk region. They were exiled to the north, 3,000 kilometers from their home. While Aleksandr stayed to look after the two boys, Serafima and the two girls, 9 and 5, escaped and hiked south through the forest . Serafima had several gold teeth and periodically would pull one of them to buy a lift in a cart. They made it home, where Serafima left her daughters and hiked 3,000 kms north again, only to find that her husband has been arrested and one of her sons now working as a police informer. She herself is arrested, escapes again, returns south, where she finally collects her daughters and sets up a new home, where the whole family is finally united.
Terror is vivid on page after page, particularly in the dreadful year of 1937. Maria Drozdova, from a strictly religious peasant family, remembers how her mother Anna became demented with terror after her husband, a church warden, was arrested. “She would not leave the house. She became afraid of talking in the room, in case the neighbors overheard. In the evenings she was terrified of switching on the lamp, in case it drew the attention of the police. She was eve afraid to go to the toilet, in case she wiped herself with a piece of newspaper which contained an article with Stalin’s name.”
Another girl got home late from a party in 1939 and found she had lost her key. She knocked on the door at one am. There was a long pause. Then her father opened it, dressed as if ready to leave on a journey. He had thought the knock heralded the NKVD. In his mind he had already been tortured and shot. He gazed at her as though in a trance and then, for the first and last time in her life, slapped her across the face.
From every walk in life, from high party people like the Stalinist writer Konstrantin Simonov, to peasants like the Golovins, the Soviet tragedy offers itself up, unforgettable in its heroism, villainy, cowardices large and small, endurance.
Take Ignatii Maksimov, from the Novgorod region is arrested and sentenced to work in the Gulag, on the murderous White Sea Canal where 25,000 workers died–in the first winter, many simply frozen to death. Ignatii’s wife Maria gets a job as a cook on the Leningrad to Murmansk railway which ran at one point along the northern sector of the Canal. She wrote notes to her husband on scraps of paper which she threw out the window of the train. Eventually she got an answer from her husband. One of the scraps has reached him, though he was working 50 miles north of where she thought he was. They were finally reunited in Archangelsk.
Here is the whole arc of Soviet history. In its amazing testimonies to the strength of the Russian family in the Soviet Union, as well as the awful fissures the system imposed on those families, The Whisperers is like a rainbow over a graveyard.
Fidel, You Got the Wrong Conspiracy
I never thought there’d come a time when, even for a moment, I’d trust Fidel Castro less than a chairman of the Federal Reserve. But it’s happened. Fidel turns out to be a 9/11 conspiracist, while former chairman Alan Greenspan says the US attack on Iraq was “largely about oil.” Win a few, lose a few.
These days, instead of charging around Cuba, Fidel is resting up and writing columns or, given his style, dictating them. On the anniversary of 9/11 he served up a 4,256-worder. Maximum leaders scoff at the editor’s blue pencil. The whole slab of drivel was read out by a Cuban television presenter.
It turns out Castro’s joined at the hip to David Ray Griffin. He said that the Pentagon was hit by a rocket, not a plane, because no traces were found of its passengers. “Only a projectile could have created the geometrically round orifice created by the alleged airplane,” according to Fidel. “We were deceived as well as the rest of the planet’s inhabitants.” All nonsense of course. There were remains of the passengers on the plane that hit the Pentagon, in the form of teeth and other bits traced through DNA. In fact, as I’ve written before, hundreds of people saw the plane-people who know the difference between a plane and a cruise missile. The wreckage of the plane was hauled out from the site.
Maybe Castro subscribes to the theory that Flight 77 was actually hijacked and taken to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana, where George W. Bush made a documented stopover after his morning session in the Florida schoolroom. Bush personally machine-gunned the passengers, who were then cremated and the remains given to Cheney and Rumsfeld, who duly returned to the wreckage in the Pentagon and dropped the teeth and other bits through holes in their trouser pockets.
Maximum leaders like Castro are conspiracists by disposition. Since they are control freaks, the random and the accidental are alien to their frame of reference. If it happened, it happened for a reason. And if a bad thing happened, it was very probably a conspiracy. Anyway, Fidel has every right to see a CIA man behind every bush, and a plot behind every cocktail cherry. In his case it was true. I doubt there’s been a day in the history of the CIA since 1958 when there wasn’t a file somewhere in the Agency’s HQ in Langley labeled “Castro Disposal Plans (Current).”
Meanwhile the 81-year-old Greenspan escapes vilification and public indictment as a prime sponsor in a plot against American security far more deadly that the 9/11 onslaught Castro attributes to the US government.
Thirty years ago, when America was a lot more liberal than it is now, Alan Greenspan was widely derided as a right-wing economic kook, blissed out on the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Then in 1987. Reagan made him chairman of the Fed. Greenspan got respect at last. Congress fawned on him, as did the press. He learned to make headlines with quirky epigrams, like his crack about the “irrational exuberance” of the markets in the late 90s.
He quit in 2006,at the age of 80, sat down to write his memoirs and tossed in the words, “The Iraq war is largely about oil”, no doubt calculating that the sentence would give the book a handy shove as it came out of the gate. It did. The Age of Turbulence was released last weekend and there was “largely about oil” in the headlines, sending the book like a bullet up the Amazon rankings.
Greenspan’s scarcely a pioneer with the oil motive but leftists have fallen on his line like the children of Israel on manna, speedily installing it in their armory of useful quotations, alongside Eisenhower’s parting whack (in a speech written by Emmett Hughes Jr, a decent fellow I remember meeting years ago) at the military-industrial complex,. In respectable circles Greenspan’s remark has been less cordially received, since fighting wars for oil is something you don’t talk about in front of the children or indeed in the hearing of families who’ve lost kin in Iraq.
The White House is incandescent with rage, since many Americans think “Bush”, “Cheney” ad “Big Oil” all mean the same thing. Greenspan has also been sharply disobliging about Bush and the Repubicans’ delinquencies in running up the deficit. By contrast, he lavishes praise on Bill Clinton for far-sighted wisdom in taking his–Greenspan’s–advice. This irks Democrats, not least Mrs Clinton, since it does remind people that her husband did indeed heed Greenspan’s counsel, which was to serve up Wall Street’s menu while simultaneously trashing the welfare system.
His place on the best seller lists and in the quotation dictionaries assured, Greenspan is now saying that he never heard Bush or Cheney explicitly invoke the o-word as a rationale for war, “but that would have been my motive.” As he explained it to the Washington Post, what he was trying to say in his memoir was that he, Chairman Greenspan, thought the war should be about oil and that although securing global oil supplies was “not the administration’s motive,” he had made the case to the White House that removal of Saddam Hussein was important for the global economy. “I was not saying that that’s the administration’s motive,” Greenspan said. “I’m just saying that if somebody asked me, ‘Are we fortunate in taking out Saddam?,’ I would say it was essential.”
It’s amazing to see Greenspan waltz through TV interviews like the one the docile Lesley Stahl conducted of him on 60 Minutes. I yearned for the shade of an old-line populist like Representative Wright Patman to shimmer up in the studio, take Greenspan by the throat and shake a confession out of him about the ruin he wrought. It was Greenspan, along with Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who promoted the whole wave of deregulation that produced the fake boom of the 1990s and, in recent years, the explosion in speculative instruments that are now vaporizing.
There’s decorum in the interviews of Greenspan, even as he bleats that he didn’t foresee the housing bubble and the devastation now being wrought across America by the subprime mortgage binge.
Greenspan couldn’t possibly have missed what was coming with the housing and mortgage market crisis. For anyone who was paying the slightest bit of attention, the housing bubble has been obvious for years. Just as the stock market bubble of the late 1990s-what Greenspan himself called “irrational exuberance”-was also obvious. As Robert Pollin, who devastates Greenspan in his book on the Clinton years, Contours of Descent, says, “The main point with Greenspan is that he saw these things, but deliberately chose not to do anything about them. He wouldn’t act to rein in either bubble because that would mean challenging the prerogatives of Wall Street. Greenspan wasn’t about to do that.”
But, again as Pollin points out in his book, there is another angle on Greenspan, which has been absent in the comments on his memoir, and is probably also absent in the memoir itself. Greenspan’s single greatest claim to “maestro” status is that he managed to hold down inflation while unemployment fell below 5 percent since the mid-1990s and even below 4 percent at the end of his friend Clinton’s tenure. Mainstream economic theory had been putting out the story for years that unemployment couldn’t fall below 6 percent-then it was 5.5 percent-without setting off uncontrollable inflation. Greenspan seemed to have figured out how to defy iron laws of what Milton Friedman termed the “natural rate of unemployment.” But as Greenspan himself has acknowledged, the main factor here was quite straightforward, what Bob Woodward reported Greenspan as calling the “traumatized worker” effect.
Now, Greenspan didn’t just hypothesize-he celebrated. In his notorious comment in July 1997 in Congressional testimony, he saluted the economy’s performance as “extraordinary” and “exceptional,” then remarked that a major factor contributing to this achievement was “a heightened sense of job insecurity and, as a consequence, subdued wages.”
Thus, for Greenspan, a “heightened sense of job insecurity,” creating “tramatized workers,” was a cause for celebration. This, from the country’s-and by extension, the world’s-most important economic policy-maker. We can safely assume that Greenspan doesn’t bother to express troubled reminiscences about this part of his legacy.
So, comrade Fidel, get working on the Greenspan conspiracy. You’ve got 1,500 words.
An Unpublished Letter to the New Yorker
The New Yorker
There’s something terribly wrong with our society for it to hare after torture the way it has lately. Ms. Mayer ignores the unduly overlooked pictures of the Guantanamo detainees, blindfolded, gagged, earmuffed, chained and bound, and mittened that ran on the A-wire in March of 2002. This picture, vetted by DOD, shows sensory deprivation torture in progress, performed by the uniformed armed services. For this to be going on, this early in the war, shows that the US military had planned, in violation of US and international law, policies of torture, and had already the doctrine and training in place to implement them. In this light, Ms. Mayer’s article about the CIA and torture is just a case of another government agency playing catchup, as best as it can, with decisions that have already been made and are already in action. The important question is why, during the preceding lengthy times of peace, we, our military, chose to adopt such an evil, wrongheaded, and counterproductive policy, and did so in such a behind the scenes, hidden manner.
Nazi officials complained greatly during the war about the psychological hurt and difficulties the SS concentration camp guards and sonderkommando killers had as a result of their jobs. No one in this world has any sympathy for them and their problems, then or nowadays either. Of all the manifold stupidities the CIA is shown committing in this article, the worst, the most obscene and the most unforgivable, is for its officers to come in front of us as they do in the article and ask us for sympathy for their and their coworkers’ psychological problems caused by their being torturers. I have none, and don’t see why I or anyone else should either.
Daniel N. White
4909 Tomahawk Trail
Austin, Texas 78745
Footnote: The second item, on Castro and Greenspan, first ran in the print edition of The Nation.