Book: The Whisperers

The Whisperers


Peasant Russia, Civil War:

The Volga Countryside in Revolution, 1917–1921

A People’s Tragedy:

The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924

Interpreting the Russian Revolution:

The Language and Symbols of 1917

(with Boris Kolonitskii)

Natasha’s Dance:

A Cultural History of Russia


The Whisperers

Private Life in Stalin’s Russia


an imprint of



Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published 2007


Copyright © Orlando Figes, 2007

The moral right of the author has been asserted

All rights reserved

Without limiting the rights under copyright

reserved above, no part of this publication may be

reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system,

or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical,

photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior

written permission of both the copyright owner and

the above publisher of this book

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

EISBN: 978–0–141–80887–1

For my mother, Eva Figes (née Unger, Berlin 1932) and to the memory of the family we lost


List of Illustrations

Note on Proper Names


Family Trees


1  Children of 1917 (1917–28)

2  The Great Break (1928–32)

3  The Pursuit of Happiness (1932–6)

4  The Great Fear (1937–8)

5  Remnants of Terror (1938–41)

6  ‘Wait For Me’ (1941–5)

7  Ordinary Stalinists (1945–53)

8  Return (1953–6)

9  Memory (1956–2006)

Afterword and Acknowledgements





List of Illustrations

xxxi  Antonina Golovina, 1943

2  The four secretaries of Iakov Sverdlov, chief Party organizer of the Bolsheviks, the Smolny Institute, October 1917

17  Leonid Eliashov, 1932

19  Iosif and Aleksandra Voitinsky, Yekaterinoslav, 1924

21  A Lenin Corner, 1920s

23  Aleksei and Ivan Radchenko, 1927

26  Vera Minusova, early 1930s

40  The Tetiuev family, Cherdyn, 1927

42  Batania Bonner with her grandchildren, Moscow, 1929

48  Peasant nanny, Fursei family (Leningrad)

49  Natasha Ovchinnikova

56  The Vittenburg family at Olgino, 1925

60  Konstantin Simonov, Aleksandra and Aleksandr Ivanishev, Riazan, 1927

61  Page from Simonov’s school notebook (1923)

67  The Laskin family, Moscow, 1930

71  The Slavin family, 1927

78  Yevdokiia and Nikolai with their son Aleksei Golovin (1940s)

89  ‘Kulaks’ exiled from the village of Udachne, Khryshyne (Ukraine), early 1930s

90  Valentina Kropotina and her sister with three of their cousins, 1939

101  Exiles in a ‘special settlement’ in western Siberia, 1933

105  Left: Leonid and Aleksandr Rublyov, 1930. Right: Klavdiia, Natalia and Raisa Rublyova with Raisa’s husband, Kansk, 1930

107  Left: Aleksandr and Serafima Ozemblovsky on their wedding day in 1914. Right: Serafima with Sasha and Anton Ozemblovsky in 1937

116  Maria, Nadezhda and Ignatii Maksimov with Ignatii’s brother Anton, Arkhangelsk, 1934

119  The Uglitskikh family, Cherdyn, 1938

122  The Golovins’ bed from Obukhovo

135  Aleksandr Tvardovsky, 1940

140  Simonov ‘the proletarian’, 1933

147  The otlichniki of Class B, Pestovo School, 1936

148  Fania Laskina and Mikhail Voshchinsky, Moscow, 1932

149  The Laskin household in the Arbat

152  Left: Maiakovsky Metro Station, 1940. Right: Avtozavod Metro Station, 1940s

166  Left: Vladimir Makhnach, 1934. Right: Maria and Leonid, 1940s

168  From left: Anatoly Golovnia as Chekist, 1919; Liuba Golovnia, 1925; Boris Babitsky, 1932

170  Volik Babitsky and Liuba and Oksana Golovnia at the Kratovo dacha, 1935

176  The Khaneyevsky household

178  Communal apartment (‘corridor system’), 1930–64

182  The Reifshneiders’ room in the Third House of Soviets, Moscow

199  Simonov in 1936

206  Teachers and students of the Law Department of the Communist Academy in Leningrad, 1931

209  Zina and Pavel Vittenburg at the Kem labour camp, 1931

212  Pavel Vittenburg in his office, Vaigach labour camp, 1934

217  ‘Papa’s Corner’. Drawing by Mikhail Stroikov, 1935

220  The Poloz family, 1934

222  Letter (extract) from Tatiana Poloz to Rada, 12 June 1935

225  Nikolai and Elena (‘Alyona’) Kondratiev, 1926

226  Nikolai Kondratiev, ‘The Unusual Adventures of Shammi’ (detail)

229  Osip and Julia Piatnitsky with their sons and neighbours’ children at their dacha near Moscow, late 1920s

232  Osip Piatnitsky at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern, Moscow, 1935

247  Ida Slavina and her parents, 1937

266  The Malygin house in Sestroretsk, 1930s

288  The Nikitin and Turkin apartments, Perm

291  Gulchira Tagirova and her children, 1937

299  Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko with his wife Sofia and stepdaughter Valentina, 1936

317  Angelina and Nelly Bushueva, 1937

321  The house in Ak-Bulak where Elena Lebedeva lived with her granddaughters, Natalia and Elena Konstantinova, 1940s

322  Elena Lebedeva with her granddaughters, Natalia and Elena Konstantinova, Ak-Bulak, 1940

323  Veronika Nevskaia and her great-aunt Maria, Kirov region, 1939

325  Inna Gaister with her sisters Valeriia and Natalia, Moscow, 1939

328  Oleg and Natasha Vorobyov, 1940

330  Left: Mikhail Mironov. Right: extract from a letter to his mother

332  Zoia Arsenteva, Khabarovsk, 1941

334  Marksena Karpitskaia, Leningrad, 1941

337  Girls from Orphanage No. 1, Dnepropetrovsk, 1940

346  ‘On Land and Sea and in the Sky’ gymnastic demonstration, 1938

351  Elizaveta Delibash, 1949

355  Physics teacher Dmitry Streletsky with schoolboys of the seventh class in the Chermoz ‘special settlement’, September 1939

357  Left: Zinaida Bushueva with her brothers, 1936. Right: Zinaida in the ALZhIR labour camp, 1942

359  Children at ALZhIR, 1942

361  Embroidered towel (detail) made by Dina Ielson-Grodzianskaia for her daughter Gertrud in the ALZhIR labour camp

365  Ketevan Orakhelashvili with Sergei Drozdov and their son Nikolai, Karaganda

370  Zhenia Laskina and Konstantin Simonov on their honeymoon in the Crimea, 1939

375  Valentina Serova, 1940

389  Natalia Gabaeva with her parents, 1934

391  Anastasia with Marianna and Georgii Fursei, Arkhangelsk, 1939

403  Serova and Simonov on tour, Leningrad Front, 1944

406  Aleksei and Konstantin Simonov, 1944

407  Simonov in 1941

409  Simonov in 1943

425  Ivan Bragin and his family, 1937

451  Antonina Mazina with her daughter Marina and Marina Ilina, Chimkent, 1944

456  The Bushuev ‘corner’ room in the communal apartment at 77 Soviet Street, Perm, 1946–8

474  Inna Gaister with two friends at Moscow University, 1947

476  Nelly and Angelina Bushueva, 1953

477  Leonid Saltykov, 1944

481  Valentina Kropotina and her husband, Viktor, 1952

483  Simonov in 1946

495  Fadeyev at the Writers’ Union, 22 December 1948

500  Aleksandr Borshchagovsky, 1947

504  Simonov at the Congress of Soviet Writers in the Belorussian Republic, Minsk, 1949

507  Simonov in 1948 (left) and in 1953 (right)

514  Samuil and Berta Laskin, Sonia Laskina, Aleksei Simonov and Zhenia Laskina circa 1948

517  Zhenia and Sonia Laskina at Vorkuta, 1952

524  Stalin’s body lies in state in the Hall of Columns, Moscow, March 1953

527  Mourning ceremony at the Gorky Tank Factory in Kiev, 6 March 1953

539  The Laskin family at their Ilinskoe dacha near Moscow, 1956

543  Valentin Muravsky with his daughter Nina, Karaganda, Kazakhstan, 1954

546  Marianna Fursei with Iosif and Nelly Goldenshtein, Tbilisi, 1960

551  Aleksandr Ságatsky and Galina Shtein, Leningrad, 1956

554  Fruza Martinelli, 1956

556  Left: Esfir and Ida Slavina in 1938. Right: Esfir in 1961

557  Liuba Golovnia after her return from ALZhIR, Moscow, 1947

564  Vladimir Makhnach, 1956

568  Elena Konstantinova, her mother Liudmila, her grandmother Elena Lebedeva, and her sister Natalia, Leningrad, 1950

569  Nina and Ilia Faivisovich outside their house, near Sverdlovsk, 1954

573  Sonia Laskina’s certificate of release from the Vorkuta labour camp

592  Simonov with his son Aleksei, 1954

600  Zinaida Bushueva with her daughter Angelina and her son Slava, 1958

602  The grave of Nadezhda’s father, Ignatii Maksimov, Penza, 1994

603  Tamara and Kapitolina Trubina, 1948

609  Simonov and Valentina Serova, 1955

617  Aleksei and Konstantin Simonov, 1967

620  Mother Russia, part of the Mamaev Kurgan War Memorial complex in Volgograd

627  Simonov in 1979

631  Ivan Korchagin, Karaganda, 1988

632  Mikhail Iusipenko, Karaganda, 1988

638  Norilsk, July 2004

640  Vasily Romashkin, 2004

642  Leonid Saltykov, 1985

643  Vera Minusova at the Memorial Complex for Victims of Repression near Yekaterinburg, May 2003

651  Nikolai and Elfrida Meshalkin with their daughters, Marina and Irina, Perm, 2003

655  Antonina Golovina, 2004

Note on Proper Names

Russian names are spelled in this book according to the standard (Library of Congress) system of transliteration, but some Russian spellings are slightly altered. To accommodate common English spellings of well-known Russian names I have changed the Russian ‘ii’ ending to a ‘y’ in surnames (for example, Trotskii becomes Trotsky) but not in all first names (for example, Georgii) or place names. To aid pronunciation I have opted for Pyotr instead of Petr, Semyon instead of Semen, Andreyev instead of Andreev, Yevgeniia instead of Evgeniia, and so on. In other cases I have chosen simple and familiar spellings that help the reader to identify with Russian names that feature prominently in the text (for example, Julia instead of Iuliia and Lydia instead of Lidiia). For the sake of clarity I have also dropped the Russian soft sign from all personal and place names (so that Iaroslavl’ becomes Iaroslavl and Noril’sk becomes Norilsk). However, bibliographical references in the notes preserve the Library of Congress transliteration to aid those readers who wish to consult the published sources cited.

The Whisperers

Northern European USSR

The Whisperers

Southern European USSR

The Whisperers

Western and Central Siberia

The Whisperers

Eastern Siberia

The Whisperers

The Soviet Union in the Stalin era


Antonina Golovina was eight years old when she was exiled with her mother and two younger brothers to the remote Altai region of Siberia. Her father had been arrested and sentenced to three years in a labour camp as a ‘kulak’ or ‘rich’ peasant during the collectivization of their northern Russian village, and the family had lost its household property, farming tools and livestock to the collective farm. Antonina’s mother was given just an hour to pack a few clothes for the long journey. The house where the Golovins had lived for generations was then destroyed, and the rest of the family dispersed: Antonina’s older brothers and sister, her grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins fled in all directions to avoid arrest, but most were caught by the police and exiled to Siberia, or sent to work in the labour camps of the Gulag, many of them never to be seen again.

Antonina spent three years in a ‘special settlement’, a logging camp with five wooden barracks along a river bank where a thousand ‘kulaks’ and their families were housed. After two of the barracks were destroyed by heavy snow in the first winter, some of the exiles had to live in holes dug in the frozen ground. There were no food deliveries, because the settlement was cut off by the snow, so people had to live from the supplies they had brought from home. So many of them died from hunger, cold and typhus that they could not all be buried; their bodies were left to freeze in piles until the spring, when they were dumped in the river.

Antonina and her family returned from exile in December 1934, and, rejoined by her father, moved into a one-room house in Pestovo, a town full of former ‘kulaks’ and their families. But the trauma she had suffered left a deep scar on her consciousness, and the deepest wound of all was the stigma of her ‘kulak’ origins. In a society where social class was everything, Antonina was branded a ‘class enemy’, excluded from higher schools and many jobs and always vulnerable to persecution and arrest in the waves of terror that swept across the country during Stalin’s reign. Her sense of social inferiority bred in Antonina what she herself describes as a ‘kind of fear’, that ‘because we were kulaks the regime might do anything to us, we had no rights, we had to suffer in silence’. She was too afraid to defend herself against the children who bullied her at school. On one occasion, Antonina was singled out for punishment by one of her teachers, who said in front of the whole class that ‘her sort’ were ‘enemies of the people, wretched kulaks! You certainly deserved to be deported, I hope you’re all exterminated here!’ Antonina felt a deep injustice and anger that made her want to shout out in protest. But she was silenced by an even deeper fear.1

This fear stayed with Antonina all her life. The only way that she could conquer it was to immerse herself in Soviet society. Antonina was an intelligent young woman with a strong sense of individuality. Determined to overcome the stigma of her birth, she studied hard at school so that one day she could gain acceptance as a social equal. Despite discrimination, she did well in her studies and gradually grew in confidence. She even joined the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League, whose leaders turned a blind eye to her ‘kulak’ origins because they valued her initiative and energy. At the age of eighteen Antonina made a bold decision that set her destiny: she concealed her background from the authorities – a high-risk strategy – and even forged her papers so that she could go to medical school. She never spoke about her family to any of her friends or colleagues at the Institute of Physiology in Leningrad, where she worked for forty years. She became a member of the Communist Party (and remained one until its abolition in 1991), not because she believed in its ideology, or so she now claims, but because she wanted to divert suspicion from herself and protect her family. Perhaps she also felt that joining the Party would help her career and bring her professional recognition.

Antonina concealed the truth about her past from both her husbands, each of whom she lived with for over twenty years. She and her first husband, Georgii Znamensky, were life-long friends, but they rarely spoke to one another about their families’ pasts. In 1987, Antonina received a visit from one of Georgii’s aunts, who let slip that he was the son of a tsarist naval officer executed by the Bolsheviks. All those years, without knowing it, Antonina had been married to a man who, like her, had spent his youth in labour camps and ‘special settlements’.

The Whisperers

Antonina Golovina, 1943

Antonina’s second husband, an Estonian called Boris Ioganson, also came from a family of ‘enemies of the people’. His father and grandfather had both been arrested in 1937, although she did not discover this or tell him about her own hidden past until the early 1990s, when, encouraged by the policies of glasnost introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev and by the open criticisms of the Stalinist repressions in the media, they began to talk at last. Antonina and Georgii also took this opportunity to reveal their secret histories, which they had concealed from each other for over forty years. But they did not speak about such things to their daughter Olga, a schoolteacher, because they feared a Communist backlash and thought that ignorance would protect her if the Stalinists returned. It was only very gradually in the mid-1990s that Antonina at last overcame her fear and summoned up the courage to tell her daughter about her ‘kulak’ origins.

The Whisperers reveals the hidden histories of many families like the Golovins, and together they illuminate, as never before, the inner world of ordinary Soviet citizens living under Stalin’s tyranny. Many books describe the externals of the Terror – the arrests and trials, enslavements and killings of the Gulag – but The Whisperers is the first to explore in depth its influence on personal and family life. How did Soviet people live their private lives in the years of Stalin’s rule? What did they really think and feel? What sort of private life was possible in the cramped communal apartments, where the vast majority of the urban population lived, where rooms were shared by a whole family and often more than one, and every conversation could be overheard in the next room? What did private life mean when the state touched almost every aspect of it through legislation, surveillance and ideological control?

Millions of people lived like Antonina in a constant state of fear because their relatives had been repressed. How did they cope with that insecurity? What sort of balance could they strike between their natural feelings of injustice and alienation from the Soviet system and their need to find a place in it? What adjustments did they have to make to overcome the stigma of their ‘spoilt biography’ and become accepted as equal members of society? Reflecting on her life, Antonina says that she never really believed in the Party and its ideology, although clearly she took pride in her status as a Soviet professional, which entailed her acceptance of the system’s basic goals and principles in her activities as a doctor. Perhaps she led a double life, conforming to Soviet norms in her public life whilst continuing to feel the counter-pull of her family’s peasant-Christian values in her private life. Many Soviet people lived by such dualities. But equally there were ‘kulak’ children, not to mention those born to families of noble or bourgeois origin, who broke completely with their past and immersed themselves in the Soviet system ideologically and emotionally.

The moral sphere of the family is the main arena of The Whisperers. The book explores how families reacted to the various pressures of the Soviet regime. How did they preserve their traditions and beliefs, and pass them down to their children, if their values were in conflict with the public goals and morals of the Soviet system inculcated in the younger generation through schools and institutions like the Komsomol? How did living in a system ruled by terror affect intimate relationhips? What did people think when a husband or a wife, a father or a mother was suddenly arrested as an ‘enemy of the people’? As loyal Soviet citizens how did they resolve the conflict in their minds between trusting the people they loved and believing in the government they feared? How could human feelings and emotions retain any force in the moral vacuum of the Stalinist regime? What were the strategies for survival, the silences, the lies, the friendships and betrayals, the moral compromises and accommodations that shaped millions of lives?

For few families were unaffected by the Stalinist Terror. By conservative estimates, approximately 25 million people were repressed by the Soviet regime between 1928, when Stalin seized control of the Party leadership, and 1953, when the dictator died, and his reign of terror, if not the system he had developed over the past quarter of a century, was at last brought to an end. These 25 million – people shot by execution squads, Gulag prisoners, ‘kulaks’ sent to ‘special settlements’, slave labourers of various kinds and members of deported nationalities – represent about one-eighth of the Soviet population, approximately 200 million people in 1941, or, on average, one person for every 1.5 families in the Soviet Union. These figures do not include famine victims or war dead.2 In addition to the millions who died, or were enslaved, there were tens of millions, the relatives of Stalin’s victims, whose lives were damaged in disturbing ways, with profound social consequences that are still felt today. After years of separation by the Gulag, families could not be reunited easily; relationships were lost; and there was no longer any ‘normal life’ to which people could return.

A silent and conformist population is one lasting consequence of Stalin’s reign. Families like the Golovins learned not to talk about their past – some like Antonina even hiding it from their closest friends and relatives. Children were taught to hold their tongues, not to speak about their families to anyone, not to judge or criticize anything they saw outside the home. ‘There were certain rules of listening and talking that we children had to learn,’ recalls the daughter of a middle-ranking Bolshevik official who grew up in the 1930s:

What we overheard the adults say in a whisper, or what we heard them say behind our backs, we knew we could not repeat to anyone. We would be in trouble if we even let them know that we had heard what they had said. Sometimes the adults would say something and then would tell us, ‘The walls have ears,’ or ‘Watch your tongue,’ or some other expression, which we understood to mean that what they had just said was not meant for us to hear.3

Another woman, whose father was arrested in 1936, remembers:

We were brought up to keep our mouths shut. ‘You’ll get into trouble for your tongue’ – that’s what people said to us children all the time. We went through life afraid to talk. Mama used to say that every other person was an informer. We were afraid of our neighbours, and especially of the police… Even today, if I see a policeman, I begin to shake with fear.4

In a society where it was thought that people were arrested for loose tongues, families survived by keeping to themselves. They learned to live double lives, concealing from the eyes and ears of dangerous neighbours, and sometimes even from their own children, information and opinions, religious beliefs, family values and traditions, and modes of private existence that clashed with Soviet public norms. They learned to whisper.

The Russian language has two words for a ‘whisperer’ – one for somebody who whispers out of fear of being overheard (shepchushchii), another for the person who informs or whispers behind people’s backs to the authorities (sheptun). The distinction has its origins in the idiom of the Stalin years, when the whole of Soviet society was made up of whisperers of one sort or another.

The Whisperers is not about Stalin, although his presence is felt on every page, or directly about the politics of his regime; it is about the way that Stalinism entered people’s minds and emotions, affecting all their values and relationships. The book does not attempt to solve the riddle of the Terror’s origins, or to chart the rise and fall of the Gulag; but it does set out to explain how the police state was able to take root in Soviet society and involve millions of ordinary people as silent bystanders and collaborators in its system of terror. The real power and lasting legacy of the Stalinist system were neither in the structures of the state, nor in the cult of the leader, but, as the Russian historian Mikhail Gefter once remarked, ‘in the Stalinism that entered into all of us’.5

Historians have been slow to enter the inner world of Stalin’s Russia. Until recently, their research was concerned mostly with the public sphere, with politics and ideology, and with the collective experience of the ‘Soviet masses’. The individual – in so far as he appeared at all – featured mainly as a letter-writer to the authorities (i.e. as a public actor rather than as a private person or family member). The private sphere of ordinary people was largely hidden from view. Sources were the obvious problem. Most of the personal collections (lichnye fondy) in the former Soviet and Party archives belonged to well-known figures in the world of politics, science and culture. The documents in these collections were carefully selected by their owners for donation to the state and relate mainly to these figures’ public lives. Of the several thousand personal collections surveyed in the early stages of the research for this book, not more than a handful revealed anything of family or personal life.*

The memoirs published in the Soviet Union, or accessible in Soviet archives before 1991, are also generally unrevealing about the private experience of the people who wrote them, although there are some exceptions, particularly among those published in the glasnost period after 1985.6 The memoirs by intellectual émigrés from the Soviet Union and Soviet survivors of the Stalinist repressions published in the West are hardly less problematic, although they were widely greeted as the ‘authentic voice’ of ‘the silenced’, which told us what it had ‘been like’ to live through the Stalin Terror as an ordinary citizen.7 By the height of the Cold War, in the early 1980s, the Western image of the Stalinist regime was dominated by these intelligentsia narratives of survival, particularly those by Yevgeniia Ginzburg and Nadezhda Mandelshtam, which provided first-hand evidence for the liberal idea of the individual human spirit as a force of internal opposition to Soviet tyranny.8 This moral vision – fulfilled and symbolized by the victory of ‘democracy’ in 1991 – had a powerful influence on the memoirs that were written in enormous numbers after the collapse of the Soviet regime.9 It also had an impact on historians, who after 1991 were more inclined than they had been before to emphasize the forces of popular resistance to the Stalinist dictatorship.10 But while these memoirs speak a truth for many people who survived the Terror, particularly for the intelligentsia strongly committed to ideals of freedom and individualism, they do not speak for the millions of ordinary people, including many victims of the Stalinist regime, who did not share this inner freedom or feeling of dissent, but, on the contrary, silently accepted and internalized the system’s basic values, conformed to its public rules and perhaps collaborated in the perpetration of its crimes.

The diaries that emerged from the archives seemed at first more promising. They are of all kinds (writers’ diaries, working diaries, literary almanacs, scrapbooks, daily chronicles, and so on) but relatively few from the Stalin period reveal anything reliably – without intrusive interpretative frameworks – about their writer’s feelings and opinions. Not many people ran the risk of writing private diaries in the 1930s and 1940s. When a person was arrested – and almost anyone could be at almost any time – the first thing to be confiscated was his diary, which was likely to be used as incriminating evidence if it contained thoughts or sentiments that could be interpreted as ‘anti-Soviet’ (the writer Mikhail Prishvin wrote his diary in a tiny scrawl, barely legible with a magnifying glass, to conceal his thoughts from the police in the event of his arrest and the seizure of the diary). On the whole the diaries published in the Soviet period were written by intellectuals who were very careful with their words.11 After 1991, more diaries – including some by people from the middling and lower echelons of Soviet society – began to appear from the former Soviet archives or came to light through voluntary initiatives like the People’s Archive in Moscow (TsDNA).12 But overall the corpus of Stalin-era diaries remains small (though more may yet be found in the archives of the former KGB), far too small for broad conclusions to be drawn from them about the inner world of ordinary citizens. An additional problem for the historian of private life is the ‘Soviet-speak’ in which many of these diaries are written and the conformist ideas they express; without knowledge of the motives people had (fear, belief or fashion) to write their diaries in this way, they are difficult to interpret.13

In recent years a number of historians have focused their attention on ‘Soviet subjectivity’, emphasizing from their reading of literary and private texts (above all diaries) the degree to which the interior life of the individual citizen was dominated by the regime’s ideology.14 According to some, it was practically impossible for the individual to think or feel outside the terms defined by the public discourse of Soviet politics, and any other thoughts or emotions were likely to be felt as a ‘crisis of the self’ demanding to be purged from the personality.15 The internalization of Soviet values and ideas was indeed characteristic of many of the subjects in The Whisperers, although few of them identified with the Stalinist system in the self-improving fashion which these historians have suggested was representative of ‘Soviet subjectivity’. The Soviet mentalities reflected in this book in most cases occupied a region of the consciousness where older values and beliefs had been suspended or suppressed; they were adopted by people, not so much from a burning desire to ‘become Soviet’, as from a sense of shame and fear. This was the sense in which Antonina resolved to do well at school and become an equal in society – so that she could overcome her feelings of inferiority (which she experienced as a ‘kind of fear’) as the child of a ‘kulak’. Immersion in the Soviet system was a means of survival for most people, including many victims of the Stalinist regime, a necessary way of silencing their doubts and fears, which, if voiced, could make their lives impossible. Believing and collaborating in the Soviet project was a way to make sense of their suffering, which without this higher purpose might reduce them to despair. In the words of another ‘kulak’ child, a man exiled for many years as an ‘enemy of the people’ who nonetheless remained a convinced Stalinist throughout his life, ‘believing in the justice of Stalin… made it easier for us to accept our punishments, and it took away our fear’.16

Such mentalities are less often reflected in Stalin-era diaries and letters – whose content was generally dictated by Soviet rules of writing and propriety that did not allow the acknowledgement of fear – than they are in oral history.17 Historians of the Stalinist regime have turned increasingly to the techniques of oral history.18 Like any other discipline that is hostage to the tricks of memory, oral history has its methodological difficulties, and in Russia, a nation taught to whisper, where the memory of Soviet history is overlaid with myths and ideologies, these problems are especially acute. Having lived in a society where millions were arrested for speaking inadvertently to informers, many older people are extremely wary of talking to researchers wielding microphones (devices associated with the KGB). From fear or shame or stoicism, these survivors have suppressed their painful memories. Many are unable to reflect about their lives, because they have grown so accustomed to avoiding awkward questions about anything, not least their own moral choices at defining moments of their personal advancement in the Soviet system. Others are reluctant to admit to actions of which they are ashamed, often justifying their behaviour by citing motives and beliefs that they have imposed on their pasts. Despite these challenges, and in many ways because of them, oral history has enormous benefits for the historian of private life, provided it is handled properly. This means rigorously cross-examining the evidence of interviews and checking it, wherever possible, against the written records in family and public archives.

The Whisperers draws on hundreds of family archives (letters, diaries, personal papers, memoirs, photographs and artefacts) concealed by survivors of the Stalin Terror in secret drawers and under mattresses in private homes across Russia until only recently. In each family extensive interviews were carried out with the oldest relatives, who were able to explain the context of these private documents and place them within the family’s largely unspoken history. The oral history project connected with the research for this book, which focuses on the interior world of families and individuals, differs markedly from previous oral histories of the Soviet period, which were mainly sociological, or concerned with the external details of the Terror and the experience of the Gulag.19 These materials have been assembled in a special archive, which represents one of the biggest collections of documents about private life in the Stalin period.*

The families whose stories are related in The Whisperers represent a broad cross-section of Soviet society. They come from diverse social backgrounds, from cities, towns and villages throughout Russia; they include families that were repressed and families whose members were involved in the system of repression as NKVD agents or administrators of the Gulag. There are also families that were untouched by Stalin’s Terror, although statistically there were very few of these.

From these materials, The Whisperers charts the story of a generation born in the first years of the Revolution, mostly between 1917 and 1925, whose lives thus followed the trajectory of the Soviet system. In its later chapters the book gives voice to their descendants as well. A multi-generational approach is important to understanding the legacies of the regime. For three-quarters of a century the Soviet system exerted its influence on the moral sphere of the family; no other totalitarian system had such a profound impact on the private lives of its subjects – not even Communist China (the Nazi dictatorship, which is frequently compared to the Stalinist regime, lasted just twelve years). The attempt to understand the Stalinist phenomenon in the longue durée also sets this book apart. Previous histories of the subject have focused mainly on the 1930s – as if an explanation of the Great Terror of 1937–38 were all one needs to grasp the essence of the Stalinist regime. The Great Terror was by far the most murderous episode in Stalin’s reign (it accounted for 85 per cent of political executions between 1917 and 1955). But it was only one of many series of repressive waves (1918–21, 1928–31, 1934–5, 1937–8, 1943–6, 1948–53), each one drowning many lives; the population of the Gulag’s labour camps and ‘special settlements’ peaked not in 1938 but in 1953; and the impact of this long reign of terror continued to be felt by millions of people for many decades after Stalin’s death.

The family histories interwoven through the public narrative of The Whisperers are probably too numerous to be followed by the reader as individual narratives, although the index can be used to connect them in this way. They are rather to be read as variations of a common history – of the Stalinism that marked the life of every family. But there are several families, including the Golovins, whose stories run throughout the narrative, and there is a family tree for each of these. At the heart of The Whisperers stand the Laskins and the Simonovs, families connected through marriage, whose contrasting fortunes in the Stalin Terror became tragically intertwined.

Konstantin Simonov (1915–79) is the central figure and perhaps (depending on your view) the tragic hero of The Whisperers. Born into a noble family that suffered from repression by the Soviet regime, Simonov remade himself as a ‘proletarian writer’ during the 1930s. Although he is largely forgotten today, he was a major figure in the Soviet literary establishment – the recipient of six Stalin Prizes, a Lenin Prize and a Hero of Socialist Labour. He was a talented lyric poet; his novels dealing with the war were immensely popular; his plays may have been weak and propagandistic, but he was a first-rate journalist, one of Russia’s finest in the war; and in later life he was a superb memoirist, who honestly examined his own sins and moral compromises with the Stalinist regime. In 1939, Simonov married Yevgeniia Laskina, the youngest of three daughters in a Jewish family that had come to Moscow from the Pale of Settlement, but he soon abandoned her and their baby son to pursue the beautiful actress Valentina Serova – a romance that inspired his most famous poem, ‘Wait For Me’ (1941), which was known by heart by almost every soldier fighting to return to a girlfriend or a wife. Simonov became an important figure in the Writers’ Union between 1945 and 1953, a time when the leaders of Soviet literature were called upon by Stalin’s ideologues to take part in the persecution of their fellow writers who were deemed too liberal, and to add their voice to the campaign against the Jews in the arts and sciences. One of the victims of this official anti-Semitism was the Laskin family, yet by this time Simonov was too involved in the Stalinist regime to help them; perhaps in any case there was nothing he could do.

Simonov was a complex character. From his parents he inherited the public-service values of the aristocracy and, in particular, its ethos of military duty and obedience which in his mind became assimilated to the Soviet virtues of public activism and patriotic sacrifice, enabling him to take his place in the Stalinist hierarchy of command. Simonov had many admirable human qualities. If it was possible to be a ‘good Stalinist’, he might be counted in that category. He was honest and sincere, orderly and strictly disciplined, though not without considerable warmth and charm. An activist by education and by temperament, he lost himself in the Soviet system at an early age and lacked the means to liberate himself from its moral pressures and demands. In this sense Simonov embodied all the moral conflicts and dilemmas of his generation – those whose lives were overshadowed by the Stalinist regime – and to understand his thoughts and actions is perhaps to understand his times.


Children of 1917



Elizaveta Drabkina did not recognize her father when she saw him at the Smolny Institute, the Bolshevik headquarters, in October 1917. She had last seen him when she was only five years old, just before he had disappeared into the revolutionary underground. Now, twelve years later, she had forgotten what he looked like. She knew him only by his Party pseudonym. As a secretary at the Smolny Institute, Elizaveta was familiar with the name ‘Sergei Gusev’ from dozens of decrees which he had signed as Chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, the body placed in charge of law and order in the capital. Hurrying along the Smolny’s endless vaulted corridors, where resting soldiers and Red Guards jeered and whistled as she passed, she had distributed these decrees to the makeshift offices of the new Soviet government, housed in the barrack-like classrooms of this former school for noblewomen. But when she told the other secretaries that the signature belonged to her long-lost father, none of them saw anything remarkable in that fact. There was never any suggestion that she should contact him. In these circles, where every Bolshevik was expected to subordinate his personal interests to the common cause, it was considered ‘philistine’ to think about one’s private life at a time when the Party was engaged in the decisive struggle for the liberation of humanity.1

In the end, hunger drove Elizaveta to approach her father. She had just finished lunch in the smoke-filled basement dining hall when a small but muscular and handsome man in military dress and a pince-nez came in, trailed by a retinue of Party workers and Red Guards, and sat down at the long central table, where two soldiers were serving cabbage soup and porridge to the eager proletarians. Elizaveta was still hungry. From a smaller table in the corner, she watched the new arrival as he ate his soup with a spoon in one hand and, with a pencil in the other, signed the papers his followers placed in front of him.

The Whisperers

The four secretaries of Iakov Sverdlov, chief Party organizer of the Bolsheviks, the Smolny Institute, October 1917: Drabkina second from right

Suddenly I heard someone call him ‘Comrade Gusev’.

So this must be my father, I realized. Without thinking, I stood up and squeezed my way around the crowded tables towards him.

‘Comrade Gusev, I need you,’ I said. He turned to me. He looked very tired. His eyes were red from lack of sleep.

‘I am listening, comrade!’

‘Comrade Gusev, I am your daughter. Give me three roubles for a meal.’

Perhaps he was so exhausted that all he heard was my request for three roubles.

‘Of course, comrade,’ Gusev said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a green three-rouble note. I took the money, thanked him, and bought another lunch.2

Lenin loved this story. He often called on Drabkina to retell it in the years before his death, in 1924, when she became close to him. The tale took on legendary status in Party circles, illustrating the Bolshevik ideal of personal sacrifice and selfless dedication to the revolutionary cause. As Stalin was to say, ‘A true Bolshevik shouldn’t and couldn’t have a family, because he should give himself wholly to the Party.’3

The Drabkins were a good example of this revolutionary principle. Elizaveta’s father (whose real name was Iakov Drabkin) had joined Lenin’s Social Democrats as a schoolboy in 1895. Her mother, Feodosia, was an important agent (‘Natasha’) in the Party’s underground who took her daughter along as a foil on the frequent trips she made to Helsingfors (Helsinki) to purchase ammunition for the revolutionaries in St Petersburg (the dynamite and cartridges were smuggled back in a bag containing Elizaveta’s toys). After the abortive Revolution of 1905 Elizaveta’s parents were driven into hiding by the tsar’s police. The five-year-old girl went to live with her grandfather in Rostov, where she remained until the February Revolution of 1917, when all the revolutionaries were released by the newly installed Provisional Government.* Elizaveta was reunited with her mother in Petrograd (as St Petersburg was then called). She joined the Bolshevik Party, became a machine-gunner in the Red Guards, took part in the storming of the Winter Palace during the Bolshevik seizure of power on 25 October and was hired as a secretary to Iakov Sverdlov, chief Party organizer of the Bolsheviks. The job brought her to the Smolny, where her father, Gusev, worked.4

The Bolsheviks in power urged their rank and file to follow the example of the revolutionaries in tsarist Russia who had ‘sacrificed their personal happiness and renounced their families to serve the working class’. They made a cult of the ‘selfless revolutionary’, constructing a new morality in which all the old commandments were superseded by the single principle of service to the Party and its cause. In their utopian vision the revolutionary activist was the prototype of a new kind of human being – a ‘collective personality’ living only for the common good – who would populate the future Communist society. Many socialists saw the creation of this human type as the fundamental goal of the Revolution. ‘The new structure of political life demands from us a new structure of the soul,’ wrote Maksim Gorky in the spring of 1917.5

For the Bolsheviks, the radical realization of the ‘collective personality’ involved ‘blowing up the shell of private life’. To allow a ‘distinction between private life and public life’, maintained Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaia, ‘will lead sooner or later to the betrayal of Communism’.6 According to the Bolsheviks, the idea of ‘private life’ as separate from the realm of politics was nonsensical, for politics affected everything; there was nothing in a person’s so-called ‘private life’ that was not political. The personal sphere should thus be subject to public supervision and control. Private spaces beyond the state’s control were regarded by the Bolsheviks as dangerous breeding grounds for counter-revolutionaries, who had to be exposed and rooted out.

Elizaveta rarely saw her father after their encounter. They were both preoccupied with revolutionary activities. After 1917, Elizaveta continued to work in Sverdlov’s office; during the Civil War (1918–20), she served in the Red Army, first as a medical assistant and later as a machine-gunner, fighting the White, or counter-revolutionary, armies and the Western powers that supported them in Siberia, the Baltic lands and south Russia. During the campaign against Admiral Kolchak’s White Army on the Eastern Front she even fought under the command of her father, who by that time held a senior position in the Revolutionary Military Council, the central command organ of the Soviet forces, headed by Leon Trotsky. Elizaveta frequently heard her father address the soldiers, but she never approached him, because, as she later put it, she did not think that Bolsheviks should ‘concern themselves with personal affairs’. They met only twice during the Civil War, once at Sverdlov’s funeral in March 1919 and then, later that year, at an official meeting in the Kremlin. In the 1920s, when both father and daughter were actively involved in Party work in Moscow, they met more frequently, and even lived together for a while, but they never became close. They had spent so long apart that they could not form a familial relationship. ‘My father never talked about himself to me,’ Elizaveta recalled, ‘and I realize now that I got to know him only after he died [in 1933], when people told me stories about him.’7

The Civil War was not just a military struggle against the White armies: it was a revolutionary war against the private interests of the old society. To fight the Whites the Bolsheviks developed their first version of the planned economy (War Communism), which would become a model for Stalin’s Five Year Plans. They tried to stamp out private trade and property (there were even plans to replace money with universal rationing); seized the peasants’ grain to feed the cities and the troops; conscripted millions of people into labour armies, which were used on the ‘economic front’ to cut down trees for fuel, build roads and repair railways; imposed experimental forms of collective labour and living in dormitories and barracks attached to factories; waged a war against religion, persecuting priests and believers and closing hundreds of churches; and silenced all dissent and opposition to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. On the ‘internal front’ of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks unleashed a campaign of terror (the ‘Red Terror’) against ‘the bourgeoisie’ – former tsarist officials, landowners, merchants, ‘kulak’ peasants, petty traders and the old intelligentsia – whose individualistic values made them potential supporters of the Whites and other ‘counter-revolutionaries’. This violent purging of society, the Bolsheviks believed, offered a short-cut to the Communist utopia.

By the spring of 1921, the policies of War Communism had ruined the Soviet economy and brought much of peasant Russia to the brink of famine. One-quarter of the peasantry in Soviet Russia was starving. Throughout the country the peasants rose up against the Bolshevik regime and its grain requisitionings in a series of rebellions which Lenin himself said were ‘far more dangerous than all the Whites put together’. In much of rural Russia Soviet power had virtually ceased to exist, as the peasants took control of the villages and cut off grain supplies to the cities. Hungry workers went on strike. The sailors of the Kronstadt naval base, who had helped the Bolsheviks seize power in nearby Petrograd in October 1917, now turned against them in a mutiny whose Anarchist-inspired banners of revolt called for free elections to the Soviets, ‘freedom of speech, press and assembly for all who labour’, and ‘freedom for the peasants to toil the land as they see fit’. It was clear that the Bolsheviks were facing a revolutionary situation. ‘We are barely holding on,’ Lenin acknowledged at the start of March. Trotsky, who had called the Kronstadt sailors the ‘pride and joy of the Revolution’, led the assault against the naval base. Military might and ruthless terror were used in equal measure against the peasant uprisings. An estimated 100,000 people were imprisoned or deported and 15,000 people shot during the suppression of the revolts. But Lenin also realized that to stem the tide of popular revolt and get the peasants to resume food deliveries to the cities, the Bolsheviks would have to abandon the detested policies of War Communism and bring back free trade. Having defeated the White armies, the Bolsheviks surrendered to the peasantry.8

The New Economic Policy (NEP), which Lenin introduced at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, replaced food requisitioning with a relatively lenient tax in kind and legalized the return of small-scale private trade and manufacturing. It favoured agriculture and the production of consumer goods over the development of heavy industry. As Lenin saw it, the NEP was a temporary but necessary concession to the smallholding peasantry – wedded to the principles of private family production – to save the Revolution and get the country on its feet again. He talked about it lasting ‘not less than a decade and probably more’. The restoration of the market brought back life to the Soviet economy. Private trade responded quickly to the chronic shortages that had built up in the years of Revolution and the Civil War. By 1921, the Soviet population was living in patched-up clothes and shoes, cooking with broken utensils, drinking from cracked cups. Everybody needed something new. Traders set up booths and stalls, flea-markets boomed, and peasant traders brought foodstuffs to the towns. Licensed by new laws, private cafés, shops and restaurants, night clubs and brothels, hospitals and clinics, credit and saving associations, even small-scale manufacturers sprang up like mushrooms after the rain. Moscow and Petrograd, graveyard cities in the Civil War, suddenly burst into life, with noisy traders, busy cabbies and bright shops lighting up the streets just as they had done before 1917.

To many Bolsheviks the return to the market seemed like a betrayal of the Revolution. The introduction of the NEP was met with deep suspicion by the Party’s rank and file (even Lenin’s ‘favourite’, Nikolai Bukharin, who later became the main defender of the NEP, warmed to it only slowly during the course of 1921–3), and Lenin had to use all his powers of persuasion and authority to force it through at the congress. Among the urban workers, in particular, there was a widespread feeling that the NEP was sacrificing their class interests to the peasantry, which was growing rich at their expense, because of higher food prices. It seemed to them that the boom in private trade would inevitably lead to a widening gap between rich and poor and to the restoration of capitalism. They dubbed the NEP the ‘New Exploitation of the Proletariat’. Much of their anger was focused on the ‘NEPmen’, the private traders who thrived in the 1920s. In the popular imagination, formed by Soviet propaganda and cartoons, the ‘NEPmen’ dressed their wives and mistresses in diamonds and furs, drove around in huge imported cars, snored at the opera, sang in restaurants and boasted loudly in expensive hotel bars of the dollar fortunes they had wasted at the newly opened race-tracks and casinos. The legendary spending of this newly wealthy class, set against the backdrop of mass unemployment and urban poverty in the 1920s, gave rise to a bitter feeling of resentment among those who thought that the Revolution should end inequality.

On the ‘internal front’ the NEP entailed a reprieve for the vestiges of ‘bourgeois culture’ which Communism had promised to eliminate but could not yet do without. It brought a halt to the war against the old middle class and the professional intelligentsia, whose expertise was needed by the Soviet economy. Between 1924 and 1928 there was also a temporary relaxation in the war against religion: churches were no longer closed or the clergy persecuted at the rate that they had been before (or would be afterwards); although the propaganda war against the Church continued apace, people were allowed to observe their faith much as they had always done. Finally, the NEP allowed a breathing space for the old domestic habits and family traditions of private life, a source of real concern among many Bolsheviks, who feared that the customs and mentalities of Russia’s ‘petty bourgeoisie’ – the millions of small-scale traders and producers whose numbers were swollen by the NEP – would hold back and even undermine their revolutionary campaign. ‘Imprisoning the minds of millions of toilers,’ Stalin declared in 1924, ‘the attitudes and habits which we inherited from the old society are the most dangerous enemy of socialism.’9

The Bolsheviks envisaged the building of their Communist utopia as a constant battle against custom and habit. With the end of the Civil War they prepared for a new and longer struggle on the ‘internal front’: a revolutionary war for the liberation of the communistic personality through the eradication of individualistic (‘bourgeois’) behaviour and deviant habits (prostitution, alcoholism, hooliganism and religion) inherited from the old society. There was little dispute among the Bolsheviks that this battle to transform human nature would take decades. There was only disagreement about when the battle should begin. Marx had taught that the alteration of consciousness was dependent on changes to the material base, and Lenin, when he introduced the NEP, affirmed that until the material conditions of a Communist society had been created – a process that would take an entire historical epoch – there was no point trying to engineer a Communist system of morality in private life. But most Bolsheviks did not accept that the NEP required a retreat from the private sphere. On the contrary, as they were increasingly inclined to think, active engagement was essential at every moment and in every battlefield of everyday life – in the family, the home and the inner world of the individual, where the persistence of old mentalities was a major threat to the Party’s basic ideological goals. And as they watched the individualistic instincts of the ‘petty-bourgeois’ masses become stronger in the culture of the NEP, they redoubled their efforts. As Anatoly Lunacharsky wrote in 1927: ‘The so-called sphere of private life cannot slip away from us, because it is precisely here that the final goal of the Revolution is to be reached.’10

The family was the first arena in which the Bolsheviks engaged the struggle. In the 1920s, they took it as an article of faith that the ‘bourgeois family’ was socially harmful: it was inward-looking and conservative, a stronghold of religion, superstition, ignorance and prejudice; it fostered egotism and material acquisitiveness, and oppressed women and children. The Bolsheviks expected that the family would disappear as Soviet Russia developed into a fully socialist system, in which the state took responsibility for all the basic household functions, providing nurseries, laundries and canteens in public centres and apartment blocks. Liberated from labour in the home, women would be free to enter the workforce on an equal footing with men. The patriarchal marriage, with its attendant sexual morals, would die out – to be replaced, the radicals believed, by ‘free unions of love’.

As the Bolsheviks saw it, the family was the biggest obstacle to the socialization of children. ‘By loving a child, the family turns him into an egotistical being, encouraging him to see himself as the centre of the universe,’ wrote the Soviet educational thinker Zlata Lilina.11 Bolshevik theorists agreed on the need to replace this ‘egotistic love’ with the ‘rational love’ of a broader ‘social family’. The ABC of Communism (1919) envisaged a future society in which parents would no longer use the word ‘my’ to refer to their children, but would care for all the children in their community. Among the Bolsheviks there were different views about how long this change would take. Radicals argued that the Party should take direct action to undermine the family immediately, but most accepted the arguments of Bukharin and NEP theorists that in a peasant country such as Soviet Russia the family would remain for some time the primary unit of production and consumption and that it would weaken gradually as the country made the transition to an urban socialist society.

Meanwhile the Bolsheviks adopted various strategies – such as the transformation of domestic space – intended to accelerate the disintegration of the family. To tackle the housing shortages in the overcrowded cities the Bolsheviks compelled wealthy families to share their apartments with the urban poor – a policy known as ‘condensation’ (uplotnenie). During the 1920s the most common type of communal apartment (kommunalka) was one in which the original owners occupied the main rooms on the ‘parade side’ while the back rooms were filled by other families. At that time it was still possible for the former owners to select their co-inhabitants, provided they fulfilled the ‘sanitary norm’ (a per capita allowance of living space which fell from 13.5 square metres in 1926 to just 9 square metres in 1931). Many families brought in servants or acquaintances to prevent strangers being moved in to fill up the surplus living space. The policy had a strong ideological appeal, not just as a war on privilege, which is how it was presented in the propaganda of the new regime (‘War against the Palaces!’), but also as part of a crusade to engineer a more collective way of life. By forcing people to share communal apartments, the Bolsheviks believed that they could make them communistic in their basic thinking and behaviour. Private space and property would disappear, the individual (‘bourgeois’) family would be replaced by communistic fraternity and organization, and the life of the individual would become immersed in the community. From the middle of the 1920s, new types of housing were designed with this transformation in mind. The most radical Soviet architects, like the Constructivists in the Union of Contemporary Architects, proposed the complete obliteration of the private sphere by building ‘commune houses’ (doma kommuny) where all the property, including even clothes and underwear, would be shared by the inhabitants, where domestic tasks like cooking and childcare would be assigned to teams on a rotating basis, and where everybody would sleep in one big dormitory, divided by gender, with private rooms for sexual liaisons. Few houses of this sort were ever built, although they loomed large in the utopian imagination and futuristic novels such as Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We (1920). Most of the projects which did materialize, like the Narkomfin (Ministry of Finance) house in Moscow (1930) designed by the Constructivist Moisei Ginzburg, tended to stop short of the full communal form and included both private living spaces and communalized blocks for laundries, baths, dining rooms and kitchens, nurseries and schools. Yet the goal remained to marshal architecture in a way that would induce the individual to move away from private (‘bourgeois’) forms of domesticity to a more collective way of life.12

The Bolsheviks also intervened more directly in domestic life. The new Code on Marriage and the Family (1918) established a legislative framework that clearly aimed to facilitate the breakdown of the traditional family. It removed the influence of the Church from marriage and divorce, making both a process of simple registration with the state. It granted the same legal rights to de facto marriages (couples living together) as it gave to legal marriages. The Code turned divorce from a luxury for the rich to something that was easy and affordable for all. The result was a huge increase in casual marriages and the highest rate of divorce in the world – three times higher than in France or Germany and twenty-six times higher than in England by 1926 – as the collapse of the Christian-patriarchal order and the chaos of the revolutionary years loosened sexual morals along with family and communal ties.13

In the early years of Soviet power, family breakdown was so common among revolutionary activists that it almost constituted an occupational hazard. Casual relationships were practically the norm in Bolshevik circles during the Civil War, when any comrade could be sent at a moment’s notice to some distant sector of the front. Such relaxed attitudes remained common throughout the 1920s, as Party activists and their young emulators in the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) were taught to put their commitment to the proletariat before romantic love or family. Sexual promiscuity was more pronounced in the Party’s youthful ranks than among Soviet youth in general. Many Bolsheviks regarded sexual licence as a form of liberation from bourgeois moral conventions and as a sign of ‘Soviet modernity’. Some even advocated promiscuity as a way to counteract the formation of coupling relationships that separated lovers from the collective and detracted from their loyalty to the Party.14

It was a commonplace that the Bolshevik made a bad husband and father because the demands of the Party took him away from the home. ‘We Communists don’t know our own families,’ remarked one Moscow Bolshevik. ‘You leave early and come home late. You seldom see your wife and almost never see your children.’ At Party congresses, where the issue was discussed throughout the 1920s, it was recognized that Bolsheviks were far more likely than non-Party husbands to abandon wives and families, and that this had much to do with the primacy of Party loyalties over sexual fidelity. But in fact the problem of absent wives and mothers was almost as acute in Party circles, as indeed it was in the broader circles of the Soviet intelligentsia, where most women were involved in the public sphere.15

Trotsky argued that the Bolsheviks were more affected than others by domestic breakdown because they were ‘most exposed to the influence of new conditions’. As pioneers of a modern way of life, Trotsky wrote in 1923, the ‘Communist vanguard merely passes sooner and more violently through what is inevitable’ for the population as a whole.16 In many Party households there was certainly a sense of pioneering a new type of family – one that liberated both parents for public activities – albeit at the cost of intimate involvement with their children.

Anna Karpitskaia and her husband Pyotr Nizovtsev were high-ranking Party activists in Leningrad (as Petrograd was called after Lenin’s death). They lived in a private apartment near the Smolny Institute with their three children, including Marksena,* Anna’s daughter from her first marriage, who was born in 1923. Marksena rarely saw her parents, who left for work before she awoke in the morning and returned very late at night. ‘I felt the lack of a mother’s attention,’ recalls Marksena, ‘and was always jealous of children whose mothers did not work.’ In the absence of their parents the children were placed in the care of two servants, a housekeeper and a cook, both peasant women who had recently arrived from the countryside. However, as the eldest child, from the age of four, as far as she recalls, Marksena had ‘complete authority and responsibility for the household’. The cook would ask her what to make for dinner and ask her for the money to buy food from a special store reserved for Party officials. Marksena would report to her mother if the servants broke the household rules, ‘or if they did something I didn’t think was right’, but more often, she recalls, ‘I would tell them off myself if they did anything I did not like.’ Marksena felt responsible – she understood that it suited her mother to leave her in charge – and accepted this as natural: ‘My mother made it clear that what went on at home was no concern of hers, and I never questioned this.’

Brought up to reflect the values of the new society, Marksena was a child of 1917. She was regarded by her parents as a ‘small comrade’. She had no toys, no space of her own where she could play freely as a child. ‘My parents treated me as an equal and spoke to me as an adult,’ recalls Marksena. ‘I was taught from an early age to be independent and to do everything for myself.’ On her first morning at primary school, when she was only seven, her mother walked her to the school and told her to memorize the route – a complex journey of nearly three kilometres – so that she could walk home on her own that afternoon. ‘From that day on, I always walked to school,’ recalls Marksena. ‘It never crossed my mind that anyone should walk with me.’ Marksena bought all her own books and stationery from a shop in the city centre which took her an hour to reach by foot. From the age of eight she was going to the theatre on her own, using the pass her parents had for Party officials which let her sit in one of the boxes by the side of the stalls. ‘No one ever told me what to do,’ recalls Marksena. ‘I brought myself up on my own.’

Marksena’s parents were distant figures in her life. Even during holidays, they would travel on their own to one of the resorts for Party officials in the Crimea, leaving the children in Leningrad. Her parents did, however, impose their ideological rigidities, which Marksena recalls as a source of annoyance. Her mother would reprimand her for reading Pushkin and Tolstoy instead of the didactic books for children favoured by the Party, such as Vladimir Obruchev’s scientific adventure Land of Sannikov (1926)or The Republic of Shkid (1927) by Grigorii Belykh and Aleksei Panteleyev, a story about homeless orphans sent to school in Leningrad, both of which were brought home by Anna and dutifully read by Marksena but then put in a cupboard and forgotten. Marksena was forbidden by her mother to invite friends home from school, because, she said, it was better that they did not see how comfortably the Party’s leaders lived – albeit modestly and in a Spartan style – compared with their families. She was very seldom praised or given compliments by her parents, and almost never kissed or held. Her only source of affection was her grandmother, who looked after her when she was ill. ‘I liked going to her house,’ remembers Marksena. ‘She paid me lots of attention. She taught me how to sew, how to thread a bead necklace. She had toys for me and even bought me a little wooden toy kitchen, which she set up in the corner of her room, where I liked to play.’17

An absence of parental affection was described by many children born to Party families after 1917. In this respect the child-rearing customs of the Soviet elite were not that different from those of the nineteenth-century Russian aristocracy, which took little interest in the nursery and left the children, from their earliest days, in the care of nannies, maids and other household servants.18

Angelina Yevseyeva was born in 1922 to a family of Bolsheviks. Her parents had met when they were fighting for the Red Army in the Civil War. Returning to Petrograd in 1920, her father became a commander of one of the divisions involved in the suppression of the Kronstadt mutiny. In 1925, he enrolled in the Military-Medical Academy, where he spent his evenings studying. Angelina’s mother was an official in the Commissariat of Trade. Shortly after Angelina’s birth she began attending the Institute of Foreign Trade, also studying in the evenings. Angelina recalls a childhood spent largely in the care of a housekeeper:

My mother loved me, she was patient and attentive, but not affectionate, she never indulged me or played with me as a child. She expected me to behave like an adult, and treated me like one… My father was entirely preoccupied by his work. I felt that I got in his way. I must have been a nuisance to my parents. I didn’t like being at home. I grew up in the courtyard and the street and was a naughty child. Once, when I was 8, my father brought a fish tank back from a work trip to Moscow. Because he would not let me go out and play, I tipped over the tank and let all the fish spill out on to the floor. He beat me with a hose, and I shouted back: ‘You’re not a father, you’re a stepmother, a stepmother!’19

Maria Budkevich was born in Moscow in 1923 to the family of a Party functionary at Military Encyclopedia, the main publisher of the Soviet armed forces. Her father lived in a separate apartment from the rest of the family, not because he was separated from Maria’s mother, a researcher on the Party’s history of the Civil War, but because he found it more convenient for his work to live on his own. Maria saw her father so infrequently that, at the age of five or six, she began to doubt that she had one. ‘I did not understand what a father was,’ she recalls. ‘I knew that other girls had someone they called “papa”, but I hardly ever saw my own father. He would suddenly appear one day from a trip abroad. There would be a great fanfare, with presents for everyone, and then he would disappear again.’20

Elena Bonner’s parents were Party activists in Leningrad. They worked from early in the morning until late at night and rarely saw their children, who were left in the care of their grandmother. Elena longed for her mother’s affection. She ‘played at being a crybaby’ and frequently pretended to be sick in order to force her mother to stay at home. She was envious of other children whose mothers did not work and seemed ‘always very cheerful’ by comparison. Even when her parents were at home they were so preoccupied by their Party work that they paid little attention to the children. When she was nine or ten, Elena recalls, ‘my parents spent their evenings and nights writing brochures, which they said were on “questions of Party construction”. For a long while I thought the Party built houses.’21

The Bonners lived in a special hostel for Party workers in the former Astoriia Hotel in Leningrad. Everything in the sparsely furnished rooms was geared towards their work. Until the 1930s, when Stalin started to reward his loyal officials with luxury apartments and consumer goods, most Party members lived in a similarly minimalist style. Even senior officials lived quite modestly. The family of Nikolai Semashko, the Commissar for Health from 1923 to 1930, occupied a small and barely furnished flat in the Narkomfin house in Moscow. ‘They were never interested in any sort of byt [bourgeois comfort] or décor,’ recalls one of their neighbours.22

The Bolshevik idealists of the 1920s made a cult of this Spartan way of life. They inherited a strong element of asceticism from the revolutionary underground, the source of their values and their principles in the early years of the Soviet regime. The rejection of material possessions was central to the culture and ideology of the Russian socialist intelligentsia, which strove to sweep away all signs of ‘petty-bourgeois’ domesticity – the ornamental china on the mantelpiece, the singing canaries, all the plants, soft furniture, family portraits and other banal objects of the domestic hearth – and move towards a higher and more spiritual existence. The battle against ‘philistine byt’ was at the heart of the revolutionary urge to establish a more communistic way of life. As the poet Maiakovsky wrote in 1921:

From the wall Marx watches and watches

And suddenly

Opening his mouth wide,

He starts howling:

The Revolution is tangled up in philistine threads

More terrible than Wrangel* is philistine byt


To tear off the canaries’ heads –

So Communism

Won’t be struck down by canaries.23

In the Bolshevik aesthetic it was philistine to lavish attention on the decoration of one’s home. The ideal ‘living space’ (as the home was called by Soviet officials) was minimally decorated and furnished. It was purely functional, with space-efficient furniture, like divans that doubled as beds. In the Bolshevik imagination this simple way of living was a form of liberation from bourgeois society in which people were enslaved by the cult of possessions. In Cement (1925), Fyodor Gladkov’s influential novel, a man and wife, both Party activists, sacrifice their personal happiness and leave their home and daughter to help rebuild a cement factory destroyed by the Civil War. When the husband Gleb begins to miss the old domestic comforts of their home, he is soon reminded of a higher purpose by his wife: ‘Do you want pretty flowers to bloom on the windowsill and a bed piled with pillows? No, Gleb, in the winter I live in an unheated room, and I eat in the communal kitchen. You see, I am a free Soviet citizen.’24

Among the Bolsheviks there was a similarly austere attitude towards personal appearance – fashionable clothes, elaborate hairstyles, jewellery, perfume and cosmetics were all consigned to the realm of vulgar byt. The ‘new people’ of the Party vanguard dressed in plain and simple clothes – in pseudo-proletarian or quasi-military dress – without any hint of adornment. During the time of the NEP, when the Bolshevik leaders were anxious that the Party rank and file might be corrupted by the comforts and temptations of the ‘bourgeois’ culture that had suddenly become available to them, these Spartan attitudes were promoted as a symbol of ideological purity. In 1922, Aron Solts, the Party’s leading spokesman on Communist ethics, warned that the NEP might seduce members into believing that ‘there exists some sort of personal life in which they are completely free to follow their own tastes, and even to imitate what bourgeois society considers elegant’. Solts called upon the Bolsheviks to purge this bourgeois instinct from within themselves by changing their aesthetic attitudes. It was ‘ugly for a person to have rings, bracelets, gold teeth’, and in his view such behaviour ‘must arouse asethetic indignation’ within the Party’s ranks.25

Valentina Tikhanova was born in Moscow in 1922. She grew up in the household of the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, the man who led the storming of the Winter Palace in October 1917. Her mother had met the famous Bolshevik in Prague, where Vladimir was the Soviet ambassador, and had left Valentina’s father, an editor at a publisher, to marry him in 1927. Valentina recalls the small apartment where her family had lived in Moscow in the 1920s as ‘simply furnished with the most ordinary furniture and wrought-iron beds’. The only thing of any value was a large malachite box which belonged to her mother. There were no ornaments or decorations in the apartment, and her parents had no interest in such things. Even when her mother became the wife of an ambassador, she did not wear jewellery. Asceticism ruled in the Antonov-Ovseyenko home as well. Their apartment in the Second House of Sovnarkom, a large apartment block for senior Party officials in Moscow, consisted of four small rooms. In Valentina’s cell-like room the only furniture was a fold-up bed, a writing desk and a small bookcase. Recalling this austere atmosphere, Valentina describes it as a conscious element of her family’s intelligentsia principles (intelligentnost’) and Soviet ideology. ‘We were Soviet people (sovki),’ she reflects. ‘We lived for our beliefs in the future happiness of our society, not for the satisfaction of our own needs. There was a moral purity about the way we lived.’26

Liudmila Eliashova grew up in the family of a Latvian Bolshevik. Her father, Leonid, had run away from Riga and joined the Bolsheviks in Petrograd as a teenager in 1917. He was ashamed and resentful of his wealthy Jewish parents, who had been strict and cruel, and part of his attraction to the workers’ movement was its Spartan way of life, which, as he acknowledged in a letter to his wife in 1920, he embraced as a ‘renunciation of my bourgeois class’. According to his daughter Liudmila, Leonid attached personal significance to the words of the Internationale, ‘We renounce the old world / We shake its dust from our feet!’ ‘He needed to renounce not just his class,’ she says, ‘but also his family, and the lifestyle to which he had grown accustomed, with its comfortable apartments and dachas, fine cuisine, fashionable clothes, games of tennis, and much more.’ He brought up his daughters, Liudmila (born in 1921) and Marksena (in 1923), to be ashamed of any wealth or comfort that set them higher than the working class. He would tell them that they should feel guilty eating a good breakfast, when there were other children, poorer than themselves, who had less to eat. At mealtimes he would say: ‘It is shameful we are eating fish or sausage when everybody else eats bread and eggs. What makes us better than others?’ He believed strongly in the ‘Party Maximum’ – a system of capping the salaries of Party members in the 1920s – and brought up his family to live within its means. The girls were not allowed to buy new shoes unless the old ones were literally falling apart. They were allowed sweets only on the major Soviet holidays. ‘We lived very modestly,’ recalls Liudmila.

The Whisperers

Leonid Eliashov, 1932

Our furniture was cheap – it was all purchased from the government. We ate simply, our clothes were plain. I never saw my father wearing anything but his military uniform, a vest and boots. Mother had her ‘special outfit’ for the theatre and one or two other dresses, but that was all… Trips to the theatre were our only luxury – that and lots of books.

Like many children of 1917, Liudmila and her sister were brought up to believe that self-denial was synonymous with moral purity and with the revolutionary struggle for the future happiness of everyone. In 1936, she wrote on the cover of her diary: ‘Suffering destroys the insignificant and hardens the strong.’27

For some families, the asceticism of the Party activist was too much of a strain. The Voitinskys are a case in point. Iosif Voitinsky was born in St Petersburg in 1884 to a liberal family of Russified Jews. His father was a professor of mathematics, his brother Nikolai an engineer, and, like his other brother, Vladimir, Iosif was a graduate of the Law Faculty at St Petersburg University. The family was broken up by the October Revolution. Iosif’s parents fled to Finland. Vladimir, a former Menshevik and a leading figure in the Provisional Government of 1917, emigrated to Berlin, where he became a vocal critic of the Bolsheviks. Iosif and his sister Nadezhda were the only members of the family who remained in Petrograd. Like Vladimir, Iosif was a former Menshevik, but he hoped to make good by joining the Bolsheviks and fighting in the Civil War. To prove his loyalty he even wrote to his brother in Berlin – no doubt with an eye to the letter being read by his superiors – pleading with him to ‘re-evaluate his political principles and return to Soviet Russia for our common work’. Terrified of punishment for his brother’s counter-revolutionary activity, Iosif gave himself entirely to the Party’s cause. ‘Because of my sins in a former life, they have only made me a probationary member,’ he wrote to Nikolai, ‘but I am taking on a lot of Party duties, and like a good Communist, I am always ready to be sent to hell.’28

In fact he was sent to Yekaterinoslav, where he worked in the legal department of the local trade union organization. Iosif lived with his wife Aleksandra in a damp and barely furnished basement room. ‘We cannot find anything better,’ Aleksandra wrote to Nadezhda in 1922. ‘Everywhere is very expensive and only the NEPmen can afford the rent. As for our domestic life, we are lacking the most basic things – linen,clothes, needles, thread. In a word, we are lacking everything.’ Iosif was too preoccupied to deal with such ‘domestic details’. He was ‘impractical and disorderly in everything except his work’, according to his wife. The couple had no money, because the ‘Party Maximum’ left them with a small amount, most of which they sent to Iosif’s mother in Finland. Aleksandra did her best to supplement their income by picking up casual jobs. But she resented having to work and blamed the Party for ruining her ‘dreams of a family’. In 1922, Aleksandra had an abortion. As she explained in a letter to Nadezhda, she had wanted to have the child but had terminated her pregnancy because she was ‘worn down by ill health’ and did not want to ‘add to Iosif’s burdens’ at a time when he was ‘weighed down by his Party work’. The couple’s marriage was suffering. There were constant arguments about money. Iosif had been having an affair with another woman, who gave birth to a son in 1924, and he was supporting them financially as well. Relations with Aleksandra were strained to breaking-point. Iosif would often go away on Party work, either to Moscow, where he taught a course on labour law, or to the Kuban, where he worked for the trade unions. ‘I rarely see my Iosif,’ Aleksandra wrote to Nadezhda in 1925. ‘It makes me bitter that it has ended up this way, but such is our way of life these days. There is no place for private life, and we must bury romance as a relic of the past.’29

The Whisperers

Iosif and Aleksandra, Yekaterinoslav, 1924


The Bolsheviks saw education as the key to the creation of a new society. Through the schools and the Communist leagues for children and youth (the Pioneers and the Komsomol) they aimed to indoctrinate the next generation in the new collective way of life. As one of the theorists of Soviet schooling declared in 1918:

We must make the young into a generation of Communists. Children, like soft wax, are very malleable and they should be moulded into good Communists… We must rescue children from the harmful influence of the family… We must nationalise them. From the earliest days of their little lives, they must find themselves under the beneficent influence of Communist schools… To oblige the mother to give her child to the Soviet state – that is our task.30

The primary mission of the Soviet school was to remove children from the ‘petty-bourgeois’ family, where the old mentalities of private life undermined the cultivation of social instincts, and to inculcate in them the public values of a Communist society. ‘The young person should be taught to think in terms of “we”,’ wrote Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commissar for Education, in 1918, ‘and all private interests should be left behind.’31

The dissemination of Communist values was the guiding principle of the Soviet school curriculum. In this sense, as Soviet educational thinkers acknowledged, the role of Marxism in Soviet schools was similar to the role of religion in tsarist schools. In the more experimental schools there was a strong emphasis on learning through practical activities rather than theory. Even in the United Labour Schools, which were meant to provide a national framework for all Soviet schoolchildren from the primary level to university, the programme was usually organized around a series of workshops (instead of classrooms) where children were taught technical and craft skills as an introduction to the mainstream academic subjects, particularly science and economy.32

Political indoctrination was geared towards producing activists. The propaganda image of the ideal child was a precocious political orator mouthing agitprop. Communism could not be taught from books, educational thinkers maintained. It had to be instilled through the whole life of the school, which was in turn to be connected to the broader world of politics through extra-curricular activities, such as celebrating Soviet holidays, joining public marches, reading newspapers and organizing school debates and trials. The idea was to initiate the children into the practices, cults and rituals of the Soviet system so that they would grow up to become loyal and active Communists.

Children were indoctrinated in the cult of ‘Uncle Lenin’ from an early age. At kindergartens they were called ‘October children’ (oktiabriata) from the moment they were able to point towards the picture of the Soviet leader. After Lenin’s death, when it was feared that a generation of children would grow up without knowing who he was, schools were instructed to establish ‘Lenin Corners’, political shrines for the display of propaganda about the god-like founder of the Soviet state. Legendary tales about Lenin and the other heroes of the Revolution were an important means of political education. Most children did not understand the ideology of the Soviet state – they saw the Revolution as a simple struggle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – but they could identify with the heroic deeds of the revolutionaries.

The Whisperers

A Lenin Corner, 1920s

Progressive schools were organized as miniature versions of the Soviet state: work plans and achievements were displayed in graphs and pie-charts on the walls; classes were organized like regiments; and the daily running of the school was regulated by a bureaucratic structure of councils and committees, which introduced the children to the adult world of Soviet politics. There were schools where the children were encouraged to organize their own police; where they were invited to write denunciations against pupils who had broken the school rules; and where they even held classroom trials. To instil an ethos of collective obedience some schools introduced a system of politicized drilling, with marches, songs and oaths of allegiance to the Soviet leadership. ‘We marched as a class on public holidays,’ recalls Ida Slavina of her schooldays in Leningrad. ‘We were proud to march as the representatives of our school. When we passed a building with people watching from the windows, we would slow down and chant in unison: “Home-sitters, window-watchers – shame on you!”’33

Aleksei Radchenko was born in 1910 to a family of famous revolutionaries. His uncle Stepan was a veteran of the Marxist underground movement from its pre-Lenin days, while his father Ivan was a founding member of the Bolshevik Party, charged with developing the Soviet peat industry (seen as a vital source of energy) after 1917. The family lived in Shatura, a small town to the east of Moscow, in a large and comfortable house near the power plant, which turned peat into electricity for the Soviet capital. Aleksei’s mother Alisia came from a petty-bourgeois German-Swedish family in Tallinn, and there were traces of that middle-class upbringing in her personal tastes, in her aspirations to respectability and in her preoccupation with domestic happiness. But ideologically she was committed to the Communist ideal of sweeping away this old bourgeois culture and creating a new type of human being. A pioneer of Soviet pedagogical theories and a close associate of Krupskaia in her educational work, Alisia saw the schooling of her son as a laboratory for his communistic education. Her theories were derived largely from the ideas of Pyotr Lesgaft, the founder of Russian physical education, whose lectures she attended in St Petersburg in 1903–4, and from the writings of Maksim Gorky, in whose honour she had named her son (Gorky’s real name was Aleksei Peshkov). She taught Aleksei languages, made him study the piano and the violin, set him chores around the house and the garden allotment to encourage his respect for manual labour and arranged visits to the houses of the poor to develop his social conscience. The head of Shatura’s United Labour School from October 1917, Alisia organized the school as a commune, combining academic lessons with agricultural labour on a farm so the children would understand from the beginning what it was to live a communist life.34

Aleksei was brought up to venerate his father and other revolutionaries. A sickly boy who suffered from a spine disease that made it hard for him to walk, Aleksei lived in a world of bookish fantasies. He idolized Lenin and took to heart his father’s words of encouragement that he ‘should become like him’. Hearing about Lenin’s mortal illness in December 1923, he confessed to his diary: ‘I would run away from home and give Lenin all my blood, if that would help save his life.’ After the Soviet leader died, Aleksei set up a Lenin Corner in his room, covering the walls with pictures of the Soviet leader and texts of speeches which he learned by heart. Alisia kept a journal of Aleksei’s political development, which she filled with entries from his diaries, examples of his school-work and drawings, supplemented by her own commentaries on the education of her son. As she herself described it, her journal was a ‘scientific log’ that might serve as a ‘guide to the question of Communist education in families and schools’. Alisia encouraged her son to mix with the other children in Shatura – who came from the families of the mainly peasant workers at the power plant – and tried to make him feel that he was a leader of these less privileged friends by arranging games and activities for them at their large house. ‘Follow the example of your father,’ Alisia wrote in the margins of her son’s diary.

The Whisperers

Aleksei and Ivan Radchenko, 1927

‘Learn to be a leader to your little friends, just as he is a leader to the working class.’ Encouraged by his mother, Aleksei established a ‘secret’ organization with some of his school comrades: the Central Bureau of the Russian Committee of the Association of Children of the World. They had their own insignia, their own revolutonary song (‘The Beginning’) written for the children by Alisia and their own home-made red banners, with which they marched through Shatura on public holidays.35

The children of 1917 were encouraged to play at being revolutionaries. Soviet educational thinkers were influenced by the ideas of ‘learning through play’ promoted by European pedagogues such as Friedrich Froebel and Maria Montessori. They saw structured play as an educational experience though which children would assimilate the Soviet values of collectivity, social activism and responsibility. The whole purpose of the Soviet school, with its wall newspapers, Lenin Corners, councils and committees, was to instil in children the idea that they too were potential revolutionaries and should be ready to rise up in revolt – if necessary, against their own parents – if called upon to do so by the Party leadership. Raisa Berg, who grew up in an intelligentsia family in Leningrad during the 1920s, recalls her schoolfriends’ comradeship and readiness for battle:

The students of our class were united by a great spirit of friendship, trust and solidarity. Between ourselves and our wonderful teachers, whom we all loved, without exception, there was nevertheless a ceaseless battle, a real class war. We had no need for calculated strategies or conspiracies, we lived according to an unwritten code: the only thing that mattered was loyalty to our comrades. We could not tell our parents anything: they might betray us to the teachers.36

One of the most popular courtyard games of the 1920s was Reds and Whites, a Soviet Cowboys and Indians in which the events of the Civil War were played out by the children, often using air-guns (pugachi) marketed especially for the game. Reds and Whites often ended up in actual fights, for all the boys wanted to be Lenin, as one of them recalls:

We would fight for the right to play the role of the leader. Everybody wanted to be the Reds, the Bolsheviks, and no one wanted to be the Whites, the Mensheviks. Only the grown-ups could end these quarrels – by suggesting that we fight without assigning names, and whoever won would be the Bolsheviks.

Another game was Search and Requisition, in which one group (usually the boys) would play the role of a Red Army requisitioning brigade and another group (the girls) would act as ‘bourgeois speculators’ or ‘kulak’ peasants hiding grain.37

Games like Reds and Whites and Search and Requisition encouraged children to accept the Soviet division of the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Studies carried out in Soviet schools in the 1920s showed that children, on the whole, were ignorant about the basic facts of recent history (many pupils did not know what a tsar was) but that they had been influenced by the dark and threatening images of the supporters of the old regime in Soviet propaganda, books and films. These images encouraged many children to believe that ‘hidden enemies’ continued to exist, a belief that was likely to produce irrational fears, hysteria and aggression against any sign of the old regime. One young schoolgirl asked her teacher: ‘Do the bourgeois eat children?’ Another, who had seen a classmate wearing an old shirt with a crown embossed on the starched cuff, suddenly shouted out in class: ‘Look, he is a supporter of the tsar!’38

Many of the children of 1917 had their first experience of politics in the Pioneers. Established in 1922, the Pioneer organization was modelled on the Scout movement, one of the last independent public bodies in Communist Russia which had been outlawed by the Soviet government in 1920. The ethos of the Scouts, which had sought to foster in its youthful members a sense of public duty through practical activities, continued to prevail in many of the Pioneer organizations (as it did in some elite Soviet schools) during the 1920s. About one-fifth of Soviet children between the ages of ten and fourteen were enrolled in the Pioneers by 1925, and the fraction increased in subsequent years. Like the Scouts, the Pioneers had their own moral codes and rituals. They had an oath which every Pioneer was meant to learn by heart (many can recall it after three-quarters of a century): ‘I, a Young Pioneer of the Soviet Union, before my comrades do solemnly swear to be true to the precepts of Lenin, to stand firmly for the cause of our Communist Party and for the cause of Communism.’ The Pioneers did a lot of marching and singing, gymnastics and sport. They had a responsive chant (‘Pioneers, be prepared!’ Answer: ‘Always prepared!’) which was borrowed from the Red Army. They were organized in brigades. They had their own banners, flags and songs, and their own uniform (a white shirt and a red scarf), which was a source of immense pride and, it seems, for many the main attraction of the Pioneers. ‘I did not understand the obligations of the movement. Like everybody else, I just wanted the red scarf,’ recalls one Pioneer. Vera Minusova, who joined the Pioneers in Perm in 1928, remembers: ‘I liked the uniform, especially the scarf, which I ironed every day and wore to school. These were the only smart and neat clothes I had. I was proud and felt grown-up when I wore them.’ Valerii Frid, a schoolboy in Moscow in the 1920s, was so proud of his red scarf that he slept with it on for several nights after he joined the Pioneers.39

The Whisperers

Vera Minusova, early 1930s

Through the Pioneers Soviet children experienced a strong sense of social inclusion. Every child wanted to become a Pioneer. It was glamorous and exciting to be a Pioneer, and the red scarf was an important mark of social acceptance and equality. Children excluded from the Pioneers – as many of them were, because of their social background – experienced intense feelings of shame and inferiority. Maria Drozdova was expelled from the Pioneers because she came from a ‘kulak’ family. So intense was her desire to be reinstated that she wore the scarf concealed underneath her shirt for many years. Sofia Ozemblovskaia, the daughter of a Polish nobleman, was banned from the Pioneers after she was spotted in church. She still recalls her expulsion with emotion:

Suddenly they posted an announcement – a ‘news flash’ – on the wall-newspaper in the corridor at school: ‘Form lines immediately!’ Children came running out of all the classrooms and formed ranks in the playground. I was made to stand in front of the whole brigade to be shamed. The children shouted: ‘See what shame she has brought to our brigade by going to the church!’ ‘She is not worthy of the scarf!’ ‘She has no right to wear the scarf!’ They threw dirt at me. Then they tried to tear the scarf from me. I began to cry. I shouted: ‘I won’t give you the scarf! I won’t give you the scarf!’ I fell down on my knees and begged them not to take the scarf from me. But they took it all the same. From that day on, I was no longer a Pioneer.40

The purpose of the Pioneer organization was to indoctrinate Soviet children in Communist values and discipline. The were subject to the same regime of ‘work plans’ and ‘reviews’ used in the Komsomol and the Party. According to the psychologist and educational theorist A. B. Zalkind, the Party’s leading spokesman on the social conditioning of the personality, the aim of the Pioneer movement was to train ‘revolutionary-Communist fighters fully freed from the class poisons of bourgeois ideology’. Krupskaia believed that the Pioneers would replace the family as the main influence on Soviet children. Pioneers were taught to be hard-working and obedient, pure in thought and deed. ‘Through the Pioneers I learned to be smart and tidy, to finish all my tasks on time, and to be disciplined in everything I did,’ reflects Minusova. ‘These became my principles for life.’41

Pioneers were activists. There was a wide range of club activities – organizing demonstrations, editing wall-newspapers, voluntary work (subbotniki),* plays and concerts – designed to instil social activism and a sense of leadership in the Pioneers. Vasily Romashkin was born in 1914 to a peasant family in Moscow province. Looking back on his school career and his involvement in the Pioneers during the 1920s, he recalls this emphasis on public activity:

What did being a ‘Soviet person’ mean? It meant loving the Soviet motherland, working hard and setting an example, as we were taught at school and in the Pioneers. I took these words to heart. In my third school year [in 1924] I was already the chairman of the school committee. Later I became the chairman of the school court, a prosecutor in school trials, and deputy chairman of the school’s trade union. I was an active Pioneer. Through the Pioneers I learned to love my school and country more than my own family. I loved the head-teacher of our village school as if she were my own mother.42

Not all Pioneers were as active as Romashkin. For many children, the activities of the Pioneers were really just a form of play. Ida Slavina, the daughter of a prominent Soviet jurist, recalls forming her own club in the apartment block where she grew up in Leningrad:

I liked to read the children’s journal Murzilka, which had on its cover the slogan: ‘Mama! Papa! We shall overthrow your power!’ The journal called on children to establish a new way of life by pooling all their toys and organizing themselves as a club, similar to the Pioneers. I was the leader of the children on our staircase. I read aloud from the journal and explained the meaning of the articles to the members of my club. The building administration allowed us to use a basement room for our meetings. We covered the walls with pictures of our revolutionary heroes, and stored all our toys there.43

Other Pioneers were more serious about their political activities. Encouraged by their seniors, they would imitate the practices of adult Communists and perform the roles of bureaucrats and policemen. These precocious enthusiasts would bring briefcases to ‘executive meetings’, where they would speak in Party slogans, recording formal minutes, and denounce those teachers they suspected of holding counter-revolutionary views. There were even Pioneers who helped the police hunt out ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’ by acting as informers on the street.44

At the age of fifteen, Soviet children progressed from the Pioneers to the Komsomol. Not all children made the transition. In 1925, the Komsomol had a million members – about 4 per cent of the Komsomolage young (from the age of fifteen to twenty-three) – a fraction five times smaller than the percentage of children in the Pioneers.45 To join the Komsomol was to enter on a career path towards Party membership. There were many jobs and college courses that were open only to members of the Komsomol, or which selected such members over candidates who were better qualified. Nina Vishniakova recalls joining the Komsomol as a ‘huge event’:

To this day [she wrote in 1990] I can remember every word of the rule book – it stirred so many feelings in me: I recall thinking that I was now suddenly a responsible adult… It seemed to me that I could do far more than I had been able to do before I joined. It had always been my dream to belong to the Soviet elite, to achieve something important, and now that dream was coming true.46

The poet Yevgeny Dolmatovsky, who was born in 1915 to a family of Moscow lawyers, recalls his graduation from the Pioneers to the Komsomol in 1930. Arriving late at the admission meeting, Dolmatovsky was reprimanded by the secretary of the Komsomol, who said that he was ‘evidently not mature enough to join the Komsomol’ and was ‘only joining as a careerist’. When Dolmatovsky told his father about the incident, he was criticized for making light of it. ‘They are watching you,’ his father warned, ‘and you must prove that you are ready to give yourself to them.’ At the next meeting Dolmatovsky was questioned by a girl, who asked him if he was ‘ready to sacrifice his life for Soviet power’.47

Belonging to the Komsomol entailed accepting the orders, rules and ethics of the Communist Party. Members of the Komsomol were supposed to put their loyalty to the Revolution above their loyalty to the family. They were no longer children, but young Communists, expected, like Party members, to live their lives in the public sphere. The Komsomol functioned as a reserve army of youthful activists and enthusiasts for the Party, providing volunteers for Party work as well as spies and informers ready to denounce corruption and abuse. Such tasks held a broad appeal for Soviet youth in the 1920s and 1930s, shaped as they were by the ideals of the Revolution and the Civil War, when action and energy had carried the day. Many young people joined the Komsomol not because they were Communists, but because they were activists: they wanted to do something, and there was no other channel for their social energy.48 Members were charged with exposing ‘class enemies’ among parents and teachers and, as if in training for the job, took part in mock trials of ‘counter-revolutionaries’ in schools and colleges.

Born too late (between 1905 and 1915) to be raised in the values of the old society, and too young to have taken part in the bloody fighting of the Civil War, these young activists had a highly romantic view of the Revolution’s ‘heroic period’. ‘We yearned to be associated with the revolutionaries, our older brothers and fathers,’ recalls Romashkin. ‘We identified ourselves with their struggle. We dressed like them, in a military style, and spoke a type of army jargon, which we copied from the older village boys who had brought this language home from the Red Army.’ The activists embraced the Spartan culture of the Bolsheviks with a vengeance. Having grown up in the barren economic landscape of the First World War, the Revolution and the Civil War, they were no strangers to austerity. Even so, they were especially militant in their ascetic rejection of all personal (‘bourgeois’) wealth and pleasure that detracted from the revolutionary struggle. Some formed communes and pooled all their money and possessions to ‘abolish individualism’. In moral terms, too, they were absolutists, struggling to break free of the old conventions.49

The Komsomol idealists of the 1920s were a special group – one that would play a major role in the Stalinist regime. Their guiding ethos was described by Mikhail Baitalsky, a Komsomol activist in the Odessa region, who formed a club together with his friends. ‘Everyone was pure, ready to give his life if need be to defend Communism,’ Baitalsky writes in his memoirs. ‘Those who showed off or complained were called rotten intellectuals. “Rotten intellectual” was one of the most insulting labels. Only “self-seeker” was worse.’ In these circles there was total commitment to the Party’s cause. Nobody was shocked, for example, when it was reported that an agent of the Cheka (the political police) had confiscated his own father’s hardware shop for the Revolution’s needs. Thoughts of personal happiness were considered shameful, and should be banished. The Revolution demanded the sacrifice of today’s pleasures for a better life in the future. As Baitalsky put it:

With hopes fixed on the future, a feeling of personal participation in the world revolution, which was imminent, and a readiness to share full responsibility for it, we felt uplifted and fortified in all matters, even in very ordinary ones. It was like waiting for a train that was to take us somewhere to accomplish something wonderful and happily straining to hear its whistle in the distance…50

Intimate relations between young men and women were seen as a distraction from the collective passion for Revolution. Marriage was dismissed as a ‘bourgeois’ convention. ‘It is inadmissable to have thoughts of personal relationships,’ declared a Komsomol activist in the Red Putilov Factory in Leningrad in 1926. ‘Such ideas belong to an era – before the October Revolution – that has long passed.’51 Baitalsky had a long courtship with a Jewish girl called Yeva, the secretary of the local Komsomol cell. But there was little opportunity for romance because Yeva was zealously devoted to her work, and all he could hope for was to hold her hand and steal a kiss when he walked her home from Komsomol meetings. Eventually they married, and Yeva had a son, whom they named Vi, in honour of Lenin (the letters of Lenin’s first two names). In 1927, Baitalsky was expelled as a ‘Trotskyist counter-revolutionary’, following the expulsion of Trotsky from the Party. Yeva put her loyalty to the Party first. Assuming that her husband had been guilty of counter-revolutionary activity, she renounced him and made him leave their home. Baitalsky was arrested in 1929.

Looking back on these events from the perspective of the 1970s, Baitalsky thought that Yeva was a good person, but that her goodness had retreated before a sense of duty to the Party, whose articles of faith had predefined her response to ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the world. She had subordinated her own personality and powers of reason to the collective and ‘unapproachable authority’ of the Party. There were ‘tens of thousands’ of Yevas among the Bolsheviks, and their unquestioned acceptance of the Party’s judgement persisted even as the Revolution gave way to the Stalinist dictatorship:

These people did not degenerate. On the contrary, they changed too little. Their internal world remained as before, preventing them from seeing what had begun to change in the outside world. Their misfortune was their conservatism (I would call it ‘revolutionary conservatism’), expressed in their unchanging devotion… to the standards and definitions acquired during the first years of the Revolution. It was even possible to convince such people that for the good of the Revolution they needed to confess to being spies. And many were convinced, and they died believing in the revolutionary necessity for doing so.52


‘We Communists are people of a special brand,’ Stalin said in 1924. ‘We are made of better stuff… There is nothing higher than the honour of belonging to this army.’ The Bolsheviks saw themselves as the bearers of virtues and responsibilities that distinguished them from the rest of society. In his influential book on Party Ethics (1925), Aron Solts compared the Bolsheviks to the aristocracy in tsarist times. ‘Today,’ he wrote, ‘it is we who form the ruling class… It is according to how we live, dress, value this or that relationship, according to how we behave that customs will be established in our country.’ As a ruling proletarian caste, it was unacceptable for the Bolsheviks to mix closely with people from a different social class. It was ‘bad taste’, for example, argued Solts, for a Bolshevik to take a wife from a class outside the proletariat, and such marriages were to be condemned in the same way as ‘the marriage of a count to a housemaid would have been condemned in the last century’.53

The ethos of the Party rapidly came to dominate every aspect of public life in Soviet Russia, just as the ethos of the aristocracy had dominated public life in tsarist Russia. Lenin himself compared the Bolsheviks to the nobility, and indeed, joining the Party after 1917 was like moving up a class. It brought preferment to bureaucratic posts, an elite status and privileges, and a personal share in the Party-state. By the end of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks had entrenched themselves in all the leading positions of the government, whose bureaucracy ballooned as almost every aspect of life in Soviet Russia was brought under state control. By 1921, the Soviet bureaucracy was ten times bigger than the tsarist state had ever been. There were 2.4 million state officials, more than twice the number of industrial workers in Russia. They formed the main social base of the regime.

Elite attitudes took root very quickly in the families of Bolsheviks, and they were passed down to their children. The majority of Soviet schoolchildren took it for granted that Party members had a higher status than other members of society, according to a study using controlled games in various schools in 1925. Left to themselves to decide a dispute between two boys, the other children usually decided in favour of the boy who claimed priority on the grounds that his parents were Bolsheviks. The study suggested that Soviet schools had engineered an important change in children’s values, replacing the old sense of fairness and equality that had once ruled within the working class with a new hierarchical system. The children of Party members had a well-developed sense of entitlement. In one controlled game a group of children were playing trains. The boys wanted the train to go and would not wait for a little girl to get aboard, but the girl said: ‘The train will wait. My husband works in the GPU [the political police] and I do as well.’ She then boarded the train and demanded to be given a free ticket.54

The defining qualification of this self-proclaimed elite was ‘Communist morality’. The Bolshevik Party identified itself as a moral as well as political vanguard, whose messianic sense of leadership demanded that its members prove their worthiness to belong to that elite. As one of the elect, every member was obliged to demonstrate that his private conduct and convictions conformed to the Party’s interests. He had to show himself to be a true believer in Communism; to demonstrate that he possessed a higher moral and political consciousness than the mass of the population; that he was honest, disciplined, hard-working and selflessly devoted to the cause. This was not a moral system in the conventional sense. The Bolsheviks rejected the idea of abstract or Christian morality as a form of ‘bourgeois oppression’. Rather, it was a system in which all moral questions were subordinated to the Revolution’s needs. ‘Morality,’ wrote one Party theorist in 1924, ‘is what helps the proletariat in the class struggle. Immorality is everything that hinders it.’55

Belief was the crucial moral quality of every ‘conscious’ Bolshevik. It distinguished the true Communist from the ‘careerist’ who joined the Party for personal ends. And belief was synonymous with a clear conscience. The Party purges and show trials were conceived as an inquisition into the soul of the accused to expose the truth of his or her beliefs (hence the importance attached to confessions, which were regarded as the revelation of the hidden self). Belief, moreover, was a public matter rather than a private one. Perhaps it was connected with the Orthodox tradition of public confession and penance, which was so different from the private nature of confession in the Christian West. Whatever the case, Communist morality left no room for the Western notion of the conscience as a private dialogue with the inner self. The Russian word for ‘conscience’ in this sense (sovest’) almost disappeared from official use after 1917. It was replaced by the word soznatel’nost’, which carries the idea of consciousness or the capacity to reach a higher moral judgement and understanding of the world. In Bolshevik discourse soznatel’nost’ signified the attainment of a higher moral-revolutionary logic, that is, Marxist-Leninist ideology.56

Not all Bolsheviks were expected to possess a detailed knowledge of the Party’s ideology, of course. Among the rank and file it was enough to be involved in the daily practice of its rituals – its oaths and songs, ceremonies, cults and codes of conduct – just as the believers of an organized religion performed their belief when they attended church. But the Party’s doctrines were to be taken as articles of faith by all its followers. Its collective judgement was to be accepted as Justice. Accused of crimes by the leadership, the Party member was expected to repent, to go down on his knees before the Party and welcome its verdict against him. To defend oneself was to add another crime: dissent from the will of the Party. This explains why so many Bolsheviks surrendered to their fate in the purges, even when they were innocent of the crimes of which they stood accused. Their attitude was revealed in a conversation reported by a friend of the Bolshevik leader Iurii Piatakov not long after Piatakov’s expulsion from the Party as a Trotskyist in 1927. To earn his readmission Piatakov had recanted many of his oldest political beliefs, but this did not make him a coward, as his friend had charged. Rather, as Piatakov explained, it showed that

a true Bolshevik will readily cast out from his mind ideas in which he has believed for years. A true Bolshevik has submerged his personality in the collectivity, ‘the Party’, to such an extent that he can make the necessary effort to break away from his own opinions and convictions… He would be ready to believe that black was white and white was black, if the Party required it.57

Nevertheless, because he had changed his views so radically, Piatakov, like other ‘renegades’, was never fully trusted or believed by Stalin, who ordered his arrest in 1936.

The purges began long before Stalin’s rise to power. They had their origins in the Civil War, when the Party’s ranks grew rapidly and its leaders were afraid of being swamped by careerists and ‘self-seekers’. The targets of the early purges were entire social groups: ‘regenerate bourgeois elements’, ‘kulaks’, and so on. Bolsheviks from a working-class background were exempt from scrutiny, unless a specific denunciation had been made against them at a purge meeting. But during the 1920s there was a gradual shift in the practice of the purge, with a growing emphasis on the private conduct and convictions of individual Bolsheviks.

The shift was accompanied by an ever more elaborate system for the inspection and control of Party members’ private lives. Applicants to join the Party had to demonstrate belief in its ideology. Great stress was placed on when they were converted to the cause, and only those who had fought with the Red Army in the Civil War were taken to have proved their commitment. At regular intervals throughout their lives, Party members were required to write a short autobiography or to complete a questionnaire (anketa), giving details about their social background, their education and career, and the evolution of their political consciousness. These documents were essentially a form of public confession in which the Party members reaffirmed their worthiness to be of the elect. The key thing was to show that the formation of their political consciousness owed everything to the Revolution and the Party’s tutelage.58

A tragic incident at the Leningrad Mining Academy served to buttress the Party’s insistence on supervising its members’ private life. In 1926, a student committed suicide at the academy hostel. It turned out that she had been driven to it by the cruel behaviour of her common-law husband. Konstantin Korenkov was not brought to trial, though he was excluded from the Komsomol on the grounds of ‘moral responsibility for the suicide of a comrade’. The Control Commission of the regional Party organization – a sort of regional Party court – overruled this decision, which it considered harsh, and replaced it with a ‘severe reprimand and warning’. A few weeks later Korenkov and his younger brother robbed the cashier’s office at the Mining Academy, stabbing the cashier to death and wounding his wife. The case was seized upon by Sofia Smidovich, a senior member of the Central Control Commission, the body placed in charge of Party ethics and legality, who portrayed ‘Korenkovism’ as an ‘illness’ whose main symptom was indifference to the morals and behaviour of one’s comrades:

The private life of my comrade is not of my concern. The students’ collective watches how Korenkov locks up his sick, literally bleeding wife – well, that is his private life. He addresses her with curse words and humiliating remarks – nobody interferes. What’s more: in Korenkov’s room a shot resounds, and a student whose room is one floor beneath does not even think it necessary to check out what is going on. He considers it a private affair.

Smidovich argued that it was the task of the collective to enforce moral standards among its members through mutual surveillance and intervention in their private lives. Only this, she argued, would foster real collectivism and a ‘Communist conscience’.59

The system of mutual surveillance and denunciation which Smidovich envisaged was not entirely an invention of the Revolution of 1917. Denunciations had been a part of Russian governance for centuries. Petitions to the tsar against officials who abused their power had played a vital role in the tsarist system, reinforcing the popular myth of a ‘just tsar’ who (in the absence of any courts or other public institutions) protected the people from ‘evil servitors’. In Russian dictionaries the act of ‘denunciation’ (donos) was defined as a civic virtue (‘the revelation of illegal acts’) rather than a selfish or malicious act, and this definition was retained throughout the 1920s and 1930s.60 But under the Soviet regime, the culture of denunciation took on a new meaning and intensity. Soviet citizens were encouraged to report on neighbours, colleagues, friends and even relatives. Vigilance was the first duty of every Bolshevik. ‘Lenin taught us that every Party member should become an agent of the Cheka, that is, he should watch and write reports,’ argued Sergei Gusev, who had risen to become a senior member of the Central Control Commission.61 Party members were instructed to inform on their comrades, if they believed that their private thoughts or conduct threatened Party unity. In factories and barracks a list of candidates for membership was posted outside the office of the Party cell. Members of the collective were then invited to write denunciations against the candidates, pointing out their personal shortcomings (e.g. heavy drinking or rudeness), which would then be discussed at a Party meeting. Reports of private conversations became an increasingly common feature of this denunciatory practice, although some Party leaders expressed reservations about the morality of such actions. At the Fourteenth Party Congress in 1925 it had been decided that reporting on a private conversation was generally to be frowned upon, but not if such conversation was deemed ‘a threat to Party unity’.62

Invitations to denunication were central to the culture of the purge that developed during the 1920s. In Party and Soviet organizations there were regular purge meetings where Party members and officials were made to answer criticisms solicited from the rank and file in the form of written and oral denunciations. These meetings could get very personal, as the young Elena Bonner discovered, when she observed one in the Comintern hostel:

They asked about people’s wives and sometimes about their children. It turned out that some people beat their wives and drank a lot of vodka. Batanya [Bonner’s grandmother] would have said that decent people don’t ask such questions. Sometimes the one being purged said that he wouldn’t beat his wife anymore or drink anymore. And a lot of them said about their work that they ‘wouldn’t do it anymore’ and that ‘they understood everything’. Then it resembled being called into the teacher’s room: the teacher sits, you stand, he scolds you, the other teachers smile nastily, and you quickly say, ‘I understand,’ ‘I won’t,’ ‘of course, I was wrong,’ but you don’t mean it, or just want to get out of there to join the other kids at recess. But these people were more nervous than you were with the teacher. Some of them were practically crying. It was unpleasant watching them. Each purge took a long time; some evenings they did three people, sometimes only one.63

Increasingly, there was nothing in the private life of the Bolshevik that was not subject to the gaze and censure of the Party leadership. This public culture, where every member was expected to reveal his inner self to the collective, was unique to the Bolsheviks – there was nothing like it in the Nazi or the Fascist movement, where the individual Nazi or Fascist was allowed to have a private life, so long as he adhered to the Party’s rules and ideology – until the Cultural Revolution in China. Any distinction between private and public life was explicitly rejected by the Bolsheviks. ‘When a comrade says: “What I am doing now concerns my private life and not society,” we say that cannot be correct,’ wrote one Bolshevik in 1924.64 Everything in the Party member’s private life was social and political; everything he did had a direct impact on the Party’s interests. This was the meaning of ‘Party unity’ – the complete fusion of the individual with the public life of the Party.

In his book on Party Ethics, Solts conceived of the Party as a self-policing collective, where every Bolshevik would scrutinize and criticize his comrades’ private motives and behaviour. In this way, he imagined, the individual Bolshevik would come to know himself through the eyes of the Party. Yet in reality this mutual surveillance did just the opposite: it encouraged people to present themselves as conforming to Soviet ideals whilst concealing their true selves in a secret private sphere. Such dissimulation would become widespread in the Soviet system, which demanded the display of loyalty and punished the expression of dissent. During the terror of the 1930s, when secrecy and deception became necessary survival strategies for almost everyone in the Soviet Union, a whole new type of personality and society arose. But this double-life was already a reality for large sections of the population in the 1920s, especially for Party families, who lived in the public eye, and for those whose social background or beliefs made them vulnerable to repression. People learned to wear a mask and act the role of loyal Soviet citizens, even if they lived by other principles in the privacy of their own home.

Talk was dangerous in this society. Family conversations repeated outside the home could lead to arrest and imprisonment. Children were the main source of danger. Naturally talkative, they were too young to understand the political significance of what they overheard. The playground, especially, was a breeding ground of informers. ‘We were taught to hold our tongues and not to speak to anyone about our family,’ recalls the daughter of a middle-ranking Bolshevik official in Saratov:

There were certain rules of listening and talking that we children had to learn. What we overheard the adults say in a whisper, or what we heard them say behind our backs, we knew we could not repeat to anyone. We would be in trouble if we even let them know that we had heard what they had said. Sometimes the adults would say something and then would tell us, ‘The walls have ears,’ or ‘Watch your tongue,’ or some other expression… But mostly, we learned these rules instinctively. No one explained to us that what was spoken might be dangerous politically, but somehow we understood.65

Nina Iakovleva grew up in an atmosphere of silent opposition to the Soviet regime. Her mother came from a noble family in Kostroma that had fled the Bolsheviks in the Civil War; her father was a Socialist Revolutionary* who had been imprisoned after taking part in the large-scale peasant uprising against the Bolsheviks in Tambov province in 1921 (he escaped from jail and ran away to Leningrad, where he was rearrested in 1926 and sentenced to five years in the Suzdal special isolation prison camp). Growing up in the 1920s, Nina knew instinctively that she was not allowed to speak about her father to her friends at school. ‘My mother was demonstratively silent about politics,’ recalls Nina. ‘She made a declaration of her lack of interest in political affairs.’ From this silence Nina learned to hold her tongue. ‘No one laid down specific rules about what could be spoken, but there was a general feeling, an atmosphere within the family, that made it clear to us that we were not to speak about father.’ Nina also learned to mistrust everyone outside her immediate family. ‘I love no one, I love only Mama, Papa and aunt Liuba,’ she wrote to her father in 1926. ‘I only love our family. I love no one else.’66

Galina Adasinskaia was born in 1921 to a family of active oppositionists. Her father was a Socialist Revolutionary; her mother and grandmother Mensheviks (all three were arrested in 1929). In the 1920s, when it was still possible for former SRs and Mensheviks to work in the Soviet government, Galina’s parents lived a double life. Her father worked in the administration of cooperatives, an economic organization promoted by the NEP, and her mother in the Ministry of Trade, yet in private both retained their old political opinions. Galina was protected and excluded from this secret sphere of politics. She was brought up to become a ‘Soviet child’ (she joined the Pioneers and the Komsomol). ‘Politics was something that my parents did at work, or wrote about. But at home they never spoke about such things… They thought of politics as a dirty business.’67

The households Nina and Galina were brought up in may have been extreme, but the rules of silence which they learned instinctively were observed by many families. Sofia Ozemblovskaia, the daughter of the Polish nobleman who was banned from the Pioneers after being spotted at church, lived with her family in the front half of a wooden house in a village near Minsk. ‘At home we never talked about politics or anything like that,’ she remembers. ‘Father always said, “The walls have ears.” Once he even showed us how to hear our neighbours’ conversation by listening through a glass against the wall. Then we understood. From then on we too were afraid of our neighbours.’68

Liubov (Liuba) Tetiueva was born in 1923 in Cherdyn, a small town in the Urals. Her father, Aleksandr, an Orthodox priest, was arrested in 1922 and held in prison for the best part of a year. After his release he was put under pressure by OGPU (the political police) to become an informer and write reports on his own parishioners, but he refused. The Cherdyn soviet deprived the Tetiuevs of civil rights and a rationing card when rationing was introduced in 1929.* Aleksandr’s church was taken over by the ‘renovationists’ (obnovlentsy), church reformers who sought to simplify the Orthodox liturgy and who had the backing of the Soviet regime. Shortly afterwards, Aleksandr was arrested for a second time, following a denunciation by the obnovlentsy, who accused him of sowing ‘discord among believers’ (by refusing to join them). Liubov’s mother was dismissed from her job in the Cherdyn Museum, where she worked on the library catalogue, while the elder of her two brothers was expelled from his school and the Komsomol. The family depended on the earnings of Liubov’s older sister, who worked as a schoolteacher. Liubov recalls her childhood in the 1920s:

The Whisperers

The Tetiuev family (Liubov, aged four, seated centre), Cherdyn, 1927

If my parents needed to talk about something important, they would always go outside the house and speak to one another in whispers. Sometimes they would talk with my grandmother in the yard. They never held such conversations in front of the children – never… Not once did they have an argument or talk critically about Soviet power – though they had much to criticize – not once in any case that we could hear. The one thing my mother always said to us was: ‘Don’t you lot go chattering, don’t go chattering. The less you hear the better.’ We grew up in a house of whisperers.69


Many families experienced a growing generation split during the 1920s: the customs and habits of the old society remained dominant in the private spaces of the home, where seniority ruled, but young people were increasingly exposed to the influence of Soviet propaganda through school, the Pioneers and the Komsomol. For the older generation the situation posed a moral dilemma: on the one hand, they wanted to pass down family traditions and beliefs to their children; on the other, they had to bring them up as Soviet citizens.

Grandparents were the main transmitters of traditional values in most families. The grandmother, in particular, played a special role, taking prime responsibility for the upbringing of the children and the running of the household, if both the parents worked, or playing an important auxiliary role, if the mother worked part-time. In the words of the poet Vladimir Kornilov, ‘It seemed that in our years there were no mothers. / There were only grandmothers.’70 The influence of the grandmother was felt in a variety of ways. By running the household, the grandmother had a direct effect on children’s manners and habits. She told the children stories of ‘the old days’ (before 1917), which in time could serve as a reference-point or counterweight to Soviet history, enabling them to question the propaganda they were fed in school. She kept alive the cultural values of the nineteenth century by reading to the children from pre-revolutionary Russian literature, little read in Soviet schools, or by taking them to the theatre, galleries or concert halls.71

Elena Bonner was brought up by her grandmother. ‘Batania, not Mama, was the centre of my life,’ she later wrote. As Party activists, Elena’s mother and father were often absent from the Bonner home. In her relationship with her grandmother Elena found the love and affection she longed for but did not receive from her parents. Batania provided a moral counterbalance to the Soviet influence of Elena’s mother and father. As a child, Elena was aware that her grandmother – a plump but ‘astonishingly beautiful’ woman with a ‘calm and imperious manner’ – inhabited a different world from the Soviet one in which her parents lived.

Batania’s friends and acquaintances rarely came to our building, where only she and the children were not Party members. But I often went with her to call on them. I saw that they lived differently – they had different dishes, different furniture. (At our house Batania was the only one with normal furniture and a few nice things…) They talked about everything differently. I felt (this impression definitely came from Papa and Mama) that they were a different sort of people – what I couldn’t tell was whether they were worse or better.

The Whisperers

Batania Bonner with her grandchildren (from left: Zoria, Elena, Yegorka), Moscow, 1929

Batania’s conservative moral outlook was rooted in the world of the Russian-Jewish bourgeoisie. She was hard-working, strict but caring, entirely dedicated to the family. During the 1920s Batania worked as a ‘specialist’ (spets) – a much-derided but still necessary class of ‘bourgeois’ experts and technicians – in the Leningrad customs office, where she was an accountant. She earned more than Bonner’s parents on the ‘Party Maximum’. Batania had old-fashioned frugal attitudes about money and housekeeping that were a source of constant friction with the ‘Soviet regime’ Elena’s parents imposed on the household. She read a lot but ‘stubbornly refused to read contemporary literature’ and did not go, ‘on principle’, to the cinema, such was her disdain for the modern world. She had ‘nothing but scorn for the new order’, talked disaparagingly of the Party leaders and scolded her own daughter for the excesses of the Bolshevik dictatorship. When she was really angry she would say things starting with the phrase: ‘Let me remind you that before that Revolution of yours…’ After the Soviet government banned the Shrovetide holiday, the most colourful in the Orthodox calendar, Batania, who sympathized with all old customs, told her granddaughter: ‘Well, you can thank your mummy and daddy for this.’ Not surprisingly, Elena was confused by the clash of values in her family. ‘There was a colossal conflict over our education,’ she recalls in interview.

Grandmother would bring home books for me from the Children’s Golden Library, various stupidities, and Mama disapprovingly would purse her lips, though she never dared say anything to grandmother. Mama brought home different books, Pavel Korchagin,* for example, which she brought home for me in manuscript, and I read that too. I didn’t know which type of book I liked better.

Elena loved her grandmother and respected her ‘more than anyone else in the world’, but, not surprisingly, she wanted to identify with her parents and their world: ‘I always perceived Papa’s and Mama’s friends as my own kind and Batania’s as strangers. In essence, I already belonged to the Party.’72

In the Moscow home of Anatoly Golovnia, the cameraman for most of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s films in the 1920s and 1930s, Anatoly’s mother Lydia Ivanovna was a domineering influence. Born into a Greek merchant family from Odessa, she had been educated at the Smolny Institute, where she acquired the refined attitudes and habits of the Russian aristocracy. Lydia passed on these customs to the Golovnia household, which she ran with iron discipline in the ‘Russian Victorian’ manner. Lydia was contemptuous of the ‘vulgar’ manners of Anatoly’s wife, a film actress of extraordinary beauty called Liuba, who had come to Moscow from a poor peasant family in Cheliabinsk. She thought her taste for expensive clothes and furniture reflected the material acquisitiveness of the ‘new Soviet bourgeoisie’, the class of peasants and workers rising through the ranks of the bureaucracy. In a heated argument, after Liuba came home from a shopping spree, she told her that she represented ‘the Revolution’s ugly side’. Lydia herself had simple tastes. She always dressed in the same black full-length dress with deep pockets in which she kept a powder case and a lorgnette. A survivor of the famine that swept through south-east Russia and Ukraine at the end of the Civil War, she lived in fear of starvation, although Anatoly’s earnings were more than adequate to provide for the household, which also included Liuba’s sister and her daughter Oksana. Lydia planned out every meal in a small notebook, with exact quantities of the necessary items that needed to be bought. She had her favourite shops, the elite Filippovsky bakery and the Yeliseyev store on Tverskaia Street, where ‘she would allow herself the luxury of drinking an iced glass of tomato juice’. Looking back on her childhood, Oksana wrote in 1985:

Grandmother was a very modest and disciplined person. She was something of a moralist, a pedagogue perhaps. She always tried to do the ‘correct thing’. I remember how she liked to say to her son, who was a convinced Bolshevik: ‘If you did things as I do them, you would have built your Communism long ago.’ She was fearless about what she said, and concealed nothing of what she thought or did. She believed strongly that ideas should be spoken clearly and aloud, without pretence, deceit or fear. She often said to me: ‘Do not whisper, it is rude!’* Now I realize that she behaved this way to set a moral example to her granddaughter – to show me the correct way to behave. Thank you, Grandmother!73

Grandmothers were also the main practitioners and guardians of religious faith. It was nearly always the grandmother who organized the christening of a Soviet child, sometimes without its parents’ knowledge or consent, who took the children to church and passed down religious customs and beliefs. Even if they retained their religious faith, the parents of Soviet children were less likely to communicate it to them, partly out of fear that the exposure of such beliefs, say in school, could have disastrous consequences for the family. ‘My grandmother took me to be christened, although my father and mother were violently opposed,’ recalls Vladimir Fomin, who was born into a family of factory workers in Kolpino, near Leningrad. ‘It was all done in secret in a country church. My parents were afraid that they would lose their jobs at the factory if people found out that I had been christened.’74

A grandmother’s religious beliefs could set the child on a collision course with the ideological system in Soviet schools. Born in 1918 to a family of wealthy Tiflis engineers, Yevgeniia Yevangulova spent much of her childhood with her grandparents in Rybinsk, because her father, Pavel, who was Chief of Mines in the Soviet Mining Council, was frequently on work trips in Siberia, while her mother, Nina, who was studying in Moscow, could not cope with the child care. A devout merchant’s wife of the old school, Yevgeniia’s grandmother was a major influence on her upbringing. She gave her a little cross to wear beneath her blouse on her first day at school. But a group of boys discovered it and made fun of her. ‘She believes in God!’ they pointed and shouted. Yevgeniia was traumatized by the incident. She turned inward. When she was invited to join the Pioneers, she refused, a rare act of protest among children of her age, and later on refused to join the Komsomol.75

Boris Gavrilov was born in 1921. His father was a factory manager and senior Party member in one of the industrial suburbs of Leningrad. His mother was a schoolteacher. Boris was brought up by his maternal grandmother, the widow of a wealthy ivory merchant, whose religious faith had a lasting influence on him:

Grandmother had her own room – we had five rooms altogether – where the walls were covered with religious images and large icons with their votive lamps. It was the only room in the house where icons were allowed by my father. My grandmother went to church and took me along with her, without telling my father. I loved the Easter service, although it was very long… This church was her only joy – she didn’t go to the theatre or the cinema – and all she read were religious books, which were also the first books I learned to read. My mother was religious too, but she didn’t go to church. She didn’t have the time, and my father wouldn’t have allowed it in any case. At school I was taught to be an atheist. But I was more attached to the beauty of the church. When my grandmother died, and my parents were divorced [in 1934], my mother encouraged me to keep going to church. Sometimes I even received communion and went to confession. I have always worn a cross, although I don’t consider myself to be especially religious. Naturally, I never said a word about my religion at school, or when I joined the army [in 1941]. Things like that had to be concealed.76

The division between home and school created conflicts in many families. Children were often confused by the contradiction between what their parents said and what they were taught by their teachers. ‘At home you hear one thing, and at school another. I don’t know which is best,’ a schoolboy wrote in 1926. The issue of religion was particularly confusing. One schoolgirl noted feeling ‘torn between two forces’: at school she was taught that ‘there is no God, but at home my grandmother says that God exists’. The question of religion divided young and old, especially in the countryside, where teachers encouraged children to challenge the beliefs and authority of their elders. ‘Over tea, I argued with my mother about the existence of a God,’ wrote one rural schoolboy in 1926. ‘She said that Soviet power was wrong to fight religion and crack down on the priests. But I assured her: “No, Mama, you are wrong. Soviet power is correct. The priest is a liar.”’ Once they joined the Pioneers, children grew in confidence. They became conscious of themselves as members of a movement dedicated to sweeping away the backward customs of the past. ‘One day during Lent, when I came home from school, my grandmother gave me just potatoes for my tea,’ wrote one Pioneer. ‘I complained, and my grandmother said, “Don’t be angry, the Lenten fast has not yet passed.” But I replied: “For you that may be so, because you are old. But we are Pioneers, and we are not obliged to recognize these rituals.”’ This assertiveness was even more pronounced in the Komsomol, where militant atheism was considered a sign of a ‘progressive’ political consciousness, and almost a prerequisite of membership.77

Parents had to choose very carefully what to tell their children about God, often making a conscious decision not to give their children a religious upbringing, even if they themselves had religious leanings. They recognized that their children needed to adapt to Soviet culture if they were to succeed in their adult lives. This compromise was particularly common in professional families, who understood that the fulfilment of a child’s ambitions was dependent on accreditation from the state. One engineer, the son of an architect, recalls that his parents were brought up before the Revolution to believe in God and to follow the principles which they had been taught by his grandparents. But he was brought up to honour different principles, ‘to be decent’, as he put it, ‘and to respond to all the social demands made of him’. A similar situation prevailed in the Moscow household of Pyotr and Maria Skachkova, both librarians. Although they were religious and always went to church, they did not educate their three daughters to believe in God. As one of them recalls:

My parents thought this way: once religion was prohibited, they would not talk about it with their children, because we would have to live in a different society from the one in which they had grown up. They did not want to make us lead a double life, should we join the Pioneers, or the Komsomol.78

Many families did lead a double life. They celebrated Soviet public holidays like 1 May and 7 November (Revolution Day) and conformed to the regime’s atheist ideology, yet still observed their religious faith in the privacy of their own home. Yekaterina Olitskaia was a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. In the 1920s she was exiled to Riazan, where she moved in with an old woman, the widow of a former railway worker, and her daughter, a Komsomol member who worked in a paper factory. The old woman was devoutly religious but, on her daughter’s insistence, she kept her icons in a secret cupboard concealed by a curtain in the back room of the house. Her daughter was afraid that she would be fired if the Komsomol discovered that there were icons in her home. ‘On Sundays and big holidays they would draw the curtains in the evening and light the votive lamps,’ writes Olitskaia. ‘They would usually make sure to lock the doors.’ Antonina Kostikova grew up in a similarly secretive household. Her father was the peasant chairman of a village Soviet in Saratov province from 1922 to 1928, but he privately maintained his Orthodox faith. ‘Our parents were very religious,’ recalls Antonina. ‘They knew all the prayers. Father was especially devout, but he rarely spoke about religion, only when at home at night. He never let us [his three children] see him pray. He told us that we had to learn what they told us about God at school.’ Antonina’s mother, a simple peasant woman, kept an icon hidden in a compartment inside a table drawer which Antonina only found on her mother’s death in the 1970s.79

The secret observance of religious rituals occurred even in Party families. Indeed it was quite common, judging from a report by the Central Control Commission which revealed that almost half the members expelled from the Party in 1925 had been purged because of religious observance. There were numerous Party households where Christ rubbed shoulders with the Communist ideal, and Lenin’s portrait was displayed together with the family icons in the ‘red’ or ‘holy’ corner of the living room.80

The nanny, another carrier of traditional Russian values within the Soviet family, was a natural ally of the grandmother. Nannies were employed by many urban families, especially in households where both parents worked. There was an almost limitless supply of nannies from the countryside, particularly after 1928, when millions of peasants fled into the cities to escape collectivization, and they brought with them the customs and beliefs of the peasantry.

Virtually all the Bolsheviks employed nannies to take care of their children. It was a practical necessity for most Party women, at least until the state provided universal nursery care, because they went out to work. In many Party families the nanny acted as a moral counterweight to the household’s ruling Soviet attitudes. Ironically the most senior Bolsheviks tended to employ the most expensive nannies, who generally held reactionary opinions. The Bonners, for example, had a series of nannies, including one who had worked in Count Sheremetev’s household in St Petersburg, a Baltic German (an acquaintance of Batania’s old landowner friends) who taught the children ‘good manners’, and even one who had once worked for the Imperial family.81

The Whisperers

Peasant nanny, Fursei family (Leningrad)

Nannies could exert a profound influence on family life. In the Leningrad household of the Party activists Anna Karpitskaia and Pyotr Nizovtsev, for example, there was a peasant nanny called Masha, a devout Old Believer,* who observed her religious rituals in their home. She ate separately using her own plates and cutlery, prayed every morning and evening in her room and involved the children in the elaborate rites of her belief. Masha also practised as a healer, as she had done in her native village in the northern Russian countryside, making herbal remedies to cure the children of various illnesses. A kind and caring person, Masha earned the respect of her employers, who protected her from the Soviet authorities’ pursuit of religious activists. Her presence contributed to the rare liberal atmosphere that prevailed in this household. ‘We did not think it strange to have an Old Believer in the family,’ recalls Anna’s daughter Marksena. ‘There was no trace in our household of the militant atheism found in other Party households at that time. We were brought up to be tolerant of all religions and beliefs, although we ourselves were atheists.’82

The Whisperers

Natasha Ovchinnikova

Inna Gaister was another child of Bolsheviks who was deeply affected by the counter-values of her nanny. Inna’s father, Aron Gaister, was a senior economist in Gosplan (the State Planning Commission); her mother, Rakhil Kaplan, an economist in the People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry. Both her parents came from labouring families in the Pale of Settlement, the south-west corner of the Russian Empire, where the tsar’s Jews had been forced to live. The couple met in Gomel, a town in Belarus; they joined the Party in the Civil War and in 1920 moved to Moscow, to a communal apartment. Aron studied at the Institute of Red Professors, while Rakhil worked in the Textile Workers’ Union. Like many Soviet Jews, the Gaisters invested their hopes in the programme of industrialization, which they believed would end all backwardness, inequality and exploitation in the Soviet Union. Two months after the birth of their first child, Inna, in 1925, they hired a nanny called Natasha, who moved into their new home. Natasha Ovchinnikova came from a peasant family in Riazan province, south of Moscow, whose small farm had been ruined by the Bolshevik grain requisitionings of the Civil War. During the famine of 1921 Natasha fled to the capital. She rarely spoke about her family in the Gaister home. But even at the age of eight or nine, Inna was aware that the world her nanny grew up in was very different from the one in which her parents lived. Inna noticed how Natasha prayed in church; she heard her crying in her room. She saw the poverty of her relatives from Riazan – who had also made their way to the capital and were living as illegal immigrants in a crowded barracks – when she went with her to visit them. Natasha’s niece, a girl with whom Inna liked to play, had no shoes, so Inna brought her a pair of her own and then lied that she had lost them when her parents asked about the missing shoes. Although still too young to question anything politically, Inna had already formed a tacit alliance with Natasha and her family.83

The peasant world from which these nannies came was largely dominated by the traditions of the patriarchal family. In 1926, the peasantry represented 82 per cent of the Soviet population – 120 million people (in a total population of 147 million people) dispersed in 613,000 villages and remote settlements across the Soviet Union.84 The peasantry’s attachment to individual family labour on the private household farm made it the last major bastion of individualism in Soviet Russia and, in the view of the Bolsheviks, the main social obstacle to their Communist utopia.

In some areas, especially in central Russia, urban ways were filtering down to the countryside, and literate peasant sons were displacing fathers at the head of family farms, or breaking free from extended families to set up households of their own. But elsewhere the traditions of the patriarchal peasant family remained dominant.

Antonina Golovina was born to a peasant family in 1923, the youngest of six children. Their village, Obukhovo, 800 kilometres north-east of Moscow, was an ancient settlement of wooden houses in the middle of a forest; there was a pond in the middle of the village and a large wooden church, built in the eighteenth century. The Golovins had always lived in Obukhovo (twenty of the fifty-nine households in the village were occupied by Golovins in 1929).85 Antonina’s father, Nikolai, was born in the village in 1882, and apart from the three years he had spent in the army in the First World War, he lived his whole life there. Like many villages, Obukhovo was a tightly knit community where family and kin relations played a crucial role. The peasants thought of themselves as a single ‘family’ and taught their children to address other adults in familial terms (‘aunty’, ‘uncle’, and so on). Bolshevik attempts to divide the peasantry into separate and warring social classes – the ‘kulaks’ (or the ‘rural bourgeoisie’) and the poor peasants (the so-called ‘rural proletariat’) – failed miserably in Obukhovo, as they did in much of Soviet Russia during the Civil War.

As a hard-working, sober and successful peasant from the largest village clan, Nikolai was a well-respected figure in Obukhovo. ‘He was a quiet man – he did not talk to pass the day – but worked honestly and got things done, and the peasants valued that,’ one of the villagers recalls. After his return from the First World War, Nikolai became a leader of the peasant commune in Obukhovo. Governed by an assembly of its leading farmers, the peasant commune was an ancient institution, set up under serfdom, which regulated virtually every aspect of village and agrarian life. Its powers of self-government had been considerably broadened by the Emancipation of the serfs in 1861, when it took over most of the administrative, police and judicial functions of the landlords and became the basic unit of rural administration. The commune controlled the peasants’ land, which in most parts of Russia was owned communally but farmed individually; set the common patterns of cultivation and grazing necessitated by the open-field system of strip-farming (where there were no hedges between the strips or fields); and periodically redivided the arable land among the peasant farms according to their household size – an egalitarian principle that also helped the commune pay its taxes to the state by ensuring that the land was fully worked by families with labourers. In 1917, the commune became the organizing kernel of the peasant revolution on the land. After the collapse of the old rural order and the flight of most of its leaders, the gentry and the clergy, from the countryside, the peasants throughout Russia seized control of all the land and – without waiting for any direction from the central government or the revolutionary parties in the towns – redistributed it through the peasant commune and the various village councils (soviets) and committees which they had set up to rule their own affairs during 1917.86

Before the Revolution, Nikolai had rented arable from the village priest. Like most peasants in Russia, where overpopulation and inefficient farming resulted in shortages of land, he had depended on this rented arable to feed his family. In 1917, the commune seized control of the Church’s land and divided it with the communal land among the peasants. Nikolai was given four hectares of ploughland and pasture, a norm set in proportion to the number of ‘eaters’ in his family (i.e. household size). He now had almost twice as much land as he had farmed before 1917, and none of it was rented any more. But four hectares were not enough to live on in Obukhovo, or anywhere in northern Russia, where the soil was poor and the land broken up by woodland into disparate plots and then (to make sure that every peasant received an equal share of these small plots) broken up again by the commune into narrow strips, each one no more than a few feet wide and unsuitable for modern ploughs. The Golovins’ arable land consisted of about 80 separate strips in eighteen different locations – numbers not unusual for peasants in the Vologda region. To supplement their income the peasants worked in trades and crafts, which had always played a vital role, almost as important as agriculture, in the economy of the northern villages, and which now flourished in the NEP, when the government encouraged rural trades and even subsidized them through cooperatives. Nikolai had a leather workshop in the backyard of his farm. ‘In our household,’ recalls Antonina,

we had enough to live on, but only as a result of our own hard work and thrift. All six children laboured on the land, even the youngest, and Father worked long hours making shoes and other leather goods in his workshop. When he bought a cow from the market, he made sure to get everything from it. He slaughtered the cow, sold the meat, dressed the hide himself (every peasant in our region knew this craft), manufactured boots from the leather and then sold them at the market too.87

This work ethic was ‘the main philosophy of our education as children,’ she recalls. It was typical of the most industrious peasant families that children were brought up to work on the farm from an early age. These peasants took pride in their labour, as Antonina remembers:

Father liked to say that everything we did should be done well – as if it was done by a master. That is what he called the ‘Golovin way’ – his highest words of praise… When we went to school he told us all to study hard and learn a good profession. In his eyes the good professions were medicine, teaching, agronomy and engineering. He did not want his children to learn shoe-making, which he considered a hard life, though he was an artist in his craft, and we children and anybody else who came to our house were inspired by the beauty of his work.88

Nikolai built his own house, a long, whitewashed single-storeyed building near the millstone in the middle of Obukhovo. The only brick house in the whole village, it had a dining room as well as a bedroom sparsely furnished with factory furniture bought in Vologda and two iron beds, one for Nikolai and his wife, Yevdokiia, the other for their two daughters (the boys slept on the floor of the dining room). Outside the kitchen, the only entrance to the house, there was a sheltered yard for animals, with a cowshed, a pigsty, a stable and two barns. The yard also contained a bath-house, a toilet, a tool store and a workshop, and, beyond the yard, there was a garden full of apple trees.

Nikolai was a strict father. ‘All the children were afraid of him,’ recalls his daughter Antonina, ‘but it was a fear based on respect. As our mother liked to say, “God is in the sky and father in the house.” Whatever father said we took as law. Even the four boys.’ In this type of patriarchal household there was little tenderness or intimacy between adults and children. ‘We never kissed or hugged our parents,’ Antonina says. ‘We did not love them in that way. We were brought up to respect and revere them. We always obeyed them.’ But that did not mean there was no love. Nikolai adored his youngest daughter, who recalls a tender moment from her childhood, when she was only four. Dressed in his best cotton shirt for a holiday, her father carried her in his strong arms to the village church.

Suddenly, he took my hands and held them tightly to his lips. He closed his eyes and kissed my hands with real feeling. I remember that. Now I understand how much I meant to him, how much he needed to express his love. He was so clean, so sweet-smelling, in that new shirt laced with brown embroidery.89


For the elites of the old society the passing-down of family traditions and values to the next generation was particularly complicated; if they wanted to succeed in the new society, they could not simply stick to their customary ways, but had to adjust to Soviet conditions. To maintain a balance between old and new, families could adopt various strategies. They could, for example, lead a double life, retreating to a private world (‘internal emigration’) where they secretly held on to their old beliefs, perhaps concealing them from their own children, who were brought up in a Soviet way.

The Preobrazhenskys are a good example of a formerly elite family that secretly maintained some aspects of their old life even as they largely adapted to Soviet conditions. Before 1917, Pyotr Preobrazhensky had worked as a priest at the Priazhka Psychiatric Hospital in St Petersburg. He was one of the ‘spiritualists’ to whom the Empress Aleksandra had turned for help to cure the tsarevich from haemophilia before the arrival of Rasputin at the court. Pyotr’s wife was a graduate of the Smolny Institute and a confidante of the Dowager Empress Mariia Fyodorovna. After 1917, Pyotr and his oldest son worked as porters at the hospital. His younger son, who had been a choir master at the Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery, joined the Red Army and died fighting in the Civil War. Pyotr’s eldest daughter became a secretary in the Petrograd Soviet, while his younger daughter, Maria, gave up her career as a concert pianist to become inspector of collective farms in the Luga area. Maria’s husband, a singer, became a sanitary worker in the Priazhka Hospital. Throughout the 1920s, the family lived together in an office at the back of the hospital. They never grumbled about their desperate poverty, but lived quietly, accepting the tasks set them by the new regime – with one exception. Every evening the icons were brought out of their secret hiding place, the votive lamps lit, and prayers held. The family went to church, celebrated Easter and always had a Christmas tree, even after Christmas trees were banned as a ‘relic of the bourgeois way of life’ in 1929. Maria and her husband made their daughter Tatiana wear a gold cross on a necklace, which they told her to keep concealed. ‘I was brought up to believe in God and at the same time to learn from Soviet school and life,’ recalls Tatiana. The Preobrazhenskys inhabited the margin between these two worlds. Pyotr secretly continued to work as an unofficial priest for people who still preferred to bury relatives with Christian rites – the silent majority of the Soviet population.* ‘We never earned enough to make ends meet,’ explains Tatiana, ‘so my grandfather went around the cemeteries of Leningrad performing sacraments for a small fee.’90

For the old professional elites there was another way to adapt to Soviet society whilst maintaining their traditional family way of life. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, engineers and economists could put their skills at the disposal of the new regime, thereby hoping to safeguard some parts of their privileged existence. They could even live quite well, at least in the 1920s, when the expertise of these ‘bourgeois specialists’ was badly needed by the new regime.

Pavel Vittenburg was a leading figure in the world of Soviet geology and played an important role in the development of the Arctic Gulags, or forced labour camps, at Kolyma and Vaigach. He was born in 1884, the eighth of nine children in a family of Baltic Germans in Vladivostok in Siberia. Pavel’s father came from Riga, but he was exiled to Siberia after taking part in the Polish uprising against tsarist rule in 1862–4. After his release he worked for the Vladivostok Telegraph. Pavel studied in Vladivostok, Odessa and Riga, and then went to Tübingen, in Germany, before moving to St Petersburg, a young and serious-minded Doctor of Science, in 1908. He married Zina Razumikhina, the daughter of a railway engineer and a distant relative, who was then studying medicine in St Petersburg. The couple bought a large and comfortable wooden house in the elite dacha resort of Olgino on the Gulf of Finland near St Petersburg. Three daughters were born: Veronika in 1912, Valentina in 1915 and Yevgeniia in 1922. It was a close and intimate family. As a father, Yevgeniia recalls, Pavel was ‘attentive, patient and loving’, and at Olgino they ‘lived a happy life, with music, painting and evenings of reading as a family’. There were long summer walks, and lazy meals that were beautifully prepared by the nanny Annushka, who had nursed Zina as a child. The Vittenburgs were often joined by artists and writers, like the famous children’s writer Kornei Chukovsky, who spent several summers at their house. This Chekhovian existence continued throughout the 1920s.

The Vittenburgs were driven by a strong ethos of public service, which was almost the defining feature of the nineteenth-century intelligentsia. After 1917, Zina used her medical training to set up a hospital in the neighbouring town of Lakhta, where she treated patients free of charge. Pavel, elected chairman of the Lakhta Council in 1917, organized a school to teach technology to children of the labouring poor. ‘He was always working,’ Yevgeniia recalls. ‘If he was not writing, he was planning explorations for the Polar Commission or organizing papers for the Geological Museum. He was always doing something and rarely could relax.’ Pavel was committed to the cause of polar exploration and geology, then still in its infancy, in which the Soviet Union led the world. Polar explorers were portrayed as heroes in Soviet books and films, and during the 1920s, the Soviet government invested a large share of its scientific budget in geological surveys of potential mining operations in the Arctic zone. Pavel was not interested in politics but he welcomed the attention from the Soviet regime and the opportunity it gave him to pursue his science in an organized and disciplined environment. ‘The past ten years have been a heroic period of polar exploration,’ Pavel wrote in 1927, shortly before leaving Olgino to carry out a survey of the gold-fields at Kolyma. ‘The future promises even greater achievements.’91

The Whisperers

The Vittenburg family at Olgino, 1925

Another elite couple who adapted to Soviet conditions in this way were the parents of the writer Konstantin Simonov, who stands at the centre of this book. Simonov was another child of 1917. His mother Aleksandra descended from the Obolenskys, a grand and ancient clan of princely bureaucrats and landowners, who occupied a prominent position in the Imperial system, although her father Leonid, like many noblemen, had entered commerce in the 1870s. Born in 1890, and a graduate of the Smolny Institute, Aleksandra was a woman of the ‘old order’, whose aristocratic attitudes were frequently at odds with Soviet ways. Tall and imposing, ‘Alinka’, as she was known within the family, had old-fashioned notions of ‘correct behaviour’ – rules of conduct she passed down to her son, who was well known for his gentlemanly manners throughout his life (even at the height of his career in the Stalinist establishment). Alinka expected people to be courteous, especially to women, loyal to their friends and constant in their principles. She was ‘a pedagogue’, recalls her grandson, and ‘never tired of telling other people how they should behave’.92

In 1914, Aleksandra married Mikhail Simonov, a colonel of the General Staff who was almost twice her age, and a year later Konstantin was born.* An expert on military fortifications, Mikhail fought in Poland in the First World War, rising to become a general-major in the Fifth Army and the chief of staff of the 4th Army Corps. In 1917, he disappeared. For the next four years, Aleksandra did not hear from Mikhail, who was, it seems, in Poland on some secret mission that prevented him from making contact with his family in Soviet Russia. Perhaps he joined the Polish Army, or possibly the Whites, with whom the Poles were allied in the Russian Civil War. In any case he was reluctant to return to Russia, where his status as a tsarist general, if not as a counter-revolutionary, might well lead, at the very least, to his arrest by the Bolsheviks. It is unclear how much Aleksandra knew about the activities of her husband. Whatever she knew, she concealed it from her son, no doubt to protect his interests. In 1921, Mikhail wrote to Aleksandra from Poland. He begged her to come with their son and live with him in Warsaw, where he had become a Polish citizen. Aleksandra could not make up her mind what to do. She took seriously her marriage vows, and Mikhail was gravely ill. But in the end she was too much of a patriot to leave Russia. ‘My mother reacted with sad incomprehension to the Russian post-revolutionary emigration, even though she had friends and relatives who had fled abroad,’ recalled Simonov in later years. ‘She simply could not understand how it was possible to leave Russia.’93

Aleksandra joined the army of young women from noble and bourgeois families who worked as typists, accountants and translators in the offices of the new Soviet government. In the autumn of 1918, she was evicted from her apartment in Petrograd. It was the height of the Red Terror, the Bolshevik campaign against the old elites, when ‘former people’ like the Obolenskys, ruined nobles and members of the ‘bourgeoisie’ were kicked out of their homes and stripped of all their property, put to work in labour teams, or arrested and imprisoned by the Cheka as ‘hostages’ in the Civil War against the Whites. After many months of unsuccessful petitioning to the Soviet, Aleksandra and the boy Konstantin left Petrograd for Riazan, 200 kilometres south-east of the Soviet capital, where they lived with Aleksandra’s older sister Liudmila, the widow of an artillery captain killed during the First World War, whose regiment was based in the Riazan garrison. They were among the millions of urban-dwellers who fled the hungry cities in the Civil War to be closer to supplies of food.94

Riazan was a town of about 40,000 residents in the early 1920s. One of its main institutions was the Military School, established by the Bolsheviks to train commanders for the Red Army in the Civil War. Among its staff was Aleksandr Ivanishev, a colonel in the tsarist army, wounded twice (and three times the victim of a poison-gas attack) in the First World War, who had been enrolled by Trotsky in the Red Army as a commander. Aleksandra married Ivanishev in 1921. For a daughter of the elite Obolensky clan, it was no doubt a case of marrying down: Aleksandr was the son of a humble railway worker. But Aleksandra had fallen on hard times and in her husband’s military ethos she found a reflection of the principles of her own noble class, not least its ideals of public service, from which, it seems, she took some comfort in these uncertain circumstances.95

Aleksandr was a consummate ‘military man’ – punctual, conscientious, orderly and strictly disciplined – although kind and gentle-hearted in nature. He ran the household in Riazan like a regiment, recalls Konstantin:

Our family lived in the officers’ barracks. We were surrounded by military personnel, and the military way of life ruled our every step. The morning and evening parades took place on the square in front of our house. Mother was involved in various army committees with the other wives of officers. When guests came to our house the talk was always about the army. In the evenings my stepfather drew up plans for military exercises. Sometimes I helped him. Discipline in the family was strict, purely military. Everything was planned by the hour, with orders given to the .00. You could not be late. You could not refuse a task. You had to learn to hold your tongue. Even the smallest lie was strictly frowned upon. In accordance with their service ethic, my mother and father introduced a strict division of labour in our home. From the age of six or seven, I was burdened with more and more responsibilities. I dusted, washed the floor, helped wash the dishes, cleaned the potatoes, took care of the kerosene and fetched the bread and milk.96

This upbringing had a crucial influence on Simonov. The military values which he assimilated as a child (‘obedience and conscientiousness, a readiness to overcome all obstacles, the imperative to say “yes” or “no”, to love strongly, and to hate as well’, as he himself defined these qualities) prepared him to embrace the quasi-military Soviet system of political command in the 1930s and 1940s.

At thirteen years I knew:

That what is said is meant.

Yes is yes. No is no.

To argue is in vain.

I knew the meaning of duty.

I knew what sacrifices were.

I knew what courage could achieve,

There is no mercy for cowardice!

(From ‘Father’, 1956)97

Simonov revered his stepfather (‘a man I never saw in anything but military uniform’) and from an early age considered him to be his real father. The military principles of duty and obedience he assimilated from Aleksandr were combined in him with the ideas of public service he received from his mother and her aristocratic milieu. These principles were reinforced by the books he read as a boy, which were infused with the Soviet cult of the military. He was inspired by legendary stories of the Civil War, like Dmitry Furmanov’s Chapaev (1925), a ‘Soviet classic’ read by every schoolchild. His boyhood heroes were all military men. His schoolbooks were filled with doodles of the soldier he wanted to become.98 Just as early, Simonov was conscious of the need to take his place in a hierarchy of command. He was brought up to think of himself not just as a soldier, but as an officer, with responsibility for lesser men. At the same time, his hypertrophied sense of public duty and obedience also required subordination to his superiors. As he himself would write, his idea of ‘being good’ was synonymous with ‘honesty’ and ‘conscientiousness’ (poriadochnost’) – a concept that would later form the basis of his support for the Stalinist regime. All his formative relationships involved figures of authority. As an only child, he spent most of his time in the company of adults, and he was quite adept at winning their approval. Without close friends at school, he never really learned the moral lessons of friendship, or loyalty to peers, which might have worked against his growing tendency to please superiors, although comradeship was a dominating theme of his poetry (a sphere for his yearnings) in the 1930s and 1940s. Simonov was clever and precocious. He read a lot and studied hard. He joined lots of clubs, took part in plays and was a Pioneer. Aside from his doodles, his schoolbooks reveal a serious boy who spent long hours drawing maps and graphs, making lists and charts and organizing tasks like a bureaucrat.99

The Whisperers

Konstantin (far left), Aleksandra and Aleksandr Ivanishev (right), Riazan, 1927

In his memoirs, written in the last year of his life, Simonov maintained that his parents had accepted the Soviet regime. He could not remember any conversations in which they had voiced their disapproval of the government, or regretted not having emigrated after 1917. In his presentation,

The Whisperers

Page from Simonov’s school notebook (1923)

his parents took the view that, as members of the intelligentsia, it was their duty to stay and work for Soviet Russia and, even if their own values were not ‘Soviet’, it was their obligation to bring up Konstantin as a ‘Soviet’ child. But this is only half the truth. Behind her appearance of political loyalty, Aleksandra concealed a critical opinion of the Soviet regime, which had, after all, brought disaster to her family. Aleksandra’s brother Nikolai was forced to flee to Paris after 1917 (as a former governor of Kharkov province, he would have been arrested by the Bolsheviks). She never saw him again. The rest of the family – Aleksandra, her mother and three sisters – lived in fear and poverty, first in Petrograd and then in Riazan. After the Civil War, Aleksandra’s sisters Sonia and Daria returned to Petrograd; and when their mother died in 1923, Liudmila went back to Petrograd as well. Left on her own in Riazan, Aleksandra struggled to adapt to the Soviet environment (‘I was born in another world,’ she wrote to her son in 1944. ‘The first twenty-five years of my life were spent in conditions of comfort… Then my life was suddenly destroyed… I washed and cooked and went to the shops and worked all day’). In addition to passing on the values of the aristocracy, Aleksandra also strove to keep religious practices alive. She took her son to church until he was twelve (in his later letters to his aunts he continues to greet them in religious terms on Orthodox holidays). Yet she also taught him that his noble origins were dangerous and that they needed to be hidden if he was to advance.100 Despite the relatively liberal climate of the NEP, the class war unleashed by the Revolution had only come to a temporary halt, and, beneath the peaceful surface, pressures were growing for a renewed purge of the old elites which threatened families like the Simonovs.

In 1927, Simonov was taken by his mother to stay with relatives of his stepfather in the countryside near Kremenchug. ‘Aunt Zhenia’ lived with her husband, Yevgeny Lebedev, an old general who had long ago retired from the tsarist army on account of his wounded leg, which left him paralysed and dependent on his younger wife. The general was a liberal type, good-natured and optimistic, and he did not grumble or complain about the Soviet government. Konstantin enjoyed his company, because he was interesting and told stories well. One day, after walking in the woods, Konstantin came back to his aunt’s house. The door was opened by a stranger, who turned out to be one of several OGPU men, who had come to search the house for incriminating evidence of counter-revolutionary activity prior to the arrest of the general. In his memoirs Simonov recalls the incident:

At the moment I entered one of the OGPU men was lifting up the mattress, on which the old man was resting, and searching underneath… ‘Sit down, boy, and wait,’ he said to me, pointing to a stool. He was not exactly rude, more imperious, and I understood that I had to sit and obey him… The search was being conducted by two men in uniform, but they had not produced a search warrant, and the old general was cursing them, getting very angry, and threatening to complain about their unlawful behaviour. Aunt Zhenia, it seemed to me, was relatively calm, fearing most of all that her husband might have a heart attack, and tried to calm him down without success. The men carried on with the search, leafing through the pages of every book in turn, looking under oilcloths and embroideries that were stacked on shelves. The old man, propped up against the wall and half-lying on the bed, continued cursing… Finally, the search came to an end, and, without taking anything, the men left. They behaved with restraint, they did not swear or scold, because they were dealing with an old man who was paralysed… In my consciousness this event did not appear as something frightening, tragic or disturbing; it seemed more or less normal.

The interesting thing about this episode is the way it was perceived by Simonov. He had witnessed an illegal act of state repression against his family, but he was not frightened by it, or so he later claimed; somehow he even saw it as a routine (‘normal’) procedure. Simonov would respond in a similar manner to the arrest of other relatives, including his stepfather and three aunts, during the 1930s, rationalizing the events as ‘necessary’ acts – mistakes, perhaps, because his relatives were surely innocent, but understandable in the broader context of the state’s need to root out potential counter-revolutionaries.101

In 1928, Simonov moved with his parents to Saratov, a large industrial city on the Volga, where Aleksandr became an instructor in the military school. The family lived in the barracks, occupying two adjoining rooms, and shared a communal kitchen with several other families. Simonov began at a secondary school, but in 1929, at the age of just fourteen, he abandoned it, deciding not to complete the academic education planned for him by his parents, but to switch to a Factory Apprentice School (FZU), where general education was combined with technical training. Like many children of the old intelligentsia, Simonov was eager to fashion a new ‘proletarian’ identity for himself so as to break free of his social origins, which were certain to hold him back in Soviet society. The FZUs and higher technical institutions of the late 1920s were full of children from intelligentsia families who, refused entry to university (which now favoured applicants from the working class), had gone instead to factory or technical schools to qualify as ‘proletarians’, a qualification that would open doors to further jobs and education. Like Simonov, who registered his mother as an ‘office worker’, many children from the old elite concealed their social origins, or made selective use of their biographies, to gain admission to technical schools and colleges. Most went on to become engineers or technicians in the industrial revolution of the First Five Year Plan (1928–32), developing a new professional identity that liberated them from the great dilemma about social class – because all that mattered was their dedication to the cause of Soviet industry. Simonov’s rejection of the academic education chosen for him by his parents was significant: it was the moment when he turned his back on the old civilization, into which he had been born, and adopted a ‘Soviet’ identity.

At the FZU Simonov learned to become a lathe-turner. In the evenings he worked as an apprentice at a munitions factory in Saratov. Simonov had ‘no real talent for industrial work’, as he later came to recognize, and only persevered ‘from vanity’. In his letters to his aunt Sonia in Leningrad, the teenage boy displayed his social activism and enthusiasm for the Soviet cause:


Dear Auntie Sonia!

Forgive me for taking so long to reply to your nice letter. I have never been so busy. I am a member of four clubs: I’m on the governing committee of two of them, and the chairman of one (the young naturalists). Besides that, I’m a member of the commission of [socialist] competition, the reading group, the school’s editorial board and the chemical brigade [against posion-gas attacks]. I’m also an instructor in collective assistance, a member of the management committee [reporting to the school administration on the political activities and opinions of the students at the FZU] and part of MOPR [the International Society of Workers’ Aid]. At the moment, I’m also organizing anti-religious propaganda through the management sub-committee and running the class committee. Recently I was placed in charge of organizing a chess club in the school. I think that’s all of it.102

It is hard to say what lay behind this frenzy of activity – the energies of a teenager brought up in the public-service ethos, the calculation that through these commitments he might hide his social origins and secure his position in Soviet society, or a passionate belief in the Communist ideal. But it was the start of Simonov’s involvement in the Stalinist regime.


The mercantile class, too, found ways to adapt to the new regime, especially after the introduction of the NEP. In 1922, Samuil Laskin, his wife and their three daughters left the town of Orsha and settled in Moscow. The family moved into a basement room near the Sukharevka market, which was then a by-word for the private trade that flourished under the NEP. Samuil Laskin was a small tradesman, a dealer in herring and other salted fish. Like many Jews, he had come to Moscow to take advantage of the new opportunities for private traders. He had all sorts of dreams for his daughters, wanting them to benefit from Soviet schools and universities so that they could join the professions, from which, as a Jew, he had been barred before 1917.

Born in 1879, Samuil came from a large clan of traders in Orsha, a market town of single-storeyed wooden houses, without running water or sewers, in the Pale of Settlement. His father, Moisei, a wholesale merchant of salted fish, lived in a run-down wooden house between the Orthodox and Catholic churches on the busy road to Shklov. Orsha was a multi-cultural town where Russians, Poles, Belorussians, Latvians and Lithuanians lived together with the Jews (there was one small pogrom in 1905). The Laskins spoke Yiddish and Russian. They observed the Jewish rituals, went to synagogue and sent their children to the Jewish school, but they also placed a high value on their children’s education and advancement in Russian society. Moisei had six children. The three oldest (Sima, Saul and Samuil) were all schooled at home; but the younger children (Fania, Iakov and Zhenia) went to university and qualified as doctors, somehow managing to circumvent the tsarist restrictions that barred Jews from Russian universities and professions.* It was an extraordinary achievement for those times, especially for the two girls, Fania and Zhenia.103

Samuil followed Moisei into trade. In 1907, he married Berta, the daughter of a Jewish trader in the neighbouring town of Shklov, where the couple lived with their three daughters, Fania (born in 1909), Sonia (1911) and Yevgeniia (1914), until the Revolution of 1917. A kind and gentle man, practical and wise, with a lively interest in literature and international politics, Samuil embraced the Revolution as the liberation of the Jews. He had always dreamed of educating his beloved daughters, and with the declaration of the NEP, which made it possible for him to make a living in Moscow, he thought his dream would at last come true.

The NEP turned Moscow into a vast market-place. The city’s population doubled in the five years after 1921. After the hardships of the Civil War, when private trade had been outlawed, there was a huge demand for anything the market could provide. Great crowds flocked to the street markets, like the Sukharevka, where traders dealt in everything, from scrap-iron to clothes, pots and pans, and works of art. Samuil had a herring stall on Bolotnaia Square, a food market that catered to the city’s busy restaurants and cafés, on the south side of the Moscow River, not far from the Kremlin. No one knew more than Samuil did about the herring trade. He could open a tin of the salted fish and tell at once where it had come from – the Volga River or the Aral Sea, near Astrakhan or Nizhny Novgorod.

Life was hard at first. The Laskins’ basement room on First Meshchanskaia Street was bare. They slept on mattresses on the floor and suspended a curtain from the ceiling to separate the children’s sleeping area from the adults’. They shared a toilet and a kitchen with the other residents on the upper floor. But by 1923, Samuil’s herring business was thriving, and the Laskins moved into a rented flat on the second floor of a once-grand house on Sretenskaia Street. It was a comfortable apartment with three spacious rooms, a large bathroom and its own private toilet and kitchen, a rare luxury in Moscow in those days. Samuil was doing so well that he was able to send money every month to his parents in Orsha, and to help his nephew Mark, who had also come to Moscow with his family. There were regular Laskin outings to the Bolshoi Theatre, where Samuil always bought a box.104

But then, in 1923–4, shortages of goods and price inflation inflamed proletarian resentment of the NEPmen and their new wealth, and to quash popular unrest the city Soviets closed down 300,000 private businesses.105 The Laskins became victims of the backlash. Samuil’s business survived, but he was forced to pay a special tax to the Moscow Soviet and, like many small tradesmen, he was relegated to the sub-class of lishentsy – people who were deprived of electoral and other civil rights. Samuil endured these punishments calmly. For several years he paid the excessive ‘business rent’ on his corrugated-iron stall – one of many special taxes imposed by the Moscow Soviet on private traders to appease the working class’s resentment of the NEP. In 1925, Samuil turned down an invitation to move to Iran, where the fish industry was heavily dependent on Russian expertise. He wanted his three daughters to grow up in the Soviet Union, to take advantage of the many opportunities he believed – mistakenly, as it turned out – had opened up. Fania was the eldest and most practical of the three girls. In 1926, she passed her school exams with distinction, but because of her father’s status as a lishenets, she was rejected when she applied to a medical college, so she worked instead in a factory and studied economics at night school. Sonia was a serious-minded girl, articulate and bright with a striking beauty, who had suffered from polio as a child, which left her partly paralysed. Barred like her sister from higher education, Sonia studied statistics in evening classes at the Sokolniki Industrial School in Moscow, before enrolling at the Institute of Steel in 1928. Like many Jews, including her cousin Mark, who became an engineer, Sonia embraced the industrial programme of the First Five Year Plan, which promised to modernize the backward peasant Russia, the Russia of pogroms, from which the Laskins had come to the city to escape. Yevgeniia (Zhenia), the youngest of the girls, was more artistic in her temperament and studied literature, a passion shared by all her family. The Laskin household was ‘always in the middle of a literary debate’, recalls Fania. When Sonia was rejected by the Komsomol, as a child of a lishenets, in 1927, the three girls formed a reading circle of their own with Mark and children of their parents’ friends who lived nearby. They would discuss politics and hold ‘show trials’ of characters from literature. Once they held a trial of the Old Testament: they found a copy of the Bible and studied it together for a month.106 Public trials of literary works, ideologies and religious customs were popular agitprop events in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Whisperers

The Laskin family (from left to right): Berta, Sonia, Yevgeniia (Zhenia), Fania, Moscow, 1930. Samuil was in exile at this time

The Laskins were typical of the first generation of Soviet Jews. They identified with the Revolution’s internationalism, which promised to eradicate all national prejudice and inequalities, and with its liberating vision of the modern city, which offered Jews unprecedented access to schools and universities, science and the arts, professions and trades. Within a generation of 1917, Russia’s Jews had become an urban people, as the population of the rural shtetls in the former Pale of Settlement either emigrated or died out (by the start of the Second World War, 86 per cent of Soviet Jews lived in urban areas, half of them in the eleven largest cities of the USSR). Moscow’s Jewish population grew from 15,000 in 1914 to a quarter of a million Jews (the city’s second largest ethnic group) in 1937.107 The Jews flourished in the Soviet Union. They made up a large proportion of the elite in the Party, the bureaucracy, the military command and the police. Judging from the memoirs of the period, there was relatively little anti-Semitism or discrimination, although there were many Jews, like Samuil Laskin, who were deprived of civil rights because of their social class and their connection with private trade. It is true that numerous synagogues were closed, but this was a result of the general Bolshevik campaign against religion in the 1920s and 1930s. The family continued as the real centre of Jewish religious life, with the older generation taking charge of the traditional prayers and rituals, which in most households coexisted with the observance of Soviet public holidays and the acceptance of Soviet beliefs by the younger in particular. There was a thriving secular Yiddish culture, actively promoted by the Soviet government, with Yiddish language schools, Yiddish cinema and Yiddish theatres, including the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre, under the direction of Solomon Mikhoels, which became a focal point for many Bolsheviks and left-wing Jewish intellectuals. In most Jewish families in the big cities the attachment to traditional Jewish culture lived side by side with an intellectual commitment to Russian-Soviet literature and art as a means of entry to the wider culture of the international world.108

This complex multiple identity (Jewish-Russian-Soviet) was retained by Samuil and Berta. Neither was religious. They never went to synagogue or observed Jewish rituals and holidays, though Berta always prepared Jewish food on Soviet holidays. Samuil and Berta knew Yiddish, but Russian was the language they spoke at home. Their daughters understood them when they spoke Yiddish, but did not speak it properly and made no effort to learn the language, which they regarded as an ‘exotic relic’ of the past. For the daughters, the question of identity was simpler. ‘We did not want to think of ourselves as Jews,’ recalls Fania. ‘Nor did we want to be Russians, though we lived in Russia and were steeped in its culture. We thought of ourselves as Soviet citizens.’ The family looked to education, industry and culture as the road to personal liberation and equality. Samuil took an active interest in Soviet politics and drew enormous pride from the achievements of prominent Jewish Bolsheviks like Trotsky. Although not an educated man, he filled his house with books and newspapers and loved to discuss political events, especially events abroad, on which he was extremely well informed. He held a ‘kitchen parliament’ with friends and relatives who came on Sundays for the famous ‘Laskin suppers’; Berta’s Jewish cooking was said to be unrivalled in Moscow.109

In some Jewish families the desire to be ‘Soviet’ was reflected in the suppression of any lingering identification with Jewish culture or religion. In the Gaister household, for example, Jewish customs were so minimal, consisting of little more than the odd Jewish dish, or phrase in Yiddish, or family legends about the pogroms in tsarist times, that even as a teenager Inna was not really conscious of herself as a Jew. Rebekka Kogan, born in 1923 to a Jewish family in the Gomel area, where Inna’s parents met, recalls her own childhood in Leningrad as ‘entirely Soviet’. Her parents observed the main Jewish customs and spoke Yiddish on occasion, especially when they did not want Rebekka to understand, but otherwise they brought her up ‘in a modern way’, she says, ‘without religion, or the influence of my grandparents, who still clung to Jewish ways’.110

Ida Slavina had a similar childhood. She was born in Moscow in 1921 to the family of a prominent Soviet jurist, Ilia Slavin, who had played an important role in the emancipation of the Jews in Belorussia. Ilia had been born in a small town near Mogilyov in 1883, the eldest son in a large family of poor Jewish labourers. From the age of twelve, Ilia worked and studied in a local pharmacy. By qualifying as a pharmacist, he was legally entitled to live outside the Pale of Settlement.* In 1905, he enrolled as an external student at the Law Faculty of Kharkov University. Despite his lack of formal education beyond the age of twelve, Ilia came top in the first-year examinations, which allowed him to enrol officially, as one of the 3 per cent of Jewish students permitted by the government’s quota. After he had graduated from the university, Ilia was offered a position in the faculty, provided he converted to Christianity. But he turned the offer down and returned to the Pale of Settlement, where he worked as an assistant to a barrister in Mogilyov. During the First World War, when the Germans occupied the western territories, Ilia moved to Petrograd, where he worked in the headquarters of the Union of Towns, helping Jews from the Pale of Settlement to resettle in Russia. After 1917, Ilia was elected as a judge and worked in the People’s Courts of Mogilyov, Gomel and Vitebsk. He moved to Moscow in 1921 and continued to rise in the Soviet legal establishment. A handsome, brilliant man, kind and gentle-hearted, Ilia had high ideals, which he invested in the Soviet experiment, even to the point of denying his Jewishness.

From 1903, Ilia had been an active Zionist, a well-known member of the Proletarians of Zion Party, which aimed to establish a socialist society in Palestine. Ilia’s Zionism was a product of his life in the Pale of Settlement, where the Proletarians of Zion were mainly based. But once in Petrograd, where he came into contact with Jews who were Europeanized and assimiliationist, Slavin began to move away from Zionism to Social Democracy. Having embraced the Revolution as an international cause, Slavin accepted the need to subordinate Jewish national interests to the class struggle. As the Chairman of the Vitebsk Court, he even defended the perpetrators of a working-class pogrom against the Jews in 1919, on the grounds that it was an expression of their class hatred of the Jewish factory managers.111 In 1920, Ilia left the Zionist movement, briefly joining the Bundists (Jewish Marxists) before moving to the Bolsheviks in 1921. Slavin acknowledged his ‘political mistakes’ (Zionism and Jewish nationalism) in his autobiography, written when he joined the Bolsheviks, and from that moment on he banished Jewish culture from the Slavin home. He taught his wife Esfir to read and write in Russian, forbade her to speak Yiddish and brought up his two children, Isaak (born in 1912) and Ida, to be Soviet people without any Jewish traditions. Ida remembers:

Father tried so hard to be correct, to live the life of the ideal Bolshevik. We had no Jewish customs in our home, and we never spoke Yiddish – we children did not even know it. Once he had become a Bolshevik, my father made an effort to purge from our home everything that reminded him of the ghetto and the Pale of Settlement. As an internationalist, he believed in the equality of nations, in the Soviet Union, and filled our house with Soviet things. His prized possession was a marble miniature of Lenin’s mausoleum that he kept on his desk.112

The Whisperers

The Slavin family, 1927. Ida is with her father Ilia (centre), her mother Esfir to his right

Prospects for the new urban Jews, however, shone less brightly as the NEP came under further attack. In 1928, the Moscow Soviet again imposed a special business tax on small traders. For Samuil Laskin, the tax came at an awkward time. The NEP had re-established rights of private and cooperative ownership in housing, and earlier that year he had put money into a building project on Zubov Square: speculative builders were constructing a two-storeyed house in the courtyard of a large apartment block in this fashionable district of Moscow, and with his investment Samuil was set to own a three-room apartment on the upper floor. Samuil had dreams of private property – he wanted to provide for his three daughters while they were still studying – and so he refused to pay the tax in full. He was arrested, imprisoned briefly in Moscow and then sent into exile in Nizhny Novgorod.113 The arrest was part of a nationwide assault on private trade, which began in 1927 and led eventually to the overturning of the NEP. This campaign against the NEP was inextricably linked to the rise of Stalin and the defeat of his two main rivals in the Party leadership, Trotsky and Bukharin, who continued to support the policies of a mixed economy introduced by Lenin in 1921.

The Bolsheviks had always been ambivalent about the NEP, but many of their proletarian supporters, who could not afford the prices charged by private shops, were firmly opposed to it. Their mistrust of the NEP was reinforced by the wild fluctations of the market, which drove up prices whenever shortages of goods in the countryside led the peasants to withhold their foodstuffs from the towns. The first major breakdown of the market had occurred in 1923–4, when the Soviets had launched their initial attack on the NEPmen, largely to appease the grievances of the working class against the price inflation. In the middle of the 1920s the market stabilized, but a second major breakdown took place in 1927 – 8, when a poor harvest coincided with a shortage of consumer goods. As the price of manufactures rose, the peasantry reduced its grain deliveries to the state depots and cooperatives; the fixed procurement prices were far too low for them to buy the household goods they needed. Instead the peasants ate their grain, fed it to their cattle, stored it in their barns or sold it on the private market rather than release it to the state. Supporters of the NEP differed on the correct way to respond to the crisis. Bukharin favoured raising the procurement prices, mainly to preserve the market mechanism and the union with the peasants which Lenin had said was the basis of the NEP, although he acknowledged that the greater state expenditure would slow down the rate of investment in industry. Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev (the United Opposition) were wary of making more concessions to the peasantry, which they feared would only postpone the Soviet goal of socialist industrialization. In their view, the state should resort to temporary requisitioning of the peasants’ grain to secure the stocks of food and capital it needed to boost production of consumer goods, and only then restore the market mechanism with the peasantry. Stalin sided with Bukharin – but just until the defeat of Trotsky and Zinoviev at the Fifteenth Party Congress in December 1927 – after which he turned against Bukharin and the NEP. Denouncing the grain crisis as a ‘kulak strike’, Stalin called for a return to the requisitionings of the Civil War in order to support a Five Year Plan to industrialize the Soviet Union. He spoke in violent terms about rooting out the final remnants of the capitalist economy (petty trade and peasant farming), which, he claimed, had blocked the country’s progress to socialist industrialization.

Stalin’s violent rhetoric – his calls for a return to the class war of the Revolution and the Civil War – appealed to a broad section of the Party’s proletarian base, among whom there was a growing sense that the bourgeoisie was returning in another form through the NEPmen, the ‘bourgeois specialists’ and the ‘kulaks’. Many felt that the NEP was a retreat from the Bolshevik ideal of social justice and feared that it would lead to the restoration of a capitalist economy. ‘We young Communists had all grown up in the belief that money was done away with once and for all,’ recalls one Bolshevik. ‘If money was reappearing, wouldn’t rich people reappear too? Weren’t we on the slippery slope that led back to capitalism? We put these questions to ourselves with feelings of anxiety.’ Stalin’s call for a return to the methods of the Civil War had a special appeal to younger Communists – those born in the 1900s and the 1910s – who were too young to have taken part in the revolutionary fighting of 1917 – 21 but who had been educated in the ‘cult of struggle’ based on stories of the Civil War. One Bolshevik (born in 1909) maintained in his memoirs that the militant world-view of his contemporaries had prepared them to accept Stalin’s arguments about the need for ‘renewed class war’ against the ‘bourgeois specialists’, NEPmen, ‘kulaks’ and other ‘hirelings of the bourgeoisie’. Young Communists had become disheartened, as one Stalinist explains:

The Komsomols of my generation – those who experienced the October Revolution at the age of ten or younger – chafed at our fate. In the Komsomol, in the factories, we lamented that there was nothing remaining for us to do: the Revolution was over, the harsh but romantic years of the Civil War would not come again, and the older generation had left us only a boring, prosaic life devoid of struggle and excitement.

Aleksei Radchenko wrote in his diary in 1927:

Progressive youth today has no real interest or focus for activity – these are not the years of the Civil War but just the NEP – a necessary stage of the Revolution but a boring one. People are distracted by personal affairs, by family matters… We need something to shake us up and clear the air (some people even dream of war).114

Stalin played on these romantic notions, of the Civil War as the ‘heroic period’ and the Soviet Union as a state engaged in a constant struggle with capitalist enemies at home and abroad. He manufactured the ‘war scare’ of 1927, filling the Soviet press with bogus stories about British ‘spies’ and ‘invasion plans’ against the Soviet Union, and used this fear to call for mass arrests of potential ‘enemies’ (‘monarchists’ and ‘former people’). He also used the threat of war to support his arguments for a Five Year Plan and building of the armed forces. The NEP, he argued, was too slow as a means of industrial armament, and not secure enough as a means of procuring grain in the event of war. Stalin’s conception of the Five Year Plan was wholly predicated on ceaseless struggle with the enemy. In his political battles with Bukharin for the control of the Party in 1928 – 9, Stalin accused him of subscribing to the dangerous view that the class struggle would lessen over time and that ‘capitalist elements’ could be reconciled with a socialist system (in fact Bukharin argued that the struggle would continue in the economic sphere). This view, Stalin argued, would lead the Party to lower its defences against its capitalist enemies, allowing them to infiltrate the Soviet system and subvert it from within. In a precursor to the claims by which he rationalized the expanding waves of state repression in the Great Terror, Stalin insisted, on the contrary, that the resistance of the bourgeoisie was bound to intensify as the country moved towards socialism, so that renewed vigour was constantly required to ‘root out and crush the opposition of the exploiters’.115 This was the rationale that rallied Stalin’s forces and secured his victory against Bukharin. Terror was the inspiration, not the effect, of the Five Year Plan.

The assault against the private traders was the opening battle of a renewed revolutionary war. Thousands of NEPmen were imprisoned or driven from their homes. By the end of 1928, more than half the 400,000 private businesses registered in 1926 had been taxed out of existence or closed down by the police; by the end of 1929, only one in ten remained. New restrictions on the lishentsy made life even harder for the families of the NEPmen. Rationing cards (introduced in 1928) were denied to the lishentsy, who were thus forced to buy their food from the few remaining private shops, where prices rose dramatically. More frequently than before, their families were expelled from state housing, and their children barred from Soviet schools and universities.116

Samuil Laskin returned to Moscow from exile in Nizhny Novgorod at the height of this class war. In the spring of 1929 the Laskins moved into their new home on Zubov Square. Samuil and Berta had one room, Sonia another, while Fania and Zhenia shared the living room. But Samuil’s dreams of owning his own home were soon dashed by the abolition of private ownership, which followed the overturning of the NEP. The Laskin home was nationalized by the Moscow Soviet, which turned it into a communal apartment and moved in an old couple (both well known as police informers), who were given the two largest rooms, leaving all the Laskins to share just one rented room. In November 1929, Samuil’s herring business was expropriated by the state. Samuil was arrested for a second time, held for several weeks in the Butyrki jail, and then exiled to Voronezh, from which he returned in 1930 to begin a new life as a Soviet employee in the fish trade.117

Samuil had lost everything. But he bore his reduced conditions, as he bore everything, without complaining once about the Soviet regime. Nadezhda Mandelshtam, a friend of Zhenia in the 1950s, wrote about this aspect of Samuil’s character in her memoirs about the Stalin years:

Zhenia’s father was a small, indeed, the smallest imaginable, tradesman, who brought up three daughters and dealt in salted herring. The Revolution made him blissfully happy: it proclaimed equal rights for Jews and enabled him to realize his dream of giving his three clever daughters a good education. When the NEP was launched, he took it at face value, and, to feed his daughters, started up his salted herring business – only to have it confiscated when he was unable to pay his taxes. No doubt he too did sums on his abacus to see how he could save his family. He was shipped off to Narym, or some such place. But he was broken neither by this nor by his previous stretch in prison – to which he went at a time when ‘new methods’, that is, tortures of a more refined kind than primitive beating, were being introduced in cases involving ‘the confiscation of valuables’. From his first place of exile he sent a letter of such heartrending tenderness to his wife and three daughters that they decided to show it to no one outside the family. His whole life was spent in and out of exile, and later the same thing started with his daughters and their husbands, who also went into exile and camps. If it had not been for the father, who stood at the centre of it and never changed with the years, the fate of this family would have epitomized the typical Soviet life story. He was the quintessence of Jewish saintliness, possessing those qualities of mysterious spirituality and goodness which sanctified Job.118


The Great Break



On 2 August 1930, the villagers of Obukhovo celebrated Ilin Day, an old religious holiday to mark the end of the high summer when Russian peasants held a feast and said their prayers for a good harvest. After a service in the church, the villagers assembled at the Golovins, the biggest family in Obukhovo, where they were given home-made pies and beer inside the house while their children played outside. As evening approached, the village dance (gulian’e) began. Led by a band of balalaika players and accordionists, two separate rows of teenage boys and girls, dressed in festive cottons, set off from the house, singing as they danced down the village street.1

That year the holiday was overshadowed by violent arguments. The villagers were bitterly divided about whether they should form a collective farm (kolkhoz), as they had been ordered by the Soviet government. Most of the peasants were reluctant to give up their family farms, on which they had worked for generations, and to share their property, their horses, cows and agricultural equipment in a kolkhoz. In the collective farm all their land, their livestock and their tools would be collectivized; the peasants’ individual plots of land would be grouped together in large fields suitable for tractors; and the peasants would become wage labourers, with only tiny kitchen gardens on which to keep their poultry and grow a few vegetables. The villagers of Obukhovo had a fierce attachment to the principles of family labour and property and they were frightened by the stories they had heard about collectivization in other northern villages. There were terrifying tales of soldiers forcing peasants into the kolkhoz, of mass arrests and deportations, of houses being burned and people killed, and of peasants fleeing from their villages and slaughtering their cattle to avoid collectivization. ‘On our farms we can all work for ourselves,’ Nikolai Golovin had warned a meeting of the commune in July, ‘but on the kolkhoz we will become serfs again.’2 Many of the older peasants in Obukhovo had been born before the abolition of serfdom in 1861.

In 1917, Nikolai had led the peasant revolution on the land. He organized the confiscation of the Church’s land (there were no gentry estates in the area) and through the commune and the Soviet oversaw the redivision of the village land, allocating strips of arable land to the family farms according to their household size. Nikolai was well regarded by the other villagers, whose smallholding family farms, worked with their own labour on communal land, had increased in number as a result of the Revolution, and they often came to him for agricultural advice. They valued his intelligence and honesty, his industry, sobriety and quiet modesty, and trusted his opinions, because he understood and could explain in simple terms the policies of the Soviet government. The old millstone outside his house was an informal meeting place where villagers would gather in the summer evenings, and Nikolai would give his views on local incidents.3

The Golovins were defenders of peasant tradition. Their family farm was organized on patriarchal lines, where all the children worked under the command of their father and were brought up to obey him as an almost god-like figure of authority (‘God is in the sky and father in the house’). Like all peasants, the Golovins believed in the rights of family labour on the land. This had been the guiding principle of the agrarian revolution of 1917–18. In the Civil War, when Nikolai had helped to organize the Red Army in the north, he had given his support to the Soviet regime on the understanding that it would defend these peasant rights (throughout the 1920s he kept a portrait of Kliment Voroshilov, the Soviet Commissar of Military Affairs, next to the icons in the main room of his house). But these rights were increasingly attacked by the Bolsheviks, whose militant young Komsomol activists led the campaign for collectivization in Obukhovo. The Komsomol held meetings in the village school, where violent speeches were made by agitators against the richest peasants in Obukhovo – most of all against the Golovins. The villagers had never heard such propaganda in the past and many were impressed by the long words used by the leaders of the Komsomol. At these meetings the villagers were told that they belonged to three mutually hostile classes: the poor peasants, who were the allies of the proletariat, the middle peasants, who were neutral, and the rich or ‘kulak’ peasants, who were its enemies.* The names of all the peasants in these different classes were listed on a board outside the village school. These divisions were entirely generated by the Komsomol. The villagers had no previous conception of themselves in terms of social class. They had always thought of themselves as one ‘peasant family’, and the poorest peasants were normally respectful, and even deferential, to the most successful peasants like the Golovins. But at the meetings in the village school, when their tongues were loosened by alcohol, the poor would add their voice to the denunciations of the ‘kulak Golovins’.4

The Whisperers

Yevdokiia and Nikolai with their son Aleksei Golovin (1940s)

The Komsomol in Obukhovo consisted of a dozen teenagers who went around the village in semi-military uniforms and carried guns. They were intimidating to the villagers. Their leader was Kolia Kuzmin, the eighteen-year-old son of a poor and alcoholic peasant whose squalid house with its broken roof was located at the far end of the village, where the poorest families in Obukhovo lived. As a boy, Kolia had been sent out by his family to beg from the other farms. He would often come to the Golovin household with a ‘neighbourly request for matches, salt, kerosene or flour, which in the Kuzmin household never lasted until the New Year,’ recalls Antonina, the daughter of Nikolai. Her father took pity on the teenager, giving him a job in his leather workshop in the courtyard of his farm; Kolia worked there for several years, until 1927, when he joined the Komsomol and turned against the Golovins.5

In many villages, especially remote ones like Obukhovo, the Bolsheviks depended on the Komsomol to do their agitation in the absence of a Party cell. For every rural Party member there were four rural Komsomol members in the mid-1920s. The nearest Party office to Obukhovo was seven kilometres away in the district town of Ustiuzhna. Since the village Soviet in Obukhovo was dominated by the Golovins, the restless young men of the village who joined the Komsomol were placed in charge of leading the campaign for the kolkhoz. From the autumn of 1928, when the Party leadership began to call for mass collectivization, Kuzmin and his comrades went around the village, inciting the poorest peasants to join them in a battle against the ‘counterrevolutionary’ influence of the ‘kulaks’ and the Church, and sending unsigned letters of denunciation to the district town. In the spring of 1929, Nikolai was expelled from the Obukhovo Soviet and deprived of his civil rights as ‘the capitalist owner of a leather-working enterprise’. Then, in November, his house was searched by the village Komsomol, together with officials from the district town, who imposed a heavy tax of 800 roubles on his ‘kulak’ farm. This tax, part of a nationwide policy to ‘squeeze out’ the ‘kulaks’ and confiscate their property, resulted in the ruination of almost 4,000 peasant households in Vologda alone.6

To pay the tax Nikolai was forced to sell two milking cows, his shoe-making machinery, an iron bed and a trunk of clothes. With two of his four brothers, he even worked that winter on a building site in Leningrad to earn some extra cash. The three brothers were thinking of leaving Obukhovo, where the collectivization of agriculture now seemed unavoidable, and they wanted to find out what life was like in the city. They slept on benches in a dormitory, ate their meals in cafeterias and saved up enough to send several hundred roubles home, but after a few months of living in this way, they decided to return to their village. ‘It is no life for a human being,’ Nikolai explained in a letter to his family, ‘if one has to purchase everything, bread, potatoes and cabbage, from a shop.’7

Nikolai’s return, in the spring of 1930, brought his relations with the Komsomol to a breaking point. One evening, he was having supper at his house with his brother Ivan Golovin, a peasant from the neighbouring village. They were sitting at the kitchen table by the window, and their silhouettes, illuminated by a kerosene lamp, were clearly visible to Kuzmin and his followers, who gathered outside in the dark. The young men were clearly drunk. They shouted at the ‘kulaks’ to ‘come out’, and then shot at the window. Ivan was hit in the head. He lay dead in a pool of blood.

A few weeks later, Kuzmin came again to Nikolai’s house, this time with two Party officials from the district town. There was a gathering at Nikolai’s house that night, and the main room was full of friends and relatives. Kuzmin accused them of holding an illegal assembly. ‘Kulaks, open up, stop conspiring against Soviet power!’ he shouted, banging on the door. He had a gun and shot into the air. Confronting the intruders on the porch, Nikolai refused to let them in. Kuzmin threatened to murder Nikolai (‘I shall shoot you, just as I murdered your brother, and no one will punish me,’ he was heard to say), whereupon a brawl ensued, and Nikolai pushed Kuzmin to the ground. Kuzmin and his comrades went away. A few days later he wrote to the chief of the Ustiuzhna political police (OGPU) denouncing Nikolai as a

kulak exploiter who is spreading anti-Soviet propaganda in our village together with a dozen other kulak elements. They are saying that the Soviet government is robbing the people. Their aim is to sabotage collectivization by turning the people against it.

Kuzmin must have known that this would be enough to get his former patron arrested, especially since his denunciation was supported by the two Bolsheviks, who added for good measure that Nikolai was ‘always drunk’ when he ‘cursed the Soviets’.8

Sure enough, on 2 August, as their guests were readying to leave the Golovins at the end of the Ilin holiday, two officials came to arrest Nikolai. Imprisoned in Ustiuzhna, Nikolai was convicted by a three-man OGPU tribunal of ‘terrorist intent’ (for striking Kuzmin to the ground) and sentenced to three years at the Solovetsky prison complex located on an island in the White Sea. The last time Antonina saw her father was through the bars of the Ustiuzhna jail. She had walked to the district centre with her mother, her brothers and sisters to catch a glimpse of Nikolai before he was dispatched to the Solovetsky camp. For the next three years the image of her father behind bars haunted Antonina’s dreams.9

A few weeks after Nikolai’s arrest, the peasants of Obukhovo were herded to a village meeting, at which they passed a resolution to close down their family farms and, handing over all their land, their tools and livestock, to establish a kolkhoz.

Collectivization was the great turning-point in Soviet history. It destroyed a way of life that had developed over many centuries – a life based on the family farm, the ancient peasant commune, the independent village and its church and the rural market, all of which were seen by the Bolsheviks as obstacles to socialist industrialization. Millions of people were uprooted from their homes and dispersed across the Soviet Union: runaways from the collective farms; victims of the famine that resulted from the over-requisitioning of kolkhoz grain; orphaned children; ‘kulaks’ and their families. This nomadic population became the main labour force of Stalin’s industrial revolution, filling the cities and industrial building sites, the labour camps and ‘special settlements’ of the Gulag (Main Administration of Camps). The First Five Year Plan, which set this pattern of forced development, launched a new type of social revolution (a ‘revolution from above’) that consolidated the Stalinist regime: old ties and loyalties were broken down, morality dissolved, and new (‘Soviet’) values and identities imposed, as the whole population was subordinated to the state and forced to depend on it for almost everything – housing, schooling, jobs and food – controlled by the planned economy.

The eradication of the peasant family farm was the starting-point of this ‘revolution from above’. The Bolsheviks had a fundamental mistrust of the peasantry. In 1917, without influence in the countryside, they had been forced to tolerate the peasant revolution on the land, which they had exploited to undermine the old regime; but they had always made it clear that their long-term goal was to sweep away the peasant smallholding system, replacing it with large-scale mechanized collective farms in which the peasants would be transformed into a ‘rural proletariat’. Marxist ideology had taught the Bolsheviks to regard the peasantry as a ‘petty-bourgeois’ relic of the old society that was ultimately incompatible with the development of a Communist society. It was too closely tied to the patriarchal customs and traditions of Old Russia, too imbued in the principles and habits of free trade and private property and too given over to the ‘egotism’ of the family ever to be fully socialized.

The Bolsheviks believed that the peasants were a potential threat to the Revolution, as long as they controlled the main supply of food. As the Civil War had shown, the peasantry could bring the Soviet regime to the verge of collapse by keeping grain from the market. The grain crisis of 1927–8 renewed fears of a ‘kulak strike’ in Stalinist circles. In response, Stalin reinstituted requistioning of food supplies and engineered an atmosphere of ‘civil war’ against the ‘kulak threat’ to justify the policy. In January 1928, Stalin travelled to Siberia, a key grain-producing area, and urged the local activists to show no mercy to ‘kulaks’ suspected of withholding grain. His battle-cry was backed up by a series of Emergency Measures instructing local organs to use the Criminal Code to arrest any peasants and confiscate their property if they refused to give their grain to the requisitioning brigades (a wild interpretation of the Code that met with some resistance in the government). Hundreds of thousands of ‘malicious kulaks’ (ordinary peasants like Nikolai Golovin) were arrested and sent to labour camps, their property destroyed or confiscated, as the regime sought to break the ‘kulak strike’ and transformed its overcrowded prisons into a network of labour camps (soon to become known as the Gulag).10

As the battle for grain intensified, Stalin and his supporters moved towards a policy of mass collectivization in order to strengthen the state’s control of food production and remove the ‘kulak threat’ once and for all. ‘We must devise a procedure whereby the collective farms will turn over their entire marketable production of grain to the state and co-operative organizations under the threat of withdrawal of state subsidies and credits,’ Stalin said in 1928.11 Stalin spoke with growing optimism about the potential of large-scale mechanized collective farms. Statistics showed that the few such farms already in existence had a much larger marketable surplus than the small agricultural surpluses produced by the vast majority of peasant family farms.

This enthusiasm for collective farms was relatively new. Previously, the Party had not placed much emphasis on collectivization. Under the NEP, the organization of collective farms was encouraged by the state through financial and agronomic aid, yet in Party circles it was generally agreed that collectivization was to be a gradual and voluntary process. During the NEP the peasants showed no sign of coming round to the collective principle, and the growth of the kolkhoz sector was pretty insignificant. After 1927, when the state exerted greater pressure through taxation policies – giving credits to collective farms and imposing heavy fees on ‘kulak’ farms – the kolkhoz sector grew more rapidly. But it was not the large kommuny (where all the land and property was pooled) but the smaller, more informal and ‘peasant-like’ associations called TOZy (where the land was farmed in common but the livestock and the tools were retained by the peasants as their private property) that attracted the most peasant interest. The Five Year Plan gave little indication that the Party was about to change its policies; it projected a moderate increase in the land sown by collective farms, and made no mention of departing from the voluntary principle.

The sudden change in policy was forced through by Stalin in 1929. The volte face was a decisive blow against Bukharin, who was desperately trying to retain the market mechanism of the NEP within the structure of the Five Year Plan, which in its original version (adopted in the spring of 1929 but dated retroactively to 1928) had envisaged optimistic but reasonable targets of socialist industrialization. Stalin pushed for even higher rates of industrial growth and, by the autumn of 1929, the target figures of the Five Year Plan had been raised dramatically. Investment was to triple; coal output was to double; and the production of pig-iron (which had been set to rise by 250 per cent in the original version of the Plan) was now set to quadruple by 1932.In a wave of frenzied optimism, which was widely shared by the Party rank and file, the Soviet press advanced the slogan ‘The Five Year Plan in Four!’12 It was these utopian rates of growth that forced the Party to accept the Stalinist policy of mass collectivization as, it seemed, the only way to obtain a cheap and guaranteed supply of foodstuffs for the rapidly expanding industrial labour force (and for sale abroad to bring in capital).

At the heart of all these policies was the Party’s war against the peasantry. The collectivization of agriculture was a direct assault on the peasantry’s attachment to the village and the Church, to the individual family farm, to private trade and property, which all rooted Russia in the past. On 7 November 1929, Stalin wrote an article in Pravda, ‘The Year of the Great Break’, in which he heralded the Five Year Plan as the start of the last great revolutionary struggle against ‘capitalist elements’ in the USSR, leading to the foundation of a Communist society built by socialist industry. What Stalin meant by the ‘great break’, as he explained to Gorky, was the ‘total breaking up of the old society and the feverish building of the new’.13

From the summer of 1929, thousands of Party activists were sent into the countryside to agitate for the collective farms. Like the villagers of Obukhovo, most of the peasants were afraid to give up a centuries-old way of life to make a leap of faith into the unknown. There were precious few examples of good collective farms to persuade the peasantry. A German agricultural specialist working in Siberia in 1929 described the collective farms as ‘candidates for death’. Very few had tractors or modern implements. They were badly run by people who knew little about agriculture and made ‘crude mistakes’, which ‘discredited the whole process of collectivization’. According to OGPU, the perception of the peasants was that they would ‘lose everything’ – their land and cows, their horses and their tools, their homes and family – if they entered a kolkhoz. As one old peasant said: ‘Lecturer after lecturer is coming and telling us that we ought to forget possessions and have everything in common. Why then is the desire for it in our blood?’14

Unable to persuade the peasantry, the activists began to use coercive measures. From December 1929, when Stalin called for the ‘liquidation of the kulaks as a class’, the campaign to drive the peasants into the collective farms took on the form of a war. The Party and the Komosomol were fully armed and mobilized, reinforced by local militia, special army and OGPU units, urban workers and student volunteers, and sent into the villages with strict instructions not to come back to the district centres without having organized a kolkhoz. ‘It is better to overstep the mark than to fall short,’ they were told by their instructors. ‘Remember that we won’t condemn you for an excess, but if you fall short – watch out!’ One activist recalls a speech by the Bolshevik leader Mendel Khataevich, in which he told a meeting of eighty Party organizers in the Volga region:

You must assume your duties with a feeling of the strictest Party responsibility, without whimpering, without any rotten liberalism. Throw your bourgeois humanitarianism out of the window and act like Bolsheviks worthy of comrade Stalin. Beat down the kulak agent wherever he raises his head. It’s war – it’s them or us. The last decayed remnant of capitalist farming must be wiped out at any cost.15

During just the first two months of 1930, half the Soviet peasantry (about 60 million people in over 100,000 villages) was herded into the collective farms. The activists employed various tactics of intimidation at the village meetings where the decisive vote to join the kolkhoz took place. In one Siberian village, for example, the peasants were reluctant to accept the motion to join the collective farm. When the time came for the vote, the activists brought in armed soldiers and called on those opposed to the motion to speak out: no one dared to raise objections, so it was declared that the motion had been ‘passed unanimously’.In another village, after the peasants had voted against joining the kolkhoz, the activists demanded to know which peasants were opposed to Soviet power, explaining that it was the command of the Soviet government that the peasants join collective farms. When nobody was willing to state their opposition to the government, it was recorded by the activists that the village had ‘voted unanimously’ for collectivization. In other villages only a small minority of the inhabitants (hand-picked by the activists) was allowed to attend the meeting, although the result of the vote was made binding on the population as a whole. In the village of Cheremukhova in the Komi region, for example, there were 437 households, but only 52 had representatives at the village assembly: 18 voted in favour of collectivization and 16 against, yet on this basis the entire village was enrolled in the kolkhoz.16

Peasants who spoke out against collectivization were beaten, tortured, threatened and harassed, until they agreed to join the collective farm. Many were expelled as ‘kulaks’ from their homes and driven out of the village. The herding of the peasants into the collective farms was accompanied by a violent assault against the Church, the focal point of the old way of life in the village, which was regarded by the Bolsheviks as a source of potential opposition to collectivization. Thousands of priests were arrested and churches were looted and destroyed, forcing millions of believers to maintain their faith in the secrecy of their own homes. Rural Communists and Soviet officials who opposed forcible collectivization were expelled from the Party and arrested.

In Stalin’s view, the war against the ‘kulaks’ was inseparable from the collectivization campaign. As he saw it, there was nothing to be gained from trying to neutralize the ‘kulaks’, or from attempting to involve them as farm labourers in the kolkhoz, as some Bolsheviks proposed. ‘When the head is cut off,’ Stalin argued, ‘you do not weep about the hair.’17 To his mind, the persecution of the ‘kulaks’ had two purposes: to remove potential opposition to collectivization; and to serve as an example to the other villagers, encouraging them to join the collective farms in order not to suffer the same fate as the ‘kulaks’.

For all the talk of ‘kulaks’, there was no such objective category. The term was so widely and randomly applied that virtually any peasant could be dispossessed as a ‘kulak’, yet this vagueness only added to the terror which the war against the ‘kulaks’ was intended to create. According to Leninist ideology, the ‘kulaks’ were capitalist farmers who employed hired labour, but this could not be said of more than a handful of the peasants who were actually repressed as ‘kulaks’ after 1929. The NEP had allowed the peasants to enrich themselves through their own labour, and some peasants, like the Golovins, had been able, through hard work, to build up a modest property on their family farms.* But the NEP had kept a tight control on the employment of hired labour, and in any case, after 1927, when taxes on the peasants were increased, most of the richest peasants, like the Golovins, lost much of their private wealth. The idea of a ‘kulak class’ of capitalist peasants was a fantasy. The vast majority of the so-called ‘kulaks’ were hard-working peasants like the Golovins – the most sober, thrifty and progressive farmers in the village – whose modest wealth was often the result of having larger families. The industry of the ‘kulaks’ was recognized by most of the peasantry. As one kolkhoz labourer said in 1931, the campaign against the ‘kulaks’ merely meant that all ‘the best and hardest workers of the land’ were pushed out of the collective farms.18

The destruction of the ‘kulaks’ was an economic catastrophe for the Soviet Union. It deprived the collective farms of the work ethic and expertise of the country’s most industrious peasants, ultimately leading to the terminal decline of the Soviet agricultural sector. But Stalin’s war against the ‘kulaks’ had little to do with economic considerations – and everything to do with the removal of potential opposition to the collectivization of the village. The ‘kulaks’ were peasant individualists, the strongest leaders and supporters of the old rural way of life. They had to disappear.

The ‘liquidation of the kulaks’ followed the same pattern nationwide. In January 1930, a Politburo commission drew up quotas of 60,000 ‘malicious kulaks’ to be sent to labour camps and 150,000 other ‘kulak’ households to be exiled to the North, Siberia, the Urals and Kazakhstan. The figures were part of an overall plan for 1 million ‘kulak’ households (about 6 million people) to be stripped of all their property and sent to labour camps or ‘special settlements’. The implementation of the quotas was assigned to OGPU (which raised the target to 3 to 5 per cent of all peasant households to be liquidated as ‘kulak’) and then handed down to the local OGPU and Party organizations (which in many regions deliberately exceeded the quotas in the belief that this demonstrated the vigilance expected by their superiors).19 Every village had its own quota set by the district authorities. Komsomol and Party activists drew up lists of the ‘kulaks’ in each village to be arrested and exiled. They took inventories of the property to be confiscated from their homes when the ‘kulaks’ were expelled.

There was surprisingly little peasant opposition to the persecution of the ‘kulaks’ – especially in view of Russia’s strong historical traditions of village solidarity (earlier campaigns against the ‘kulaks’, in the Civil War for example, had failed to split the peasantry). Certainly there were places where the villagers resisted the quota, insisting that there were no ‘kulaks’ among them and that all the peasants were similarly poor, and places where they refused to give up their ‘kulaks’, or even tried to defend them against the activists when they came to arrest them. But the majority of the peasantry reacted to the sudden disappearance of their fellow villagers with passive resignation born of fear. In some villages the peasants chose the ‘kulaks’ from their own number. They simply held a village meeting and decided who should go as a ‘kulak’ (isolated farmers, widows and old people were particularly vulnerable). Elsewhere, the ‘kulaks’ were chosen by drawing lots.20

Dmitry Streletsky was born in 1917 to a large peasant family in the Kurgan region of Siberia. He recalls how his parents were selected for deportation from their village as ‘kulaks’:

There was no inspection or calculation. They simply came and said to us: ‘You are going.’ Serkov, the chairman of the village Soviet who deported us, explained: ‘I have received an order [from the district Party committee] to find 17 kulak families for deportation. I formed a Committee of the Poor and we sat through the night to choose the families. There is no one in the village who is rich enough to qualify, and not many old people, so we simply chose the 17 families. You were chosen,’ he explained to us. ‘Please don’t take it personally. What else could I do?’21

It is very difficult to give any accurate statistics for the number of people who were repressed as ‘kulaks’. At the peaks of the ‘anti-kulak campaign’ (during the winter of 1929–30, the early months of 1931, and the autumn of 1932) the country roads were filled with long convoys of deportees, each one carrying the last of their possessions, pathetic bundles of clothes and bedding, or pulling them by cart. One eye-witness in the Sumy region of Ukraine saw lines ‘stretching as far as the eye could see in both directions, with people from new villages continually joining’ as the column marched towards the collecting points on the railway. There they were packed into cattle trucks and transported to ‘special settlements’. Since the railways could not cope with the huge numbers of deportees, many of the ‘kulaks’ were held for months awaiting transportation in primitive detention camps, where children and the elderly died like flies in the appalling conditions. By 1932, there were 1.4 million ‘kulaks’ in the ‘special settlements’, mostly in the Urals and Siberia, and an even larger number in labour camps attached to Gulag factories and construction sites, or simply living on the run. Overall, at least 10 million ‘kulaks’ were expelled from their homes and villages between 1929 and 1932.22

Behind such statistics are countless human tragedies.

In January 1930, Dmitry Streletsky’s family was expelled from the farm in Baraba in the Kurgan region, where they had lived for fifty years. His grandfather’s house was destroyed – the farm tools and the carts, the horses and the cows transferred to the kolkhoz, while smaller items – such as clothes and linen, pots and pans – were distributed to the villagers. The family icons were all smashed and burned. Dmitry’s grandparents, three of their four sons and their families (fourteen people in total) were rehoused in a cattle shed and barred from contact with the other villagers, until the order for their deportation arrived from the district town. Six weeks later, they were all exiled to a lumber camp in the Urals (where the grandparents died within a year). Dmitry’s father, Nikolai, stayed with his family in Baraba. A Red Army veteran of the Civil War, Nikolai had organized the first collective farm (a TOZ) in the village, and his agricultural expertise was desperately needed by the kolkhoz. Nikolai was allowed to keep his house, where he lived with his wife Anna and their six children. But then, one day in the early spring of 1931, they too were informed that they had been ‘chosen’ as ‘kulaks’ for a second wave of deportations from Baraba. They were given just one hour to pack their meagre belongings, before they were escorted from the village under guard, left on their own on the open steppe and told never to return. ‘We lost everything,’ recalls Dmitry.

The Whisperers

‘Kulaks’ exiled from the village of Udachne, Khryshyne (Ukraine), early 1930s

What could we hope to pack up in an hour? Father wanted to take his walking-sticks (one of them had a silver top), but the guards would not let him. They also took my mother’s gold chain and ring. It was daylight robbery. Everything was left behind – our home, our barns, our cattle, our linen, clothes and chinaware. All we had was a few scraps of clothing – and of course ourselves – our parents, children, brothers and sisters – the true living wealth of our family.23

Valentina Kropotina was born in 1930 to a poor peasant family in Belarus. They were repressed as ‘kulaks’ in 1932. Valentina’s earliest memory is of running with her parents from their home, which was burned on the orders of the village Communists. They set fire to it in the middle of the night, when the family was asleep inside. Valentina’s parents barely had time to rescue their two daughters before escaping, with severe body burns, from their house engulfed in flames. Valentina’s father was arrested that same night. He was imprisoned and later exiled to the Amur region of Siberia, where he spent the next six years in various labour camps. The family house and barn were burned to the ground; the cow and pigs were confiscated for the collective farm; the fruit trees in their garden were cut down; their crops destroyed. All that was left was a sack of peas. Valentina’s mother, an illiterate peasant woman called Yefimia, was barred from joining the kolkhoz. She was left to live with her two young daughters in the ruins of their house. Yefimia built a shack from the rubble of her former house on the edge of the village. She scraped a living from various cleaning jobs. Valentina and her sister did not go to school – as ‘kulak daughters’ they were banned for several years. They grew up on the streets, following their mother to her cleaning jobs. ‘All my childhood memories are sad,’ reflects Valentina. ‘The main thing I remember is the feeling of hunger, which never went away.’24

The Whisperers

Valentina Kropotina (second from left) and her sister (second from right) with three of their cousins, 1939

Klavdiia Rublyova was born in 1913, the third of eleven children in a peasant family in the Irbei region of Krasnoiarsk in Siberia. Her mother died in 1924, while giving birth, leaving her father, Ilia, to bring up all the children on his own. An enterprising man, Ilia took advantage of the NEP to branch out from farming to market gardening. He grew poppy seeds and cucumbers, which could easily be tended by his young children. For this he was branded a ‘kulak’, arrested and imprisoned, and later sent to a labour camp, leaving his children in the care of Klavdiia, who was then aged just seventeen. The children were deprived of all their father’s property: the house, which he had built, was taken over by the village Soviet, while the horses, cows and sheep and the farm tools were transferred to the kolkhoz. For several weeks, the children lived in the bath-house, until officials came to take them all away to an orphanage. Klavdiia ran off with the youngest child to Kansk, near Krasnoiarsk, where her grown-up sister Raisa lived. Before they went they sold their last possessions to the other villagers. ‘We had nothing much to sell, we were just children,’ Klavdiia recalls. ‘There was a fur-lined blanket and an old sheepskin, a feather mattress, and a mirror, which somehow we had rescued from our house. That was all we had to sell.’25

What were the motives of the men and women who carried out this brutal war against the peasantry? Most of the collectivizers were conscripted soldiers and workers – people anxious to carry out orders from above (and in some cases, to line their pockets). Hatred of the ‘kulaks’ had been drummed into them by their commanders and by propaganda which portrayed the ‘kulak parasites’ and ‘bloodsuckers’ as dangerous ‘enemies of the people’. ‘We were trained to see the kulaks, not as human beings, but as vermin, lice, which had to be destroyed,’ recalls one young activist, the leader of a Komsomol brigade in the Kuban. ‘Without the kolkhoz,’ wrote another collectivizer in the 1980s, ‘the kulaks would have grabbed us by the throat and skinned us all alive!’26

Others were carried away by their Communist enthusiasm. Inspired by the romantic revolutionary passions stirred up by the propaganda of the Five Year Plan, they believed with the Bolsheviks that any miracle could be achieved by sheer human will. As one student in those years recalls: ‘We were convinced that we were creating a Communist society, that it would be achieved by the Five Year Plans, and we were ready for any sacrifice.’27 Today, it is easy to underestimate the emotional force of these messianic hopes and the fanaticism that it engendered, particularly in the younger generation, which had been brought up on the ‘cult of struggle’ and the romance of the Civil War. These young people wanted to believe that it was their calling to carry on the fight, in the words of the ‘Internationale’, for a ‘new and better life’. In the words of one of the ‘25,000ers’ – the urban army of enthusiasts sent into the countryside to help carry out the collectivization campaign: ‘Constant struggle, struggle, and more struggle! This was how we had been taught to think – that nothing was achieved without struggle, which was a norm of social life.’28

According to this militant world-view, the creation of a new society would involve and indeed necessitate a bitter struggle with the forces of the old society (a logic reinforced by the propaganda of the Five Year Plan, with its constant talk of ‘campaigns’, ‘battles’ and ‘offensives’ on the social, economic, international and internal ‘fronts’). In this way the Communist idealists reconciled the ‘anti-kulak’ terror with their own utopian beliefs. Some were appalled by the brutal violence. Some were even sickened by their own role in it. But they all knew what they were doing (they could not plead that they were ignorant or that they were simply ‘following orders’). And they all believed that the end justified the means.

Lev Kopelev, a young Communist who took part in some of the worst atrocities against the Ukrainian peasants, explained how he rationalized his actions. Kopelev had volunteered for a Komsomol brigade which requisitioned grain from the ‘kulaks’ in 1932. They took everything, down to the last loaf of bread. Looking back on the experience in the 1970s, Kopelev recalled the children’s screams and the appearance of the peasant men – ‘frightened, pleading, hateful, dully impassive, extinguished with despair or flaring up with half-mad daring ferocity’:

It was excruciating to see and hear all this. And even worse to take part in it… And I persuaded myself, explained to myself. I mustn’t give in to debilitating pity. We were realizing historical necessity. We were performing our revolutionary duty. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland. For the Five Year Plan.29

There was widespread peasant resistance to collectivization, even though most villages acquiesced in the repression of ‘kulaks’.In 1929–30, the police registered 44,779 ‘serious disturbances’. Communists and rural activists were killed in their hundreds, and thousands more attacked. There were peasant demonstrations and riots, assaults against Soviet institutions, acts of arson and attacks on kolkhoz property, protests against closures of churches. It was almost a return to the situation at the end of the Civil War, when peasant wars throughout the land had forced the Bolsheviks to abandon requisitioning and introduce the NEP, only this time round the Soviet regime was strong enough to crush the peasant resistance (indeed, many of the peasant uprisings of 1929–30 were provoked by the police to flush out and suppress the ‘kulak rebels’). Realizing their own impotence, the peasantry adopted the traditional ‘weapons of the weak’ to sabotage collectivization: they slaughtered their own livestock to prevent them being requisitioned by the collective farms. The number of cattle in the Soviet Union fell by 30 per cent in 1929–30, and by half from 1928 to 1933.30

Faced with the ruin of the Soviet countryside, Stalin called for a temporary halt to the collectivization campaign. In an article in Pravda (‘Dizzy with Success’) on 2 March 1930, he accused local officials of excessive zeal for using force against the peasantry and setting up kolkhozes by decree. Millions of peasants saw this as a licence to leave the collective farms, and they voted with their feet. Between March and June 1930 the proportion of Soviet peasant households enrolled in the collectives fell from 58 to 24 per cent (in the central Black Earth region it fell from 83 to just 18 per cent). But leaving the collective farm turned out to be no easy matter. It was almost impossible for the peasants to retrieve their private property, their tools and livestock. For six months there was an uneasy truce. Then, in September 1930, Stalin launched a second wave of collectivization, the stated aim of which was to collectivize at least 80 per cent of the peasant households – up from 50 per cent the first time around – and eliminate all ‘kulaks’ by the end of 1931. The Politburo instructed OGPU to prepare a thousand ‘special settlements’, each to receive up to 300 ‘kulak’ families, in remote regions of the North, Siberia, the Urals and Kazakhstan. Two million people were exiled to these places in 1930–31.31

In September 1930, right at the start of this second wave, the kolkhoz in Obukhovo was established. ‘New Life’ (Novyi byt), the name of the kolkhoz, became the name of the village, which had been in existence as Obukhovo since 1522. Red flags were posted at the village gate to show that it had been collectivized. The old wooden church in the centre of the village was pulled down and broken up for wood, its bells removed and taken off to be melted down, while a group of peasant women watched and cried.

The peasants lost their plots of land, which were reorganized into large collective fields. The kolkhoz took away the work-horses and locked up all the cows in dairy sheds; but the promised new machinery did not arrive, so the cows were returned to their owners for milking, and a milk tax was imposed on every house. Kolia Kuzmin, the leader of the Komsomol, became the chairman of the kolkhoz. He took a bride from a nearby village and moved into the biggest house, which had been confiscated from the exiled ‘kulak’ Vasily Golovin. Kuzmin was responsible for the daily management of the kolkhoz, even though he was perhaps the least experienced farmer in the whole village. He was often drunk and violent. The first winter was a disaster. The kolkhoz delivered a large state quota of grain and milk, but half the horses died, and each kolkhoz worker was paid just 50 grams of bread a day.

Some of the villagers continued to resist. There were angry scenes when Kolia Kuzmin came to take away their property with an armed brigade. Many peasants ran away rather than be forced to join the kolkhoz. The Golovins were scattered as a clan. Of the 120 Golovins living in Obukhovo in 1929, only 71 remained by mid- 1931 (20 had fled to various towns; 13 were exiled as ‘kulaks’; and 16 were moved out to isolated homesteads, having been excluded from the collective farm).

As for Nikolai’s immediate family, it was broken up entirely. Two of his brothers were exiled. His mother fled to the nearest town. His oldest son was arrested and sent to work as a Gulag labourer on the White Sea Canal (Belomorkanal). Two other children, Maria and Ivan, ran away to escape arrest. His wife Yevdokiia and their three youngest children tried to join the collective farm, but they were barred as ‘kulak elements’, and isolated from their fellow villagers. Only the Puzhinin family, their oldest friends, would talk to them. ‘The atmosphere was terrible,’ remembers Antonina. ‘Mama often cried. We stopped playing outside; neighbours did not visit us any more. We grew up overnight.’ Yevdokiia and her children were allowed to stay in their family house and keep a cow and a tiny plot of land, from which they managed to survive for a few months, partly because they were helped in secret by their relatives. But life became unbearable when Kuzmin took away their cow (milk was their main source of food). In January 1931, Kuzmin declared a policy of ‘squeezing out the last of the kulak Golovins’, and the village Soviet imposed a huge tax (1,000 kilograms of grain) on Yevdokiia. ‘Kuzmin and his gang would not give up,’ recalls Antonina: ‘they kept on coming back, taking all we had and demanding more. When all the grain had gone, they confiscated the last household property, farming tools and wagons, furniture and pots and pans, leaving us just one iron bed, some old linen and some clothes.’

Then the order for their deportation came. On 4 May, a cold spring day, Yevdokiia and her children were expelled from their house and sent into exile in Siberia. They were given just an hour to pack their things for the long journey. The Puzhinins took the iron bed for safekeeping. The bed was the last possession of the Golovins, the place where all their children had been born and the last trace of their roots in Obukhovo, where the family had lived for several hundred years. Antonina recalls their leaving:

Mama remained calm. She dressed us in our warmest clothes. There were four of us: Mama; Aleksei, who was then fifteen; Tolia was ten; and I was eight… Mama wrapped me in a woollen shawl, but Kolia Kuzmin, who had come to supervise our expulsion, ordered the shawl removed, saying that it had been confiscated too. He would not listen to Mama’s pleading about the cold weather and the long journey that awaited us. Tolia gave me one of his old caps with ear-flaps, which he had thrown away becaused it was torn, and I wore this on my head instead. I felt ashamed to be wearing a boy’s cap instead of the shawl [traditionally worn by peasant girls]. Mama bowed and crossed herself before the family icons, and led us out the door… I remember the grey wall of silent people who watched us walk towards the cart. No one moved or said anything… No one hugged us, or said a parting word; they were afraid of the soldiers, who walked with us to the cart. It was forbidden to show sympathy towards the kulaks, so they just stood there and stared in silence… Mama said farewell to the crowd. ‘Forgive me, women, if I have offended you,’ she said, bowing and making the sign of the cross. Then she turned and bowed and crossed herself again. She turned and bowed four times to say goodbye to everyone. Then, when she was seated in the cart, we set off. I recall the faces of the people standing there. They were our friends and neighbours – the people I had grown up with. No one approached us. No one said farewell. They stood there silently, like soldiers in a line. They were afraid.32


Returning to his native Belorussian village in June 1931, the writer Maurice Hindus, who had emigrated to the USA almost a quarter of a century before, remarked on what he saw as a ‘fresh slovenliness that had come over the people’ as a result of collectivization. ‘Houses, yards, fences, were in sad need of repair.’ Holy Trinity was approaching,

yet nowhere was there a sign of paint on windows or shutters or a roof with a fresh coating of thatch. Was this neglect a mere accident? That I could not believe. The uncertainties that the kolkhoz had spread abroad were no doubt holding people back from improving their households.33

Hindus might have made his observation in virtually any village that had been collectivized. Dispossessed of their land and livestock, the peasants lost the sense of attachment to their family farms that had been the source of their pride and independence; once reduced to labourers in the kolkhoz, they no longer had the means or even the incentive to keep up their homes.

The peasants worked in kolkhoz brigades, receiving payment in the form of a small food ration (which they were expected to supplement by growing vegetables and keeping pigs and chickens on their private garden plots) and a once-or twice-a-year cash sum (enough on average to buy a pair of shoes). The lion’s share of kolkhoz production was purchased by the state through a system of compulsory ‘contracts’ which kept prices very low, so that kolkhoz managers were forced to squeeze the peasants to retain any funds for running costs. The peasants said that collectivization was a ‘second serfdom’. They were tied down to the land and exploited by the state, just as their ancestors had been enserfed and exploited by the landowners.

Economically, the collective farms were a dismal failure. Few had tractors to replace the horses slaughtered by the peasantry (human draught was used to plough a good deal of their land in the early years). The collective farms were badly run. The managers were people, like Kuzmin, who had been chosen for their loyalty to the Party rather than their agricultural expertise. There was nothing to replace the initiative and energy of the so-called ‘kulaks’, the hardest-working peasants before collectivization. The newly created kolkhoz labourers had no real interest in their work. They focused their attention on their garden plots and pilfered kolkhoz property. Many kolkhoz peasants found it very hard to reconcile themselves to the loss of their private household property. They knew which horse or cow had once belonged to them, and tried to use their former horse to till the land, or to milk their former cow.34

Olga Zapregaeva was born in 1918, the fourth of six children in a peasant family in Krivosheino, a small village in the Tomsk region of Siberia. When Krivosheino was collectivized, in 1931, the kolkhoz took her family’s household property (three cows and three horses, farm tools, carts and two barns full of hay), leaving them with just their chickens and their goats. ‘We were not paid anything in the kolkhoz,’ recalls Olga, who left school to work in the fields at the age of just thirteen. ‘We had to live from what we grew in our garden, from our chickens and our goats.’ There were no tractors on the kolkhoz, so the peasants ploughed the fields with their own horses, which were kept in a special stable near the kolkhoz offices, although Olga’s mother, like many of the villagers, worried that her horses were unhappy there, and often brought them home to make sure that they were groomed and fed. In an effort to eradicate this connection between the peasants and their animals, the kolkhoz chairmen of the area embarked on a policy of sending people away from their villages. Olga’s father was allowed to remain on the kolkhoz in Krivosheino, but Olga and her mother and the other children were sent off to a different kolkhoz, 8 kilometres away, near the village of Sokolovka, where they lived in a rented room. ‘We worked there for two years,’ recalls Olga. ‘We saw our father only once or twice, because we had only one day free from work, and it was rarely the same day as his.’ In 1935, the family was reunited in Tomsk, where Olga’s father worked in the stables of a building site. Olga’s mother got a job in a meat factory, and the family lived together in a dormitory with a dozen other families, all former peasants who had left the land.35

After a good harvest in 1930, the harvests of 1931 and 1932 were disastrously bad. Yet state procurements in 1932–3 were more than twice the level they had been in the bumper years of 1929 and 1930. The Party based its excessive grain levies on the good results of 1930 and on inflated 1931 and 1932 figures submitted by local officials, eager to demonstrate their political success. The actual harvest of 1932 was at least one-third smaller than official figures showed (it was in fact the poorest harvest since the famine year of 1921). The inevitable outcome was widespread famine, beginning in the spring of 1932 and culminating during the next year, when 70 million people (nearly half the Soviet population) were living in the famine area. The number of deaths is impossible to calculate, not least because so many of them were unregistered, but the best demographic estimates suggest that between 4.6 million and 8.5 million people died of starvation or disease between 1930 and 1933. The worst affected areas were in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, where peasant resistance to collectivization was particularly strong, and the grain levies were excessively high. This conjunction has prompted some historians to argue, in the words of Robert Conquest, that the famine was ‘deliberately inflicted’, that it was a ‘massacre of men, women and children’ motivated by Communist ideology. This is not entirely accurate. The regime was undoubtedly to blame for the famine. But its policies did not amount to a campaign of ‘terror-famine’, let alone of genocide, as Conquest and others have implied.36 The regime was taken by surprise by the scale of the famine, and had no reserves to offer its victims. It continued to requisition grain from the worst-affected areas and only reduced its procurements in the autumn of 1932, which was too little and too late. Once the famine raged, the regime tried to conceal the extent of it by stopping people fleeing from the devastated regions to the cities of the north.37

Nonetheless millions of people fled the land. For every thirty peasants who entered the kolkhoz, ten left agriculture altogether, mostly to become wage labourers in industry. By the early months of 1932, there were several million people on the move, crowding railway stations, desperately trying to escape the famine areas.38 The cities could not cope with this human flood. Diseases spread. Pressure grew on housing, food and fuel supplies, which encouraged people to move from town to town in search of better conditions. Frightened that its industrial strongholds would be overrun by famine-stricken and rebellious peasants, the Politburo introduced a system of internal passports to limit immigration to the towns. The new law stated that adults were required to have a passport registered with the police to obtain the residence permit (propiska) necessary for employment in the towns. The system was introduced in seven major cities in November 1932, and then extended to other towns during the next year. It was used by the police, not just to control the movement of the population, but to purge the towns of ‘socially dangerous elements’ (‘kulaks’, traders, disgruntled peasants) who might become a source of opposition to the Soviet regime. As it turned out, the law merely forced millions of homeless peasants to keep moving from town to town, working illegally in factories and construction sites, until the passport system caught up with them.39

Families disintegrated, as younger peasants left their homes for the cities. Millions of children were abandoned in these years. Many peasants left their children when they ran away from the collective farms. ‘Kulaks’ gave their children to other families rather than take them on the long journey to the ‘special settlements’ and other places of exile, where it was said that many children died. ‘Let them exile me,’ explained one Siberian ‘kulak’, ‘but I will not take my children. I don’t want to destroy them.’ Among famine victims, the abandonment of children was a mass phenomenon. Mothers left their children on doorsteps, delivered them to Soviet offices or abandoned them in the nearest town. Orphans lived on building sites. They roamed around the streets, rummaging through rubbish for unwanted food. They scraped a living from begging, petty theft and prostitution, many joining children’s gangs which controlled these activities in railway stations, drinking places and busy shopping streets. Some of these children were rounded up by the police and taken to ‘reception centres’, from which they were then sent on to children’s homes and camps. According to police figures, an astonishing 842,144 homeless children were brought to the reception centres during 1934–5. By the end of 1934, there were 329,663 children registered in orphanages in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus alone, and many more in special homes and labour camps (‘labour-educational colonies’) controlled by the police. From April 1935, when a law was passed lowering the age of criminal responsibility to twelve, the number of children in the Gulag system began to rise steadily, with over 100,000 children between the ages of twelve and sixteen convicted by the courts and tribunals for criminal offences in the next five years.40

When they left Obukhovo, Yevdokiia Golovina and her three young children were taken to the nearest railway station at Pestovo, 56 kilometres away, where they were held in a detention camp. Three days later, they were loaded into cattle trucks for the six-week journey to Kemerovo in Siberia. The trucks were full of families, with children, men and women of all ages. A bucket in each truck served as the toilet, which was emptied once a day, when the doors were opened and a piece of bread was given to each person by the guards. At Kemerovo the Golovins were taken to a distribution centre, where several hundred families were kept under guard in an open field, enclosed by a high barbed-wire fence, with nothing but their baggage to sleep on. A month later, they were transferred to Shaltyr, a ‘special settlement’ for ‘kulaks’ in the remote Altai region of Siberia.

The ‘special settlements’ were primitive and isolated camps. Most of them consisted of a few barracks, built by the exiles on their arrival, in which several hundred people slept on wooden planks, although in many ‘special settlements’ the ‘kulaks’ lived in dug-outs in the ground, or were housed in abandoned churches and buildings, cattle sheds and barns. The overcrowding was appalling. At the Prilutsky Monastery near Vologda there were 7,000 exiles living on the grounds, with just one kitchen, but no proper toilet or washing facilities. In Vologda itself 2,000 people were living in a church. An eye-witness described the living conditions of 25,000 exiles in Kotlas:

In the barracks, which are each meant to house 250 people, it is almost dark, with little window openings here and there that let in light only to the lower bunks. The inhabitants prepare food outside, on camp fires. The latrine – is just a fenced-off area. Water – there is a river below, but it is still frozen. The local residents lock the well (‘You will infect us; your children are dying’) and sell water in bottles.

The ‘special settlements’ were not technically a form of imprisonment (the mass deportations were carried out by administrative directives beyond the jurisdiction of the courts) but from the spring of 1931 they were controlled by the organs of OGPU, which was responsible for the exploitation of their slave labour. The exiles in the ‘special settlements’ had to report once a month to the police. Matvei Berman, the chief of the Gulag system, said that conditions in the settlements were worse than in the labour camps. The men were employed in back-breaking work in logging-camps and mines, the women and the children in lighter work. They were given very little food (a few loaves of bread for a whole month). When they succumbed to illness and disease, they were simply left to die, as they did in their hundreds of thousands during the winter of 1931–2.41

Shaltyr consisted of five two-storeyed wooden barracks built along a river bank. The population (about a thousand peasants) had been sent there from all over the Soviet Union, though Russians, Ukrainians, Volga Germans and Siberians were the largest groups. The men were sent to fell timber at a nearby logging camp, returning on Sundays. Yevdokiia’s son Aleksei Golovin was one of them, although he was just fifteen. On 1 September, her younger son Tolia and her daughter Antonina went to school – a single class for all the children of the settlement housed in one of the barracks. The girls were forced to cut their braids (traditionally worn by peasant girls before they were married) – as if to symbolize their renunciation of the peasant culture into which they had been born. To mark the start of the school year the Commandant of the settlement gave a speech in which he told the children that they should be grateful to Soviet power, which was ‘so good and kind that it allowed even us, the children of the kulaks, to study and become good Soviet citizens’. The ‘reforging’ (perekovka) of human beings who did not fit the mould of the ‘Soviet personality’ was an important ideological feature of the Gulag system in its early years, even in remote and isolated settlements like Shaltyr.

The Whisperers

Exiles in a ‘special settlement’ in western Siberia, 1933

The first winter at Shaltyr was very cold. The snowfall was so heavy that it destroyed two of the barracks, forcing many of the boys, including Tolia, then aged ten, to live in dug-outs in the ground. There were no able-bodied men – they spent the winter at the logging-camp – so the schoolchildren were mobilized to clear the snow in the mornings. For several weeks the settlement was stranded by the snow. There were no food deliveries, so people lived off the few supplies which they had brought from home. Several hundred people were struck down by typhus; they were isolated in one of the barracks and left to fend for themselves, since there were no medicines. Yevdokiia was one of the typhus victims. Antonina writes in her memoirs:

Every day we went to see Mama. We stood by the window, through which we could see her lying on her plank. Her head was shaved. Her eyes were wide open and wandering. She had lost her memory and did not recognize us. Tolia knocked on the window. He was in tears. He cried out: ‘Mama, Mama, don’t get ill, get up.’

Yevdokiia survived. But so many of the typhus victims died that winter that the Commandant decided that there was no time to bury all of them. Their corpses were frozen in the snow until the spring thaw, when they were thrown into the river.

The second winter was even worse than the first. The exiles were not given any food, part of a deliberate policy to reduce the population of the settlement by three-quarters, it appears. The exiles ate tree bark and the rotten roots of potato plants, which they mashed up into cakes. Their stomachs swelled, and many of them died. Everyone had dysentery by the spring. The Golovins were saved by a stroke of luck. One day, the Commandant was inspecting the barracks, when he noticed that Yevdokiia was reading the Gospel. He needed someone literate to deliver and collect the post from Tsentralnyi Rudnik, a Gulag mining settlement 12 kilometres away. He selected her. When she went to get the post, Yevdokiia would take a bucket of berries, collected by her children in the nearby woods, and sell them at the market in Tsentralnyi Rudnik to buy food and clothes. ‘The Commandant knew everything, of course, but turned a blind eye,’ recalls Antonina, ‘because there was no one else to collect the post.’ Once, a packet of potato seeds arrived in the mail. Yevdokiia was placed in charge of a work team to sow the seeds. Antonina recalls the joy of that occasion:

It was like a holiday! We were all so happy to be digging potatoes! Adults and children – we all worked so hard. We were true peasants, our ancestors had worked the land for centuries, and now we were allowed to work the land again. Mama was the brigade leader, and the Siberian, Snegirev, was the chairman of our collective. We were not allowed to form a kolkhoz, because we were kulaks. Mama was afraid that the potatoes would not grow without fertilizer – none of us had any experience of growing potatoes. But in the autumn we dug up a huge harvest, and no one died from hunger that winter. The potatoes had saved us.42

Dmitry Streletsky and his family walked in snow for several days to reach their first place of exile, a large abandoned cellar in Kurgan, where several hundred ‘kulak’ families, including many of their distant relatives, were simply left, without food or water, to fend for themselves. They would have starved without the help of relatives and other people in Kurgan who brought them food. They were held in the cellar for a week, people sleeping as best they could on their baggage or on the bare floor, and then loaded into cattle trucks for the long train journey to Usole, north of Perm, from where they were force-marched by armed guards to the factory town of Pozhva, 150 kilometres away. There they were housed in a workshop, everybody sleeping on a cement floor. ‘Father was in agony,’ recalls Dmitry. ‘He aged overnight. He said that his life had been destroyed… Everybody felt the same. But even though they had no choice but to do as they were told, people tried to keep their dignity. They refused to be like slaves to the authorities.’ Dmitry’s father was sent to fell timber and build a ‘special settlement’ near Chermoz. The rest of the family was squeezed into a room above a joiner’s workshop with three other families. Six months later, they joined Dmitry’s father at the ‘special settlement’. There were ten barracks in the settlement, each with space for 500 people to sleep on plank beds. Encircled by a high barbed-wire fence, the settlement was located in the middle of a large pine forest, where the men were sent to cut down trees, returning once a week. With a daily ration of just 200 grams of bread, the death rate in the settlement was very high. But the Streletskys managed to survive through their peasant industry: the children gathered mushrooms and sold them in Chermoz; their mother went at night to steal potatoes from the fields of a kolkhoz; while their father struck a deal with the workers of a nearby slaughter-house, helping them to build their wooden houses in exchange for cattle blood (which, unlike meat and bones, would not be missed by the authorities). In the famine year of 1933, when the daily ration was cut to 50 grams of bread, half the population in the ‘special settlement’ died from hunger and disease, but the Streletskys managed to survive by drinking blood.43

The Streletskys were fortunate in that they were able to remain together as a family. For many other people the experience of exile was synonymous with fragmentation. Klavdiia Rublyova lost touch with seven of her brothers and sisters after the arrest of her father in 1930. They were sent to various children’s homes, and she never heard from them again. Klavdiia and her younger sister Natalia went to live with their grown-up sister Raisa in Kansk, near Krasnoiarsk in Siberia. Klavdiia worked as a nanny in a doctor’s home, but then the passport system arrived in the Siberian town, and as a ‘kulak’ daughter she was forced to flee. Leaving Natalia with Raisa, Klavdiia went to stay with her uncle, a senior inspector of forest work in Cheremkhovo, near Irkutsk, where she was registered by the Soviet in her uncle’s name. In November 1933, her uncle received a letter from Klavdiia’s father, Ilia. Released from jail, Ilia was now living in a ‘special settlement’ somewhere in the region of Tashtyp, 2,000 kilometres away, not far from the border with China. Klavdiia travelled by train before hitching a lift to Tashtyp, which was deep in snow when she arrived in January 1934. For a long time she could not find any work. Without her father’s name on her registration papers, nobody would employ her, but as a ‘kulak’ daughter she was too afraid to reveal her identity. In the end she was taken in by the chairman of the Tashtyp Soviet, who employed her as a nanny and set her up with casual work in a clothing factory. One day, while talking to the chairman’s sister-in-law, Klavdiia showed two photographs, one of her two brothers, Leonid and Aleksandr, the other of herself with her two sisters.

She [the sister-in-law] said immediately: ‘Lenka [Leonid], I know him!’ I was astonished that she knew my brother. ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ I asked, trying to control myself… At that time I was afraid of every word I said, in case I revealed that my father was in exile.

Klavdiia found her brother in Tashtyp. Through him, she discovered that her father was living in a ‘special settlement’ attached to the Kirov mine in Khakasin. He had begun a new life with a second wife, as Klavdiia recalls:

The Whisperers

The photographs that Klavdiia showed. Left: Leonid (the older brother) with Aleksandr, 1930. Right: Klavdiia is standing on the right, Natalia in the middle, and Raisa on the left with her husband, Kansk, 1930

I went to visit them. When I arrived in the evening, they were just coming back from their work at the mine. They were bringing in their cow. They were not afraid or surprised to see me. My father greeted me as if he had just seen me the day before. I sat with them for a few minutes outside the barracks where they lived. Then I left.44

That was the last time Klavdiia saw her father. He was rearrested and then shot in August 1938.

Many ‘kulak’ families fled the ‘special settlements’ and took their chances living on the run. According to OGPU sources, by the summer of 1930, escapes from the ‘special settlements’ had become a ‘mass phenomenon’, with tens of thousands of ‘kulak’ runaways. The escapes reached their peak during the famine. In 1932–3, OGPU counted a staggering 422,866 ‘kulaks’ who had fled from the ‘special settlements’, and only 92,189 who had subsequently been caught.45

The Ozemblovskys were a minor noble family of Polish origin. After 1917, they lost their land in Belarus, but remained in their village, Oreshkovichi in the Pukhovichi region of Minsk province, where they continued farming on a level with the peasantry. Aleksandr and Serafima had four children, two boys and two girls, the oldest born in 1917 and the youngest in 1928, the year when the kolkhoz in Oreshkovichi was organized. Aleksandr gave all his livestock and tools to the kolkhoz, keeping just one cow to feed his family, but he refused to enter the kolkhoz. He wanted to emigrate to the USA or France, as many other Poles in the area had done, but Serafima argued: ‘Who will touch us? What have we done wrong? We gave away all our property!’ Aleksandr was arrested in the spring of 1930. A few days later they came for the family. ‘Get your things. You and the children are going into exile,’ the OGPU soldier said. Serafima wrapped some clothes in blankets and managed to conceal some gold items, before she was bundled with her children into carts and taken to a church, where several hundred ‘kulak’ families were already held. A few days later, they were rejoined by their men and were loaded into wagons for the 3,000-kilometre journey to a remote settlement in the Komi region of the North. There they were told to ‘make themselves a home’ in an empty barn. ‘There was nothing for us there – no planks for beds, no knives or spoons,’ recalls Sofia. ‘We made mattresses out of branches we collected in the woods.’

Gradually, the exiles built a settlement of wooden huts, one for every family, as they had once lived in their own villages. With the gold that they had brought with them, the Ozemblovskys bought a cow. Family life began again. But then came the famine, and their existence returned to being unbearable. The Ozemblovskys hatched an escape plan. Because their youngest son was already ill, they decided that the women should escape, leaving Aleksandr to look after the boys and run the risk of rearrest. Serafima and the two girls, Sofia, then aged nine, and Elena, five, walked by night and slept by day in the forest. They lived mainly from berries. Serafima had several gold teeth. She would pull one of them to buy a lift in a peasant cart or to bribe an official. Eventually, she and the girls made it back to Belarus. They hid for a week in the Pukhovichi house of Serafima’s parents, who were so afraid of being arrested for hiding her that they advised their daughter to give herself up to the police. Serafima went to the police in Pukhovichi, who listened to her story of escape and felt so sorry for her that they told her to run away again and offered to give her twenty-four hours before coming after her. Serafima left Elena with her parents and went to the nearby town of Osipovichi, where she and Sofia rented a room from an old couple. She put Sofia into school. Then she returned to the Komi region to try to find her husband and her sons. ‘Mama left without a word – no goodbye, no advice about how I might survive,’ recalls Sofia.

For the next year, Sofia lived with the old couple, who turned out to be very cruel. ‘They cursed me, called me the daughter of an enemy of the people and threatened to kick me out onto the street, if I did not do what they said. I cried all the time. I had no money of my own, and nowhere to go.’ Sofia became so miserable that she ran away to her grandparents, who took her in with Elena, although they themselves had been evicted from their Pukhovichi home and were now living in an old bath-house.

The Whisperers

The Ozemblovsky family. Left: Aleksandr and Serafima on their wedding day in 1914. Right: Serafima with Sasha (left) and Anton (right) on their return from exile in 1937

Meanwhile, Serafima had arrived at the Komi settlement, only to find that Aleksandr was no longer there: he had been arrested the day after her escape and sentenced to three years in the nearby Kotlas labour camps. Their elder son, Anton, had been recruited as an informer by the police (he was trained to eavesdrop and report on the conversations of the settlers and was paid in bread for each report). Their younger son, Sasha, still very sick, was being cared for by the schoolteacher. Within days of her arrival, Serafima was arrested and taken to Kotlas. But again she managed to escape, running from the convoy on the way back from work and disappearing deep into the woods. Again she made the 3,000-kilometre trek back to Pukhovichi, where she was reunited with her two daughters. They settled in a small house in Osipovichi, bought for them by relatives, and lived off what they grew in the small garden, where they kept a goat and pigs. In 1937, they were joined by Sasha and Anton (who continued to work for the police in Belarus). Two years later the family reunion was completed by the return of Aleksandr, recently released from the Kotlas camps. Sofia recalls the moment of return:

Mama ran out to meet him and threw herself into his arms. Papa said: ‘Mother, where are the children?’ Mama answered: ‘Don’t worry – the children are alive and well, all four of them.’ Papa collapsed to his knees and began to kiss her hands and feet, thanking her for saving us.46

The story of the Okorokovs is even more remarkable. In May 1931, Aleksei Okorokov was deported as a ‘kulak’ from his village Ilinka in the Kuznetsk region of south-western Siberia. Exiled to the North, he escaped from his convoy, walking for a month to return to his village, 900 kilometres away. When he got there he found out that his wife Yevdokiia and their two daughters, Maria, then aged seven, and Tamara, nine, had been exiled with his parents to a ‘special settlement’ near Narym, 800 kilometres to the north-west. With forged papers, Aleksei travelled day and night to reach the settlement, from which a few days later the family departed with a whole brigade of ‘kulak’ runaways, including children and grandparents, which Aleksei organized. They walked by night – Maria on her mother’s back and Tamara carried by her father – so that they would not be seen by the patrols that searched the taiga for ‘kulak’ runaways. For ten nights they walked, sometimes ending up in the same place from which they had started out, for it was difficult to navigate in this terrain, until they ran out of food and water and the old collapsed from exhaustion. On the eleventh night, they were surrounded by a patrol, which shot at them, wounding Aleksei in the stomach. The soldiers took them off in a large cart with other runaways to a nearby village, where they were held in a bath-house. The runaways were sent back to Narym, although the elderly were left behind, including Aleksei’s parents, who did not see their family again.

Once again the Okorokovs managed to escape. While the convoy to Narym was preparing to depart, Yevdokiia bribed a villager to get the patrol drunk, allowing her to run away with Aleksei and their daughters. They headed towards Tomsk, hiding by day (when they could see the guards and their dogs in the distance on the road) and travelling by night (when bears and wolves were the main danger). After several nights of walking without bread or anything to eat, they came across a settlement of the Kerzhaki tribe that had been struck down by smallpox: all the children were already dead. The headman offered to trade some bread, a jar of honey and a boat in exchange for Tamara, who was old enough to work in the tribe. He threatened to inform the police if Aleksei did not agree. Reluctantly, Aleksei consented. Yevdokiia became hysterical, but he would not give in to her entreaties. ‘We stayed with the Kerzhaki for a week to gather our strength,’ recalls Maria.

Mama would not stop crying, and my sister began to understand that something was wrong. On the day of our departure, Papa took my sister into a separate room and locked her up in it. Then he led away Mama, who was half-dead with grief, and placed her with me and the provisions in the boat. Then we rowed away.

After they had gone a few kilometres, Aleksei moored the boat, hid his wife and daughter in the bushes and walked back to the Kerzhaki settlement to rescue Tamara. Four days later he returned, carrying Tamara on his back.

But their troubles were far from over. A patrol caught up with them, as they were making their way north. They were taken to another camp, a barrack surrounded by a high wire fence, 8 kilometres from Tomsk, where they spent the next six months. Aleksei transported vegetables by horse and cart to Tomsk, while Yevdokiia and the children were put to work with other prisoners in a kolkhoz. In Tomsk Aleksei got to know a town official, who took pity on his family and, as an act of conscience, agreed to help them escape. One day Aleksei covered his daughters with potato sacks and drove them in his cart to Tomsk, where they hid in the official’s house. They were joined by Yevdokiia, who had jumped on to a train as it passed through the field where she was working. Dressed in new clothes bought for them by the official, the Okorokovs returned by train to Kuznetsk (which by this time had been renamed Stalinsk). Aleksei worked in a coal mine and Yevdokiia in a canteen. And family life began again. ‘Father at once set to work building us a wooden house with one window and a clay oven. We lived in our little corner, without hurting anyone, and depending on no one.’

And then a few months later, the passport system arrived in Stalinsk. Aleksei decided to go back to Ilinka, his native village, in the hope of getting registered, but as soon as he arrived he was arrested and imprisoned in a labour camp. Yevdokiia, waiting in Stalinsk, finally received a letter from Aleksei. Because the letter would alert the police to her whereabouts, Yevdokiia fled with her daughters to the nearby town of Tashtagol, where the passport system had not yet been introduced. Aleksei joined them shortly afterwards, having somehow managed to escape from the prison camp. He built a shack in which they lived. Yevdokiia picked up casual jobs. When she realized that she was pregnant, she performed an abortion on herself, smashing her fists against her womb and pulling out the foetus. She nearly died. She lay in bed for several months. None of the doctors in the town would even look at her, because abortion had been declared illegal by the government. Yevdokiia cured herself by eating herbs.

In 1934, the passport system reached Tashtagol. Aleksei was rearrested and sent to the Stalinsk metal works as a penal labourer. Yevdokiia and the girls were arrested too. By sheer coincidence, they were sent off to join him at the metal works. They lived together – one of several hundred families – in a dug-out which ran along the river bank against the outside of the factory wall. The ‘roof’ was made of branches and pine needles packed with mud; the ‘walls’ leaked in the rain. Aleksei made some rudimentary furniture. He carved wooden cups and spoons. Once again the Okorokovs began to piece together a domestic existence. Miraculously, they had survived and managed to remain together as a family, but the traumas of the past three years had left their mark, especially on the girls. Maria and Tamara both suffered from nightmares. They were frightened and withdrawn. ‘After three years of living on the run,’ reflects Maria, ‘my sister and I had grown accustomed to not talking. We had learned to whisper rather than to talk.’47


The promise of the Five Year Plan was the creation of a modern industrial society. ‘We are marching full steam ahead on the road to industrialization, to socialism, leaving behind our age-old Russian backwardness,’ Stalin said in 1929. ‘We are becoming a nation of metal, motors and tractors, and when we have placed the Soviet man in an automobile and the peasant on a tractor, then let the capitalists of the West, who so proudly vaunt their civilization, attempt to catch up with us.’48

The symbols of this progress were the huge construction projects of the First Five Year Plan: industrial cities like Magnitogorsk, a vast complex of steel and iron works built from scratch on the barren slopes of the Urals; railroads and canals, like the Moscow–Volga and the White Sea Canal, which opened up new areas to exploitation and supplied the booming cities with basic goods; and enormous dams like Dneprostroi, the largest hydro-electric installation in the world, whose turbines were turning by 1932. These ‘successes’ had an important propaganda value for the Stalinist regime at a time when there was still considerable opposition – inside and outside the Party – to the policies of forcible collectivization and the over-ambitious industrial targets of the Five Year Plan. They enabled it to foster the belief in ‘socialist progress’, in the imminent arrival of the Soviet utopia, which became the ideological justification for the sacrifices demanded from the people for the plan’s fulfilment. In his memoirs, written in the 1980s, Anatoly Mesunov, a peasant son who became an OGPU guard at the White Sea Canal, sums up the effect of this propaganda on millions of ‘ordinary Stalinists’, as he describes himself:

I had my doubts about the Five Year Plan. I did not understand why we had to drive so many convicts to their deaths to finish the canal. Why did it have to be done so fast? At times it troubled me. But I justified it by the conviction that we were building something great, not just a canal, but a new society that could not have been built by voluntary means. Who would have volunteered to work on that canal? Today, I understand that it was very harsh and perhaps even cruel to build socialism in this way, but I still believe that it was justified.49

Stalin’s industrial revolution was very different from the industrialization of Western societies. As Mesunov suggests, the rates of growth that Stalin had demanded in the Five Year Plan could not have been achieved without the use of forced labour, particularly in the cold and remote regions of the Far North and Siberia, where most of the country’s minerals and fuel supplies were located. The supply of slave labour, beginning with the mass arrest and deportation of the ‘kulaks’ in 1929, was the economic rationale of the Gulag system. Although originally conceived as a prison for the regime’s enemies, the Gulag system soon developed as a form of economic colonization – as a cheap and rapid way of settling the land and exploiting the industrial resources of the Soviet Union’s remote regions, where nobody would want to live – and this rationale was openly acknowledged by Gulag officials among themselves.50 Historians have different views of the Gulag’s origins – some seeing it as a by-product of Stalin’s consolidation of political power, others emphasizing its role as a means of isolating and punishing phantom ‘classes’ like the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘kulaks’, or national and ethnic groups which were deemed dangerous to the state.51 These factors all played their part, but the economic motive was key, growing in importance from the moment the regime began to look for ways to make its prisons pay for themselves.

In the 1920s, the labour camps were basically prisons in which the prisoners were expected to work for their keep. The most important was the Solovetsky Camp of Special Significance (SLON), established by OGPU in a former monastery on the White Sea island of that name in 1923, which was to become the prototype of the Gulag in its use of slave labour. Employed in tsarist times to incarcerate political dissidents, the monastery was turned by the Bolsheviks into a general prison for all its adversaries – members of the outlawed opposition parties, intellectuals, former Whites – as well as ‘speculators’ and common criminals. One of the prisoners was Naftaly Frenkel, a Jewish businessman from Palestine who had become involved in smuggling to Soviet Russia and was arrested by the Soviet police in 1923. Shocked by the prison’s inefficiency, Frenkel wrote a letter setting out his ideas on how to run the camp and put it in the prisoners’ ‘complaints box’. Somehow the letter got to Genrikh Iagoda, the fast-rising OGPU boss. Frenkel was whisked off to Moscow, where he explained his plans for the use of prison labour to Stalin, who was keen on the idea of using prisoners for economic tasks. Frenkel was released in 1927 and placed in charge of turning SLON into a profit-making enterprise. The prison’s population expanded rapidly, from 10,000 in 1927 to 71,000 in 1931, as SLON won contracts to fell timber and build roads and took over factories in Karelia, on the Finnish border. Most of the new arrivals were ‘kulak’ peasants, like Nikolai Golovin, who came to the Solovetsky camp in December 1930. The prisoners were organized according to their physical abilities and given rations according to how much work they did. The strong survived and the weak died.52

In 1928, as the mass arrests of ‘kulaks’, priests and traders, ‘bourgeois specialists’ and engineers, ‘wreckers’, ‘saboteurs’ and other ‘enemies’ of Stalin’s forced industrialization threatened to overwhelm the Soviet prison system, the Politburo established a commission to study the possible use to which the growing prison population could be put. Headed by the Commissar of Justice, N. M. Ianson, the commission included Interior Commissar V. N. Tolmachyov as well as Iagoda, the OGPU chief. The three men were locked in battle for control of the prison population, but Stalin clearly favoured Iagoda, who proposed using it to colonize and exploit the industrial resources of the Far North and Siberia through a new network of labour camps. There was an almost inexhaustible supply of timber in these remote areas; and geologists, like Pavel Vittenburg, were charting rich reserves of gold, tin, nickel, coal, gas and oil, which could be cheaply mined by convict labourers. In April 1929, the commission proposed the creation of a new system of ‘experimental’ camps, each with 50,000 prisoners, controlled by OGPU. The commission underlined that, by concentrating larger numbers in the camps, the costs of maintaining this slave labour force could be reduced from 250 to just 100 roubles per capita per year. Two months later, the Politburo passed a resolution (‘On the Use of Prison Labour’) instructing OGPU to establish a network of ‘correctional-labour camps’ for the ‘colonization of [remote] regions and the exploitation of their natural wealth through the work of prisoners’. From this point on, the political police became one of the main driving forces of Soviet industrialization. It controlled a rapidly expanding empire of penal labour camps, whose population grew from 20,000 prisoners in 1928 to 1 million by 1934, when OGPU merged with the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs); the new authority then took control of the political police and directed all these labour camps through the Gulag.53

The largest of the early penal labour camps, Belbaltlag, with more than 100,000 prisoners by 1932, was used to build the White Sea Canal, 227 kilometres of waterway connecting the Baltic with the White Sea. The idea of the canal had first been advanced in the eighteenth century, but it had proved beyond the technical capabilities of the old regime, so the idea of building it was a vital part of the propaganda mission of the Five Year Plan to demonstrate the superiority of the Soviet system. It was a fantastically ambitious project, given that the planners intended to construct the canal without machines or even proper surveys of the land. Critics of the project (who envisaged building it with free labour) had argued that the huge construction costs could not be justified because there was relatively little shipping on the White Sea. But Stalin was insistent that the canal could be built both cheaply and in record time – a symbol of the Party’s will and power – as long as OGPU supplied sufficient prison labour. Frenkel was put in charge of construction. The methods he had used in SLON were re-employed on the canal, as were many of the prisoners, who were transferred from the Solovetsky camp to the canal. To save time and money, the depth of the canal was soon reduced from 22 feet to just 12, rendering it virtually useless for all but shallow barges and passenger vessels (in some of the southern sections, built in a rush at the end of the project in 1932–3, the canal was only 6 feet deep). Prisoners were given primitive hand tools – crudely fashioned axes, saws and hammers – instead of dynamite and machinery. Everything was done by hand – the digging of the earth, the dragging of the heavy stones, the carting of the earth in wheelbarrows, the construction of the wooden cranes and scaffolding, not to mention the camp sites, which were built by the prisoners themselves along the route of the canal. Worked to exhaustion in the freezing cold, an unknown number of prisoners, but somewhere in the region of 25,000, died in the first winter of 1931–2 alone, although among the survivors the number of dead was rumoured to be much higher. Dmitry Vitkovsky, a former prisoner of the Solovetsky labour camp who worked as a supervisor on the White Sea Canal, recalls the scene:

At the end of the workday there were corpses left on the work site. The snow powdered their faces. One of them was hunched over beneath an overturned wheelbarrow, he had hidden his hands in his sleeves and frozen to death in that position. Someone had frozen with his head bent down between his knees. Two were frozen back to back leaning against each other. They were peasant lads and the best workers one could possibly imagine. They were sent to the canal in tens of thousands at a time, and the authorities tried to work things out so no one got to the same sub-camp as his father; they tried to break up families. And right off they gave them norms of shingle and boulders that you’d be unable to fulfil even in summer. No one was able to teach them anything, to warn them; and in their village simplicity they gave all their strength to their work and weakened very swiftly and then froze to death, embracing in pairs. At night the sledges went out and collected them. The drivers threw the corpses onto the sledges with a dull clonk. And in the summer bones remained from the corpses which had not been removed in time, and together with the shingle they got into the concrete mixer. And in this way they got into the concrete of the last lock at the city of Belomorsk and will be preserved there for ever.54

Apart from the physical destruction of human life, the White Sea Canal brought untold suffering to many families.

Ignatii and Maria Maksimov were childhood sweethearts from the village of Dubrovo in the Valdai region of Novgorod province. They were married in 1924, when Maria turned sixteen, and worked on Ignatii’s family farm until 1927, when they moved to Leningrad, where Ignatii found work as a carpenter. In October 1929, five months after the birth of their daughter Nadezhda, Ignatii was arrested (he had taken part in a peasant uprising against the Bolsheviks in 1919) and was sent first to the Solovetsky camp, and then to the northern sector of the White Sea Canal. Meanwhile, Maria was evicted from their room in Leningrad. She returned with Nadezhda to Dubrovo, only to discover that her parents’ house, like the Maksimovs’, had been destroyed, and both families sent into exile. No one from her family was left in Dubrovo. Maria was advised by an old neighbour to flee the village to avoid arrest herself. Carrying her baby, she walked across the border into the neighbouring province of Tver (hoping this would put her beyond the reach of the Novgorod police) and knocked on the door of the first house of the first village she came across. The door was opened by an old couple. Maria went down on her knees and begged them to take in her daughter, so that she could run away: nobody would give work to a woman with a child. The couple were kind people. They nursed Nadezhda for two years, while Maria got a job as a cook on the Leningrad to Murmansk railway. The railway ran along the northern sector of the White Sea Canal, where Ignatii was working, although Maria did not know that at the time. She knew nothing about her husband until 1932, when she heard from an acquaintance that he was at a labour camp somewhere in the region of Belomorsk, where the canal ran into the White Sea. Maria tried to make contact with her husband by writing notes on little scraps of paper and throwing them from the kitchen-carriage window as the train passed the building works at Belomorsk. Finally, a miracle occurred: she received a letter from Ignatii, who was actually in a camp near Kem, 55 kilometres further north on the railway line towards Murmansk. At the end of 1932, Ignatii was released and sent into exile in Arkhangelsk, where he was reunited with Maria and Nadezhda.55

The Whisperers

Maria, Nadezhda and Ignatii Maksimov with Ignatii’s brother Anton (standing), Arkhangelsk, 1934

The Gulag was more than a source of labour for building projects like the White Sea Canal. It was itself a form of industrialization. The first industrial complex of the Gulag system was the integrated pulp-and-paper mill at Vishlag, an OGPU complex of labour camps on the Vishera River in the Urals. The complex began life in 1926 as a vast network of logging camps administered by SLON, but it was not until the summer of 1929, when Eduard Berzin, the Latvian Bolshevik, was placed in charge of building works, that the camp developed its industrial activities. The purity of the Vishera’s waters led the Politburo to choose it as the site for producing the high-quality paper that began to appear in the early 1930s, when prestigious publications like the Large Soviet Encyclopedia were printed on the paper of the Vishlag mill. By 1930, the Vishlag camps had a population of 20,000 prisoners (including the writer Varlam Shalamov): 12,000 were employed in the logging camps; 2,000 in the smaller factories (making bricks and cellulose); while the rest were used to build the pulp-and-paper mill, as well as the barracks settlements at Krasnovishersk and Gorod Sveta (‘Town of Light’), which grew into civilian towns.56 Berzin conceived of these Gulag settlements as an ‘experimental form of industrial development’ whose cultural institutions would re-educate the prisoners to become ‘Soviet workers’. Gorod Sveta boasted film and radio clubs, libraries and canteens, health centres, gardens laid out with fountains, wildlife areas, open-air theatres, debating areas and the ‘main camp club’ in a colonnaded building, which reminded Shalamov of the Parthenon, ‘only it was more frightening’.57

Vishlag was typical of the Gulag system in its early years, when the idea of using prison labour to ‘reforge’ human beings in a Soviet mould was not just propaganda but an article of faith for many Bolsheviks. For all that, the Vishlag camp with its paper-mill was primarily an economic venture. Berzin’s operating principles were based entirely on the projected returns from his investments, which included moral and material incentives to stimulate the prisoners to meet production plans. In November 1931, Berzin moved on to become the first boss of Dalstroi (Far Northern Construction Trust), a vast conglomerate of labour camps (including the infamous Kolyma camps) in the north-east corner of Siberia – an area the size of Western Europe between the Pacific and the Arctic oceans – where the world’s biggest gold reserve lay beneath the frozen ground. Berzin ran the Dalstroi camps on the same economic principles as he had run Vishlag: his job was to get his prisoners to dig as much gold as possible (by the mid-1930s the gold production of the Dalstroi camps exceeded the total gold production of the Soviet Union in 1928).58 During Berzin’s reign (1931–7) conditions in the Dalstroi camps were much better than they would become in later years, when many prisoners would look back with nostalgia to the Berzin period, as Shalamov did in his Kolyma Tales:

Berzin attempted – not without success – to solve the problem of colonizing this severe and isolated region and the allied problem of reforging the souls of the convicts. A man with a ten-year sentence could accumulate enough work credits to be released in two or three years. Under Berzin there was excellent food, a workday of four to six hours in the winter and ten in the summer, and colossal salaries for convicts, which permitted them to help their families and return to the mainland as well-to-do men when their sentences were up… The cemeteries dating back to those days are so few in number that the early residents of Kolyma seemed immortal to those who came later.59

Vishlag itself was dismantled in 1934, but by then the pulp-and-paper mill at Krasnovishersk had become an industrial centre, a major economic power in the northern Urals, drawing many peasants into industry.

The rise of industry required engineers and other technical specialists. Ivan Uglitskikh was born in 1920 to a peasant family in Fyodortsovo, in the Cherdyn region of the Urals. Banned as a ‘kulak’ from the kolkhoz in Fyodortsovo, Ivan’s father fled to Cherdyn and worked on the river barges transporting timber down to the pulp-and-paper mill at Krasnovishersk, where his brother and uncle were both in the labour camp. Ivan grew up with a strong desire to get on in life. His father was always telling him to learn a profession. ‘There was nothing where we lived, no industry at all,’ recalls Ivan. ‘My dream was to go to Perm, but that was far away, and I could not afford the fare… The main thing was to have a profession. Without that there was no future.’ The only place where he could study beyond the age of fourteen was the Factory Apprentice School (FZU) attached to the pulp-and-paper mill. All the teachers were former Vishlag prisoners, as Ivan recalls:

They were engineers, specialists in their professions, brought from the camp to train us in paper production and electrical work. I trained as an electrician, and then worked at the paper mill. I could get work in any town and any factory, because in those years there was a huge demand for skilled workers like myself. I even went to Perm and worked there on the landings for the river-boats… I was proud of my success. My parents were proud of me as well.60

Millions of peasant sons were coming to the towns and forging a new identity for themselves. Between 1928 and 1932 the urban population grew at the extraordinary rate of 50,000 people every week. The population of the cities grew too fast for the state to cope with the rising demand for consumer goods, which were low on the list of Soviet priorities for the Five Year Plan, so after 1928 rationing was introduced for foodstuffs, fuel and various household items. With private trade repressed, the streets turned grey, restaurants and cafés disappeared, shop windows emptied, and people dressed more shabbily. Alexandre Barmine, a Soviet diplomat who returned to Moscow in the summer of 1930, after four years abroad, recalled feeling shocked by the economic hardship he discovered in the capital:

The Whisperers

The Uglitskikh family (Ivan standing at the back), Cherdyn, 1938

After the improvements of 1922–28, Moscow showed appalling changes. Every face and every house front was eloquent of misery, exhaustion, and apathy. There were scarcely any stores, and the rare display windows still existing had an air of desolation. Nothing was to be seen in them but cardboard boxes and food tins, upon which the shopkeepers, in a mood of despair rather than rashness, had pasted stickers reading ‘empty’. Everyone’s clothes were worn out, and the quality of the stuff was unspeakable. My Paris suit made me feel embarrassed. There was a shortage of everything – especially of soap, boots, vegetables, meat, butter and all fatty foodstuffs.61

The housing situation was desperate. In 1928, the Soviet city dweller had on average 5.8 square metres of living space, but many of the poorest workers had no more than a couple of square metres they could call their own. An American describes the conditions in which many Moscow workers lived:

Kuznetsov lived with about 550 others, men and women, in a wooden structure about 800 feet long and fifteen feet wide. The room contained approximately 500 narrow beds, covered with mattresses filled with straw or dried leaves. There were no pillows, or blankets… Some of the residents had no beds and slept on the floor or in wooden boxes. In some cases beds were used by one shift and by others at night. There were no screens or walls to give any privacy… There were no closets or wardrobes, because each one owned only the clothing on his back.62

Many workers from peasant families had little expectation of private space. Back in the village, families traditionally ate together from a common bowl and slept together on benches by the stove. Still, for many it must have been a shock to share their living space with other families when they moved into the towns.

Nadezhda Pukhova was born in 1912 to a large peasant family in Pskov province. In 1929, she ran away from the kolkhoz and came to Kolpino, a large industrial suburb of Leningrad, where she found a job at the Izhora machine-building plant. Nadezhda rented the corner of a ground-floor room in a wooden house, not far from the factory. It was a large and draughty room, heated by a primus stove, with a kitchen-toilet and its own side-entrance from the yard. Nadezhda met her husband Aleksandr at the house. He was the eldest son of a peasant family in the Rybinsk region of Iaroslavl province and had recently arrived in Kolpino to take up an apprenticeship as a garage mechanic. The owner of the house was a distant relative, who let Aleksandr rent a corner in the upstairs room. After they were married, Aleksandr moved downstairs to live with Nadezhda on the ground floor. The couple rigged up a curtain round their bed to give them some privacy from the other families. In all there were sixteen people living in the room, including a prostitute, who brought clients back at night, and a fireman, who got up at 4 a.m. to go to work. ‘We slept badly,’ recalls Nadezhda. ‘The fireman, who slept in the next bed to us, would get up in the night and light a match to see what time it was. Men were always coming in and out with Olga [the prostitute]. She said that she would kill us if we reported her. People’s nerves wore very thin.’ During the winter Aleksandr’s relatives from Iaroslavl would stay with them. They came in search of factory work, or to sell felt boots they made to supplement their income from the kolkhoz. ‘They all came – aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers with their wives,’ recalls Nadezhda.

I was shocked by the way they lived – it was so dirty and primitive. It was not like that in Pskov, where my parents’ house was always very clean. Aleksandr’s relatives slept on the floor – the women with blankets, the men with just their tunics to keep them warm. They made the room smell like horses.63

The Golovins also followed the route of migration to town. In February 1933, Nikolai was finally released from the Solovetsky labour camp. Warned not to join Yevdokiia and his children in Shaltyr, where he might be rearrested, he made his way to Pestovo, a small town near Vologda, where he managed to find work as a carpenter on a building site. Like many provincial towns in the early 1930s, Pestovo was full of ‘kulak’ runaways. Among them was Yevdokiia’s brother, Ivan Sobolev, a former priest who had changed his name and begun working as an accountant in the logging industry, after the Bolsheviks closed down his village church. Nikolai became the leader of his work brigade on the construction site and moved into a tiny wooden cabin that had been abandoned by a forester. Gradually, the family was reunited. Nikolai, the son, came to Pestovo from the White Sea Canal – one of the 12,000 prisoners released as a reward for their hard work on the canal’s completion in August 1933 – and joined his father’s work brigade. The other son, Ivan, who had run away from Obukhovo when they came to arrest the Golovins, also came to Pestovo after years of wandering around Siberia. He too joined his father’s work brigade. Maria, the daughter, who had also fled Obukhovo, arrived next, in 1934. She had been so frightened by her three years on the run as a ‘kulak’ daughter that she changed her name and married a Bolshevik worker, who beat her and renounced her when he found out her true identity. Finally, in December 1934, after several months of writing petitions to the NKVD in Ustiuzh, Nikolai was reunited with his wife Yevdokiia and their three other children, Antonina, Tolia and Aleksei, who returned safely from the ‘special settlement’. The woodsman’s cabin, which Nikolai had made into a home, was very small, but to Antonina, who had spent three years in the barracks at Shaltyr, it seemed like a paradise:

There was just one little room. Inside it was an iron bed – the very one that our neighbour Puzhinin had saved for us when we were deported from our home – the bed in which our parents slept and where we, their children, had all been born. It was our bed, unmistakably, it had the same nickel-plated spheres on the bedposts, the same mattress. It was the one thing we had left from our old life.64

The Whisperers

The bed from the Golovin household in Obukhovo (photographed in Pestovo in 2005). It is more ordinary than the legendary bed Antonina recalls from her childhood


On 3 September 1932, two boys were found dead in a forest near the village of Gerasimovka in western Siberia. They had been stabbed to death by their own relatives, it was reported in the press, because Pavlik, the older boy, who was fifteen and an active member of the Pioneers, had denounced his father, Trofim Morozov, as a ‘kulak’ to the Soviet police. The rest of the Morozovs had taken their revenge. The true facts of the case are hard to disentangle from the web of lies and political intrigue. From the start of the investigation, the murder was scripted by the Soviet press and the police as a political crime, with Pavlik in the role of a model Pioneer and his killers cast as ‘kulak counter-revolutionaries’.

Gerasimovka was a remote village in the forest near Tavda, 350 kilometres north-east of Sverdlovsk in the Urals. It was surrounded by labour camps and ‘special settlements’. At night the villagers could hear the barking of guard dogs. Gerasimovka was a miserable place. The poorest peasants had one cow, the richest two. Only nine had a samovar. There was just one teacher in a rudimentary school, established as late as 1931, which had only thirteen books. Like much of the peasantry in western Siberia, the villagers of Gerasimovka were fiercely independent. They had moved east from central Russia to win their land and freedom in the nineteenth century and were not about to give that up by joining the collective farms. None of the households in the village had signed up for the kolkhoz in August 1931; little wonder the Soviet press described the place as a ‘kulak nest’.65

Trofim Morozov was a sober and hard-working peasant of average means who had been wounded twice whilst fighting for the Red Army in the Civil War. He commanded respect among his fellow villagers and was serving his third term as chairman of the village Soviet in the autumn of 1931, when it was brought to the attention of OGPU that he was selling false papers to the ‘kulak’ exiles in the ‘special settlements’. His son may have been the informant. Contrary to the propaganda of the Soviet press, Pavlik was not in fact a Pioneer (there was no Pioneer organization in Gerasimovka) but he clearly wanted to be one, and after the opening of the school he became active in agitation work, which brought him close to the police. In Gerasimovka Pavlik had the reputation of someone who informed on neighbours when they did something wrong (years later the villagers recalled him as a ‘rotten kid’). He bore a grudge against his father, who had abandoned the family home for another woman, leaving Pavlik, as the eldest son, to look after his mother Tatiana, an illiterate peasant woman who appears to have been mentally unbalanced by the departure of Trofim and may have encouraged Pavlik to report him in a fit of jealousy. According to the press reports of Trofim’s trial in the village school in November 1931, Pavlik denounced his father’s crimes, and when Trofim shouted out, ‘It’s me, your father,’ the boy told the judge: ‘Yes, he used to be my father, but I no longer consider him my father. I am not acting as a son, but as a Pioneer.’ Trofim was sentenced to a labour camp in the Far North and later shot.66

Emboldened by his appearance in the trial, Pavlik began to inform on villagers who concealed grain or spoke out against the kolkhoz. He was helped by his younger brother Fyodor, who was then aged nine. The villagers were enraged by the boys’ activities. Sergei Morozov, Pavlik’s grandfather, barred them from his house, and other members of the family tried to stop them from reporting to the police. But there is no evidence that the family was involved in the murder of the boys, which was probably the work of teenagers, including Pavlik’s cousin, Danila, following a squabble over a harness and a gun.67

Once the murder was reported in the local press, the investigation was immediately politicized. Danila was leaned upon to denounce Sergei, his own grandfather, as the murderer. The denunciation was supported by two other members of the family: Tatiana, who was ready to blame anyone for the murder of her sons; and Pavlik’s cousin, Ivan Potupchik, an ardent Stalinist and police aide, who was rewarded for his role in the affair by promotion to the Party’s ranks. In the end, five members of the Morozov ‘kulak clan’ were put on trial in November 1932: Pavlik’s uncle and godfather, who were accused of plotting the murder; his grandfather and cousin Danila, who were said to have carried it out; and his grandmother, who was supposed to have lured the boys into the woods. Their guilt was taken as proven from the start of this show trial (the prosecutors cited Stalin’s speeches on the intensification of the class struggle in the countryside to demonstrate the murderers’ political motives). Four of the five – all except Pavlik’s uncle for some incomprehensible reason – were sentenced to ‘the highest measure of punishment’ – execution by a firing squad.68

By this stage, the national press had drawn its own conclusions. In its version Gerasimovka was an emblem of backward peasant Russia, and the Morozovs an archetype of the patriarchal ‘kulak’ family, which collectivization would sweep away. Pavlik soon became the hero of a propaganda cult, launched in the autumn of 1933, when Gorky called for the building of a monument to the young martyr, who, the writer said, had ‘understood that a relative by blood may also be an enemy of the spirit, and that such a person is not to be spared’.69 The cult was everywhere. Stories, films, poems, plays, biographies and songs all portrayed Pavlik as a perfect Pioneer, a loyal vigilante of the Party in the home. His selfless courage, which he had displayed by sacrificing his own father, was promoted as an example for all Soviet schoolchildren. The cult had a huge impact on the moral norms and sensibilities of a whole generation of children, who learned from Pavlik that loyalty to the state was a higher virtue than family love and other personal ties. Through the cult the idea was sown in millions of minds that snitching on one’s friends and relatives was not shameful but public-spirited. It was indeed expected of the Soviet citizen.70

Who was most affected by this lesson of the Morozov tale? Few children in stable families where moral principles were clearly set by the parents, as far as one can tell from interviews, although on this awkward issue, which today is understood in the context of the Terror, memory is unreliable. But Pavlik was, it seems, a positive example for many people who had grown up in unstable or oppressive families, where the influence of the elders was too weak to counteract the ideas of the Soviet regime. The propagandists of the cult were typical in this respect. Pavel Solomein, for example, the Sverdlovsk journalist who first brought Pavlik’s story to the attention of the Soviet public in the press, had run away from his brutal stepfather when he was a child and had grown up in a series of orphanages. Gorky was on his own from the age of nine, when he was expelled from his grandfather’s house – a place of cruelty and backwardness where the men took to the bottle and the women found solace in God – to fend for himself in the industrial towns of the Volga. For many people from unhappy backgrounds such as this, Pavlik was a hero because he had freed himself from the ‘darkness’ of his family’s way of life; by developing his own political consciousness and becoming active in the public sphere, he had found a higher form of ‘family’ in the Pioneers, who were marching with the Party and the Soviet people to a ‘light and radiant future’. Pavlik’s story had a strong appeal for orphans in particular. Untouched by the influence of family life, they could not understand what the boy had done wrong by denouncing his own father. Brought up by the state, they were indoctrinated to be loyal and grateful to it for saving them from destitution, which they were told awaited orphans who had not been lucky enough to have been born in the Soviet Union, the greatest country in the world.

Mikhail Nikolaev was three years old in 1932, when his parents were arrested and he was sent to an orphanage and given a new name. He never found out what his real name was, nor the names of his parents, nor who they were, why they were arrested, or what had happened to them after their arrest. It was a policy in children’s homes to remould children like Mikhail as ‘Soviet citizens’ by erasing their original identity. As a boy, Mikhail was deeply influenced by the tale of Pavlik Morozov, which was drummed into orphans from an early age. He thought of Pavlik as a ‘real hero’, and dreamed of emulating his achievement by ‘discovering a spy’. Looking back on his childhood, Mikhail suspected he would have thought differently about his boyhood hero, had he grown up in a family:

We orphans had an impoverished understanding of life compared with normal children. We were deprived of family events, of conversations around the kitchen table – of all that unofficial and, in my view, most important information that forms a person’s understanding of life and his relation to the world. Our ‘window on the world’ was the classroom, the Pioneers, the radio in the red corner, and [the newspaper] ‘Pioneer’s Truth’ (Pionerskaia Pravda). All the information from these sources was the same, and there was only one way to interpret it.71

The popularity of Pavlik’s story, especially among the young, reinforced a profound cultural and generation gap – between the old world of the patriarchal village and the new urban world of the Soviet regime – which divided many families. The rural population was increasingly young and literate. According to the census of 1926, 39 per cent of the rural population was under fifteen years of age (and more than half aged less than twenty) while peasant sons in their early twenties were more than twice as likely to be literate than their fathers (peasant women of the same age were five times more likely to be literate than their mothers). Educated in Soviet schools, these younger peasants no longer shared the attitudes and beliefs of their parents. Through the Pioneers and the Komsomol many of them found the confidence to break away from their control. They would refuse to go to church, to wear a cross, or to observe religious rituals, often citing Soviet power as the new authority in such matters, which sometimes led to arguments with their parents. They looked increasingly towards the cities for their information and values, and as the popular culture of the towns spread to remote villages in the 1920s and 1930s, more and more rural youth came to prefer the towns to the countryside. Its effect was to encourage rural children to regard the towns as a better and more cultured way of life than the countryside. A survey of the Komsomol in one of the most agricultural districts of Voronezh province during the mid-1920s found that 85 per cent of its members came from peasant families: yet only 3 per cent said that they wanted to work in agriculture. Most rural children wanted to leave the countryside and go off to the city for a shop or office job, to study in colleges and enter the industrial professions, or to join the military.72

The Medvedev family was torn apart by this division between the young and old. Andrei Medvedev was born in 1880 in the village of Oblovka, on the railway line between Tambov and Balashov, 570 kilometres south-east of Moscow. A blacksmith by trade, he made a living in the winter from fixing metal roofs on the houses of the wealthier peasants, but in the summer he worked with his five brothers on the family farm of his father, Fyodor, in whose household all seventeen Medvedevs lived. Fyodor was a peasant patriarch, devoutly Orthodox, with long white hair down to his shoulders, who ruled his household in the old-fashioned way. ‘We lived by the customs of ancient times,’ recalls one of his granddaughters. ‘Everybody ate from the same bowl, and my grandfather gave the sign for all of us to start by knocking with his spoon on the side of the bowl. No one said a word unless he spoke.’

In 1923, Andrei married Alyona, a young woman half his age, who had fled with her relatives from hungry Petrograd to the Tambov countryside in 1917. Alyona came from a poor family of labourers. Her father was a railway porter who was left with seven children when his wife died; in Tambov they had eked out a living doing jobs on peasant farms. Andrei brought his young wife into Fyodor’s home, and in 1924, their daughter Nina was born. From the start Alyona found it hard to submit to the patriarchal customs of the household. Although she had just three years of schooling, Alyona became the village Soviet’s secretary. She organized a school and taught the village children – and many of its adults – how to read. Andrei was not interested in books – there were none in the Medvedev home – so she brought home books and magazines from the local market town from which the children learned to read. In 1928, Alyona’s school became a ‘liquidation point’ (likpunkt) in the Komsomol campaign for the liquidation of illiteracy (likbez), which was part of the Soviet campaign against religion and the patriarchal culture of the countryside. Alyona became an activist in Zhenotdel, the Women’s Department of the Party, which often took her off to conferences in the district town. Appalled by Alyona’s independence, Fyodor threatened to expel her from the house and often argued with his son, one of the leaders of the village Soviet, who supported his wife’s activities, even though he was himself a jealous type and did not like her going on her own to town.

In September 1929, a kolkhoz was formed in Oblovka. Only twenty-nine of the sixty-seven households in the village had agreed to join it, but this was deemed enough to force it through. Andrei was elected the chairman of the kolkhoz. But Fyodor refused to join. His cow had given birth to a new calf, which he did not want to give up. Father and son argued violently. ‘They would have killed each other, if my mother had not intervened,’ recalls Nina. ‘They cursed each other and vowed to go their separate ways.’ The household farm was split. Andrei moved with his share of its property to the kolkhoz, while Fyodor, at the age of eighty-one, continued farming on his own. Four months later, the old man was arrested as a ‘kulak’ – one of twelve ‘kulaks’ arrested in Oblovka, all on the basis of a report by the village Soviet. Fyodor’s house was smashed to bits, and he was exiled to Siberia. But the family drama did not end there. As the chairman of the kolkhoz, Andrei had tied his future to the countryside, but Alyona was drawn towards the towns, largely in the hope of finding a cure for her daughter Nina, who had been blinded by illness and needed special care. In April 1930, Alyona left Andrei and returned with Nina to her family in Leningrad, where they rented a tiny corner in a room owned by friends of relatives. ‘We had only four square metres,’ recalls Nina, ‘just enough for a narrow bed with a bedside table and two little chairs, on which I slept, while Mama occupied the bed.’ For two years the family was split, but then, in October 1932, Andrei, too, came to Leningrad. The pull of family had proved stronger than his commitment to the collective farm. The Medvedevs moved to a larger room in the city centre, Alyona taught at Nina’s school, and Andrei worked as a roofer in the works department of OGPU.73

Many families succumbed to the twin pressures of collectivization and urbanization, as the Medvedevs did. Collectivization was only the last in a whole series of social cataclysms for the Russian peasantry – among them the Great War, the Revolution, the Civil War and the famine, which destroyed millions – but, in a way, it was the most traumatic because it divided families, setting sons against their fathers, over whether to embrace the Soviet way of life. How many sons actually denounced their own fathers is hard to say. There were certainly a few, if not quite as many as one might believe from the Soviet press, which gave the impression in the 1930s that the countryside was full of real-life Pavlik Morozovs. The press reported that a Pioneer called Sorokin had caught his father stealing kolkhoz grain and had him arrested by the police; that a schoolboy called Seryozha Fadeyev had told his headmaster where his father had concealed a store of potatoes; and that a thirteen-year-old boy called Pronia Kolibin had denounced his own mother for stealing grain from the kolkhoz fields (he was rewarded with a trip to Artek, the famous Pioneer holiday camp in the Crimea, while his mother was sent to a labour camp).74

The Pioneers encouraged children to emulate Pavlik Morozov by informing on their parents. Pioneer brigades were commonly employed to watch the kolkhoz fields and report on peasants stealing grain. Pionerskaia Pravda printed names of young informers and listed their accomplishments. At the height of the Pavlik Morozov cult in the 1930s, the true Pioneer was almost expected to prove his worthiness by denouncing his own relatives. One provincial journal warned that Pioneers who failed to inform on their families should be treated with suspicion and, if found to be lacking vigilance, should be denounced themselves. In this climate it is not surprising that parents were afraid to speak in the presence of their own children. As one doctor recalled:

I never spoke against Stalin to my boy. After the story of Pavlik Morozov you were afraid to drop any kind of unguarded word, even in front of your own son, because he might inadvertently mention it in school, the directorate would report it, and they would ask the boy, ‘Where did you hear that?’ and the boy would answer, ‘Papa says so and Papa is always right,’ and before you knew it, you’d be in serious trouble.75

One man who got into serious trouble was the father of Aleksandr Marian. Aleksandr was a leader of the Komsomol in his native village of Malaeshty, near Tiraspol in south-west Ukraine. In 1932, when he was seventeen, he denounced his father Timofei in a letter to the police. Aleksandr was a fanatical supporter of collectivization, welcoming the war against the ‘kulaks’, whom he described in his diary on 8 June 1931 as ‘the last but biggest class of exploiters in the USSR’. Timofei did not agree. He was critical of collectivization, and said so to his son, who promptly denounced him. Timofei was arrested and sent to a labour camp. In his diary, in October 1933, Aleksandr reported an exchange with a comrade in the Komsomol who claimed that he should be deprived of the leadership on account of his father’s ‘counterrevolutionary’ views. Aleksandr wrote:

I had to explain to the comrade that my father was arrested on my demand. The reason for his falling into an anti-Soviet position was his experience in Austria as a prisoner of war [in the First World War]… He returned with a love of Austrian order, convinced that the bourgeois smallholdings which he had seen in Austria were the key to agricultural wealth… The mistakes of the first period of collectivization he saw simply as chaos, not as a temporary complication. If only he had known the laws of the dialectic, if only he had been politically literate, he would have recognized the error of his views and would have recanted them.76

Such fanatically ideological denunciations were probably quite rare. More commonly, young people behaved reactively, renouncing family members rather than denouncing them, and even then, only after their relatives had been exposed as ‘enemies’. Indoctrinated by their schools and the Pioneers, they saw no point perhaps in harming their own prospects by not distancing themselves from family members who had, in any case, already been arrested. There were often complex pressures and considerations that affected such behaviour. People could be threatened with expulsion from the Pioneers and the Komsomol, or barred from colleges and professions, unless they proved their Soviet loyalty and vigilance by renouncing their arrested relatives. This accounts for the formulaic notices printed in their thousands in the Soviet press:

I, Nikolai Ivanov, renounce my father, an ex-priest, because for many years he deceived the people by telling them that God exists, and that is the reason I am severing all my relations with him.77

Some of these renunciations may have been encouraged by the parents themselves, who recognized the need for their children to break from them, if they were to advance in Soviet society. In 1932, for example, a sixteen-year-old boy from a traditional Jewish household near Kremenchug wrote to the local Yiddish-language newspaper renouncing his family’s backward ways:

I refuse to be part of this family any longer. I feel that my real father is the Komsomol, who taught me the important things in life. My real mother is our motherland; the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the people of the USSR are my family now.

According to his younger sister, who was later interviewed, the boy had written this renunciation on his father’s insistence. ‘When I was fourteen,’ the girl recalls,

my father called me and my brother into a room and explained that his way of life was not appropriate for modern times. He did not want us to repeat his mistakes, such as observing Jewish religious traditions. He said we had to go to the editor of a school wall-newspaper and announce there that we were now living a new life and that we did not want to have anything in common with the religious past of our father. My father made us do this. He said it meant nothing to him, but he thought this action would open up a brighter future for us.78

Other factors, too, not least ambition, led young people to renounce their relatives. Many of these public letters of renunciation were written on the eve of leaving home for universities or careers in the towns; they were a declaration of a new identity, a commitment to Soviet dreams and goals. The early 1930s were a period of enormous opportunity and social mobility: workers’ sons and daughters aspired to become professionals; peasant children dreamed of coming to the towns. All these ambitions were purposefully fuelled by Soviet propaganda, which placed the cult of personal success at the centre of the Five Year Plan. Films, books and songs featured the exploits of ‘ordinary heroes’ from the proletariat – engineers and scientists, model workers, aviators and explorers, ballerinas, sportsmen and women – who were all bringing glory to the Soviet Union. Young people were encouraged to believe that they could emulate their achievements, provided they worked hard and proved themselves as worthy Soviet citizens.

Such ambitions were often held most dearly by the children of ‘kulaks’ and other ‘enemies’ of the Soviet regime – a paradox that stands at the centre of the conflict between ‘kulak’ fathers and their sons. Growing up with the stigma of their origins, they wanted to be recognized as equal members of society, which could only be achieved by breaking with the past. Some renounced their ‘kulak’ relatives; others erased them from their biography or claimed that they were ‘dead’, or had ‘run away’. Such acts of denial were often necessary for survival. Yet the memory of them can still evoke feelings of remorse and shame, not because these young people had actually denounced anyone, but because they lived relatively ‘normal’ lives and pursued careers while their parents disappeared in the Gulag. They had reconciled themselves to the Soviet system and had found their place in it, even though they knew that the system had destroyed their own family.

No one expressed these feelings of remorse more powerfully than the poet Aleksandr Tvardovsky. He was born in 1910 in the village of Zagore, in Smolensk province, where his father, Trifon, a blacksmith, made a comfortable but modest living for his wife and seven children. Aleksandr was a teenage Communist. He joined the Komsomol in 1924 and became an activist in the village. He often argued about politics with his father and twice ran away from home, unable to reconcile himself to his family’s peasant way of life. In 1927, he joined the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP), moved to Smolensk, and published his first poem, ‘To a Father and Rich Man’ (‘Ottsu-bogateiu’) in the Komsomol newspaper Young Comrade:

In your home there is no shortage,

You are rich – and I know this,

Of all the five-walled peasant houses,

The best is yours.79

In the spring of 1930, the authorities imposed a heavy tax on Trifon’s family. Fearing arrest, Trifon ran away to the Donbass in search of work, followed in the autumn by his sons Ivan (then aged seventeen) and Konstantin (twenty-two), who reckoned they would ease their mother’s burden by going off in search of their father. Ivan returned that winter, only to discover that he had been barred from the village school as a ‘kulak’ son. In March 1931, the Tvardovsky family – with the exception of Aleksandr – was deported from Zagore. Konstantin (who had been imprisoned in Smolensk) and Trifon (arrested on his return from the Donbass) joined their convoy on its way to the Urals. The family spent the next two years in and out of labour camps and ‘special settlements’, living on the run, picking up odd jobs in factories and mines wherever they could find a loophole in the passport system, splitting up and reuniting, until the autumn of 1932, when Trifon found work as a blacksmith in a factory in the Urals town of Nizhny Tagil.

All this time, Aleksandr was studying at the Pedagogical Institute in Smolensk, where he was making a name for himself as a young poet. In his first long poem, The Road to Socialism (1931), he gave a glowing picture of life on the collective farms. He spoke in favour of the campaign against the ‘kulaks’ at student meetings at the institute. But he clearly felt uneasy about the way in which his family had been treated, because in the spring of 1931, he went to see the regional Party secretary, I. P. Rumiantsev, in the hope that he might intervene to ease their lot. Rumiantsev said, recalled Tvardovsky in 1954, that ‘in life there were moments when one had to choose between one’s family and the Revolution’. After this meeting, Tvardovsky was singled out as a ‘waverer’. His loyalty was tested by the Soviet authorities. At literary meetings he was attacked as a ‘kulak’ son. He only escaped expulsion after a courageous and vigorous defence by the local writer Adrian Makedonov (who was later arrested).80

Afraid for his career, Tvardovsky distanced himself from his family. In the spring of 1931, his parents wrote to him from the ‘special settlement’ at Lialia in the Urals. They did not expect him to help them with money – they knew that he had none, recalled Ivan in 1988: ‘they simply hoped that he might want to keep in touch with his own mother and father, and with his brothers and sisters’. Ivan takes up the story:

Aleksandr wrote back twice. In the first letter he promised to do something. But a second letter soon arrived. It contained these lines, which I cannot forget: ‘My dears! I am neither a barbarian nor an animal. I ask you to fortify yourselves, to be patient and to work. The liquidation of the kulaks as a class does not mean the liquidation of people, even less the liquidation of children…’ Later on there was the phrase: ‘… I cannot write to you… do not write to me.’

When this letter was read to Ivan’s mother, she

bowed her head and sat down on a bench, where she lost herself in thoughts, which she spoke out loud, although what she said was not for us, but for herself, to reassure herself of her son’s love and devotion.

‘I know, I feel, I believe… that it was hard for him,’ she said. ‘My son, surely, had no choice. Life is like a carousel. What can you do?’81

Two months later, in August 1931, Trifon took his youngest son Pavlik and ran away from Lialia, where the rest of the family remained. After a month they reached Smolensk and searched for Aleksandr at the House of Soviets, where they knew that he was working in the editorial offices. Trifon asked the guard to call his son:

I knew what he had written to us at Lialia, but I reasoned: he is my son! He might at least take care of Pavlushka [Pavlik]. What harm had the boy done him, his own brother? Aleksandr came out. God forbid, how can it be that a meeting with a son can be so frightening! I looked at him in a state of near panic: he was all grown up, slender and handsome! His father’s son! He stood there and looked at us in silence. And then he said, not ‘Hello, father’, but ‘How did you get here?’

‘Shura [Aleksandr]! My son!’ I said. ‘We are dying there! From hunger, illness, arbitrary punishments!’

‘So you ran away?’ he asked abruptly, not, it seemed, in his own voice. And his look was different too, it fixed me to the ground.

I remained silent – what could I say? Let it be that way – I was only sorry for Pavlushka. He was just a boy who had come in hope of his brother’s love, and it had turned out so differently!

‘I can only help by sending you back, free of charge, to the place where you came from!’ – those were Aleksandr’s precise words.

I realized that there was no point in asking, begging, any more. I simply asked him to wait while I went to a friend in Stolpovo, who owed me money, and then, when I returned, he could do what he liked with me. He was visibly shaken.

‘All right, go,’ he said.

At Stolpovo Trifon went to see his friend. They drank together, while Pavlik slept. Then at midnight, the police arrived to arrest Trifon. Aleksandr had betrayed him.82

Four years passed before Aleksandr saw or heard from his family again. During this time, Ivan believes, Aleksandr poured his guilt feelings into his unpublished poetry:

What are you, brother?

How are you, brother?

Where are you, brother?

On what Belomorkanal?

(‘Brothers’, 1933)

In 1935, Ivan went to visit Aleksandr in Smolensk. Having fled the ‘special settlement’, Ivan had spent the past three years living on the run, taking casual jobs in Moscow and other industrial towns, but he yearned to see his native town and he felt the time had come to let his brother know what had happened to his family. The brothers had two brief meetings, at which Aleksandr warned his brother to leave Smolensk: ‘There is nothing for you here,’ he told Ivan. ‘You will find nothing but unpleasantness. For me, by contrast, it is important to live here, where people know me well!’83

At the time, Ivan was full of bitterness towards his brother. But in later years he came to understand the pressures on Aleksandr, his need to remain in a place where people knew and respected him, and where his success offered some protection. Reflecting on his brother’s choices, Ivan wrote with compassion:

The Whisperers

Aleksandr Tvardovsky, 1940

I dare say that my visit stirred up guilt feelings and remorse in him. He couldn’t have forgotten the letters he wrote to us in exile, nor his meeting with father at the House of Soviets. I felt sorry for my brother. Whether I liked it or not, I had to recognize that he was a sincere member of the Komsomol and had been so since the 1920s. I now think that Aleksandr saw the revolutionary violence that swept away our parents, brothers and sisters, although unjust and mistaken, as a kind of test, to see if he could prove himself as a true member of the Komsomol. Maybe there was nobody he had to prove this to – maybe he just had to prove it to himself. No doubt he rationalized it in this way: ‘Every kulak is somebody’s father, and his children someone’s brothers and sisters. What makes my family any different? Be brave and strong, don’t give in to abstract humanitarianism and other feelings outside class interests.’ This was his logic: if you support collectivization, that means you support the liquidation of the kulaks as a class, and you do not have the moral right to ask for an exception for your own father. It is possible that in his heart Aleksandr mourned for his family, but it was just one of many kulak families.84


The ‘great break’ of 1928–32 destroyed old ties and loyalties uniting families and communities. It gave birth to a new kind of society in which people were defined by their relation to the state. In this system social class was everything; the state promoted ‘proletarians’ and repressed the ‘bourgeoisie’. But class was not a fixed or rigid category. As millions of people left their homes, changed their jobs or moved around the country, it was relatively easy to change or reinvent one’s social class. People learned to fashion for themselves a class identity that would help them advance. They became clever at concealing or disguising impure social origins, and at dressing up their own biographies to make them seem more ‘proletarian’.

The notion of ‘working on the self’ was commonplace among the Bolsheviks. It was central to the Bolshevik idea of creating a higher type of human personality (the New Soviet Man) by purging from oneself the ‘petty-bourgeois’ and individualistic impulses inherited from the old society. As one Party leader wrote in 1929: ‘We are all people of the past with all the drawbacks from the past, and a great deal of work should be done on all of us. We must all work on ourselves.’85 At the same time, the ability of people to change and manipulate their class identity was a cause of great concern to the Party leadership.86 It was widely feared that the ‘proletariat’ – the imagined social base of the dictatorship – would become ‘diluted’ by the mass influx of the ruined peasantry and other ‘petty-bourgeois types’ (‘kulaks’, traders, priests, etc.) into the towns; that the Party would be swamped by ‘self-seekers’ and adventurers who had managed to conceal their impure social origins.

There were lots of stories about such impostors in the Soviet press. The most famous was Vladimir Gromov, who in 1935 was sentenced to ten years of penal labour on the White Sea Canal for assuming the identity of a skilled engineer and prize-winning architect. Gromov had used forged papers to get high-paid jobs and a prestigious Moscow flat. He even managed to persuade the People’s Commissar for Supply, Anastas Mikoian, to give him an advance of a million roubles.87 The concern with impostors betrayed a profound anxiety within the Party leadership. It influenced the culture of the purge, whose violent rhetoric of denunication was based on the rationale of exposing the true identity of ‘hidden enemies’. Throughout the 1930s the Party leadership encouraged the popular belief that colleagues, neighbours, even friends and relatives, might not be what they appeared to be – a belief that did much to poison personal relationships and fuel the mass terror of 1937–8. ‘Look at what those enemies of the people are like,’ Elena Bonner’s younger brother said on the arrest of their father. ‘Some of them even pretend to be fathers.’88

As with collectivization, the launching of the Five Year Plan was accompanied by a massive social purge of ‘class enemies’ and other ‘alien elements’ to remove all potential opposition and dissent. With the introduction of the passport system, the police was instructed to step up its campaign to exclude from the towns the ‘socially impure’ – ‘kulaks’, priests, merchants, criminals, ‘parasites’ and prostitutes, gypsies and other ethnic groups (Finns, Koreans, Volga Germans, and so on).89 Fear of social exclusion drove millions of people to conceal their origins. For while the ideology theoretically allowed for self-transformation, the process could be long and uncertain. Concealment could seem the more reliable, certainly the shorter, path toward social acceptance. In the chaos of the early 1930s it was relatively easy to change one’s identity by simply moving to another town, or by getting new papers. False papers could be easily obtained through bribery, or bought from forgers, who were found in every market town. But it was not even necessary to pay for a clean biography. Many people simply threw away their old papers and applied for new ones from a different Soviet, giving different information about their background and sometimes even changing their names and place of birth.90 In the provinces Soviet officials and police were notoriously inefficient and corrupt.

For women, marriage was another way to cover up their social origins. Anna Dubova was born in 1916 to a large peasant family in Smolensk province. Her father was arrested as a ‘kulak’ in 1929 and later sent to work on a construction site in Podolsk, just south of Moscow, where his wife and children moved with him. Anna’s mother got a job at a rabbit farm, while Anna enrolled at a factory school (FZU) attached to a bakery. Just when they thought that they were on their way to becoming ‘normal’ people once again, the family was denounced for concealing its ‘kulak’ origins by a friend of Anna’s sister from the Komsomol. The Dubovs were deported. They lost all their possessions and rights of residence. Anna’s parents went with their younger children to Rzhev, 200 kilometres east of Moscow, where they lived in ‘some kind of shed’ belonging to her father’s relatives. Anna fled to Moscow, where another sister, who was married to a Muscovite, gave her a place to sleep on the floor of their tiny room. Without a residence permit, living illegally, Anna nevertheless pursued her ambitions. After graduating from the FZU, she became a pastry cook at the Bolshevik Cake Factory, where she specialized in decorating cakes. Her future began to seem bright. But there was always the danger that she would lose everything if her ‘kulak’ origins and illegal status were exposed. ‘All this time,’ she said in interviews in the 1990s:

I was afraid whenever I saw a policeman, because it seemed to me that he could tell that something about me wasn’t right. And I got married just so that I could cover up my background… My husband was from the bednota [the poor peasantry]. He was a member of the Komsomol and the secretary of a village Soviet not far from Moscow. As a member of the Komsomol it was his job to identify and dispossess kulaks… My marriage was a kind of camouflage. I had no place to live, but once I was married we had a little room to ourselves. And when I went to bed, I would think to myself, Dear Lord, I’m in my very own bed.

Anna’s husband was a kind man but he drank a lot. ‘I kept dreaming, “Lord, if only I could marry a decent sort of fellow.” I lived with him, but I dreamed about a decent husband, even though I had already given birth to our daughter.’91

People forced to live this double life were haunted by the threat of exposure. ‘I was in a constant state of fear,’ recalls a former secret police colonel, an exemplary Communist, who concealed his noble origins throughout his life. ‘I thought all the time, “Suppose it is suddenly discovered who I really am.” Then all I have worked for, all I have built for myself and my family, my life, my career will suddenly collapse.’ But fear was only one of a number of contradictory impulses and emotions – passivity, the desire to withdraw, shame, inferiority – which could give rise in the same person to both a secret hatred of the Soviet regime and a will to overcome one’s stigma by demonstrating devotion to the Soviet cause. People lost themselves in this duality. The inner self was swallowed up in the public personality. As one man recalled, ‘I began to feel that I was the man I had pretended to be.’92

The young Simonov experienced something similar. Concealing his noble origins, he enrolled as a ‘proletarian’ in the factory school (FZU) in Saratov, where he studied to become a lathe-turner. Simonov had joined the factory school, against the wishes of his stepfather, who had wanted him to study at a higher institute or university – the educational trajectory typical of the old-world service class from which his parents came. But the teenage Simonov was excited by the vision of the new industrial society. He saw the proletariat as the new ruling class and wanted to join it. ‘It was the beginning of the Five Year Plan,’ recalls Simonov, ‘and I was swept along by its romantic spirit. I joined a club to discuss the Plan and its variants, which interested me far more than my studies at the secondary school. My stepfather was so cross that he barely spoke to me during my first year at the factory school.’93

The atmosphere at the factory school was militantly proletarian. Half the students came from workers’ families and the other half from children’s homes. As the son of a princess, Simonov was dangerously out of place, but he did his best to look the part, giving up the shorts and sandals of his early teenage years and donning a worker’s tunic and peaked cap in an effort to fit in. At the core of Simonov’s attraction to the proletariat was the notion of the independence of the working man: ‘The life of a fully grown man, as I saw it, only started on the day he began to work and bring money home. I wanted to be independent and earn my own living as soon as possible.’94 Of course, by joining the army of industrial workers, Simonov would also become independent from his family, whose noble background was sure to hold him back.

To support his studies at the factory school in Saratov, Simonov worked as an apprentice at the Universal Factory in the evenings. He assembled cartridges for the assault rifles produced by the huge munitions plant. By the spring of 1931, he was earning 15 roubles, a modest monthly wage, but an important contribution to the household budget, particularly after April, when his stepfather Aleksandr was arrested and Simonov became, at the age of fifteen, the sole breadwinner in the family.

The Whisperers

Simonov ‘the proletarian’, 1933

The arrest was an orderly affair. The knock on the door came at ten o’clock in the evening. The family had already gone to bed, because Aleksandra had been feeling ill. Aleksandr would not let the police come into their barracks apartment until he had dressed. Konstantin awoke to find his stepfather reading the search warrant with a magnifying glass:

The search went on for a long time; they conducted it properly, going methodically through everything in both rooms, even looking at my factory school notebook on the technology of metals, at my notebooks from the seventh class, and leafing through my mother’s huge trove of letters – she loved to write a lot and liked all her relatives and friends to write a lot to her… When the men finished the search, tidied up the papers and letters and, it seems to me – though I may be mistaken – made some sort of list of the confiscated things, I thought that was the end of it. But then one of them took a paper from his pocket and handed it to Father. It was a warrant for his arrest. At that moment I did not think, though I later realized, that the arrest had been planned from the very start, regardless of the results of the search. It was hard to look at Mother. Although she had a strong character, it was clear that she was ill, she’d sat up all night with a high temperature and she was shaking all over. Father was calm. Having read the paper – again inspecting it with his magnifying glass, which he took out from the pocket of his vest – and having made quite sure that it really was an order for arrest, he briefly kissed mother, and told her that he would return when the misunderstanding had been sorted out. Without saying a word, he shook my hand firmly and left with the men who had arrested him.95

Like Aleksandr, Simonov believed that a misunderstanding had occurred. He must have known that many specialists had been arrested in Saratov, including several officers from the military school where his stepfather taught. But like most people who had lost a relative in the arrests, Simonov assumed that his stepfather had been arrested by mistake. ‘I thought that the others must be guilty of something, that they were enemies, but I did not connect them with my stepfather.’96 This distinction helped him to maintain his confidence in the Soviet system of justice, which was reinforced by the orderly behaviour of the OGPU officers, not just during the arrest of Aleksandr, but also during the arrest of his stepfather’s relative, Yevgeny Lebedev in Kremenchug, which Simonov had witnessed four years earlier.

On Aleksandra’s orders, Simonov informed his teachers at the factory school about the arrest. Not to report it would be cowardly, she said. Simonov was not expelled from the school, but he was advised to postpone his application to the Komsomol until his stepfather was released. Aleksandra and her son were evicted from their small apartment in the barracks. All their belongings were thrown on to the street – a table with some stools, two bookcases, a wardrobe, a bed and a trunk for officers from the First World War with a hammock in which Simonov had slept. It was pouring with rain. Neighbours took in Aleksandra, who was running a fever, while her son walked around the outskirts of Saratov, looking for a place for them to live. Having found a room to rent, he got a lorry-driver to help them move their things. All his life he would recall this day – when he took charge of his family – as the moment when he came of age.

I remember it without resentment, even with some measure of self-satisfaction, because I had proved that I could cope with anything. I had a sense of injury, but it was mainly for my mother… She could not forgive the people who were responsible for our eviction. No doubt it is because I felt her injury, when I was just a boy, that I still remember their names…97

Simonov’s response to his stepfather’s arrest was not to blame or question the Soviet regime, but to work even harder to support his family. Perhaps the arrest of his stepfather also reinforced his conviction that he needed to protect himself by strengthening his proletarian identity. Throughout that summer, Simonov continued to study in the day and to work by night at the factory. He was promoted to the second grade of apprentice workers and received a doubling of his wage, which was enough to support his mother and send two parcels every week to his stepfather in prison. Aleksandra earned some extra cash by teaching French and German at a secondary school. In the autumn Aleksandr was released from jail. ‘He hugged and kissed my mother. He even kissed me too, which was unusual,’ remembers Simonov. ‘Something in him had altered. At first I did not notice. But then I understood: his face was cold and white, not his usual sunburnt look.’98

Aleksandr did not speak about the tortures he had suffered in the jail. The only thing he would say was that all the charges against him had been withdrawn, because he had refused to confess, even under ‘severe pressure’. As Simonov recalls, the lesson that he learned from this affair was all about the need to remain firm:

Today [in 1978] I ask myself: did the events of that summer in Saratov leave any trace on my general approach to life, on my psychology as a fifteen– sixteen-year-old boy? Yes and no! With my stepfather things turned out as they should. He remained what he had always been – a model of clarity and conscientiousness – and the people who knew him were all convinced that he was innocent. And in those awful months, almost everybody with whom we had to deal was good to us – and that too was right, just what we would expect. Still, the story of my stepfather’s interrogation, which had ended as it should, because he was a very strong and solid person, left me with a feeling of unease, the feeling that a weaker person would have come out differently from this situation, because he would not have been able to withstand what he did. This alarming thought stayed in my mind… But above all, I sensed, perhaps unconsciously, that I had grown up, for I too had proved that I could cope in a crisis.99

The children of ‘kulaks’, no less than those of bourgeois or noble families, felt the pressure to conceal their social origins. They were widely banned from Soviet schools and universities, from the Pioneers and the Komsomol, from the Red Army and from many jobs. Their fear of exclusion was frequently reflected in a desperate urge to prove themselves as ‘Soviet citizens’ by distancing themselves from their families. In 1942, Wolfgang Leonhard, the twenty-year-old son of a German Communist who had come to Moscow in 1935, was deported to the Karaganda region of Kazakhstan. He studied at a teacher-training college, where most of the students were ‘kulak’ children, who had been exiled to this semi-desert region in the early 1930s. They had suffered terribly as young children but had since been allowed to go to school. They were now about to become teachers. As Leonhard notes, this brought about a complete change in their political identity:

Most of my fellow-students used to go home at the weekends. That is to say, they used to go to one of the [special] settlements which lay in the inner or outer environs of Karaganda. When they came back, they often spoke indignantly about their parents. ‘They still don’t understand anything at all!’ I often heard them say. ‘I’ve tried so often to explain to them why collectivization is justified, but the old people just never will understand it!’

These sons and daughters of the kulaks who had been exiled here as small children had in fact become Stalinists with the passage of time.100

Many ‘kulak’ children ended up as ardent Stalinists (and even made careers for themselves by joining the repressive organs of the state). For some the transformation involved a long and conscious process of ‘working on themselves’ that was not without its psychic costs. Stepan Podlubny is an example. Born in 1914 to a peasant family in the Vinnitsa region of western Ukraine, Stepan and his mother fled to Moscow in 1929, after his father had been exiled as a ‘kulak’ to Arkhangelsk. Stepan found a job as an apprentice in the factory school of the Pravda printing plant. He joined the Komsomol, headed a brigade of shock workers, edited a wall-newspaper (a form of agitprop), became a member of the factory board, and at some point it seems he was recruited as an informer by the police. All this time he carefully concealed his ‘kulak’ origins. He kept a diary which charted his own struggle to purge the ‘sick psychology’ of his peasant ancestors and reconstruct himself as a Soviet citizen. He tried to read the correct books, to adopt all the correct attitudes, to cultivate himself by dressing neatly and learning how to dance, and to develop in himself the Soviet public virtues of activity and vigilance. He drew up a ‘balance sheet’ of his ‘cultural progress’ at the end of every year (just as the state’s own planning agencies drew up annual balances of economic progress in the Five Year Plan). His ‘kulak’ background was a constant source of self-loathing and self-doubt. He saw it as an explanation for his own shortcomings, and wondered whether he was capable of ever really becoming a fully equal member of society:

13.9.1932: Several times already I have thought about my production work. Why can’t I cope with it painlessly? And in general, why is it so hard for me?… A thought that I can never seem to shake off, that saps my blood from me like sap from a birch tree – is the question of my psychology. Can it really be that I will be different from the others? This question makes my hair stand on end, and I break out in shivers. Right now, I am a person in the middle, not belonging to one side nor to the other, but who could easily slide to either.

Podlubny was constantly afraid that his origins would be exposed, that he would be denounced at work (a ‘snake pit’ filled with ‘enemies’), leading to his sacking and possible arrest. Eventually his ‘kulak’ origins were indeed discovered by OGPU, which told him it would not take action, provided he ‘continued to do good work for them’. It seems likely that Podlubny began to inform on his work colleagues. In his diary he confessed to feeling trapped – he was repulsed by his public persona and he clearly longed to ‘be himself’.

8.12.1932: My daily secretiveness, the secret of my inside – they don’t allow me to become a person with an independent character. I can’t come out openly or sharply, with any free thoughts. Instead I have to say only what everyone [else] says. I have to walk on an uneven surface, along the path of least resistance. This is very bad. Unwittingly I’m acquiring the character of a lickspittle, of a cunning dog: soft, cowardly, and always giving in.

The news that a fellow student had not been punished after he had been exposed as the son of a ‘kulak’ was greeted by Podlubny as a ‘historical moment’, suggesting as it did that he no longer needed to feel so stigmatized by his social origins. He embraced this personal liberation with joy and gratitude towards the Soviet government.

2.3.1935: The thought that I too can be a citizen of the common family of the USSR obliges me to respond with love to those who have done this. I am no longer among enemies, whom I fear all the time, at every moment, wherever I am. I no longer fear my environment. I am just like everybody else, free to be interested in various things, a master interested in his lands, not a hireling kowtowing to his master.

Six months later, Podlubny was accepted as a student at Moscow’s Second Medical Institute. He had always dreamed of studying at a higher institute, but knew his ‘kulak’ origins would be a stumbling block. The fact that the Komsomol at the Pravda plant had supported his application was for him the final affirmation of his new Soviet identity.101

For many ‘kulak’ children, the urge to be recognized as Soviet, to become a valued member of society, had less to do with politics or personal identity than with drive and industry.

Antonina Golovina was a bright girl, full of energy and initiative, with a strong sense of individuality which she took from her father, Nikolai. At Shaltyr, she was the leader of the school brigade. She taught the other children how to read. On her way back to Pestovo, where she joined her father in 1934, the eleven-year-old girl made a firm resolution to ‘study hard and prove myself’.102 At her new school she was taunted and abused by the older boys as a ‘kulak daughter’ (there were many ‘kulak’ children in the school in Pestovo) and picked on by the teachers. One day, when the children were told off for misbehaving, Antonina was called up to the front of the class for a special reprimand by one of the senior teachers, who shouted that she and ‘her sort’ were ‘enemies of the people, wretched kulaks! You certainly deserved to be deported, I hope you’re all exterminated here!’ In her ‘Memoirs’ (2001) Antonina recalls the incident as the defining moment in her life. She felt a deep injustice and anger that made her want to shout back at the teacher in protest. Yet she was silenced by an even deeper fear about her ‘kulak’ origins.

Suddenly, I had this feeling in my gut that we [kulaks] were different from the rest, that we were criminals, and that many things were not allowed for us. Basically, as I now understand, I had an inferiority complex, which possessed me as a kind of fear that the regime might do anything to us, because we were kulaks, that we had no rights, and we had to suffer in silence.

After the incident with the teacher, a classmate called Maria, whose father had been arrested as a ‘kulak’, whispered to Antonina: ‘Listen, let’s write a letter of complaint about the old witch for calling us all these things!’ Antonina was afraid, so Maria wrote the letter for them both. She wrote that as children they were not to blame that their parents had been kulaks, and pleaded for the chance to prove themselves by studying hard. The two girls decorated the letter by drawing a New Year’s tree.* Antonina hid the letter in a bundle of laundry (her mother did the cleaning and washing for the school) and delivered it to the headmaster’s door. The headmaster sympathized with the two girls. He called them to his office and told them that ‘in secret he agreed with us, but that we were not to say a word to anyone’. Evidently, the teacher who had been so harsh to them was spoken to by him, because she later softened her approach. She even gave the girls parts to play in the school drama, which was all about the suffering of a peasant nanny (played by Antonina) in the home of a ‘kulak’ (Maria). Antonina writes in her memoirs:

At the end of my final monologue I had to say the words: ‘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!’ – and with these words I left the stage. There was thunderous applause. I had stepped into the role to such an extent that my indignation appeared genuine.103

Antonina threw herself into her studies. She loved school and did very well, appearing several times in the list of outstanding students (otlichniki) displayed in the school hall. It meant that she was chosen to march in the school parades on Soviet holidays. Antonina loved these demonstrations – not because she was political (she thought it was demeaning to carry a banner) but because she was proud to represent her school. She yearned to join the Pioneers and was so heartbroken when she was excluded because of her ‘kulak’ origins that she wore a home-made version of their scarf and went to the club-house when they assembled in the desperate hope that they might include her in their games.104 Gradually, she made a place for herself. In 1939, she was admitted to the Komsomol, despite her ‘kulak’ past (possibly the Komsomol Committee had turned a blind eye to her past, because it valued her initiative and energy). Emboldened by this success, Antonina summoned up the courage to travel incognito to her native village – by then known as the ‘New Life’ kolkhoz – in the summer of 1939. There she discovered that her old home had been turned into an office for the kolkhoz.105

The Whisperers

The otlichniki (outstanding students) of Class B, Pestovo School, 1936. The thirteen-year-old Antonina (the only child without the uniform of the Pioneers) is standing on the left.

As she grew in confidence and ambition, Antonina decided to stop trying to get accepted for who she was and simply make up a new identity. She began to lie about her origins whenever she was asked to fill out questionnaires. ‘I knew what I was doing,’ she recalls. ‘I had decided to write a new biography for myself.’ From the end of her teenage years, Antonina lived a secret life. She did not speak about her family to any of her friends. She did not tell her first serious boyfriend, whom she met in 1940, because she was afraid that he might leave her if he found out about her past. For the next fifty years, she hid her identity from her family, because she was afraid, for them and for herself. Looking back, she remembers:

I had to be alert all the time, not to slip up and give myself away. When I spoke I had to think: did I forget something? Did I say anything that might make people suspicious? It was like that all the time… I was afraid, and I would remain silent. This fear lasted all my life. It never went away… Mama always said, ‘When you live with wolves, you must learn to live like wolves!’106


The Pursuit of Happiness



In 1932, Fania Laskina married Mikhail Voshchinsky, a Party worker and chief administrator of building works at the Vesnin Brothers’ architectural workshops, one of Moscow’s leading construction companies. Fania left the Laskin home on Zubov Square and, after a few months in rented rooms, moved with her husband to a three-room apartment in the fashionable Arbat area. It was a tiny apartment, just 58 square metres in total area, but in comparison with the living conditions of the vast majority of Muscovites it was modern and luxurious, with its own kitchen, its own bathroom and toilet, and even its own private telephone.1

The Whisperers

Fania Laskina and Mikhail Voshchinsky (wedding photograph) Moscow, 1932

Moscow grew at a furious pace in the early 1930s. From 1928 to 1933 the population of the capital increased from 2 million to 3.4 million, mainly on account of the mass influx of peasants into industry. Their arrival put enormous pressure on the housing stock. After 1933, the growth of the city was controlled by the passport system and by mass expulsions of ‘alien elements’.2 To live in Moscow was the dream of millions. The city was the centre of power, wealth and progress in the Soviet Union. Propaganda portrayed it as living proof of the better life to come under socialism.

The Whisperers

The Laskin household in the Arbat: Sivtsev Vrazhek 14, apt. 59

Stalin took a personal interest in the ‘socialist construction’ of his capital. In 1935, he signed an ambitious Master Plan for the Reconstruction of Moscow. The Vesnin Brothers, Leonid, Viktor and Aleksandr, were among the architects responsible for drawing up the plan under the direction of the Moscow Soviet. The plan envisaged a city of 5 million inhabitants, with vast new residential suburbs connected by highways, ring roads, parklands, sewage systems, communication networks and a Metro system that would be the most advanced in the industrial world. Everything was planned on a monumental scale. The medieval city centre, with its narrow streets and churches, was largely cleared to make room for wider streets and squares. A vast new parade route was constructed through the centre of the capital. Tverskaia (renamed Gorky) Street was broadened to a width of 40 metres by knocking down the old buildings (many architectural monuments, including the eighteenth-century chambers of the Moscow Soviet, were reassembled further back from the main road). Red Square was cleared of its market stalls to allow for the march of the massed ranks past the Lenin Mausoleum, the sacred altar of the Revolution, on 1 May and Revolution Day. There were even plans to blow up St Basil’s Cathedral, so that the marchers could file past the Mausoleum in one unbroken line. Stalin’s Moscow was recast as an imperial capital, a Soviet St Petersburg. Bigger, taller, more advanced than any other city in the Soviet Union, it became a symbol of the future socialist society (Bukharin said that the Master Plan was ‘almost magical’ because it would turn Moscow into ‘a new Mecca, to which the fighters for mankind’s happiness would flock from all the ends of the earth’).3

The Vesnin Brothers played a leading part in this transfiguration of the capital. Their work on it involved a dramatic change in their architectural philosophy. During the 1920s, the Vesnins had been in the vanguard of the Constructivist movement, which sought to incorporate the Modernist ideals of Le Corbusier in Soviet architecture. Their adoption of the neoclassical and monumental style, in which Stalin’s Moscow was to be rebuilt, represented an artistic and a moral compromise. But as architects they depended on patrons, and the only patron was the state. The brothers had been on the planning committee for the grandiose Palace of the Soviets, intended for the site of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, demolished in 1932. The Palace was supposed to be the tallest building in the world (at 416 metres it was to be 8 metres taller than the Empire State Building, which opened in New York in 1931) with a colossal statue of Lenin (three times the size of the Statue of Liberty) at its summit.4 The Palace was never built,* but for years the site was a monument to the promise of Moscow.

The Vesnins also helped to oversee the construction of the Moscow Metro, another icon of Communist progress. The tunnelling began in 1932. By the spring of 1934, the enterprise employed 75,000 workers and engineers, many of them peasant immigrants and Gulag prisoners. The digging was extremely dangerous work. There were frequent fires and cave-ins, because of the softness of the soil, and more than a hundred people died during the construction of the first line, 12 kilometres of track between Sokolniki and Gorky Park. Gulag labour was employed in all the city’s major building projects during the 1930s (there were several labour camps in the vicinity of the capital). A quarter of a million prisoners took part in the construction of the Moscow–Volga Canal, which provided water for the growing population of the capital. Many of them died from exhaustion, their bodies buried in the foundations of the canal. Like Peter’s capital, St Petersburg, which was in many ways its inspiration, Stalin’s Moscow was a utopian civilization constructed on the bones of slaves.

When the first Metro line was opened, in 1935, Lazar Kaganovich, the Moscow Party boss, hailed it as a palace of the proletariat: ‘When our worker takes the Metro, he should be cheerful and joyous. He should think of himself in a palace shining with the light of the advancing, all-victorious Socialism.’5 The Metro stations were built as palaces, with chandeliers, stained-glass panels, brass and chrome fittings, walls of marble (there were twenty different kinds), porphyry, onyx and malachite. Maiakovsky Station (1938) matched the beauty of a church, with its oval ceiling cupolas, mosaic designs, marble patterned floors and stainless-steel arches, which created a bright and lofty atmosphere in the central hall. Drawing up their plans for the Stalin Factory (Avtozavod) Metro Station during the late 1930s, the Vesnins likened the effect they aimed to achieve to the atmosphere inside a cathedral. The finished station (1943), with its high, almost gothic marble columns, its simple use of space and light, and its white marble bas reliefs depicting the ‘achievements’ of the Five Year Plans (Magnitogorsk, the Stalin Factory, the Palace of the Soviets, the Moscow–Volga Canal), perfectly accomplished their ideal.6 The splendour of these proletarian palaces, which stood in such stark contrast to the cramped and squalid private spaces in which the majority of people lived, played an important moral role (not unlike the role played by the Church in earlier states). By inspiring civic pride and reverence, the beauty of the Metro helped to foster popular belief in the public goals and values of the Soviet order.

The Whisperers

Maiakovsky Station, 1940

The Whisperers

Avtozavod Station, 1940s

The Vesnin brothers were also involved in building private homes. They were commissioned to design two- and three-room apartments, like the one Mikhail Voshchinsky and Fania Laskina occupied after their marriage. ‘We were very happy there,’ recalls Fania. ‘It was the first time that either of us had ever lived in an apartment with a bathroom and kitchen. Misha [Mikhail] had his own study. And there was always room for visitors to stay.’7

This new emphasis on the construction of private apartments represented a fundamental change in Soviet housing policy. During the 1920s, when the utopian dream of building new collective forms dictated policy, the Bolsheviks had given priority to ‘commune houses’ (doma kommuny) – huge communal blocks with rows of rooms for several thousand workers and their families, shared kitchens and washing and laundry facilities, which would liberate women from domestic drudgery and teach the inhabitants to organize their lives collectively. The Constructivists in the Union of Contemporary Architects had been in the vanguard of this Soviet campaign to obliterate the private sphere by making people live in a communal way. But Moscow’s housing priorities were turned around in 1931: despite the chronic shortages of accommodation in the Soviet capital – a situation exacerbated by more than a million new arrivals – it was decreed that the main type of housing to be built in Moscow was the luxury house with individual family flats.

The change in policy was obviously connected to the rise of a new political and industrial elite, whose loyalty to the Stalinist regime was secured by the handing down of material rewards. The Five Year Plan had produced a huge demand for new technicians, functionaries and managers in all branches of the economy. According to the chairman of Gosplan, the state planning agency, 435,000 engineers and specialists were needed for the new demands of industry in 1930. The old (‘bourgeois’) industrial elites were mistrusted by the Stalinist leadership (only 2 per cent of Soviet engineers were Party members in 1928). Many of these specialists had been opposed to the fantastically optimistic targets of the Five Year Plan in industry. They were massively purged (as ‘saboteurs’ and ‘wreckers’) in the industrial terror of 1928–32, when the chaos introduced by the Five Year Plan and the constant breakdown in the supply of fuel and raw materials led many workers to denounce their bosses when the factory shut down work and they lost pay. The hounding out of the ‘bourgeois specialists’ from senior positions of industrial management, the economic commissariats, the planning agencies, the academies and the teaching institutes created opportunities for the ‘proletarian intelligentsia’ to be promoted in their place. The first Five Year Plan was the heyday of the Factory Apprentice Schools (FZUs), which trained workers, many of them peasants who had recently arrived from the countryside, for the expanding ranks of the industrial professions and administrative posts in the economy. From 1928 to 1932, the number of students in the FZUs increased from 1.8 to 3.3 million (nearly half of them of peasant origin); 140,000 workers were promoted from the factory floor to management (many of them trained while on the job); and 1.5 million workers left the factory for administrative jobs or higher schools. Meanwhile, a million workers were enrolled in the Party. Controls were dropped to encourage recruitment (in many factories the entire workforce was enrolled en masse), as the Party leadership attempted to create a proletarian social base to support and implement its policies.8

Stalin needed reliable support. The Great Break had created social chaos and widespread discontent, which destabilized his leadership. The archives of the Party and the Soviets are filled with letters and petitions of complaint from angry workers and peasants about the hardships of the Five Year Plan. They wrote to the Soviet government, to Mikhail Kalinin, the Soviet President, or directly to Stalin, to complain about the injustices of collectivization and the over-requisitioning of peasant grain, about the problems they encountered in their factories, about the corruption of Soviet managers and officials, the lack of housing and foodstuffs in the shops.9 This was not a people resigned to its fate. There were uprisings and strikes throughout the land.10 Anti-Soviet graffiti was almost just as visible as Soviet propaganda in many city streets.11 In rural areas there was widespread opposition to the Soviet regime which was voiced in rhyming songs (chastushki):

The Five Year Plan, the Five Year Plan

The Five Year Plan in Ten.

I won’t go to the kolkhoz:

The kolkhoz has no bread!12

Within the Party there was no formal opposition to the Stalin line, but there was a good deal of concealed dissent and discontent about the enormous human costs of 1928–32. In 1932, this began to coalesce around two informal groups. One was made up of Trotsky’s former followers from the Left Opposition of the 1920s (I. N. Smirnov, V. N. Tolmachyov, N. B. Eismont), who held various meetings at which there was talk of removing Stalin from the leadership. The other consisted of remnants of the more moderate Right Opposition, led by supporters of the NEP such as Rykov and Bukharin, and in particular by N. N. Riutin, a former district secretary in the Moscow Party organization. Riutin held a small and secret meeting of old comrades in March 1932, the outcome of which was a 194-page typewritten document entitled ‘Stalin and the Crisis of the Proletarian Dictatorship’. It was a detailed critique of Stalin’s policies, methods of rule and personality, which was circulated in the Party’s ranks, until OGPU intercepted it. All the leading members of the so-called Riutin Platform were arrested, expelled from the Party and imprisoned in the autumn of 1932. Most of them were later to be shot in the Great Purge of 1937, when many more Old Bolsheviks, veterans of 1917, were charged with some connection to the group.13

The exposure of the Riutin group increased Stalin’s paranoia about opposition in his own Party. It coincided with the suicide of Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, in November 1932, which seriously unhinged the leader, making him mistrustful of everybody in his entourage. In January 1933, the Politburo announced a thoroughgoing purge of the Party’s ranks. The purge instructions did not mention members suspected of belonging to opposition groups, but their call for the expulsion of ‘duplicitous elements who live by deceiving the Party, who conceal from it their real aspirations, and who, under the cover of a false oath of “loyalty” to the Party, seek in fact to undermine the Party’s policy’ made it clear that weeding out dissenters was an urgent task for the Party, which needed to close ranks behind the leadership.14

Through the purging of the old and the recruitment of the new, the nature of the Party was gradually evolving in the 1930s. While the Old Bolsheviks were losing ground, a new class of Party bureaucrats was emerging from the industrial rank and file, largely made up of workers promoted to administrative posts (vydvizhentsy). The vydvizhentsy were the sons (and very rarely, the daughters) of the peasantry and the proletariat, trained in the FZUs and other technical institutes during the First Five Year Plan. This cohort of functionaries became the mainstay of the Stalinist regime. By the end of Stalin’s reign, they composed a large proportion of the senior Party leadership (57 of the top 115 ministers in the Soviet government of 1952, including Leonid Brezhnev, Andrei Gromyko and Aleksei Kosygin, were vydvizhentsy of the First Five Year Plan).15 The emerging elite of the early 1930s was generally conformist and obedient to the leadership that had created it. With only seven years of education, on average, few of the new functionaries had much capacity for independent political thought. They took their ideas from the statements of the Party leaders in the press, and parroted their propaganda slogans and political jargon.* Their actual knowledge of Marxist-Leninist ideology was meagre and easily contained in the The Short Course (1938), Stalin’s history of the Party, which they all knew by heart. They identified completely with the Stalinist regime; they linked their personal values to its interests, and all of them were eager to advance their own careers by implementing orders from above.

The character of this new elite was caustically portrayed by Arkadii Mankov, an accountant in the Red Triangle Factory in Leningrad. The son of a lawyer, Mankov was working at the factory so that he could qualify as a ‘proletarian’ and gain entry to the Institute of Librarians. In a 1933 diary entry, he described his boss – a young man of twenty-five, who started his career in the same way as tens of thousands of young men:

He appeared in Leningrad from nobody knows where, and through the labour exchange got a job at the factory. When he had worked there for a couple of months, he joined the Komsomol, became an activist – that is, did everything that he was asked to do – and spoke up at the meetings, showing off his knowledge of Stalin’s and Molotov’s articles, whereupon he was suddenly promoted to work in the administration as a labour economist… His entire achievement consists in having an important title, and in getting nicely paid (300 roubles a month). He gives the impression of a highly successful person who is pleased with himself and his position. He smiles sweetly, wears a spotlessly white English shirt and tie and a dark new jacket and has a confident and even arrogant manner. Although he holds a high post, he has no specific job. He does all the petty tasks: keeps tabs on people, checks the accounts, sets the work norms. He considers it his business to stick his nose into everything – to express ‘the factory view’ – to insist, shout, threaten. He collects information carefully and fills out pointless forms and cards which are never seen by anyone. He takes a particular interest in investigating the legality of all innovation in the workshop and is always checking the rulebook.16

Competing for material and political rewards, this type of functionary easily turned against his rivals in the Soviet hierarchy. In 1932, a manager at Transmashtekh, a vast industrial conglomerate, wrote to the Soviet President Mikhail Kalinin:

The problem with Soviet power is the fact that it gives rise to the vilest type of official – one that scrupulously carries out the general designs of the supreme authority… This official never tells the truth, because he doesn’t want to distress the leadership. He gloats about famine and pestilence in the district or ward controlled by his rival. He won’t lift a finger to help his neighbour… All I see around me is loathsome politicizing, dirty tricks and people being destroyed for slips of the tongue. There’s no end to the denunciations. You can’t spit without hitting some revolting denouncer or liar. What have we come to? It’s impossible to breathe. The less gifted a bastard, the meaner his slander. Of course the purge of your Party is none of my business, but I think that as a result of it, decent elements still remaining will be cleaned out.17

In The Revolution Betrayed (1936), where he outlined his theory of the ‘Soviet Thermidor’, Trotsky pointed to the vast ‘administrative pyramid’ of bureaucrats, which he numbered at 5 or 6 million, on which Stalin’s power depended.18 This new ruling caste did not share the democratic instincts or the Spartan cult of the Old Bolsheviks, who had been so worried that the Party rank and file would be corrupted by the bourgeois influences of the NEP. On the contrary, they hoped to become a Soviet bourgeoisie. Their interests centred on the comforts of the home, on the acquisition of material possessions, on ‘cultivated’ pursuits and manners. They were socially reactionary, clinging to the customs of the patriarchal family, conservative in their cultural tastes, even if politically they believed in the Communist ideal. Their main aim was to defend the Soviet system, from which they derived their material well-being and position in society.

The system, in turn, made sure they were content. During the Second Five Year Plan (1933–7) the government increased its investment in consumer industries, which had been starved of capital in the rush to build new factories and towns. By the middle of the 1930s, the supply of foodstuffs, clothes and household goods had markedly improved (millions of children who grew up in these years would recall the mid-1930s as a time when they were given their first pair of shoes). From the autumn of 1935, rationing was gradually lifted, giving rise, in Soviet propaganda, to an optimistic mood among consumers as shop windows filled with goods. Cameras, gramophones and radios were mass-produced for the aspiring urban middle class. There was a steady rise in the production of luxury goods (perfumes, chocolate, cognac and champagne), which catered mainly to the new elite, although prices were reduced for Soviet holidays. It was important to the Soviet myth of the ‘good life’ to give the impression that luxury goods previously affordable only by the rich were now being made accessible to the masses, who could afford them too if they worked hard. New consumer magazines informed the Soviet shopper about the growing diversity of clothing fashions and furnishing designs. Huge publicity was given to the opening of department stores and luxury food shops, like the former Yeliseyev store, renamed Grocery No. 1, which reopened on Moscow’s Gorky Street in October 1934. ‘The new store will sell more than 1,200 foodstuffs,’ announced the newspaper Evening Moscow:

In the grocery department there are 38 kinds of sausage, including 20 new kinds that have not been sold anywhere before. This department will also sell three kinds of cheese – Camembert, Brie and Limburger – made for the store by special order. In the confectionary department there are 200 kinds of sweets and pastries… The bread department has up to 50 kinds of bread…

The next day, the store was visited by 75,000 people (most, one suspects, just to look).19

The promotion of a Soviet consumer culture was a dramatic ideological retreat from the revolutionary asceticism of the Bolsheviks in the first decade of the Revolution, and even in the period of the First Five Year Plan, when Communists were called upon to sacrifice their happiness for the Party’s cause. The Soviet leadership was now communicating the contrary message: that consumerism and Communism were compatible. Socialism, Stalin argued in 1934, ‘means, not poverty and deprivation, but the elimination of poverty and deprivation, and the organization of a rich and cultured life for all members of society’. Stalin developed this idea at a conference of kolkhoz labourers in 1935. Reprimanding the collective farms for trying to eliminate all private household property, Stalin called for the kolkhoz workers to be allowed to keep their poultry and their cows, and to be given larger garden allotments, to stimulate their interest in the collective farms. ‘A person is a person. He wants to own something for himself,’ Stalin told the delegates. There was ‘nothing criminal in this’ – it was a natural human instinct to want private property, and it would ‘take a long time yet to rework the psychology of the human being, to re-educate people to live collectively’.20

A further sign of this retreat from the ascetic culture of the Revolution was the new importance the Party now assigned to personal appearance and etiquette. The early Bolsheviks considered it anti-socialist to care about such petty things. But from the 1930s the Party declared that cultivated manners and good grooming were compulsory for the young Communist. ‘We endorse beauty, smart clothes, chic coiffures, manicures,’ announced Pravda in 1934. ‘Girls should be attractive. Perfume and make-up belong to the “must” of a good Komsomol girl. Clean shaving is mandatory for a Komsomol boy.’ Perfumes and cosmetics were sold in growing quantities and varieties during the 1930s. Conferences were held to debate fashion and personal hygiene.21

There was also a new emphasis on having fun. ‘Life has become better, comrades. Life has become more joyous,’ announced Stalin in 1935. ‘And when life is joyous, work goes well.’ Dancing, which had been condemned by the early Bolsheviks as a frivolous pursuit, was officially encouraged by the Stalinist regime. It soon became the rage, with dance schools opening everywhere. There were carnivals in Moscow’s parks, and huge parades to celebrate the Soviet holidays. The Soviet cinema churned out happy musicals and romantic comedies. The people did not have much bread, but there were lots of circuses.

The consolidation of the Stalinist regime was closely connected to the creation of a social hierarchy structured by the granting of material rewards. For those at the top of the pyramid these rewards were immediately available for industry and loyalty; for those at the bottom they were promised in the future, when Communism had been reached. The regime was thus connected to the establishment of an aspirational society, at the heart of which was a new middle class made up of the Party and industrial elites, the technical intelligentsia and professionals, military and police officers, and loyal industrial workers who proved their worth by working hard (the Stakhanovites).* The defining principle of this new social hierarchy was service to the state. In every institution, the slogan of the Second Five Year Plan (‘Cadres Decide Everything!’) served to uphold the state’s loyal servitors; and their loyalty was handsomely rewarded with higher rates of pay, special access to consumer goods, Soviet titles and honours.

The emergence of a Soviet middle class was further supported by the regime’s cultivation of traditional (‘bourgeois’) family values from the mid-1930s. This represented a dramatic reversal of the anti-family policies pursued by the Party since 1917. It was partly a reaction to the demographic impact of the Great Break: the birthrate had declined disastrously, posing a serious threat to the country’s labour supply and military strength; the divorce rate had increased; and child abandonment had become a mass phenomenon, as families fragmented, leaving the regime to cope with the consequences. But the return to traditional family values was also a reflection of the conservatism of the new industrial and political elites, most of whom had risen only recently from the peasantry and the working class. As Trotsky wrote in 1936, the change in policy was a frank admission by the Soviet regime that its utopian attempt to ‘take the old family by storm’ – to root out the habits and customs of private life and implant collective instincts – had failed.22

From the middle of the 1930s, the Party adopted a more liberal approach towards the family and the private home. The notion of ‘private life’ (chastnaia zhizn’) – a closed and separate sphere beyond the state’s control and scrutiny – was still rejected ideologically. But the idea of ‘personal life’ (lichnaia zhizn’) – an individual or family realm that remained open to public scrutiny – was actively promoted by the state. In this configuration of the private–public division, the private and the personal were defined in terms of individuality; but the domination of the public sphere demanded visibility of every aspect of the individual’s life. The practical effect was to liberate a space within the four walls of the home for the free expression of domesticity (consumer taste, ways of living, domestic habits, and so on), while retaining political controls on the private conduct of the individual, especially the Communist. ‘The Party does not interfere or create standards for the trifles of the everyday life of the Communist,’ announced Rabotnitsa, the Party’s main newspaper for women, in 1936; ‘it does not insist on rules of behaviour for every Party member in every aspect of a member’s life. But the Party does require that every member behave in their private life in a way that serves the interests of the Party and the working class.’23

The new emphasis on building private homes was one sign of this change in policy. All the major ministries had their own blocks of flats in Moscow, which they allocated to their leading officials. Bolshevik families who had led a relatively austere existence in the 1920s now enjoyed lives of relative luxury, as they were rewarded with new homes, privileged access to food shops, chauffered cars, dachas, holidays in special government resorts and sanitoria. For many of these families, the 1930s were a time when they first gained their own domestic space and autonomy. The granting of dachas to the Soviet elite – organized on a large scale from the 1930s on – was particularly important to the encouragement of private family life. At the dacha, safe from watchful eyes and listening ears, relatives could sit and talk in ways that were inconceivable in public places; moreover, the everyday routines of simple country life – swimming, hiking, mushroom-picking, reading, lounging in the yard – provided families some respite from the constraints of Soviet society.

Within the home the Stalinist regime promoted a return to traditional family relations. Marriage became glamorous. Registration offices were smartened up. Marriage certificates were issued on high-quality paper (from Vishlag) instead of on the wrapping paper used before. Wedding rings, which had been banned as Christian relics in 1928, reappeared in Soviet shops after 1936. A series of decrees aimed to strengthen the Soviet family: the divorce laws were tightened; fees for divorce were raised substantially, leading to a sudden fall in the divorce rate; child support was raised; homosexuality and abortion were outlawed. Among the Soviet elite there was a return to conventional and even rather prudish sexual attitudes. The good Stalinist was expected to be monogamous, and devoted to his family, as Stalin was himself, according to the propaganda of his cult.* The conduct of the Bolshevik in his intimate relations was closely scrutinized. It was not unusual for a Bolshevik to be expelled from the Party because he was judged to be a bad father or husband. The wives of Party members were expected to return to the traditional role of raising children in the home.

This ideological restoration of the family was closely tied to its promotion as the basic unit of the state. ‘The family is the primary cell of our society,’ wrote one educationalist in 1935, ‘and its duties in child-rearing derive from its obligations to cultivate good citizens.’ From the middle of the 1930s, the Stalinist regime increasingly portrayed itself through metaphors and symbols of the family – a value-system familiar to the population at a time when millions of people found themselves in a new and alien environment. The cult of Stalin, which took off in these years, portrayed the leader as the ‘father of the Soviet people’, just as Nicholas II had been the ‘father-tsar’ (tsar-batiushka) of the Russian people before 1917. Social institutions like the Red Army, the Party and the Komsomol, and even the ‘Proletariat’, were reconceived as ‘big families’, offering a higher form of belonging through comradeship. In this patriarchal Party-state the role of the parent was now strengthened as a figure of authority who reinforced the moral principles of the Soviet regime in the home. ‘Young people should respect their elders, especially their parents,’ declared Komsomolskaia Pravda in 1935. ‘One must respect and love parents, even if they are old-fashioned and do not like the Komsomol.’ It was a dramatic change from the moral lessons taught by the cult of Pavlik Morozov, which had encouraged Soviet children to denounce their parents if they were opposed to the policies of the government. As of 1935, the regime reinterpreted the Morozov cult, playing down the story of Pavlik’s denunciation and emphasizing new motifs, such as Pavlik’s hard work and obedience at school.24

Children of the Soviet elite who grew up in these years recall them with nostalgia, particularly for the experience of ‘normal family life’. Marina Ivanova was born in 1928 to a family of senior Party officials. Her father was the Secretary of the Party in the town of Mga, 50 kilometres south-east of Leningrad, where the family had a spacious dacha, although they lived mostly in the Leningrad apartment of Marina’s grandfather, a former nobleman. ‘The apartment was luxurious,’ recalls Marina,

with ten large rooms where I could run as a child. The rooms had high ceilings and enormous windows looking out onto the gardens… Oil paintings [copies] by Repin and Levitan hung on the walls. A grand piano and a billiard table stood in the two reception rooms… This apartment is the place of my happiest childhood memories. I remember crowded parties, with family friends and relatives, and all their children, gathered in our home for the New Year. The children had on masquerade costumes, and Papa would dress up as Uncle Frost and appear with chocolates and gifts for everyone, which he would put around the New Year tree.25

Inna Gaister’s family moved to the prestigious block of flats reserved for senior Soviet officials (the ‘House on the Embankment’) opposite the Kremlin in Moscow after her father Aron became the head of the agricultural section of Gosplan in 1932. They had a large apartment with the latest Soviet furniture provided by the government, and a library with several thousand books. The family enjoyed a cultured Russian lifestyle, combining their Communist ideals with the privileges of the Soviet elite. They had a pass to the Imperial Box at the Bolshoi Theatre. There were frequent holidays to special Party resorts in the Crimea, and Astafevo, near Moscow. But Inna’s fondest memories are of summers at their family dacha at Nikolina Gora:

The settlement was located in a beautiful pine forest, on a high hill above a bend in the Moscow River. It was a place of magnificent beauty, one of the finest in the Moscow area… Our plot was right above the river, on a high bank. The dacha was a large two-storeyed house: my mother’s brother, Veniamin, with barely hidden envy used to call it her ‘villa’. There were three large rooms downstairs and three upstairs. And an enormous verandah. The rooms were usually full of people. There were always some of my parents’ many relatives – mostly my cousins – staying there. On weekends my mother’s and father’s friends would come from Moscow… and I had my own friends from the nearby dachas. We used to spend most of our time on the river. Papa had built a stairway from our dacha down to the river, to make it easier for my grandmother to get to the water. It was a winding stairway – the slope was very steep – with at least a hundred steps. Long after we left, people still called it Gaister’s stairway. At the bottom there was a little wooden pier for swimming. Since the water around our pier was very deep, I was only allowed to swim there with my father. My friends and I preferred the pier below the Kerzhentsev dacha, where the water was shallow and good for swimming.26

But such happy memories were not everyone’s lot. For many families, the 1930s were a time of growing strain. The restoration of traditional relations often created tensions between husbands and their wives. According to Trotsky, who wrote extensively on the Soviet family, the Stalinist regime had betrayed the commitment of the Bolshevik revolutionaries to liberate women from domestic slavery. His assertion is supported by statistics, which reveal how household tasks were divided within working-class families. In 1923–34, working women were spending three times longer than their husbands doing household chores, but by 1936 they were spending five times longer. For women nothing changed in the 1930s – they worked long hours at a factory and then did a second shift at home, cooking, cleaning, caring for the children on average for five hours every night – whereas men were liberated from most of their traditional domestic duties (chopping wood, carrying water, preparing the stove) by the modernization of workers’ housing, which increased the provision of running water, gas and electricity, leaving them more time for cultural pursuits and politics.27

But Trotsky also had in mind the sexual politics of families:

One of the dramatic chapters in the great book of the Soviets will be the tale of the disintegration and breaking up of those Soviet families where the husband as a Party member, trade unionist, military commander or administrator, grew and developed and acquired new tastes in life, and the wife, crushed by the family, remained on the old level. The road of the two generations of the Soviet bureaucracy is sown thick with the tragedies of wives rejected and left behind. The same phenomenon is now to be observed in the new generation. The greatest of all crudities and cruelties are to be met perhaps in the very heights of the bureaucracy, where a very large percentage are parvenus of little culture, who consider that everything is permitted to them. Archives and memoirs will some day expose downright crimes in relation to wives, and to women in general, on the part of those evangelists of family morals and the compulsory ‘joys of motherhood’, who are, owing to their position, immune from prosecution.28

Vladimir Makhnach was born in 1903 to a poor peasant family in Uzda, 60 kilometres south of Minsk in Belarus. His mother died while giving birth to him, and his father emigrated to the USA in 1906, leaving Vladimir to be brought up by his aunt. At the age of fourteen, he ran away from home to join the Red Guards, taking part in the seizure of power in Minsk in October 1917. He spent the next four years in the Red Army and fought against the Poles, who invaded Soviet Russia in the Civil War. In 1921, Vladimir joined the Bolsheviks and began his studies at the Mogilyov Agricultural Academy, where he met and fell in love with Maria Chausova. Born in 1904, Maria was the daughter of a peasant trader in the small town of Krichev, 100 kilometres east of Mogilyov. The youngest of six sisters, and the first to study beyond secondary school, Maria graduated from the Agricultural Academy with a distinction in agronomy and economics in 1925. The couple lived together as de facto man and wife in Mogilyov (like many Soviet youths in the 1920s, they refused to register their marriage as a sign of protest against bourgeois conventions). After graduating from the Agricultural Academy, Vladimir pursued a career in research. In 1928, he went to Moscow, where he joined the Institute of Peat (then regarded by the Bolsheviks as an important source of energy) and researched a dissertation under the direction of Ivan Radchenko, the veteran Bolshevik and friend of Lenin, who was the head of the institute. Vladimir’s impeccable credentials, his proletarian origins and his enthusiasm for Stalin’s industrialization plans soon attracted the attention of the Moscow Party organization, which called him up to work with Radchenko on the development of new energy supplies for Moscow in 1932. Vladimir became the first director of the Mosgaz Trust – a newly founded industrial complex entrusted with the task of providing gas to the rapidly expanding capital.29

Maria followed Vladimir to Moscow, where she worked in the Commissariat of Agriculture as an economist until 1933, when their son Leonid was born. On Vladimir’s promotion to Mosgaz, they moved from a small room in a communal apartment to a large private flat on Sparrow Hills (renamed the Lenin Hills in 1935). They enjoyed all the privileges of Stalin’s new elite: a chauffered government limousine; a private dacha in the exclusive settlement of Serebrianyi Bor; and access to the secret shops reserved for Party workers, where hard-to-get consumer goods were readily available. Leonid describes his earliest memories as

fragmentary recollections filled with a sense of abundance and the atmosphere of a magical fairy-tale: there I am on my father’s strong shoulders looking round at a sea of lights and marble splendour (it must have been in the newly opened Metro in Moscow)… There we are by the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square on 1 May.30

Maria employed a nanny, who lived in the pantry of the Makhnach apartment. Maria’s aim was to go back to work at the Commissariat. But Vladimir was violently opposed to the idea (he told Maria that ‘a senior Party leader should have a wife who stays at home’) and lost his temper when she tried to change his mind. Like many Party men, Vladimir believed that his family life should be subordinated to his Party obligations: because his work was more important to the Party than his wife’s, it was her duty to support him by organizing a ‘well-ordered Communist home’. In November 1935, he wrote to Maria from a work trip to Leningrad:

My darling! I shall be away for several weeks. I shall write to you with my news and instructions. For the moment all I need is a few books [a list follows]… It would be a good idea to decorate the hall, it’s a little dark. That is all. Make sure our little one is safe and sound. And take care of yourself. Wrap up warm when you go out… Forget your illusions of going back to work. Your place now is in the home.31

The Whisperers

Vladimir Makhnach, 1934

The Whisperers

Maria and Leonid, 1940s

The return to ‘bourgeois’ material values was sometimes yet another source of tension within families. Anatoly Golovnia was a leading figure in the Soviet cinema, the cameraman and close collaborator of Vsevolod Pudovkin, who directed several classic Soviet films, Mother (1926), Storm over Asia (1930) and The Deserter (1933), and won the Stalin Prize no less than five times. Golovnia was born in 1900 in the Crimean town of Simferopol. His father, a minor nobleman, died when he was two, leaving his mother to raise Anatoly and his brother Pyotr on a small pension. The family moved to Kherson, where the boys received a grant from the Noble Assembly to study at the First Gymnasium, a type of grammar school. After the October Revolution, Anatoly joined the Cheka, while Pyotr joined the Whites. In 1920, Anatoly was put in charge of a small Cheka unit with the task of ambushing a White brigade encamped nearby. The brigade was led by his closest friend at school, the son of the chairman of the Kherson Noble Assembly. Anatoly could not bring himself to carry out the order, so he plied his men with vodka and crossed over to the Whites to warn them to escape. This whole episode of Anatoly’s life – which is documented in his diaries – was erased from his biography. For the next three years, Anatoly lived on the run from the Reds. First he settled in Tashkent, where he tried to become an agronomist, but after he was rejected from the agricultural school, he fled to Moscow, where he enrolled at the State Technical-Institute of Cinematography (GTK), the newly opened film school in the Soviet capital, to study camera-work in September 1923. It was there that he met and fell in love with Liuba Ivanova, a young actress of extraordinary beauty, who had just arrived in Moscow from Cheliabinsk in the Urals, where she had been born in 1905, the youngest of fourteen children in a peasant family. The couple were soon married, but they spent a lot of time apart, working on location for their films. Their daughter Oksana was often sent by train to stay with aunts in Kherson, or to Cheliabinsk, where she would stay with her grandmother.

In 1933, Anatoly and Liuba received their first apartment – two small rooms in a communal flat located in the courtyard annexe of a large housing block in the centre of Moscow. Their daughter Oksana, who was then aged seven, recalls the apartment in her memoirs (1981):

The floorboards were painted red [because there was no carpet]… Today’s young people, who live for material possessions, would think that they were visiting a store of discarded furniture, or even a rubbish dump. The most valuable thing in our flat was the ‘Slavonic’ chest of drawers. All our kitchen goods were stored in a home-made cupboard painted white. There were two spring mattresses, Papa’s writing table, and three Finnish bookcases with glass fronts – my favourite piece of furniture, because they contained our books… I slept on a fold-up camp-bed behind the china cupboard in a corner of the living room. The camp-bed was the only thing that ‘belonged’ to me. I would talk to it at night. I used to think it told me dreams.32

These were modest living quarters for two important figures of the Soviet cinema. By this time Liuba was a leading actress at the Mezhrabpomfilm studios and had starred in several silent films. Anatoly attached little significance to personal property. He was ‘opposed to it on principle’, as he often said, and strongly disapproved of luxury and abundance. ‘White shirts and ties were the only things he owned in excessive quantities,’ recalls Oksana. Anatoly’s austerity was rooted in the values of his class (the impoverished nobility from which so many of Russia’s leading writers, artists, thinkers and revolutionaries had emerged) and the frugal habits of his mother, who had raised her sons on a small widow’s pension, making sacrifices so that they could go to school. It was precisely this ethos of hard work and discipline that had attracted Anatoly to the Bolsheviks in 1917. According to his granddaughter, there was ‘always something of the Chekist in his character. He was severe and strict as a grandfather and never once indulged me as a child.’33

Liuba was different. Warm and affectionate, excessive in her passions, she was used to being spoilt, as she had always been as the youngest and most pretty in her family, and eager to enjoy the high life of Moscow. She dressed expensively and had a lot of jewellery. In 1934, Liuba fell in love with the glamorous and handsome boss of Mezhrabpomfilm, Boris Babitsky. She left Anatoly and went to live with Babitsky at his dacha in Kratovo, just outside the capital, where he was living with his

The Whisperers

From left: Anatoly Golovnia as Chekist, 1919; Liuba Golovnia, 1925; Boris Babitsky, 1932

son (Volik) from a previous marriage. In the autumn, Liuba and Boris returned to Moscow. They moved into a spacious apartment (just beneath the offices of Mezhrabpomfilm) in the Comintern hotel (Hotel Lux), in the centre. The apartment was luxurious, four large rooms off a corridor with parquet floors, and a large kitchen where a housekeeper and a nanny slept. ‘It was a palace, a museum, a fairy-tale,’ recalls Oksana, who went to live there in 1935. The interior was designed and built by a French worker from the Comintern. The furniture – valuable antiques, bronze vases, leather chairs and Persian carpets – was purchased at heavily discounted prices from the NKVD warehouses in Leningrad. The furniture had been confiscated from families of the old nobility and bourgeoisie who had been arrested and expelled from their homes, on Stalin’s orders, following the murder of Sergei Kirov, the Party boss of Leningrad, in December 1934. ‘Mama was very proud of her acquisitions,’ recalls Oksana, ‘and liked to tell us stories about every piece.’34

Anatoly’s mother, the domineering Lydia Ivanovna, who took her values from the old nobility, thought that Liuba had ‘bourgeois pretensions’. She ridiculed her ‘vulgar tastes’ in clothes and furniture because they reflected the ‘material acquisitiveness of the new Soviet elite’. She thought her son had married beneath him and once even said in a heated argument that Oksana was ‘the biggest mistake of the Revolution’, because she was the child of their mismarriage. Convinced that Liuba left her son for Babitsky because he could better satisfy her expensive tastes, Lydia tried to persuade Anatoly, who was distraught by Liuba’s departure, that he might lure her back with a more spacious apartment. But Anatoly would not compromise his principles. Looking back on these events in her memoirs, Oksana reflected on the three conflicting views on property that agitated her family: those of the nobility; the Spartan attitudes of the revolutionary Bolsheviks; and the materialistic attitudes of the new Soviet elite. Oksana sympathized with her mother’s position. She felt that her attachment to her country home was not so much a desire for property as a yearning for the sort of family life she had known as a child:

Mama always used to say that we were going to ‘our dacha’ – as if it belonged to us. I remember this because Papa often said that he was opposed to the idea of things belonging to anyone. At that age, I had no idea about property and did not think about my mother’s aspirations to have something of her own. Today, as I try to understand her better, I think that it was not just about property. Mama was not simply building a dacha – she was building a family. She made her family out of real things, just as her peasant ancestors had done for centuries. She loved Boris, she loved me and she loved Volik, and that love was the focus of her home.35

The Whisperers

Volik Babitsky and Liuba and Oksana at the Kratovo dacha, 1935


Few people enjoyed the lifestyle of Liuba Golovnia. For most of the Soviet population the 1930s were years of material shortage, and even for the new bureaucracy, with access to special shops, the supply of goods was hardly plentiful. According to one estimate, during the first half of the 1930s the number of families receiving special provisions (a good estimate of the Soviet nomenklatura) was 55,500, of which 45,000 lived in Moscow. The goods they received allowed these families to live in greater comfort than the vast majority, but by Western standards they still lived very modestly. Here is a list of the goods received by the families of government workers in the centre of Moscow for one month in 1932:

4 kg of meat

4 kg of sausage

1.5 kg of butter

2 litres of oil

6 kg of fresh fish

2 kg of herring

3 kg of sugar

3 kg of flour

3 kg of grains

8 cans of food

20 eggs

2 kg of cheese

1 kg of black caviar

50 g of tea

1,200 cigarettes

2 pieces of soap

These families could also purchase clothes and shoes from special shops with coupons given to them by the government, and they had first access to any luxury foods or consumer goods when they became available. But their privileged position was relatively marginal, and the majority of Stalin’s ordinary functionaries lived a modest existence, with no more than a few extra clothes or a slightly larger living space than the average citizen. As Mankov noted with sarcasm in his diary: ‘The most that anyone can dream to own: two or three different sets of clothes, one of which is imported, an imported bicycle (or motorcycle) and an unlimited opportunity to buy grapes at 11 rbs a kilogram (when they are on sale).’36

There was a direct correlation between the allocation of material goods and power or position in the socio-political hierarchy. Below the Soviet elite nobody had many possessions – most people lived in a single pair of clothes – and there was barely enough food for everyone. But in the distribution of even these few goods there was a strict ranking system with infinite gradations between the various categories of employee based on status in the workplace, skill level and experience, and to some extent on geographical location, for rates of pay were better in Moscow and other major cities than they were in the provincial towns and rural areas. Despite its egalitarian image and ideals, this was in fact a highly stratified society. There was a rigid hierarchy of poverty.

Private trade partly compensated for the frequent shortages of the planned economy. People sold and exchanged their household goods at flea markets. If they could afford it, they could buy the produce grown by kolkhoz peasants on their garden allotments and sold at the few remaining urban markets tolerated by the government. People were allowed to sell their furniture and other precious items at the state commission stores, or exchange their jewellery and foreign currency for luxury foodstuffs and consumer goods at the Torgsin shops developed by the regime in the early 1930s to draw out the savings of the population and raise capital for the Five Year Plan. The black market flourished on the margins of the planned economy. Goods unavailable in the state stores were sold at higher prices under the counter, or siphoned off to private traders (bribe-paying friends of the manager) for resale on the black market. To cope with the problems of supply an ‘economy of favours’ came into operation through small informal networks of patrons and clients (a system known as ‘blat’). In many ways the Soviet economy could not have functioned without these private connections. To get anything (a rented room, household goods, a railway ticket, a passport or official papers) required personal contacts – family and kin, colleagues, friends, or friends of friends. The same black-market principles were known to operate in Soviet factories and institutions, where many goods and services were supplied and exchanged on the basis of personal contacts and favours. Soviet propaganda portrayed blat as a form of corruption (the aim of rooting out these private networks of patron–client relations assumed an important role in the purges), and this view was shared by many workers, in particular. But most people were ambivalent in their attitude to blat: they recognized that it was not right morally, and certainly not legal, but relied on it, as everybody did, to fulfil their needs and get around a system they knew to be unfair. Without blat it was impossible to live with any comfort in the Soviet Union. As the proverb said: ‘One must have, not a hundred roubles, but a hundred friends.’37

Housing shortages were so acute in the overcrowded towns that people would do almost anything to increase their living space. The mass influx of peasants into industry had put enormous pressure on the housing stock in the cities. In Moscow the average person had just 5.5 square metres of living space in 1930, falling to just over 4 square metres in 1940. In the new industrial towns, where house-building lagged far behind the growth of the population, the situation was even worse.38 In Magnitogorsk, for example, the average living space for working-class families was just 3.2 square metres per capita in 1935. Most of the workers lived in factory barracks, where families were broken up, or in dormitories, where a curtain around their plank-beds provided the only privacy. One female worker in Magnitogorsk drew a vivid picture of life in her barracks:

Dormitories without separate rooms, divided into four sections, tiny kitchen areas where it was impossible to turn around, stoves thoroughly overrun with pots and pans, people in greasy work clothes (there were no showers at the steel plant), children in the hallways, queuing for water, wretched ‘furniture’ – metal cots, bedside tables, home-made desks and shelves.

Many barracks were deliberately built without kitchens or washrooms in order to force their inhabitants to use the public dining halls, public baths and laundries. But most of the workers in Magnitogorsk proved resistant to this collectivization of their private life and preferred to live in dug-outs in the ground (zemlianki), where, despite the primitive conditions, there was at least a modicum of privacy. In 1935, about a quarter of the population of Magnitogorsk lived in these dug-outs. There were entire shanty towns of zemlianki on wasteland near the factories and mines. Workers demonstrated fierce resistance to the Soviet’s attempts to wipe out this last zone of private property.39

In Stalin’s Russia human relations revolved around the struggle over living space. According to Nadezhda Mandelshtam:

Future generations will never understand what ‘living space’ means to us. Innumerable crimes have been committed for its sake, and people are so tied to it that to leave it would never occur to them. Who could ever leave this wonderful, precious twelve and a half square metres of living space? No one would be so mad, and it is passed on to one’s descendants like a family castle, a villa or an estate. Husbands and wives who loathe the sight of each other, mothers-in-law and sons-in-law, grown sons and daughters, former domestic servants who have managed to hang onto a cubby hole next to the kitchen – all are wedded forever to their living space and would never part with it. In marriage and divorce the first thing that arises is the question of living space. I have heard men described as perfect gentlemen for throwing over their wives but leaving them the living space.40

There are endless tales of bogus marriages to obtain a place to live, of divorced couples sharing rooms together rather than give up their living space, of neighbours denouncing one another in the hope of getting extra space.41

In 1932, Nadezhda Skachkova, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a peasant widow in Tver province, was studying at the Railway Institute in Leningrad. She was living in a student hostel, sharing one small room with several other girls. Like many recent arrivals from the countryside, Nadezhda was not registered to live in Leningrad. With the introduction of the passport system, she stood to be evicted from her room. Through acquaintances Nadezhda got in contact with a young Ukrainian soldier who had a room (8 square metres) in a communal apartment. The soldier was about to join his unit in the Donbass. Nadezhda paid him 500 roubles to marry her, money which her mother raised by selling her last cow and household property, and then moved into his room, where she was joined by her mother. Nadezhda met her husband only once:

We went to see him the evening before he left for the army. We settled the payment. Then we went to the registry office to marry and after that to the house administration so that they could register us [Nadezhda and her mother] as residents. And that was that. The people in the house administration smiled, of course – they knew that we were getting round the rules. They checked that all the details were correct. My husband left the next morning. And Mama and I had eight square metres to ourselves… Of course I never thought to live with him. He was a simple country lad, barely literate. He sent us one or two letters – ‘How are you?’ and that sort of thing. He wrote not ‘Donbass’ but ‘Dobas’. Good Lord! Even that he could not spell.42

The most common type of living space in the Soviet cities was the communal apartment (kommunalka), in which several families co-inhabited a single apartment, sharing a kitchen, a toilet and a bathroom, if they were lucky (many urban residents relied on public baths and laundries).43 In Moscow and Leningrad three-quarters of the population lived in communal apartments in the middle of the 1930s, and that way of living remained the norm for most people in those cities throughout the Stalin period.44 Along with everything else, the kommunalka, too, changed in nature in the 1930s. Whereas its purpose in the 1920s was to address the housing crisis and at the same time strike a blow against private life, it now became primarily a means of extending the state’s powers of surveillance into the private spaces of the family home. After 1928, the Soviets increasingly tightened their control of the ‘condensation’ policy, deliberately moving Party activists and loyal workers into the homes of the former bourgeoisie so that they could keep an eye on them.45

The Khaneyevskys experienced every phase of kommunalka living. Aleksei Khaneyevsky came from a wealthy clan of merchants in Voronezh. He arrived in Moscow to study medicine in 1901. Aleksei became a military doctor, serving with distinction in the First World War, when he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, a rank that gave him the status of a nobleman. In 1915, Aleksei rented a comfortable and spacious apartment on Prechistenka Street near the centre of Moscow. He lived there with his wife, Nadezhda, their two young daughters, Irina (born in 1917) and Elena (1921), together with a nanny, until 1926, when the Moscow Soviet imposed its ‘condensation’ policy on the family. A factory worker, Marfa Filina, moved into a room in the apartment, followed by the family of a tailor, Vasily Kariakin, and then the family of Nikolai Sazonov, a Red Army veteran of proletarian origins who had risen to become a professor at the Communist Academy. Where three adults and two children had been living in the 1920s, there were fourteen people cramped in the apartment by 1936, when Nikolai Sazonov’s second wife moved into the flat with her mother. They shared the hallway, the kitchen (where two houseworkers slept), a toilet and a bathroom, which had no water (it was used as a store) so the only place to wash was at the cold-water tap in the kitchen. The Khaneyevskys attempted to isolate themselves from their new neighbours by putting up a door to close off the back of the apartment, where they lived. Their neighbours liked the door because it added to their privacy as well. In 1931, the district Soviet ordered that a bathroom be installed – it was part of the Soviet campaign for personal hygiene at that time – so the door was taken down. But life without the door proved very difficult, with constant arguments between the Khaneyevskys and the Sazonovs, so Aleksei paid a bribe to the Soviet to let them take away the bath. The bathroom was again turned into a store and the private door returned. The Khaneyevskys’ relations with the Sazonovs remained problematic, however. Nikolai’s mother-in-law was mentally unstable and often threw a fit in the corridor, accusing somebody of stealing food, which she hid beneath her bed. Class differences played a part in these conflicts. Nadezhda worried that the Sazonovs would steal her silver. She took offence when they appeared semi-naked in the corridor. She said they smelled and told them they should wash more frequently.46

The Whisperers

The Khaneyevsky household (communal apartment), Prechistenka (Kropotkin) Street, 33/19, Flat 25

Many of the old apartment owners felt that they were picked on by the new inhabitants because they were seen by them as members of the ‘bourgeoisie’. Vera Orlova, a countess before 1917, lived in a communal apartment that had once been a part of her family’s house. She and her husband moved into a single room with their daughter, who describes the poisonous atmosphere in the apartment during the 1930s.

Communal life was terrifying. The inhabitants measured every square centimetre of the corridor and every patch of common space and protested because mother left some valuable pieces of furniture there. They claimed they took up too much space, that she had to keep them in her room, that the corridor did not belong to her. The ‘neighbours’ timed how long we spent in the bathroom. In some communal apartments the inhabitants installed timers [on the lights] in the toilet, so that no one consumed more than their fair share of electricity.47

The Khaneyevsky household was not overcrowded by comparison with the majority of communal apartments in Moscow and Leningrad. Yevgeny Mamlin grew up in a kommunalka with sixteen families (fifty-four people), each one living in a single room, and all sharing one kitchen. There were two toilets, and two basins with cold water, but no bathroom.48 Minora Novikova grew up in a communal apartment in Moscow. There were thirty-six rooms – each with at least one family – on a corridor that ran round three sides of the house. In her room there were ten people living in a space of only 12.5 square metres. ‘How we slept is hard to say,’ recalls Minora.

There was a table in the room, on which my grandmother slept. My brother, who was six, slept in a cot underneath the table. My parents slept in the bed by the door. My other grandmother slept on the divan. My aunt slept on a large feather mattress on the floor with her cousin on one side, while my sister (who was then aged sixteen), my cousin (ten), and I (eleven) somehow squeezed in between them – I don’t remember how. We children loved sleeping on the floor: we could slide our bodies underneath our parents’ bed and have a lot of fun. I don’t imagine that it was much fun for the adults.49

Nina Paramonova lived in a similar ‘corridor system’ in Leningrad. The apartment occupied the whole floor of a house that had been requisitioned from a German baron by the Institute of Trade in 1925, and Nina moved there in 1931 with her husband, a ship designer, when she took a job as an accountant in the Leningrad railway administration. The apartment had seventeen rooms, with at least one family in each. Altogether there were over sixty people, who all shared a kitchen, a toilet and a shower room (with cold water).50

At the other end of the social spectrum, the Third House of Soviets, a communal apartment for government workers in the centre of Moscow, also had a ‘corridor system’. The brother of Stalin’s wife, Fyodor Alliluev, lived with his mother in a room on the second floor. Ninel Reifshneider, the daughter of a veteran Bolshevik and political writer, lived with her parents, her grandparents, her brother and her sister in one of the nine rooms on the floor below, a living space of 38 square metres for six people, not counting her father, who usually slept in the Metropol Hotel, where he also kept a room. There were thirty-seven people living in the nine rooms of the corridor. They shared a large kitchen, where there was a shower and a bath behind a screen on one

The Whisperers

Communal apartment (‘corridor system’), Dokuchaev Lane, Moscow, 1930–64

side and a toilet cubicle on the other side. There were two other toilet cubicles at the end of the corridor. In the yard there was a communal woodshed, with wood for heating the cookers and the stoves. The house was conceived as an experiment in collective living but it had the services expected by the Soviet elite. There was a playground for the children, a club-house and a cinema in the basement. On each corridor there was a cleaner, a housekeeper and a nanny, paid for by the residents collectively.51

The communal apartment was a microcosm of the Communist society. By forcing people to share their living space, the Bolsheviks believed that they could make them more communistic in their basic thinking and behaviour. Private space and property would disappear, family life would be replaced by Communist fraternity and organization, and the private life of the individual would be subjected to the mutual surveillance and control of the community. In every communal apartment there were shared responsibilities, which the inhabitants would organize between themselves. Bills for common services, such as gas and electricity, or the telephone, were distributed equally, either on the basis of usage (e.g. the number of telephone calls, or how many light bulbs there were in each room) or on the basis of room or family size. Repair costs were also paid collectively, although there were often arguments about individual responsibility that usually had to be resolved by a meeting of the residents. The cleaning of the common spaces (the hall, the entrance, the toilet, bathroom and kitchen) was organized by rota (usually displayed in the hall). Everybody had ‘their day’ for washing clothes. In the mornings there were queues for the bathroom, also organized by a list of names. In this mini-state, equality and fairness were to be the ruling principles. ‘We divided everything as equally as possible,’ recalls Mamlin. ‘My father, who was the elder of our household, worked out everything to the last kopeck, and everybody knew how much they had to pay.’52

The post of elder (otvetstvennyi kvartoupolnomochennyi) was established in 1929, when the communal apartment was legally defined as a social institution with specific rules and responsibilities to the state: the enforcement of sanitary regulations; tax collection; law enforcement; and informing the police about the private life of the inhabitants.53 The elders were supposed to be elected by the residents, but in fact it was more common for them to elect themselves and to be accepted by the residents, either through the force of their personality or else their standing in society. Nina Paramonova remembers that their elder ‘ran the household like a dictatorship. We all respected her because she was so strict. We were afraid of her. Only she had the authority to make people do the cleaning when it was their turn.’54 A new law of 1933 placed the elders in sole charge of the communal apartment; their links to the police were reinforced; and they were given the command of the yardmen (dvorniki), notorious informers, who cleaned the staircase and the yard, patrolled the household territory, locked the courtyard gates at night and kept an eye on everyone who came and went. Through the elders and yardmen, the household management became the basic operational unit of the police system of surveillance and control.

By the middle of the 1930s the NKVD had built up a huge network of secret informers. In every factory, office, school, there were people who informed to the police.55 The idea of mutual surveillance was fundamental to the Soviet system. In a country that was too big to police, the Bolshevik regime (not unlike the tsarist one before it) relied on the self-policing of the population. Historically, Russia had strong collective norms and institutions that lent themselves to such a policy. While the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century sought to mobilize the population in the work of the police, and one or two, like the Stasi state in the GDR, managed for a while to infiltrate to almost every level of society, none succeeded, as the Soviet regime did for sixty years, in controlling a population through collective scrutiny.

The kommunalka played a vital role in this collective system of control. Its inhabitants knew almost everything about their neighbours: the timetable of their normal day; their personal habits; their visitors and friends; what they purchased; what they ate; what they said on the telephone (which was normally located in the corridor); even what they said in their own room, for the walls were very thin (in many rooms the walls did not extend to the ceiling). Eavesdropping, spying and informing were all rampant in the communal apartment of the 1930s, when people were encouraged to be vigilant. Neighbours opened doors to check on visitors in the corridor, or to listen to a conversation on the telephone. They entered rooms to ‘act as witnesses’ if there was an argument between man and wife, or to intervene if there was too much noise, drunken behaviour or violence. The assumption was that nothing could be ‘private’ in a communal apartment, where it was often said that ‘what one person does can bring misfortune to us all’. Mikhail Baitalsky recalls the communal apartment of a relative in Astrakhan where there was a particularly vigilant neighbour living in the room next door: ‘Hearing the sound of a door being unlocked, she would thrust her pointed little nose into the corridor and pierce you with a photographic glance. Our relative assured us that she kept a card index of his vistors.’56

In the cramped conditions of the communal apartment there were frequent arguments over personal property – foodstuffs that went missing from the shared kitchen, thefts from rooms, noise or music played at night. ‘The atmosphere was poisonous,’ recalls one inhabitant. ‘Everyone suspected someone else of stealing, but there was never any evidence, just a lot of whispered accusations behind people’s backs.’57 With everybody in a state of nervous tension, it did not take a lot for fights to turn into denunciations to the NKVD. Many of these squabbles had their origins in some petty jealousy. The communal apartment was the domestic centre of the Soviet culture of envy, which naturally arose in a system of material shortages. In a social system based on the principle of equality in poverty, if one person had more of some item than the other residents, it was assumed that it was at the expense of everybody else. Any sign of material advantage – a new piece of clothing, a better piece of kitchenware, or some special food – could provoke aggression from the other residents, who naturally suspected that these goods had been obtained through blat. Neighbours formed alliances and continued feuds on the basis of these perceived inequalities. One woman, who still lives in the communal apartment in Moscow where she grew up in the 1930s,* recalls a long-running feud between her mother, who worked in a bakery, and the yardman’s wife, who was well known as an informer. Whenever cakes or buns appeared in the kitchen, the yardman’s wife would accuse her mother of theft or sabotage and threaten to denounce her to the authorities.58 Mitrofan Moiseyenko was a factory worker who supplemented his income by repairing furniture and windows and doing odd jobs for the residents of his communal block in Leningrad. In the spring of 1935, he was involved in an argument with his neighbours, who accused him of charging them too much for his repairs. His neighbours denounced him to the police, absurdly claiming that he had been hiding Trotsky in his workshop in the basement of the block. Mitrofan was arrested and sentenced to three years in a labour camp near Magadan.59

The kitchen was the scene of many arguments. In the evenings, when it was bustling with people, it was always prone to overheat. The kitchen was a common space, but within it, in most communal flats, each family had its own ring for cooking on the stove, its own private kitchen table, where meals were normally eaten and its own place for storing food in the kitchen cupboards, on the open shelves, or between the inner and the outer windows, where winter temperatures were as cold as in a fridge. This confusion between private and common space was a constant source of friction; using someone else’s cooking ring, their utensils or their supplies was enough to stoke a scandal. ‘They were not malicious arguments,’ recalls Minora Novikova. ‘We were all poor, and nobody had anything worth stealing. But there was never enough room, everyone was tense in the kitchen, and petty squabbles were unavoidable. Imagine thirty women cooking at one time.’60

The Whisperers

The Reifshneiders’ room (38 square metres) in the Third House of Soviets, Sadovaia Karetnaia, Moscow

The lack of privacy was the greatest source of tension. Even in the family’s own room, there was no space to call one’s own. The room had many functions – bedroom, dining room, a place to receive guests, a study for the children to do their schoolwork, sometimes even a kitchen. ‘In our room,’ recalls Ninel Reifshneider,

there were no private things or bits of furniture, no special shelf or chair or table that belonged to anyone as property. Even my grandparents, who had their beds behind a curtain screen to give them some privacy, had nothing they could really call their own. My grandmother kept some special items in a trunk beneath her bed, but the table by her bed, for example, was used by all of us.

In many family rooms the younger children slept behind a makeshift screen, a bookcase or a wardrobe, to give them some quiet apart from the adults and their evening guests (and to stop them watching the adults when they got undressed and went to bed). Parents had to make love quietly in the middle of the night.61

In such close quarters, little was left to the imagination. Neighbours grew accustomed to seeing one another semi-naked in the corridor. They saw each other at their worst – in drunken or unguarded moments – without the mask that people wore to protect themselves in public areas. They knew when their neighbours had a visitor from the doorbell system (in which every room had its own set number or sequence of rings on the front-door bell). Rooms used for the most intimate functions (the bathroom, kitchen and toilet) were shared by everyone; inferences could easily be drawn from bits of evidence that were left behind. The clothes line in the kitchen, the personal items in the bathroom, the night-time trips to the toilet – these told neighbours everything. In this form of ‘public privacy’, private life was constantly exposed to collective scrutiny.62

People felt the lack of privacy in many different ways. Some resented the constant intrusions – neighbours entering the room, knocking on the bathroom door or spying on visitors. Others reacted to the constant noise, the lack of cleanliness or the sexual attentions of older men towards the girls. The toilet and the bathroom were a source of constant friction and anxiety. In the communal apartment where Elena Baigulova lived in Leningrad in the 1930s there was just one toilet for forty-eight people. People brought their own soap and toilet paper, which they kept in their room. In 1936, one of the inhabitants married a black man. ‘There was a scandal when he first appeared,’ recalls Elena. ‘People would not share a toilet or a bathroom with the man. They thought that he was dirty because he was black.’63

Private conversations were a particular problem. Talk was clearly audible between adjoining rooms, so families adapted by whispering among themselves. People were extremely careful not to talk to neighbours about politics (in some communal apartments the men would not talk at all).64 Families from a bourgeois or noble background were careful to conceal their origins. Alina Dobriakova, the granddaughter of a tsarist officer, grew up in a kommunalka in Moscow where all the other residents were factory workers and their families, ‘a conglomeration of unfriendly people’, as she recalls. Alina was forbidden to say a word to anyone about the photographs of her grandfather which were kept hidden in their room. Her mother joined the Party and took a job as an official to conceal their past. ‘If our neighbours knew who my mother’s father was,’ recalls Alina, ‘there would have been much unpleasantness… so we lived in a grave-like silence.’65 Talking in a communal apartment could be very dangerous. In the Khaneyevsky household, Nadezhda was practically deaf, but outspoken in her anti-Soviet views. She would explain to her daughters how life had been better under the tsar and would start to shout. Her husband Aleksei, who was terrified of the Sazonovs in the next room, would remind her not to shout: ‘Whisper, or we shall be arrested.’66

People battled for a modicum of privacy. They kept their towels and toiletries, their kitchen pots and pans, their dishes, cutlery, even salt and pepper in their rooms. They did their washing, cooking, eating, drying clothes in the privacy of their own room. Areas of common space were partly privatized: families might claim a place on the shelf; a patch of corridor; a section of the kitchen table; a peg or space for shoes by the front door in the hallway. All these arrangements were well known to the inhabitants, but a stranger coming into the apartment would not be aware of them. People dreamed of a private space where they might get away from their neighbours. Yevgeny Mamlin ‘yearned for a kitchen with a serving hatch connected to his room so that he could cook and take his meals without using the communal kitchen, but that was just a dream,’ recalls his daughter. The escape to the dacha in the summer months was a relief from the pressures of the communal apartment, for those who could afford to rent a country house.67

At its best the communal apartment fostered a sense of comradeship and collectivity among its inhabitants. Many people look back with nostalgia to their years in a communal apartment as a time when they shared everything with their neighbours. ‘Before the war we lived in harmony,’ recalls one inhabitant:

Everybody helped one another, and there were no arguments. No one was stingy with their money – they spent their wages as soon as they were paid. It was fun to live then. Not like after the war, when people kept their money to themselves, and closed their doors.

Part of this nostalgia is connected to recollections of childhood happiness, of a time when, despite material hardships, the yard was clean and safe for children’s games, and the communal apartment retained the atmosphere of an extended ‘family’. In the kommunalka children mixed with other families far more than their parents did: they played together and were always in each other’s rooms, so they experienced this togetherness more than anyone. ‘We lived as one big family,’ recalls Galina Markelova, who grew up in a communal apartment in Leningrad during the 1930s:

In those days everybody lived with their doors open, and we children had the run of the whole house. We would play in the corridor and run from room to room while the adults played at cards or dominoes. They didn’t play for money, just for fun. And there was always lots of laughter. There were too many adults for them all to play, so they would take turns, with some watching while the others played. We celebrated Soviet holidays together, like a family, with everybody bringing something nice to eat or drink. It was very jolly on birthdays, with lots of games and songs.68

But the closeness could be stifling. The film director Rolan Bykov, who grew up in a communal apartment in the 1930s, recalls the way of life as repressive, as an effort to stamp out any sign of individuality. The ‘law of the collective’ ruled in the household, recalls Bykov, and there was no use trying to kick against it – that ‘would unite everybody’ against those who refused to conform. Elizaveta Chechik had similar feelings about the communal apartment she grew up in:

To some extent we were brought up together by all the adults on the corridor. Some of the children I played with had very strict parents, Bolsheviks. I was afraid of them and felt uncomfortable in their presence. Looking back now, I realize that I grew up with the feeling that I was not free, that I could not be myself, in case someone observed me and disapproved. It was only when I was in the apartment and no one else was there that I felt release from this fear.69

The communal apartment had a profound psychological impact on those who lived in them for many years. During interviews many long-term residents confessed to an intense fear of being on their own.* The communal apartment practically gave birth to a new type of Soviet personality. Children, in particular, were influenced by collective values and habits. Families lost control of their own children’s upbringing in a communal apartment: their cultural traditions and habits tended to be swamped by the common principles of the household as a whole. Looking back on her childhood, Minora Novikova believes that the kommunalka made her more inclined to think in terms of ‘we’ rather than in terms of ‘I’.

Everything was held in common. There were no secrets. We were all equal, we were all the same. That is what I was accustomed to, and in later life it seemed strange to me when I encountered different ways. I remember on my first trip [as a geologist] I bought some sweets and shared them all around. The group leader said to me: ‘You should write down how much you spent, so that you can get reimbursed.’ That struck me as a monstrous idea, because from my childhood I was used to sharing anything I had.

Others who grew up in a kommunalka credit communal life with teaching them the public values of the Soviet regime – love of work, modesty, obedience and conformity. But a sense of wariness, of self-consciousness, was never far behind. ‘It was a constant effort to control oneself and make oneself fit in,’ recalls one inhabitant.

It was a different feeling of repression from arrest, imprisonment and exile, which I’ve also experienced, but in some ways it was worse. In exile one preserved a sense of one’s self, but the repression I felt in the communal apartment was the repression of my inner freedom and individuality. I felt this repression, this need for self-control, every time I went into the kitchen, where I was always scrutinized by the little crowd that gathered there. It was impossible to be oneself.70


Soviet citizens were quick to protest against material shortages and inequalities. They wrote in their thousands to the government to complain about corruption and inefficiencies, which they linked to the privileges of the new bureaucracy. Yet at the same time there were many citizens who perservered in the expectation that they would live to see the Communist utopia. The Soviet regime was sustained by this idea in the 1930s. Millions of people were persuaded to believe that the hardships of their daily lives were a necessary sacrifice for the building of a Communist society. Hard work today would be rewarded tomorrow, when the Soviet ‘good life’ would be enjoyed by all.

In Ideology and Utopia (1929) the German sociologist Karl Mannheim discussed the tendency of revolutionary Marxists to experience time as a ‘series of strategical points’ along a path to a future paradise, which they perceive as real and tangible. Because this future is a factor in the present and defines the course of history, it gives meaning to everyday realities. In the Soviet Union this idea of time had its origins in the utopian projections of the 1917 Revolution. For the Bolsheviks, October 1917 was the beginning of Year One in a new history of humanity (just as 1789 marked the start of the new world created by the Jacobins). Projecting the present into the future, Soviet propaganda portrayed the Revolution moving forwards (on the ‘march of history’) towards the Communist utopia; it hailed the achievements of the Five Year Plans as proof that this utopia was just over the horizon.71

The Five Year Plans played a crucial role in this utopian projection. The conception of the Plan was to accelerate the arrival of the socialist future by speeding up the tempo of the whole economy (hence the slogan ‘The Five Year Plan in Four!’). Indeed the Plan was to conquer time itself by subordinating it to the proletarian will. In the capitalist economies of the West work was organized according to a strictly rational division of time. But in the Soviet Union work was structured according to the goals set by the Five Year Plans. Because the achievement of this goal was always imminent, it made sense to ‘storm’ production, to work for a brief but frenzied spell to reach that goal, when it would be possible to rest. The Stalinist economy was based on this ‘storming’ of production to meet the Five Year Plans, just as the system as a whole was based on the idea that present hardship would be rewarded in the Communist utopia. Nikolai Patolichev, a vydvizhenets of the First Five Year Plan who later rose to the Party’s senior ranks, remembers: ‘We Soviet people consciously denied ourselves a lot.’

We said to ourselves: ‘Today we don’t have things that we really need. Well, so what? We shall have them tomorrow.’ That was the power of our belief in the Party’s cause! Young people of my generation were happy in this belief.72

Looking back on the 1930s, many people recall a sense of living for the future rather than for the present. The feeling was particularly strong in the generation that had grown up since 1917 – young people, like Patolichev, who were totally immersed in the values and ideals of the Soviet regime. For this generation the Communist utopia was not a distant dream but a tangible reality, just around the corner and soon to arrive. Soviet schoolchildren in the 1920s and 1930s imagined Communism as a transformation of their own immediate reality (cows full of milk, busy factories) rather than in far-off science-fiction terms.73 That was how they had been brought up to regard the Soviet future by Soviet propaganda and by Socialist Realist literature and art. Socialist Realism, as officially defined at the First Congress of the Writers’ Union in 1934, entailed the ‘truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development’. The artist’s role was to portray the world not as it was in the present but as it would become (and was becoming) in the Communist future.

According to Liudmila Eliashova (born in 1921) and her sister Marksena (1923), this conception of the Communist utopia was widely shared by their friends at school in Leningrad:

We were all educated in the expectation of a happy future. I remember when my sister broke our favourite porcelain doll. We did not have the money to buy another doll but we went to the department store, where there were dolls on display, and Marksena said: ‘When there is Communism we shall have that doll.’ We pictured Communism as a time, which we would live to see, when everything would be free, and everyone would have the happiest life imaginable. We were glad to be waiting for this beautiful future.74

Raisa Orlova, who grew up in Moscow in the 1930s, recalls the sense of ‘hurtling towards the future’. It made the present seem unreal:

I had an unshakeable conviction that my existence between these old walls [the apartment on Tverskaia Street in Moscow where she grew up] was merely a preparation for the real life to come. That life would start in a new and sparkling white house; there I would do exercises in the morning, there the ideal order would reign, there all my heroic achievements would commence. The majority of my contemporaries – whether they lived in tents, dug-outs, communal flats or what were then considered luxurious private apartments – shared the same kind of provisional, rough and ready approach to life. Faster, faster towards the great goal, towards the new life. Everything could and should be changed: the streets, the houses, the cities, the social order, human souls. And it didn’t seem all that difficult. First the enthusiasts would outline the plan on paper. Then they would tear down the old (‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’). Then they would clear the rubble, and in the space that had been cleared they would erect the edifice of the socialist dream. That’s how Russia was being reconstructed. We thought it was possible to do the same with people.75

Moscow was the building site of this utopia. In the imagination of the Communists, where ‘soon’ and ‘now’ were all confused, Moscow had a legendary status and significance as a symbol of the socialist utopia that was under construction. In this city of fantastic dreams and illusions, a foundation pit was a future housing block, the demolition of a church signalled the appearance of a Palace of Culture. The German Communist Wolfgang Leonhard, who arrived in Moscow with his parents in 1935, describes their confusion when they sought to replace their outdated 1924 map: the new map showed all the improvements which, according to the Master Plan, were destined for completion by 1945. ‘We used to take both town plans with us on our walks,’ Leonhard writes: ‘one showing what Moscow had looked like ten years before, the other showing what it would look like ten years hence.’76

The speed of change in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s was intoxicating. The illusion that a new world was being created led many people – including a large number of socialist intellectuals in the West – to delude themselves about the Stalinist regime. Nina Kaminskaia, a young law student, continued to believe in the new world even after her father was sacked from his job in a Soviet bank and evidence of a darker reality was mounting. In her memoirs she remembers a song she and her friends would sing, a song of joy at the happy life to come, which symbolized the optimism of their generation and their blindness to the tragedy which their parents were already going through:

Believing in our country is so easy,

Breathing in our country is so free:

Our glorious, beloved Soviet land…

Our Soviet life is so good and bright

That children in ages to come

Will probably cry in their beds at night

Because they were not born in our lifetime.77

Members of the Soviet intelligentsia were so swept up by this optimistic atmosphere that they closed their eyes to the horrors perpetrated by the Stalinist regime in the name of progress. Boris Pasternak wrote to Olga Freidenberg, in April 1935:

The fact is, the longer I live the more firmly I believe in what is being done, despite everything. Much of it strikes one as being savage [yet] the people have never before looked so far ahead, and with such a sense of self-esteem, and with such fine motives, and for such vital and clear-headed reasons.

Nadezhda Mandelshtam recalls how she and her husband, the poet Osip Mandelshtam, were also sometimes drawn to think this way, fearing momentarily that the Revolution would pass them by if they ‘failed to notice all the great things happening before our eyes’. Osip was arrested in 1934, after he had read out to his friends his seditious poem about Stalin (‘the murderer and peasant-slayer’). As Nadezhda Mandelshtam observed, it was easier to believe in what was being done for the Communist utopia than to insist, as her husband had, on confronting reality: ‘A man who knew that you cannot build the present out of the bricks of the future was bound to resign himself beforehand to his inevitable doom and the prospect of the firing squad.’78

To accept this vision of the future entailed adopting certain attitudes that smoothed the way to collusion with the regime. It meant the acceptance of the Party as the source of Truth. For many people this belief involved a constant struggle between the observed truth of existing reality and the higher Revolutionary Truth of the Party. They were forced to live in the margins between these two truths – to acknowledge the failures of the Soviet system while still believing in the promise of a better life to come – something they could only accomplish through a conscious act of political faith. Lev Kopelev, a young Communist who took part in some of the worst excesses against the ‘kulaks’ in 1932–3, recalls his efforts to subordinate his moral judgement (what he called ‘subjective truth’) to the higher moral goals (‘objective truth’) of the Party. Kopelev and his comrades were horrified by what they were doing to the peasantry, but they deferred to the Party: the prospect of retreating from this position, on the basis of what they had been brought up to dismiss as the ‘bourgeois’ ideals of ‘conscience, honour [and] humanitarianism’, filled them with dread. ‘What we feared most,’ recalls Kopelev, ‘was to lose our heads, to fall into doubt or heresy and forfeit our unbounded faith.’79

Wolfgang Leonhard was similarly conscious of a dual reality. By the time he joined the Komsomol, he had ‘long since realized that reality in the Soviet Union was completely different from the picture presented in Pravda’. His mother had been arrested in 1937; his friends and teachers had all been taken away; and he had been living in an orphanage. But, as he explains to his Western readers, who ‘might find it strange’ to read about his joy on being admitted to the Komsomol,

Somehow I dissociated these things, and even my personal impressions and experiences, from my fundamental political conviction. It was almost as if there were two separate levels – one of everyday events and experiences, which I found myself criticising; the other that of the great Party line which at this time, despite my hesitations, I still regarded as correct, from the standpoint of general principle.80

Even at the height of the Great Terror of 1937 – 8 there were many believers who managed to keep their faith. They explained away the mass arrests according to the abstract formula ‘les rubiat – shchepki letiat’ (‘When the forest is cut down the chips will fly’, or ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’).

Believing in the ‘march towards Communism’ required an acceptance of its human costs. The Party told its followers that they were involved in a life-or-death struggle against ‘capitalist elements’ at home and abroad which would end in the final victory of the Communist utopia. Hitler’s rise to power, in 1933, was a crucial turning-point in this struggle. It was taken as a vindication of Stalin’s theory that the further the Soviet Union advanced towards Communism, the greater its enemies’ resistance would be. The Party hardened its position, forcing sceptics to put aside their doubts and join the struggle against Fascism (or run the risk of being denounced as ‘Fascist hirelings’). From 1933, the purging of the Party was intensified, with closer scrutiny of individual deeds to root out passive members and ‘hidden enemies’. Whole sections of society were targeted as ‘enemies’ and ‘alien elements’, beginning with the remnants of the old nobility and the bourgeoisie in Leningrad, who were arrested and exiled in their thousands following the murder of the city’s Party boss, Sergei Kirov, in December 1934. Any group that was deemed to be a ‘relic of the capitalist past’ (former ‘kulaks’, petty traders, gypsies, prostitutes, criminals, vagrants, beggars and so on) was likely to be purged as an obstacle to the building of a Communist society. Between 1932 and 1936, tens of thousands of these ‘socially harmful elements’ were rounded up by the police and expelled from the towns.81 Most of them were sent to the Gulag.


In August 1933, a ‘brigade’ of 120 leading Soviet writers went on a boat tour of the White Sea Canal organized by Semyon Firin, the OGPU commander of the labour camps at the canal. The idea of the trip had its origins in a meeting that took place in Maksim Gorky’s Moscow house in October 1932, at which a number of the country’s leading writers discussed the tasks of literature with several Politburo members, including Stalin, and other Party functionaries. In one of the earliest statements of the Socialist Realist doctrine, Gorky called for a heroic literature to match the ‘grand achievements’ of the Five Year Plans, and Stalin, who compared the Soviet writers to ‘engineers of the human soul’, proposed a tour of the canal to inspire them. Everything was organized by OGPU. ‘From the minute we became the guests of the Chekists, complete Communism began for us,’ the writer Aleksandr Avdeyenko later commented ironically. ‘We were given food and drink on demand. We paid nothing. Smoked sausage, cheeses, caviar, fruit, chocolate, wines and cognac – all was in plentiful supply. And this was a year of famine.’82

After staying at the luxury Astoriia Hotel in Leningrad, the writers went by train to the White Sea Canal, where they inspected dams and locks and visited the cultural centre to watch a theatrical performance put on by the prisoners. From the safety of their ship, they saw convicts working, but were not allowed to talk to them. To many of the writers it was obvious that they were being presented with a sanitized version of camp life. ‘It was evident to me that they were showing us “Potemkin Villages”,’ recalled Tamara Ivanova in 1989. But if the writers had their doubts, few were brave enough to voice them at the time. During the trip the writers had the chance to question Firin, who acted as their guide. According to Avdeyenko, the only writer who asked about the use of forced labour was Dmitry Mirsky – a former prince (Prince Dmitry Sviatopolk-Mirsky) who had fought with the White Army in the Civil War, emigrated to Britain, joined the Communists and returned to the Soviet Union in 1932 because he believed that Stalin’s Russia was ‘going to play an enormous role in world history’, and he wanted to be part of it. Mirsky’s questioning made the other writers uncomfortable. He clearly had his suspicions about the reasons for the secrecy surrounding the construction of the canal. ‘Here at every step there are hidden secrets. Under every dam. Under every lock,’ Mirsky told Avdeyenko, seemingly referring to the corpses buried there. But even Mirsky did not let such doubts interfere with his participation in the publication of a book commissioned by OGPU to celebrate the completion of the canal. Edited by Firin and Gorky, The White Sea Canal was compiled at shock-work speed by thirty-six leading Soviet writers (including Mikhail Zoshchenko, Viktor Shklovsky, Aleksei Tolstoy and Valentin Kataev) together with the artist Aleksandr Rodchenko (who took the photographs). The book was presented ‘as a token of the readiness of Soviet writers to serve the cause of Bolshevism’ to the delegates of the Seventeenth Party Congress in January 1934. Though it was presented as a history of the canal’s construction, the book’s chief theme and propaganda message was the redemptive and liberating influence of physical labour. By taking part in the great collective work of building the canal, criminals and ‘kulaks’, it was claimed, ‘began to feel useful to society’. Through penal labour, they were remade as socialists.83

The writers had different reasons for colluding in this legitimation of the Gulag. No doubt there were some who believed in the Stalinist ideal of perekovka, the remoulding of the human soul through penal labour. Zoshchenko, for one, wrote a story for The White Sea Canal about a petty thief called Rottenberg who, having lost his way in life, returns to the correct path through penal labour on the canal. As he explained in an article for Literary Leningrad, Zoshchenko believed the factual basis of his tale:

I was interested in people who had built their lives on idleness, deceit, theft and murder, and I gave all my attention to the theme of their re-education. In truth, I was quite sceptical at first, supposing that this famous reforging was simply the cynical expression of the prisoners’ desire to receive freedom or bonuses. But I must say that I was mistaken on that score. I saw authentic reforging [on the trip to the White Sea Canal]. I saw real pride in the construction workers and noticed a real change in the psychology of many of these comrades (as they may now be called).84

Gorky was also a believer. He never visited the White Sea Canal. But this was no obstacle to his glowing praise of it in the book commissioned by OGPU (just as ignorance was no obstacle to foreign socialists, like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who also praised the canal as ‘a great engineering feat… a triumph in human regeneration’ in 1935). Having spent the 1920s in the West, Gorky had returned to the Soviet Union on the first of several summer trips in 1928 and had settled there for good in 1931. The ‘great Soviet writer’ was showered with honours; he was given as his residence the famous Riabushinsky mansion in Moscow; two large dachas; private servants (who turned out to be OGPU spies); and supplies of special foods from the same police department that catered for Stalin. So perhaps it is not surprising that Gorky failed to see the immense human suffering that lay behind the ‘grand achievements’ of the Five Year Plan. In the summer of 1929, Gorky had visited the Solovetsky labour camp. The writer was so impressed by what he was shown by his OGPU guides that he wrote an article in which he claimed that many of the prisoners had been reformed by their labour in the camp and loved their work so much that they wanted to remain on the island after the completion of their sentences. ‘The conclusion is obvious to me,’ Gorky wrote: ‘we need more camps like Solovetsky.’85

Other writers went on the trip from curiosity, as Mirsky no doubt did. Or because they were afraid of the consequences if, like the writer Mikhail Bulgakov, they refused to have anything to do with the project. Viktor Shklovsky, the literary theorist and novelist whose brother was imprisoned in a labour camp, did not join the writers’ brigade, but he made a separate trip to the White Sea Canal and promoted the idea of perekovka, not just in the OGPU volume but in several other works. He even wrote the screenplay for a propaganda film about the White Sea Canal. It seems unlikely that Shklovsky wrote out of conviction (during his trip to the White Sea Canal he responded to an OGPU officer’s question about how he felt to be at the canal with the quip: ‘Like a live silver fox in a fur store’). In the words of his daughter, it was just ‘the price he had to pay for his brother’s life’. Shklovsky’s brother was released in 1933. But in 1937 he was rearrested and disappeared for ever in the Gulag.86

Careerist motives also played a role. They were certainly a factor for Avdeyenko, an unknown writer of proletarian origins when he joined the trip to the White Sea Canal, although only two years later, in 1935, his first novel was critically acclaimed in the Soviet press. ‘The trip is how I got to the top and my life took off,’ Avdeyenko later acknowledged. ‘A shock worker called to literature! In one action I joined the ranks of writers worthy of high honour in the Soviet pantheon.’ Avdeyenko became a regular contributor to Perekovka – the in-house OGPU (NKVD) journal of the labour camps at the White Sea Canal – where he wrote in praise of penal labour as a form of human reforging.87

Konstantin Simonov was another ‘proletarian writer’ to make his name through the White Sea Canal. In 1933, he was working as a mechanic – one of the hundreds of technicians under the command of Boris Babitsky – at the Mezhrabpomfilm studios. Simonov and the other mechanics would spend their lunch-breaks watching Pudovkin and Golovnia at work on the film set of The Deserter (an experience which, he claimed, awoke his interest in the arts). ‘In those years,’ recalls Simonov, ‘I had no proper education, but I read a lot of books, history books in particular, and for the first time in my life I tried to write.’ Inspired by the propaganda of the White Sea Canal, Simonov ‘filled a notebook with bad poems’ about the reforging of the penal labourers which somehow came to the attention of Goslitizdat (the State Publishing House) and OGPU. Extracts from one of these poems, ‘The White Sea Canal’, were published in a collection of poetry by young Soviet writers in 1933. On the back of this success, in April 1934 Simonov applied to Goslitizdat for permission to visit the canal and collect materials about the reforging of its convict labourers for a collection of poetry in praise of the labour camps. Goslitizdat approved the trip and paid for Simonov to spend a month at the Medvezhegorsk labour camp on the White Sea Canal, where he was employed as a journalist by Perekovka. He lived in the barracks with a team of prisoners, who did not take the nineteen-year-old poet very seriously (‘they laughed at me when I told them I was writing a poem about the White Sea Canal’). For this reason, it seemed to Simonov, the prisoners ‘were relatively natural with me’.88

By the early summer of 1934, the construction of the White Sea Canal had been largely completed. The labourers observed by Simonov were engaged in building roads and installations – relatively easy tasks compared with the heavy manual digging of the main canal in 1931–3, when tens of thousands died. As the project came to an end, the camp administration rewarded labourers with bonuses, honours and medals. It also granted early release orders to some of the petty criminals who made up the workforce on the part of the canal visited by Simonov. The main aim of these rewards was to fulfil the myth of perekovka. They gave the prisoners an incentive to work hard and reform themselves (or give the impression that they were reformed) in order to gain their freedom or material advantages. Simonov was taken in. He was young and innocent. As he recalled in his memoirs, he returned from the White Sea Canal ‘ready to write new poetry about the reforging of people through labour’:

Even though I had not been there long, I was convinced that I had seen with my own eyes how that reforging was actually taking place – as I believed it should – for what else but labour can redeem a person’s sins in a society such as ours?

Simonov was particularly impressed by a story he had been told about an engineer, a close associate of the Provisional Government (‘practically the last commandant of the Winter Palace’),

who was sentenced to eight if not ten years under Article 58 and worked so well in his capacity as an engineer on the White Sea Canal that he was released after just three years; he then worked voluntarily as the chief engineer on a construction site connected to the Moscow–Volga Canal. That kind of story was reinforced by my own impressions from my journey.*

In reality, the willingness of certain specialists to go on working in the Gulag system after their release was seldom the result of reforging. But Simonov believed that what he saw at the White Sea Canal matched the stories he had heard or had read in the Soviet press. ‘In my perception,’ Simonov recalled in his memoirs, ‘the White Sea Canal was not just about the construction of a canal, but a humanitarian school for the reconstruction of bad people into good, of common criminals into builders of the Five Year Plan.’89

For Simonov – a nobleman involved in the reconstruction of his own identity as a ‘proletarian writer’ – the idea of perekovka had a special resonance. In his memoirs Simonov recounts how he perceived the reforging of the ‘kulaks’ and ‘bourgeois saboteurs’ as ‘highly promising for society’, and as an inspiration for himself, because it showed ‘the possibility of burying the past and moving on to a new path’. The reforging of the former oppositionists at the Seventeenth Party Congress (the ‘congress of victors’) in 1934 was another inspiration to the young writer, as he strove to make a career for himself in an artistic sphere that was so tightly supervised by the Party. At that congress several Party leaders who had been opposed to Stalin’s extreme policies (Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Rykov, Tomsky, Piatakov and others) were allowed to speak. They recanted their old positions and heaped praise on Stalin in the name of Party unity, and they were received in a manner that suggested that the Party leadership had rehabilitated them. Simonov took comfort from their example. As he saw it, the reception of the repentant oppositionists proved that the Party was a place where people like himself might receive forgiveness for their past. Simonov understood that his own reforging would depend on the reconstruction of his political personality. Like the former oppositionists, he had to show that he was a worthy Communist by renouncing his own past. His writings on the White Sea Canal were the means to that end. After he returned from the canal Simonov applied for a second time to join the Komsomol. On the previous occasion, following the arrest of his stepfather in 1931, he had been advised to withdraw his application. But this time he was invited to join. This acceptance was a ‘huge relief’ for Simonov. In his memoirs he remembers 1934 as the high-point of his hopes in the future:

I cannot speak for other people of my age, but for me 1934 was the year of brightest hope in all my youth. There was a sense that the country had come through a difficult period and that, although problems still remained, life was becoming easier, in both spiritual and material terms. I was happy to be taking part in the building of this new life… The correctness of Stalin, who was leading the industrialization of the country and achieving great success, seemed indisputable to me. As I saw it, he was right to argue with his opponents and to show that they were wrong.90

In the summer of 1934, shortly after his return, Simonov wrote a poem, ‘Horizon’, about the reforging of a criminal in the labour camps. The poem was heavily edited – and in places censored – by the Cultural-Educational Department of OGPU, which concluded that the poem was very badly written (‘pretentious’, ‘clumsy’, ‘cacophonous’, ‘mechanical’ and ‘sentimentalized’) but worthy of publication for its propaganda value nonetheless.91 ‘Horizon’ was reworked by Simonov and eventually published as ‘Pavel Chyorny’ in 1938. In later years Simonov would look back at this poem ‘with feelings of horror’. He insisted on excluding it from all collections of his published works.92 But the poem was the making of Simonov’s career. It demonstrated his ability to turn out poetry that could be used by the Stalinist regime. Simonov was encouraged to apply to the Gorky Literary Institute. He was even given a recommendation by his political patrons in Goslitizdat and the Cultural-Educational Department of OGPU.93

Located in the former Herzen palace on the Tver Boulevard, the Literary Institute was opened in 1933 to encourage writers from the working class (until 1936 it was called the Workers’ Evening Literary University). Classes took place in the evening, which allowed Simonov to continue with his job at Mezhrabpomfilm and supplement his 200 rouble grant. Most of the students at the Literary Institute were not from the working class at all. They had been born to noble or bourgeois families and, like Simonov, had qualified for entry to the institute by going through a factory school or by working in a factory. Half the students were members of the Komsomol or the Party. The institute was a cosmopolitan place, with writers from twenty-seven different nationalities.94 Among the many Jewish students were two young women who would become Simonov’s first wives: Natalia Tipot, the daughter of a well-known variety theatre-man, who married Simonov in 1935; and Zhenia Laskina, the youngest daughter of the ruined NEPman Samuil Laskin, who joined the institute in 1936 and married Simonov in 1939.

By his own admission Simonov had no special affinity for literature. It was a career he pursued because of his spoilt biography. ‘If it were not for my noble origins,’ he had told Natalia, ‘I would not have been interested in literature at all, only in politics and history.’95 Nor was Simonov considered to be among the most talented students at the Literary Institute (in 1936 he was ranked seventh in a list of excellence headed by the poet Margarita Aliger). But he was known as a conscientious student who was well organized (he carefully planned out the time he spent on working, reading, even socializing) and always punctual in completing his tasks. His fellow students nicknamed Simonov the ‘iron bottom’ because he worked so hard. ‘He just sat down and wrote and wrote,’ recalls the poet Yevgeny Dolmatovsky (who came in second on the list of excellence). Aliger remembers Simonov as someone who stood out as a leader from the start. Usually dressed in a leather jacket, like the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, or in a jacket, shirt and tie, Simonov distanced himself from the bohemian culture of the other students at the institute, spending his spare time in Komsomol activities or writing book reviews rather than in playing billiards. Not surprisingly, he was held in

The Whisperers

Simonov in 1936

high regard by the administration of the institute, which saw him as a Party loyalist and entrusted him with many tasks (in 1937 he would play a leading role in the denunciation of ‘anti-Soviet elements’ within the institute). Simonov was serious and censorious, more like a literary bureaucrat than a young poet. ‘Not having written my own book,’ he recalled in 1945,

I wrote many critical reviews of books written by others. I was very strict and impatient, which just goes to show that the most crudely negative reviews of a book are always written by reviewers who have not succeeded or could not succeed in writing such a book themselves.96

As a poet at the institute, Simonov was learning how to write for his political superiors. The theme of perekovka, which became a commonplace of the Socialist Realist tradition in the 1930s, reappeared in several of his early poems, which returned to the subject of the White Sea Canal. But increasingly his poetry was shaped by the hopes of the Five Year Plans and by the heroic theme of struggle epitomized by the Spanish Civil War. Here Simonov was deeply influenced by his poetry teacher, Vladimir Lugovskoi (1901–57), a charismatic figure to the young poets at the institute, whose room was filled with swords and guns, memorabilia from his fighting days in the Russian Civil War and the last campaign against the Basmachi Muslim rebels in Central Asia in 1931. Simonov explored the theme of masculinity and heroic courage in poems like ‘The General’, which was inspired by the death of the Hungarian Communist Mate Zalka (also known as General Lukach) in the Spanish Civil War. For Simonov, who took his basic values from the military ethos of his stepfather, the bravery and self-sacrifice of fighters such as Zalka were not just ‘wonderful human qualities’ but ‘virtues of the first necessity’ in a world engulfed by the struggle between socialism and Fascism. As Simonov explained to a foreign journalist in 1960, ‘we young Communists of the 1930s hated with a passion anyone who showed signs of complacency by imagining that our future victory would be easy and bloodless’. This was a generation immersed in the notion of struggle – a generation that lived in readiness for war. Recalling his student years, Simonov was speaking for a whole epoch when he wrote in 1973:

The Literary Institute opened the same year the Nazis came to power. All our years of study were overshadowed by the sense of an impending war with Fascism. These were years when it was impossible to think of literature and one’s path in it without thinking how, sooner or later, we too would be forced to play a part – whether with a pen or a rifle in our hands was not yet clear – in this looming struggle with Fascism.

On 1 January 1936, Simonov had his first poem published in Izvestiia, ‘New Year’s Toast’. It was an early sign of the favour with which the young poet – then just twenty years of age – would come to be regarded by the Party leadership. In the poem, Simonov conjured up the idea of a final struggle between light and dark:

Friends, today we stand on high alert!

Wolves encircle our Republic!

So we raises our glasses,

And drink in silence

To those who stand by the machine-gun,

To those whose only friend is the rifle,

To everyone who knows the verb ‘to fight’,

A sad verb that we need to know.

To those who can leave a silent room

And walk into the unknown fire… 97

At the same time as Simonov was making his career, his three Obolensky aunts were languishing in exile in Orenburg, a city on the eastern Volga steppes 1,500 kilometres south-east of Moscow, having been expelled from Leningrad in the repressions that followed the murder of Kirov. Simonov was fond of his three aunts. He had written to them regularly since he was a child. Liudmila, the eldest of his mother’s three sisters, had married an artillery captain from a family of Russified Germans, Maximilian Tideman. His death in the First World War had left Liudmila and her three children stranded in Riazan, where Maximilian’s regiment had been based. After returning to Petrograd in 1922, Liudmila worked as a teacher in a school for handicapped children. By the time of her arrest, in 1935, her three children had grown up. Two went with her to Orenburg, but her eldest son remained in Leningrad, where he was highly valued as a manager at the Red Triangle Factory, which helped to protect him from arrest. Daria, or ‘Dolly’, the middle sister, was severely handicapped, the left side of her body deformed and paralysed, which made it hard for her to move. Personal misfortune had turned her into a cantankerous old maid. Dogmatically religious, she made no secret of her hatred of the Soviet regime and clung to the traditions of the aristocracy. In 1927, Dolly came to visit Aleksandra in Riazan. There were constant arguments about religion which, claims Simonov, led him to become an atheist (although in his later letters to his aunts Simonov continued to express religious sentiments). Simonov visited Dolly in Leningrad on several occasions, but he thought of it as a duty call. He much preferred Sonia, his third and youngest aunt, with whom he often stayed in Leningrad. Sonia was a plump woman with a ‘round face and a kind smile’ which reflected, as Simonov recalls, ‘her simple good nature and openness’. Unlike Dolly, Sonia adapted to the Soviet system, although her manners, values and beliefs retained traces of the nineteenth-century culture of the aristocracy. Trained as a teacher, she worked as a librarian and lived alone in a large room in a communal apartment. But she was not bitter or unhappy with her lot. On the contrary, Simonov recalls her as the liveliest and most fun of all his aunts. Not having children of her own, she loved to have her nephews and her nieces stay with her. She had a soft spot for Konstantin, her youngest nephew, whose interest in books she helped to stimulate. ‘My dear, darling Kiriushonchik,’ she wrote to Simonov, ‘I hope that you grow up to become useful and a comfort to us all, who love you so dearly. I hope that you will always have enough to eat, as we had in olden times.’98

The last time Simonov saw Sonia was in the autumn of 1933, when he stayed with her in Leningrad. He wrote his first poems in her room. In February 1935, Sonia was exiled with Liudmila and Dolly to Orenburg. Simonov recalls his mother’s reaction when she found out, in Moscow, that her ‘three sisters had been sent into exile, along with many other people she had known since her childhood in St Petersburg’.

She sat there in tears with the letters [she had just received from Orenburg], and suddenly she said: ‘If I had returned then with Liulia [Liudmila] from Riazan to Petrograd, I would be together with them now, of course.’ I remember being shocked by the way she said these words. She spoke with some sort of guilt that she was not with them, that she had somehow managed to escape the ordeal that afflicted her sisters. Then she asked my stepfather: ‘Maybe, we will be exiled from here?’ When she said ‘we’ she was not talking about the family; she meant herself, her origins, the Obolensky clan.99

Simonov does not explain why he was so shocked. Perhaps he was surprised by his mother’s expression of guilt. But there was something else besides. Simonov had been brought up to think of himself as a ‘Soviet person’. Even the arrest of his stepfather had failed to shake him from this view. On the contrary, it had reinforced his striving to fashion for himself a proletarian identity. All his efforts to recast himself, first as an engineer and then as a ‘proletarian writer’, had strengthened his identification with the Soviet system. But his mother’s response to the arrest of his aunts – which was, it seems, the first time that he had heard her identify herself as a ‘social alien’ in Soviet terms – forced him to confront reality.

Simonov’s mother and stepfather sent monthly packages of food and clothes to Orenburg, and he himself put aside a part of his own earnings to help with these parcels. In 1936, Aleksandra visited her three sisters. As Simonov recalls, she was afraid that she might not return (many people feared that they would be arrested if they visited their exiled relatives). Simonov’s stepfather, always practical, thought it would be better if she did not go, because if she was arrested it would be even harder to help her three sisters. But Aleksandra insisted on going, because, as she said, ‘if she did not, she would cease to be herself’. On her return from Orenburg, Aleksandra was ‘exhausted, sad, worn out from the long journey and the terrible conditions there’, recalls Simonov, ‘but she was not without hope for the future… because she thought that nothing worse could happen to them now’.100

But worse was to come. In 1937, Sonia and Dolly were arrested and imprisoned in Orenburg. Sonia was shot, and Dolly later died in a labour camp. Only Liudmila survived. Looking back on these events in the last year of his life, Simonov recalled his reaction to the death of his favourite aunt:

When I found out that she had been imprisoned, and then we ceased to hear from her, and then they told us that she had died – although not where or how – I remember experiencing this strong and painful feeling of injustice that was related entirely to her [Sonia], or most of all to her. The feeling would not leave my soul – I am not afraid to say this – and it stayed forever in my memory as the main injustice committed by the state, by Soviet power, against myself, personally. The feeling is particularly bitter because I know that, had Sonia been alive, she would have been the first person I would have helped when I was in a position to do so.

Simonov’s regret was based on the awareness he gained in later years – the awareness that he had colluded in the system of repression that destroyed his aunts. Yet as he admits in his memoirs, at the time of their arrest his reaction had been different. He felt sorry for his aunts, but he found a way to rationalize and perhaps even justify their fates:

I cannot remember what I thought about it then [in 1937], how I judged and explained to myself what had happened… I know that I could not have been unaffected, if only because I loved one of my aunts [Sonia] very much… But perhaps I thought: ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.’ This acceptance seems much more cynical today than it felt then, when the Revolution, the breaking up of the old society, was still not so distant in people’s memories, and when it was rare to have a conversation without recourse to that phrase.101

If Simonov’s encounter with the White Sea Canal brought him closer to the regime, for others it had the opposite effect. In 1929, Ilia Slavin, the former Zionist and a leading jurist at the Institute of Soviet Law in Moscow, was transferred to Leningrad to bolster the legal department of the Communist Academy. During the purges of that year the Law Department of Leningrad University had been closed down and its ‘bourgeois’ academics expelled. The legal department of the Communist Academy, which replaced it, was deemed in need of trusted Bolsheviks like Slavin to strengthen its resolve against the ‘bourgeois Rightists’ of the Soviet legal world whose presence was still felt in Leningrad.102 Slavin had become a major figure in the field of Soviet law. An adviser to the Commissariat of Justice, he was also a member of the commission that had written the Soviet Criminal Code of 1926, the first major overhaul of criminal law since 1917. In Leningrad the Slavins had two rooms in a large apartment which they shared with another family (in Moscow they had lived in a communal apartment shared by fifteen families). Eventually, they moved to a three-room flat in the House of the Leningrad Soviet, where many government workers, scientists and artists lived. ‘We were relatively privileged,’ recalls Ilia’s daughter Ida Slavina.

My brother and his wife had their own room, my parents had another, where my father also worked, and I slept in the dining room. When there were guests I went to sleep in my parents’ room and then was moved to the divan in the dining room when my parents went to bed… But there was no hint of luxury – it was a Spartan, almost puritanical, way of life, entirely dedicated to the socialist ideals of my father… We shared our extra rations – of which father was ashamed – with our poorer friends and relatives… Books were our only luxury.103

Slavin served his political patrons with a violent attack on the ‘bourgeois tendencies’ of a number of leading Soviet jurists in a book commissioned by the Communist Academy as part of the regime’s purge of the legal academic establishment in 1931. In this short but poisonous text, Sabotage on the Front of Soviet Criminal Law, Slavin compared the writings of several leading academic laywers in the 1920s with their writings before 1917 in order to expose what he claimed were their real but concealed ‘bourgeois’ views. Writing from political conviction, in the belief that the old legal thinking needed to be rooted out, Slavin denounced these jurists for attempting to subvert the basic ideological tenets of the Soviet legal system. He singled out for criticism the former Law Department at Leningrad University, which, he maintained, had been training ‘yesterday’s priests and White Guardists’ to pose as ‘the Marxists of today and the Communists of tomorrow’. Several of the jurists Slavin attacked were subsequently removed from their posts in the universities of Leningrad and Moscow, and forced to look for work in the provinces.104

In the Slavin family archive there is a photograph of Ilia Slavin with his fellow teachers and some students at the Communist Academy in 1931. On the back it is inscribed: ‘To Comrade Slavin! In fond memory of you as a firm Communist of the Bolshevik guard, as our teacher, as a steadfast fighter on the ideological front, an iron broom purging vermin from the academic heights.’ For Ida Slavina it is hard to reconcile this description with her memory of her father as a soft and tender man. Perhaps Slavin was sucked into the system of repression because he was too weak to resist the demands of the Party. Maybe he felt vulnerable because of his previous involvement in the Zionist movement and wrote the book to prove his worthiness as a member of the ‘Bolshevik guard’. Or perhaps, as Ida thinks, he ‘lost his way’ because he was misled by his beliefs.

Slavin believed in perekovka. Before 1917, he had carried out experiments in reforging by setting up a workshop and a cultural centre for the prisoners of a local jail in Mogilyov, where he worked as a legal assistant and was acquainted with the prison governor. The idea of reforging surfaced in many of his legal writings in the 1920s and 1930s,

The Whisperers

Teachers and students of the Law Department of the Communist Academy in Leningrad, 1931 (the white-haired Slavin is seated on the far left of the front, seated row)

particularly in his articles on the idea of Comrade Courts (tovarishcheskie sudy), tribunals at the workplace, in which he argued for the use of penal labour as a form of community service to reform the prisoner.105

In 1933, Slavin was given a new task by the leadership of the Communist Academy – to write a book provisionally entitled ‘The Reforging of Penal Labourers as Exemplified by the White Sea Canal’.106 In essence, he was asked to come up with a legal and philosophical justification for the Gulag labour camps. Perhaps Slavin’s previous writings on reforging played a role in earning him this dreadful commission. But the main reason why he had been chosen was because he had already shown, through Sabotage on the Front of Soviet Criminal Law, that he was prepared to construct legal arguments for the regime’s system of repression.

To believe in perekovka was one thing, to see it in action another. In 1932–3, Slavin made several trips to the White Sea Canal and to other sites of penal labour, including the Moscow–Volga Canal and the Kolyma labour camps in north-east Siberia. What he saw there destroyed his belief in the Soviet ideal of reforging. Ida recalls how her father returned from these trips ‘exhausted and depressed’ – how ‘he would not talk to anyone for several days, as if he was living in a state of shock’. Slavin was particularly shaken by his visit to a children’s labour colony, where he was alarmed by the brutal discipline that was used by the guards to ‘reforge the children in the Soviet spirit’. Slavin could not bring himself to write the book on the White Sea Canal. For several years he postponed its completion. A number of draft chapters were torn up (one of them entitled ‘Fascist Distortions in the Policy of Reforging’), as he came to realize that there was no perekovka in the camps.

Slavin knew he was trapped. After the murder of Kirov, when half the staff was purged from the Communist Academy, Slavin feared that he would be arrested too. Ida recalls her parents locking themselves in their room: ‘They sat up talking, whispering, all night.’ The Party archives confirm that in December 1934 Slavin’s name was added to a list of political suspects (‘to be arrested at a future date’) who had left other parties to join the Bolsheviks.107

Under growing pressure from the leaders of the Communist Academy, Slavin submitted some draft chapters of the book on the White Sea Canal. In these chapters Slavin offered a number of criticisms of the daily workings of the Gulag system, but made no reference to the policy of reforging, of which he had seen no evidence. The chapter he had once called ‘Fascist Distortions’ now appeared as ‘Distortions in the Policy of Reforging’. It was a courageous act, for which Slavin was sharply criticized by the editorial commission of the Communist Academy in May 1935. That event was a moral turning-point. Sensing that he could no longer hold to his Bolshevik beliefs, he renewed his old contacts with the Zionists – a desperate attempt, in Ida’s words, ‘to put the clock back and make up for his political mistakes’. But Slavin must have known that it was too late. He was in a hopeless situation. Completing the book on perekovka might have saved him, but he could not do this morally, so he kept putting it off, surely aware that the longer he delayed the closer he was moving to his own arrest. ‘I am finished,’ Slavin told a meeting of his Party comrades at the Communist Academy in March 1937, ‘I am a political bankrupt.’108


In the middle of the 1930s, the Gulag population swelled to huge proportions, as the victims of collectivization and the famine were rounded up and sent to labour camps, now considered an integral component of the Soviet industrial economy. Between 1932 and 1936, the population of the labour camps, labour colonies and ‘special settlements’ reached 2.4 million people (the prison population would add another half a million).109 This slave labour force played an especially vital role in the timber, construction and mining industries in the remote regions of the Arctic North, where free labour would not go. Consequently, even inside the Gulag it was possible for people to advance their careers. Opportunities were available, not only to prison guards and administrators, whose service in the Gulag often brought promotion in the NKVD, but also to a select number of prisoners, provided they had skills required by the Gulag system and the commitment – or willingness to adapt – to the Party line.

Pavel Vittenburg, the geologist who had played such a leading role in the Soviet exploration of mining areas in the Arctic zone, was arrested in April 1930. He was one of several hundred scientists expelled in a purge of the Academy of Sciences. Imprisoned in Leningrad, he was gradually broken down by interrogations and by threats against his family, until he finally confessed to belonging to a monarchist organization that had helped to organize the Iakutsk rebellion in 1927 (when Vittenburg had been involved in the exploration of the Kolyma goldfields in north-east Siberia). The breaking point had come when his interrogator had got up in his presence and made a call to order the arrest of Pavel’s wife, Zina (Zinaida). While Pavel was in jail, Zina lived in constant expectation of arrest. The family was forced to move into one room of their spacious country house in Olgino, while an OGPU informer occupied the other rooms and organized the confiscation of their property. Pavel’s daughter Yevgeniia recalls accompanying her mother on weekly trips to Leningrad to enquire about Pavel at the OGPU offices on Gorokhovaia Street:

She would leave me, an eight-year-old girl, by the fountains (which were not working then) in the Admiralty gardens, telling me that I should wait for her return. If she did not come, it would mean that she had been arrested, and I was to go to an address she had written on a piece of paper, which I kept in my pocket. Tatiana Lvovna lived there, and she would take me in.

In February 1931, Pavel was sentenced to be shot. At the last moment he was given a reprieve and sentenced to ten years in a labour camp instead. His house at Olgino was confiscated (it became the dacha of an OGPU official). Pavel was sent to the Mai-Guba logging camp to fell timber for the White Sea Canal and then transferred as a sewage engineer to the labour camp near Kem, on the northern sector of the canal where it ran into the sea. Zina meanwhile moved with two of her daughters, Yevgeniia and Valentina, into a single room in a communal apartment in Leningrad (her eldest daughter Veronika had moved to Dagestan). There were sixteen people living in the communal apartment, including its original owners, an elderly couple who occupied the front room and their former servant, a woman full of ‘class hatred’, who lived behind a curtain in the corridor. During the summer Zina sent her two daughters to stay with relatives in Kiev, while she worked as a volunteer doctor in the labour camp at Kem so as to be close to her husband.110

Shortly after Zina’s return to Leningrad, in August 1931, Pavel was sent as a geologist to the island of Vaigach as part of a special OGPU expedition to explore the possibility of mining its precious minerals.

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Zina and Pavel Vittenburg at the Kem labour camp (White Sea Canal), 1931

Pavel was lucky. He was saved by his expertise as a geologist. Although still a prisoner, he was allowed to work in his own field and demonstrated his talents in the service of the Gulag. The Vaigach expedition was led by Fyodor Eikhmans, the OGPU head of the whole Gulag, who left his post in Moscow to set up the first camp on the remote Arctic island in the Kara Sea in June 1930. Nearly half of the 1,500 prisoners were geologists, topographers and engineers, who surveyed the island’s rich deposits of zinc and lead and searched in vain for gold and platinum, Eikhmans’s real reasons for getting involved in the project. The Nenets people (Samoyeds), who lived on the island and provided transport for the expedition, told of ancient legends about the ‘golden woman’, a totem doll of solid gold. Conditions in the camp were very difficult, especially in the first months before the barracks had been built, when everybody had to live in tents. The zinc and lead mines were all dug by hand, discipline was harsh – people were shot for the slightest infraction

– and many died from the extreme cold, which regularly reached temperatures of -40°C during the winter.111

By the time Vittenburg arrived the hunt for gold had become desperate, which probably explains why he was called up to reinforce the number of geologists already there. Pavel was quickly made the chief geologist. He completed the survey of Vaigach, which led to the opening of the Gulag mining complex, the first mines within the Arctic Circle, in 1934. He published several articles about the expedition in OGPU periodicals and even kept a scrapbook on the island’s natural history. For a prisoner, Pavel enjoyed a privileged existence. He received special rations, lived in a separate house for specialists and even had his own office. In March 1932, he was allowed a visit by his family, who returned in the summer to accompany him on a major expedition around Vaigach. Leaving Valentina with a friend in Leningrad, Zina came with Yevgeniia to live with Pavel in the summer of 1933, when the new commander of the camp, Aleksei Ditsklan, who replaced Eikhmans in October 1932, allowed specialists to be joined by their families. Her letters home describe the conditions:

Vaigach Is.

26 Aug. 1933

My dear little daughters, Veronichka and Liusenka [Valentina]. Late in the evening on the 24th we finally arrived at Papa’s. It took 6 days, 3 of them in cold force-five winds, to get here. Gulenka [Yevgeniia] was very brave considering that most of the passengers around us were sea-sick all the time… Papochka met us on the ship, loaded everything onto his motorboat, and by 11 o’clock we were home. Papochka looks very well, he has put on weight, his face is an excellent colour, without a single wrinkle. His mood is good, he is full of energy and, as always, he is happy in his work… We are living very well in a house for specialists, remarkably in fact, if you stop to think that this is the 70th parallel. We have two delightful rooms, each with three windows, so they are very light, even though they face towards the north-east and north-west. There is an enormous stove with an oven, so I shall have to improve my housekeeping skills, which I have completely lost. I shall send you a photograph of Papa with the next ship, and you will see for yourselves how good it is here and how much weight Papa has put on… Yesterday evening we were at a reception to bid farewell to those [prisoners] returning to the mainland, and to welcome the new arrivals. We liked the speeches very much, and the Heroes of Labour were very well received. The Vaigach expedition, it appears, came in first in the All-Union Socialist Competition. There is a wonderful reforging (perekovka) 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… The evening ended with a ‘living newspaper’ [a form of agitprop] and an excellent concert. That’s all my news from the first one and a half days…112

Gradually, within the confines of the labour camp, the Vittenburgs returned to the routines of family life. Zina worked as a doctor in the camp clinic. Yevgeniia attended the school for children of the specialists and administrators. ‘Our life revolved around the work of Mama and Papa,’ recalls Yevgeniia.

Every morning, in whatever temperature, Papa filled a pan with cold water and washed himself in our room, ate some breakfast and then went to work in the geological section. When he returned we would eat our dinner, and then he would sit down at his desk. Mama was always tired from her work. In the evening she had barely strength to read. I did all the housework after school, because I had the most time. I fetched our dinners (two for voluntary workers and one for a prisoner) from the canteen. The cooks were all Chinese. They were excellent, they taught me how to bake. In general the food seemed royal to us compared with what we had in Leningrad.113

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Pavel Vittenburg in his office, Vaigach labour camp, 1934

What lies behind this rosy view of the Gulag? According to Yevgeniia, Zina’s optimism, even her belief in perekovka, was genuinely held, not just written in her letters for the benefit of the censors.114 No doubt the happiness of being reunited as a family must have played a part. But equally important were the relatively privileged conditions of specialists like the Vittenburgs which sheltered them from the worst aspects of life inside the camp. Possibly, too, they were so wrapped up in their work that they willingly accepted any view that allowed them to continue with it and sleep easily at night.

In 1934, there was a revolt on the island of Vaigach. A gang of prisoners working on the far side of the island rebelled and killed their guards. There was nowhere for the rebels to escape, and eventually they were shot or captured and brought back to the camp. As one of the camp doctors, Zina had to inspect their wounds and decide which prisoners were fit to return to work. She saw evidence of terrible beatings, but nothing shook her faith in perekovka, nor her readiness, as she had agreed in her contract of employment, to enforce the camp’s regime of labour discipline by reducing the time spent by prisoners on sick leave. For her work in the aftermath of the uprising, Zina was rewarded with the honourable title of ‘shock worker’ (udarnitsa) and listed in the ‘Red Book’ of the camp. She helped to teach the prisoners to read and to learn a craft in the belief that this would help reforge their personality and rehabilitate them to society. She even joined the Party school and wrote to tell her daughters that she loved her studies there.115

Pavel was equally prepared to go along with the official view of the Gulag, according to Yevgeniia. In her view, he ‘lived entirely for his science’ and ‘took little interest in politics’. He was ‘grateful to the Soviet regime for giving him the opportunity to continue working in his field, and grateful too that his family had been allowed to join him at Vaigach’. If he believed the propaganda about perekovka, it was because, according to his daughter, ‘he was sincere, naive perhaps, and romantic by nature’. Much of this is perhaps true. But it is the viewpoint of a loving daughter who cherishes the memory of her father. Seen from a different perspective, Pavel’s actions could be described as a profound moral compromise. His work was clearly flourishing in the environment of the labour camp, where everything he needed was provided for. ‘How pleasant to be a commander at Vaigach,’ Pavel wrote in his diary. ‘There is a semi-military discipline and complete obedience among the workers here.’ In July 1935, Pavel was given early release, six years before the end of his sentence, in recognition of his valuable work. But he wanted to complete his geological research on Vaigach, so he signed a contract with the administration to continue working voluntarily. This, it seems, was a crucial turning-point, the moment when he ceased to be a prisoner, working for the Gulag by compulsion, and became a collaborator in the Gulag system to advance his own research.

After finishing his work on Vaigach, Pavel went to the Dmitrov labour camp, where he was employed as a geologist in the construction of the Moscow–Volga Canal. Meanwhile, Zina and Yevgeniia, having returned to Leningrad, found that ‘life became more comfortable’. They went back to the communal apartment where they had lived before – and Valentina and Veronika joined then. They soon received an extra room, after the old owners of the apartment were arrested in the Leningrad terror following the murder of Kirov. Because they were not allowed to recover their old furniture from Olgino, which was still used as a dacha by the NKVD, the Vittenburgs were invited to the NKVD warehouse and allowed to help themselves to furniture confiscated from the victims of the Leningrad arrests. Valentina and Veronika picked out a pair of antique armchairs, a divan, a mirror, a bookcase and a grand piano.116

Pavel returned to Leningrad in 1936. For the next two years, he worked for the Gulag administration of the Arctic Ocean, leading several expeditions to Severnaia Zemlia. ‘How to get more living space so that we can live together comfortably – as one united close-knit family – that is the task I cannot seem to solve,’ Pavel wrote to Yevgeniia in 1936. Although he had managed to secure a privileged position through his work in the Gulag, he still felt insecure politically, and he worried about his family.

It is hard to accept that I am so powerless to arrange a comfortable life for all of you, as you deserve after all your suffering with me. The one thing I could do is build a little house, but Mama will not hear of it. Powerful people, who might help me, have turned their backs on me. When will I regain even a tenth of the influence I had before 1930?

Pavel made a conscious effort to Sovietize himself. He took lessons in the Party’s history, and embraced the Truth that it taught him. By the end of 1936, he was ready to accept its teachings on the ‘Trotskyists’ and other ‘enemies’ of the Soviet regime. ‘What a shame that I never knew anything about this,’ Pavel wrote in his diary. ‘If only I had known how reading history broadens the horizon and enables one to reach a proper understanding of the Party’s general line. Maybe my life would not have been forced on to the stony path of exile and imprisonment. For what was my life destroyed? That bastard Trotsky is to blame for thousands of lost lives!’117

Pavel’s story reminds us that the Gulag was far more than a prison camp. As one of the driving forces of the Soviet industrial economy, it employed a vast army of specialists and technicians – engineers, geologists, architects, research scientists, even aircraft designers – and gave them unique opportunities to develop their careers.

Pavel Drozdov was born in 1906 to a peasant family in Chernigov. His father was actively involved in the Marxist movement before 1917. After both his parents were killed in the Civil War, Pavel went to Moscow, joined the Economics Faculty of Moscow University and then trained as an electrician. (He later worked for Moscow Energy, the power station responsible for the electrification of much of the capital.) In 1925, Pavel was arrested for his participation in a student organization at Moscow University. He was exiled for three years to the Krasnovishersk region, where he worked in a logging camp attached to Vishlag, then still in its early days. On his release, in 1927, a year before the end of his sentence, Pavel chose to remain at the camp, where he was employed as an accountant. He married Aleksandra, a young peasant girl from a village near the camp, and had two children, who lived with him in the hostel for administrators in the camp complex. In 1929, when Eduard Berzin, the ‘enlightened’ Gulag chief, arrived at Vishlag, Pavel’s fortunes changed dramatically. Berzin championed the reforging of prisoners, and in Drozdov he believed that he had found a living example of his ideal. Berzin recognized the talents of Pavel, in particular his photographic memory (Berzin liked to say that Pavel had a ‘built-in calculator in his head’). He rapidly promoted Pavel in the camp administration, and often drew attention to the former prisoner as an example of reforging in his talks to senior officials at Vishlag. In 1929, Pavel was appointed chief accountant of the logging camp and, in 1930, chief accountant of the entire Vishlag complex. As one of Berzin’s close associates, Pavel followed Berzin when he left Vishlag to organize the Dalstroi network of labour camps in north-east Siberia. In Magadan, the capital of this Gulag empire, Pavel became the chief accountant in the Planning Section of the Dalstroi Trust and an inspector of the Dalstroi labour camps. Promoted to the rank of lieutenant-general in the NKVD, Pavel was rewarded with a four-room flat, which was big enough to house not just his family, but the family of his sister too. He was also given an apartment in Moscow, where Aleksandra and the children would spend the winter months. The family lived a privileged existence, with access to the special shops and sanatoria exclusively reserved for the Stalinist elite, and manufactured gifts from the Dalstroi factories on the Soviet holidays.118 Not bad for a man who, only a few years before, had been a common prisoner in the Gulag.

Mikhail Stroikov was born in 1901 to a family of Old Believers near Ivanovo, 300 kilometres north-east of Moscow. In 1925, he enrolled as a student at the Moscow Architectural Institute and married Elena, a young artist at a rabfak school (which prepared students from working-class backgrounds to study at an institute). Their daughter Julia was born in 1927. Just before her birth, Mikhail was arrested and exiled to Siberia: he had belonged to a student group opposed to the agrarian policies of the Bolsheviks. Elena was expelled from the rabfak school and went to work in a textile factory. In 1930, Mikhail returned to Moscow and rejoined the Architectural Institute, but two years later he was rearrested and imprisoned for two years in the Butyrki jail. Mikhail was considered a brilliant student. He had not been able to complete his dissertation before his arrest, but thanks to the intervention of his professor, he was allowed to do so in the Butyrki, and even to defend it at the institute. It is inconceivable that Mikhail could have done this without the support of the political police. He had two uncles in OGPU, and one of his oldest friends was Filipp Bazanov, Elena’s first husband, who was also a senior official in OGPU. Bazanov helped Elena (and tried to persuade her to return to him) while Mikhail was in jail. In 1934, Mikhail was exiled to Arkhangelsk. Although he had relatives in Arkhangelsk, among them the family of the former vice-governor of Murmansk, Mikhail did not visit them, because he did not want to endanger them.

Mikhail was saved by his architectural expertise. He was employed by the NKVD as a planner-architect on several major building projects – factories and bridges – using Gulag labour from the nearby camps. He soon became one of the chief architects of Arkhangelsk. Even as a prisoner in exile, Mikhail enjoyed better living conditions than Elena and Julia in Moscow. Mikhail was earning good money. He ate in the NKVD cafeteria for engineers and technicians, where meat was served every day, whereas Julia and Elena were living in Moscow on a diet of porridge and bread. Mikhail sent them money to buy meat. Julia was often ill and desperately needed better food. At the end of 1934, Elena sent her to live with her father in Arkhangelsk, in the hope that she would benefit from Mikhail’s relatively comfortable position. The last time Julia had seen her father (the only recollection she had of him) was two years earlier, in the Butyrki prison, a visit which had left her in such a state that, at the age of only six, she had tried to commit suicide. Mikhail rented the corner of a room from an old woman, Elena Petrovna, who prepared their meals. Julia recalls these meals – pork cutlets with macaroni, pancakes with mincemeat, chicken legs, ice cream – with nostalgia.

In the evenings, when Papa returned from work, he would ask me: ‘What shall we order from Elena Petrovna? What do you want to eat?’ I couldn’t get enough of her delicious food and I would always say [the first dish she had cooked for us], ‘Macaroni and cutlets! Macaroni and cutlets!’ One day Papa had enough. He implored me: ‘Liusenka, think of something else, I can’t eat any more.’ But I could not think of any other food.

For Julia the years she spent in Arkhangelsk, from 1934 to 1937, were the happiest in her life. She thrived at school. She loved the ballet. Her father took her to the theatre and bought a gramophone so she could dance to ballet music in their tiny living space. ‘Papa’s Corner’, as Elena called this living space, was just seven square metres, with a plywood partition and door constructed by Mikhail to divide it from the rest of the room, where Elena Petrovna lived. Mikhail was very proud of his construction, which created the illusion of a separate room. ‘Papa’s Corner’ was just big enough for a single bed, a table, a chair and a bookcase on the wall. But it was a home of sorts, and Julia was happy to be living there with her father.

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‘Papa’s Corner’. Drawing by Mikhail Stroikov, 1935

In January 1937, Elena came to Arkhangelsk. The end of Mikhail’s sentence was approaching, and she wanted to return to Moscow as a family. But the authorities would not let her stay in Arkhangelsk until the end of Mikhail’s exile, and so Elena went back to Moscow with Julia. A few weeks later, in March, Mikhail was arrested and sentenced to five years in a labour camp for ‘counter-revolutionary agitation’ (he was shot in 1938). Elena knew nothing about his arrest. There were no more letters from her husband. She only learned what had happened the next summer when she went back to Arkhangelsk and spoke to Elena Petrovna.119

The Vittenburgs, the Drozdovs and the Stroikovs were exceptional, of course. The vast majority of the Gulag population was used as slave labour, or left to languish in prison camps and remote settlements, with little access to the comforts of normal life, or even prospect of reprieve. The cost in human lives was enormous. NKVD statistics show that over 150,000 people died in Soviet labour camps between 1932 and 1936.120 These figures cast a different light on the mid-1930s, a period which has often been regarded as the calm before the storm of 1937–8 (the poet Anna Akhmatova called the middle thirties the ‘vegetarian years’). For those whose lives were devastated by the Great Terror, that view of the mid-thirties may be true. But for millions of people whose families were scattered in the Gulag’s labour camps and colonies, these years were as bad as any other.

Reading the letters of these prisoners to their relatives at home (letters that were written with censorship in mind), it is striking how the Gulag changed the values and priorities of so many of these prisoners – particularly the ‘politicals’, who had sacrificed so much for their ideals. Where before they might have looked for happiness in their career, or in the promise of a Communist utopia, years of living in a prison camp or exile forced them to rethink and place greater value on the family.

Tatiana Poloz (née Miagkova) was born in 1898 to the family of a barrister in the Borisoglebsk region of Tambov province. Her mother, Feoktista, the daughter of a priest, was a member of the Social Democratic Party who sided with the Bolsheviks when they split with the Mensheviks in 1903; she encouraged Tatiana to enter politics. In 1919, Tatiana joined the Bolshevik Party and took part in propaganda work behind the lines of Denikin’s White Army on the Southern Front in the Civil War. It was there that she met her husband, Mikhail Poloz, a leading member of the Borotbists (Socialist Revolutionaries), the only Ukrainian party with a mass peasant following, who at that time was serving in the Military Council of the Ukrainian independent government. At the end of the Civil War, the Borotbists merged with the Bolsheviks, the Ukraine was brought under Soviet rule, and Poloz became the Ukraine’s political representative (polpred) in Moscow. Tatiana joined the Higher Party School, attending lectures by Trotsky. In 1923, Mikhail was named Commissar of Finance in the Soviet Ukrainian government. He and Tatiana settled in Kharkov (the capital of Soviet Ukraine until 1934), where their daughter Rada was born in 1924.

Three years later, Tatiana was exiled to Astrakhan, and then, in 1929, to Chelkar in Kazakhstan. She was accused of being an active oppositionist, with links to the Smirnov group, an important faction of the Left Opposition led by Trotsky until the expulsion of its leaders from the Party in 1927. In the autumn of 1929, Mikhail visited Tatiana in Kazakhstan. He pleaded with her to renounce her opposition politics for the sake of their daughter, who was then living with her grandmother. At one point, according to a fellow oppositionist who was also exiled in Chelkar, Mikhail whispered something in her ear: ‘It was some sort of secret information that left her utterly despondent and defeated.’ Perhaps Mikhail had told her that Smirnov and his group had been negotiating a capitulation with the Stalinist authorities in the hope of being reinstated in the Party. On 3 November 1929, an article by Smirnov appeared in Pravda in which he declared his full support for the Five Year Plan and the ‘general line of the Party’, renounced his Trotskyist position and called on all his followers ‘to overcome their hesitations and return to the Party’. Four hundred members of the Smirnov group subsequently signed a declaration of submission to the Party’s general line, including Tatiana, who was then released from exile and allowed to return to her family.121

In 1930, the family moved from Kharkov to Moscow, where Poloz became Deputy Chairman of the All-Union Soviet Budget Commission, while Tatiana worked as an economist in the automobile industry. They lived with Tatiana’s mother, Feoktista, and a housekeeper, in a large apartment in the House on the Embankment, the prestigious block of flats for government workers opposite the Kremlin, although, as romantic revolutionaries who had always lived for their ideas, the family did not attach much importance to their privileged lifestyle. Tatiana kept to her Trotskyist position, against the wishes of both her husband, who insisted that opposition to Stalin was futile, and her mother, who was a convinced Stalinist. In 1933, Tatiana was rearrested, along with the rest of the Smirnov group, and sentenced to three years in a special isolation prison camp in Verkhneuralsk in the Urals. Mikhail was arrested a few months later, in 1934, convicted of attempting to establish a Ukrainian bourgeois government and sentenced to ten years at the Solovetsky labour camp. Evicted from the House on the Embankment, Rada and her grandmother moved to a furnished apartment in the outskirts of Moscow, where they were joined by Rada’s aunt Olga, whose husband had been arrested three years earlier, and their son Volodia. Feoktista ‘tried to teach me to respect and love my parents,’ recalls Rada.

But at the same time she expected me to love and respect Soviet power. It was not an easy task, but somehow she managed it. Grandmother sincerely believed that Stalin did not know about the scale of the arrests… She thought that there were so many enemies of Soviet power that it was hard for the authorities to work out which ones were guilty. In our house one often heard the expression, ‘You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.’122

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The Poloz family, 1934: Rada is standing between her aunt Olga and her grandmother, Feoktista. The boy is Olga’s son Volodia

Between 1933 and June 1936, Tatiana wrote 136 letters to Feoktista and Rada, an average of one letter every week. This is one of the largest surviving collections of private letters from the Gulag.123 The early letters reflect Tatiana’s political preoccupations. She asks for Marx’s writings to be sent. She comments in detail on the latest political events. In June 1934, for example, Tatiana’s letters were full of praise for the crew of the Cheliuskin, which had just completed a pioneering voyage across the Arctic Ocean from Leningrad to the Bering Straits. The journey had ended in disaster when the steamship was crushed by ice and sank beneath the Chukchi Sea in February 1934. But the crew, which camped on an iceberg, was finally rescued by Soviet planes and flown back to Moscow, where propaganda turned their story into one of heroic survival. The Cheliuskin crew had ‘shown the world what Bolsheviks are!’ Tatania wrote on 24 June, adding four days later, on the same subject:

Pride in being a Soviet citizen was probably never as all-embracing and intense as it is today. Pride in the ‘good qualities’ of the Soviet people, in the fine Soviet aeroplanes, in the good Soviet scientists and sailors and all the rest, pride in Bolshevism, which showed the supreme power of its ideas and organization on those icebergs. And what power that must have for the education of children!

Rada’s political education was a constant concern in these letters. ‘Mama was always writing about how Communism should be built,’ recalls Rada.

She wanted me to become an engineer and a writer… And her letters had an influence on me. Although I was brought up by my grandmother, I liked to think that, through these letters, I was being brought up by my mother too.124

Tatiana wanted Rada to grow up as a Communist. She spilled a sea of ink on commentaries about her behaviour at home (which she said she had read about ‘in the newspapers’ to avoid revealing Feoktista as her source).

12 June 1935

And how are our household duties going, my little monkey? In the newspapers they write that you do your household chores without much pleasure and often forget what has to be done. But they also write other things. I read this telegram in Izvestiia: ‘Moscow (TASS) – the shockworker and model student Rada, 11, today was asked to clean the dishes and the kitchen. The task was fulfilled very well. The dishes were cleaned and everything tidied. Rada surveyed the results of her labour with great satisfaction and told our correspondent that from now on she will fulfil all her chores to the same standards of excellence.’ The correspondent approved, of course, and so do I. Study, little monkey, cook, wash, clean, as you are asked: the main thing is to do as you are asked.

The longer Tatiana remained in prison, the more her letters were preoccupied by family relationships. Mikhail was not allowed to write to Moscow, but he was allowed to correspond with Tatiana, whose letters thus became the only means of information for Rada about her father, and for Mikhail about his daughter. Reflecting on her mother’s letters, Rada believes that they allowed Tatiana to maintain the family connections she needed to survive. They were ‘full of optimism’, Rada

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Letter (extract) from Tatiana to Rada, 12 June 1935

writes in her memoirs; ‘she was always reminding us that time was passing, and was always looking forward to the happy time when the family would be together once again’. Many of Tatiana’s prison letters came with little gifts – rag dolls, toy animals and even clothes – which she had made for Rada in the prison camp.125

On her release from the Verkhneuralsk prison in 1936, Tatiana was exiled to Uralsk and then to Alma-Ata. Feoktista spent two weeks with Tatiana in Uralsk in March 1936. These were precious weeks for Tatiana, who later wrote of a new intimacy she experienced with her mother when they sat together, ‘my head resting on your shoulder’, and talked about the past.126 Shortly after Feoktista’s return to Moscow, Tatiana wrote: ‘Mamusenka! I came home but this is not a home. You are not here, there is no home [written in English] – no cosy warmth.’ In April, when Tatiana moved to Alma-Ata, she began to pin her hopes on the possibility of Rada coming to be with her. She invested all her energies in organizing the move. Her letters from this time were filled with hopes and excitement, as Rada writes: ‘Her stubborn strength and persistence were completely focused on the tasks of finding work and a little room where she could live with her daughter.’ The trip did not materialize. In June 1936, just as Rada was about to leave Moscow to join her mother in Alma-Ata, Tatiana was rearrested and sent to an unknown labour camp. ‘We bought the train tickets to Alma-Ata,’ recalls Rada,

we found some people to look after me on the journey, packed all my things and sent a telegram with details about my arrival. The answer came: ‘The addressee does not live here.’ We returned the ticket. I stayed in Moscow and never saw my mother again.

Tatiana was sent to Kolyma, one of the worst of Stalin’s Gulag colonies. In November 1937, she was shot. Mikhail was executed in Karelia during the same month. His correspondence with his wife (a ‘Trotskyist’) was recorded in his NKVD file as sufficient proof of guilt to sentence him to death.127

Rada did not know about her parents’ death. She tried not to think about them, because she did not know if they were alive or not. But once she saw her mother in a dream:

To start with I was on the deck of a ship in the middle of the sea. In my hands I held two schoolbooks covered in glued-on brown paper. I opened one of them and recognized my mother’s handwriting. The first sentence was very strange: ‘When you read these lines, I will already be at the bottom of the sea…’ I read a few more lines, which I can’t recall. Then I became gripped with fear. There were enormous pipes with water gushing out. My fear increased, seizing hold of me, until I awoke.128

Rada believed the ‘message’ of her dream – that her mother had been drowned – and began to think about her all the time. Later, when she heard tales from Kolyma survivors about a ship of prisoners that had gone down, she was even more convinced of her mother’s fate. She continued to believe her dream for many years and, even after she received a death certificate from the authorities stating that her mother had been shot, Rada went on thinking that she had been drowned.

Tatiana Poloz was not the only fervent socialist who felt the pull of family after imprisonment. Nikolai Kondratiev was born in 1892 to a peasant family in Kostroma province, 400 kilometres north-east of Moscow. He studied economics at St Petersburg University, joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party and played a leading role in formulating the agrarian reforms of 1917. In the 1920s, Kondratiev was a prominent economist advising the Soviet government. He was a firm supporter of the NEP, favouring the primacy of agriculture and the manufacturing of consumer goods over the development of heavy industry. It was at this time that he advanced his theory of long-term cycles in the capitalist economy (‘Kondratiev waves’) which made him famous throughout the world. But with the overturning of the NEP Kondratiev was removed from all his posts. In July 1930, he was arrested on charges of belonging to an illegal (and probably non-existent) ‘Peasant Labour Party’. Stalin wrote to Molotov: ‘Kondratiev and a few other scoundrels must definitely be shot.’129 But in fact Kondratiev was sentenced to eight years in the special isolation prison camp housed in the fourteenth-century Spaso-Yefimeyev Monastery in Suzdal, where he was imprisoned from February 1932.

Kondratiev’s health deteriorated rapidly. He was in and out of the prison hospital with complaints of severe headaches, dizziness and intermittent deafness, chronic rheumatism in the legs, diarrhoea, vomiting, insomnia and depression. By 1936, he was practically blind. Yet Kondratiev carried on with his research and prepared five new books. He wrote over 100 letters to his wife, Yevgeniia,130 nearly all of them with little notes attached for his daughter Elena (‘Alyona’), who was born in 1925. The pain of separation which Kondratiev felt is almost palpable in these letters. It is his daughter that he misses most. The situation was all the more poignant because Kondratiev was obviously such a loving father. He desperately wanted to play an active role in his daughter’s upbringing, and the worst part of his suffering in jail was not being able to do this. ‘How terrible that she is growing up in my absence,’ he wrote to Yevgeniia in March 1932. ‘This torments me more than anything.’131 As a father, Nikolai poured all his love into his letters to Elena. When she did not write to him, he reproached her for not loving him enough. Nikolai would constantly remind her of little incidents from their life together before his arrest. He drew pictures in his letters and told her stories about the wildlife around the monastery – birds that came to visit him, foxes he had seen. In many of his letters Nikolai included pressed flowers, or grasses from the meadows near the monastery. Above all, he focused his attention on his daughter’s intellectual development. He set her riddles and puzzles. He recommended books for her to read, asking her to write with her impressions about them. He encouraged her to keep a diary, corrected the mistakes in her letters and nagged her to ‘write neatly and always try to do things well’.132 On the bottom of many of his letters a young child has written the word: ‘Papa’. They were all Elena had of him. She grew up to become a botanist, a professor of Moscow University. Perhaps her father’s letters influenced her interest in botany.

The Whisperers

Nikolai and Elena (‘Alyona’) Kondratiev, 1926

In 1935, Nikolai sent Elena a fairy-tale which he had written and illustrated to mark her name day.133 ‘The Unusual Adventures of Shammi’ tells the story of a kitten who goes in search of the ideal land, where ‘people, animals and plants live in happiness and harmony’. Shammi sets off with his friend, the tomcat Vasia, who is very cowardly and reluctant to go. On the way they encounter many animals who try to dissuade them from going on, promising them happiness if they give up the search, but Shammi pushes ahead, attracting various animals – a goat, a donkey, a horse and a hen – who ‘all work hard and want a better life’. But soon the travellers lose their way. They begin to argue among themselves. Some get eaten by a crocodile. Others are shot by hunters in the wood.

On 31 August 1938 Kondratiev wrote to his daughter:

The Whisperers

‘The Unusual Adventures of Shammi’ (detail)

My sweet darling Alyonushka.

Probably your holidays are over now and you are back at school. How did you spend the summer? Did you get stronger, put on weight, get tanned? I very much want to know. And I would like very, very much to see you and kiss you many, many times. I still do not feel well, I am still ill. My sweet, Alyonushka, I want you not to get sick this winter. I also want you to study hard, as you did before. Read good books. Be a clever and a good little girl. Listen to your mother and never disappoint her. I would also be happy if you managed not to forget about me, your papa, altogether. Well, be healthy! Be happy! I kiss you without end. Your papa.134

This was the last letter. Shortly afterwards, on 17 September, Nikolai was executed by a firing squad.


The Great Fear



Julia Piatnitskaia did not know what to think when her husband was arrested on the night of 7 July 1937. Osip Piatnitsky was a veteran Bolshevik, a member of the Party from its foundation and one of Lenin’s most trusted comrades. In an article in Pravda to mark Piatnitsky’s fiftieth birthday, in January 1932, Lenin’s widow Krupskaia had described him as a ‘typical revolutionary-professional who gave himself entirely to the Party, and lived only for its interests’. It was hard for Julia to understand how Osip could have become an ‘enemy of the people’. She was a committed Bolshevik, but she did not know whether to believe the Soviet press, which had named Piatnitsky as a ‘traitor’ and a ‘spy’, or the man she had loved for nearly twenty years. Osip was the father of her two children, but after his arrest she was no longer certain if she really knew her husband. ‘Who is Piatnitsky?’ Julia wrote in her diary. ‘A true revolutionary or a scoundrel?… Either could be true. I do not know. That is the most agonizing thing.’1

Julia had met Osip in 1920, when she was twenty-one and he was thirty-nine. Julia was born into a Russian-Polish family in Vladimir. Her mother was a Polish noblewoman who had broken all the customs of her caste and religion by marrying a Russian Orthodox priest without her parents’ permission. Julia, who was six when her mother died, inherited her romantic and rebellious temperament. Passionate and beautiful, at the age of just sixteen Julia ran away from her father’s home to enrol as an nurse in the Russian army during the First World War. She married a young general, who disappeared in action in 1917. During the Civil War, Julia joined the Bolsheviks. She worked for the Red Army as a spy, infiltrating the military headquarters of Admiral Kolchak, the White Army leader on the Eastern Front. Eventually, her cover was blown. Narrowly escaping with her life, she fled to Moscow, had a nervous breakdown, and while recovering in a hospital met Osip, who was visiting a friend. Julia was highly strung and volatile, emotional and poetic. She had a strong sense of justice, rooted in her strict religious upbringing, which profoundly influenced her politics. She was kind and warm, adored by everyone who met her, according to the daughter of one of Osip’s comrades. ‘We children were always calm in her presence. When she was there, we forgot our worries… She was always full of life.’2

Osip, by contrast, was stern and taciturn. A stocky man, with soft, attractive features, he was a model of the professional revolutionary. Modest to the point of selflessness, he rarely talked about his private life (many of his oldest Party comrades had no idea he had a family). Osip had been one of the most important activists in the Marxist underground before 1917. He was in charge of smuggling illegal literature between Russia and Europe. He spent a great deal of time abroad, especially in Germany, where he was known by the pseudonym ‘Freitag’ (Friday), or ‘Piatnitsa’ in Russian, from which the name Piatnitsky was derived (his real Jewish surname was Tarshis). When he married Julia, Osip was the Secretary of the Moscow Party’s Central Committee. But he was soon transferred to the Comintern, the international organization of the Communist Party, where he ran the crucial Organization Department and effectively became the leader of the entire Comintern. Piatnitsky oversaw a huge expansion in the Comintern’s activities, as it tried to spread the Revolution to all corners of the world. His Memoirs of a Bolshevik (1926), a handbook of the Party’s organizational and ethical principles, was translated into more than twenty languages. Piatnitsky was exhausted by his work. ‘I was in the Comintern from morning until night,’ he recalled.3 In the middle of the 1920s – when he was still in his early forties – his hair went white and then fell out.

Osip’s work also placed a heavy burden on his family life. The Piatnitsky apartment in the House on the Embankment was always full of foreign visitors. Osip missed out on the childhood of his two young sons, Igor (born in 1921) and Vladimir (in 1925). His constant absence was a source of many arguments with Julia, who also became increasingly disillusioned with the bourgeoisification of the Party and Stalin’s dictatorship during the 1930s. Igor recalls an argument between his parents – it must have been in 1934 – when she began to recite in a loud and angry voice the seditious verses of the early nineteenth-century poet Dmitry Venivitinov:

The dirt, the stench, the cockroach and the flea

And everywhere the presence of his lordly hand

And all those Russians who babble constantly –

All this we must call our holy fatherland.

The Whisperers

Osip and Julia (seated on the right of the front step) with their sons Igor (next to Osip) and Vladimir Piatnitsky (on Julia’s knee) and neighbours’ children at their dacha near Moscow, late 1920s

Terrified of their neighbours overhearing, Osip pleaded with his wife: ‘Keep your voice down, Julia!’4

By 1935, Piatnitsky’s standing in the Comintern had made him known to Communists throughout the world (Harry Pollitt, the British Communist, said that Piatnitsky was the Comintern). At this time, Stalin’s foreign policy was geared towards the containment of Nazi Germany by strengthening relations with the Western democratic states (‘collective security’). In 1934, the Soviet Union had even joined the League of Nations, which it had denounced only two years previously as an ‘imperialist conspiracy’. The Comintern was subordinated to this foreign policy. Led by its new General Secretary, the Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov, the Comintern’s task was now to build alliances with the European socialists and steer them into coalition governments (‘Popular Fronts’) with the centre parties to counteract the Fascist threat. The policy had some success in France and Spain, where Popular Front governments were elected in 1936. But there were critics of this strategy within the Comintern, among them Piatnitsky. Many Communists, including former members of the Left Opposition led by Trotsky in the 1920s, saw it as a betrayal of the international revolutionary cause, which in their view could only be advanced by ‘United Fronts’ of Communists and socialists, excluding the centre parties of the bourgeoisie; they found common cause with former members of the more moderate Right Opposition, led by Rykov and Bukharin, who were increasingly opposed to Stalin’s abuse of power. Both these groups regarded Stalin as a ‘counter-revolutionary’.By 1936, the Comintern was full of whispered discontent with Stalin’s foreign policies. Leftists linked the Stalinist rapprochement with the Western powers to the bourgeoisification of the Soviet elite. Deeply committed to the ideal of world revolution, they were afraid that the Soviet Union, under Stalin’s leadership, was becoming not an inspiration to the proletarians of the West, but a guardian of order and security. They were particularly disillusioned by Stalin’s failure to give adequate support to the various left-wing defenders of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, when, in the autumn of 1936, General Franco’s Nationalists – with massive aid from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany – advanced to the outskirts of Madrid. Even some of Stalin’s loyal supporters sometimes found it hard to go along with what they saw as the betrayal of their ideological commitment to revolutionary internationalism. As one Old Bolshevik explained to William Bullitt, the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, in 1935: ‘You must understand that world revolution is our religion and there is not one of us who would not in the final analysis oppose even Stalin himself if we should feel that he was abandoning the cause of world revolution.’5

Stalin grew increasingly mistrustful of the Comintern, which he feared was slipping out of his control. At its Seventh Congress, in August 1935, he engineered a radical reshuffle of its leadership. Piatnitsky was dismissed from the executive and placed in charge of a new department in the Central Committee to supervise the work of the Party bureaucracy. The show trial of the former oppositionists, Kamenev and Zinoviev, in August 1936, was a clear warning from Stalin to his critics that all policies would be decided at the top. Nowhere was this more the case than in the Comintern, where the opposition was identified by Stalin with the work of ‘foreign spies’. ‘All of you there in the Comintern are playing right into the enemy’s hands,’ Stalin wrote to Dimitrov in February 1937. Several thousand Comintern officials and foreign Communists were arrested in 1937–8. The German, Polish, Yugoslav and Baltic Communist parties were practically wiped out. At Comintern headquarters and the Hotel Lux in Moscow, where many of the Comintern’s officials lived, there was so much panic that, in the words of one official, ‘many are half mad and incapable of working as a result of constant fear’.6

Piatnitsky was denounced by Stalin as a Trotskyist. He was later implicated in a ‘Fascist Spy Organization of Trotskyists and Rightists in the Comintern’. But according to the version of events related by his sons, the real cause of his arrest was a brave speech they believe he made at the Plenum of the Central Committee in June 1937.* Apparently, Piatnitsky had been shocked by what he had discovered in his work at the Central Committee. He was particularly troubled by the enormous personal power of Stalin and his unbridled use of the NKVD to eliminate his enemies. At the June plenum, it is believed, Piatnitsky accused the NKVD of fabricating evidence against ‘enemies of the people’ and called for the establishment of a special Party commission to oversee the work of the NKVD. It was a suicidal speech, as Piatnitsky must have realized. When he finished speaking there was silence in the hall. The tension was palpable. A recess was called. On instructions from Stalin, several Party leaders, including Kaganovich, Molotov and Voroshilov, attempted to persuade Piatnitsky to withdraw his statement and thus save his life. Molotov begged him to think about the consequences for his wife and children. But Piatnitsky would not back down; he claimed that he knew what his destiny would be, but that his ‘conscience as a Communist’ would not allow him to retract his words. According to Kaganovich, Piatnitsky told him that his protest had been a conscious and premeditated act. ‘He said that for the unity and moral purity of the Party he was ready to sacrifice his life and, if necessary, to trample on the corpses of his children and his wife.’ When this was reported to Stalin, the leadership resolved to adjourn the plenum for the day. The next morning the plenum opened with a speech by Nikolai Yezhov, the NKVD chief, denouncing Piatnitsky as a tsarist spy who had been sent by the capitalist powers to infiltrate the Comintern. Yezhov called for a vote of censure against Piatnitsky. It was passed with three abstentions, one of them by Krupskaia, who refused to believe the NKVD charges against Piatnitsky (‘He is the most honest of men. Lenin greatly loved and respected him’) right up until his arrest.7 Piatnitsky returned from the plenum ‘exhausted and depressed’, Julia noted in her diary. When she asked him what was wrong, Piatnitsky ‘talked of all the children, of all the innocents, who were forced to live under constant psychological stress’.8

The Whisperers

Osip Piatnitsky at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern, Moscow, 1935

For the next two weeks, Piatnitsky stayed at home, locked away in his office. He ate very little, and spent all day on the telephone trying to make contact with Yezhov. Julia could not bear the tension and went off to the dacha for a few days – a decision which she later regretted. ‘I should have been by his side,’ she wrote in her diary in March 1938. ‘I did not understand what he was going through. I was not intelligent enough, or strong enough. To be the wife of such a person means to serve him, to be always at one’s post.’9 During this fortnight, Osip prepared for his arrest. He transferred his savings book and valuables to Julia and destroyed his private notebooks and letters. A seasoned revolutionary, who had been arrested many times before, he knew how to prepare. On 5 July he was expelled from the Party. He felt so despondent, Julia noted on her return from the dacha, that he thought of suicide. He could not imagine living without the Party. But the next day, when they paid a visit to old friends, Osip told them he had changed his mind. He said that he would submit to his punishment for the sake of Party unity: ‘If a sacrifice has to be made for the Party, then however burdensome that sacrifice might be, I will bear it joyously.’ Osip warned his sons to expect his arrest. He explained to them that he had argued with his comrades in the Party leadership and that they had denounced him; he denied his guilt and said that he would fight to prove his innocence as long as that was possible, but that, if he was arrested, they should not expect to see their father again. ‘He warned me not to fight against Stalin. That was the main thing he told me,’ remembered Igor.10

The NKVD came for Osip shortly after 11 p.m. on 7 July. Yezhov made the arrest in person. Bursting into the apartment, the NKVD men threw a dressing gown at Julia and told her to put it on. She began to shout and swear at them, whereupon Yezhov told her that ‘Soviet citizens do not talk that way to representatives of the authorities’. Osip apologized for his wife’s behaviour. He left with the NKVD men, carrying a small suitcase which contained his dressing gown and a toothbrush. Julia fainted as they left. When she came to, they had gone. ‘I had just one thought,’ she noted in her diary – ‘the overwhelming thought that I will never see him again – that and a feeling of terrible powerlessness.’ The next day, while Julia was at work, the NKVD broke into the apartment. They searched through Osip’s papers and took away the family’s valuables: cash and savings books, a radio, a bicycle, coats, sheets, linen, even little things like teacups disappeared. The door to Osip’s office was then sealed with wax. No one dared to break the seal, but if they had, they would have found a library which the Piatnitskys could have sold to help them through the next few months, when, like all the families of ‘enemies of the people’, they were suddenly reduced to poverty.11

Osip’s fate was probably decided long before his protest to the June plenum. In the Great Terror of 1937 – 8 – when at least 1.3 million people were arrested for crimes against the state – the Comintern was one of Stalin’s main targets. The reasons for this are worth examining, because they are a key to the riddle of the Terror’s origins.

Extraordinary even by the standards of the Stalinist regime, the Great Terror was not a routine wave of mass arrests, such as those that swept across the country throughout Stalin’s reign, but a calculated policy of mass murder. No longer satisfied with imprisoning his real or imagined ‘political enemies’, Stalin now ordered the police to take people out of the prisons and labour camps and murder them. In the two years of 1937 and 1938, according to incomplete statistics, a staggering total of at least 681,692 people, and probably far more, were shot for ‘crimes against the state’ (91 per cent of all death sentences for political crimes between 1921 and 1940, if NKVD figures are to be believed). The population of the Gulag labour camps and colonies grew in these same years from 1,196,369 to 1,881,570 people (a figure which excludes at least 140,000 deaths within the camps themselves and an unknown number of deaths during transport to the camps). Other periods of Soviet history had also seen mass arrests of ‘enemies’, but never had so many of the victims been killed. More than half the people arrested during the Great Terror were later shot, compared to less than 10 per cent of arrests in 1930, the second highest peak of executions in the Stalin period, when 20,201 death sentences were carried out. During the ‘anti-kulak operation’ of 1929–32, the number of arrests was also very high (586,904), but of these victims only 6 per cent (35,689 people) were subsequently shot.12

The origins of the Great Terror are not easy to explain. Nor is it immediately clear why it was so concentrated in these two years. To begin to understand it, we must look at the Great Terror not as an uncontrolled or accidental happening, a product of the chaos of the Stalinist regime that could have erupted at almost any time – a view occasionally put forward13 – but as an operation masterminded and controlled by Stalin in response to the specific circumstances he perceived in 1937.

Some historians have traced the origins of the Great Terror to the assassination of the Leningrad Party boss Sergei Kirov in December 1934 – an act, it is said, that set the regime on its murderous hunt for hidden enemies. But this theory raises the question of why the mass arrests and killings did not start in 1934–5. Why was there a two-year lull before the storm of 1937–8? After Kirov’s murder there were mass arrests in Leningrad, but otherwise the years of 1935 and 1936 were relatively terror-free for the political classes in the rest of the Soviet Union. In fact, under the direction of Aleksandr Vyshinsky, the Procurator of the USSR, the regime made a conscious effort to return to a more stable and traditional legal order following the chaos of 1928–34.14 Other historians have connected the Great Terror to Stalin’s fears of an internal threat, particularly in the countryside, where, they argue, mass discontent could have turned political, if Soviet elections had been allowed to go ahead, as they had been promised by the ‘Stalin Constitution’ of 1936.15 But the NKVD reports of domestic discontent were unreliable (‘anti-Soviet sentiment’ and ‘threats of unrest’ were often fabricated by the NKVD to justify increases in its budget and its staff) and it is far from clear whether Stalin or anybody else in the ruling circle took them at all seriously. In any case, these reports contain no suggestion that the internal threat was any greater in 1937 than it had been at any other time. There were just as many reports of discontent and opposition during 1928–32, but nothing in those years to match the intensity of state killing in 1937–8.

Yet other historians have suggested that the Great Terror is best understood ‘as a number of related but discrete phenomena’, each one capable of being explained on its own but not as part of a single event.16 And indeed the Great Terror was a complex amalgam of different elements: the great ‘show trials’ against the Old Bolsheviks; the purging of the political elites; the mass arrests in the cities; the ‘kulak operation’; and ‘national operations’ against minorities. But while it may be helpful to analyse the various components of the Terror separately, the fact remains that they all began and ended simultaneously, which does suggest that they were part of a unified campaign that needs to be explained.

The key to understanding the Great Terror as a whole lies perhaps in Stalin’s fear of an approaching war and his perception of an international threat to the Soviet Union.17 The military aggression of Hitler’s Germany, signalled by its occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, and the occupation of Manchuria by the Japanese, convinced Stalin that the USSR was endangered by the Axis powers on two fronts. Stalin’s fears were reinforced in November 1936, when Berlin and Tokyo united in a pact (later joined by Fascist Italy) against the Comintern. Despite his continuing support of ‘collective security’, Stalin did not place much hope in the Soviet alliance with the Western powers to contain the Axis threat: the Western states had failed to intervene in Spain; they appeared committed to the appeasement of Nazi Germany; and they reportedly gave Stalin the impression that it was their hidden aim to divert Hitler’s forces to the East and engage them in a war with the USSR rather than confront them in the West. By 1937, Stalin was convinced that the Soviet Union was on the brink of war with the Fascist states in Europe and with Japan in the East. The Soviet press typically portrayed the country as threatened on all sides and undermined by Fascist infiltrators – ‘spies’ and ‘hidden enemies’ – in every corner of society.

‘Our enemies from the capitalist circles are tireless. They infiltrate everywhere,’ Stalin told the writer Romain Rolland in 1935. Stalin’s view of politics – like many Bolsheviks’ – had been profoundly shaped by the lessons of the First World War, when the tsarist regime was brought down by social revolution in the rear. He feared a similar reaction against the Soviet regime in the event of war with Nazi Germany. The Spanish Civil War reinforced his fears on this account. Stalin took a close interest in the Spanish conflict, seeing it (as did most of his advisers) as a ‘valid scenario for a future European war’ between Communism and Fascism.18 Stalin put the military defeats of the Republicans in 1936 down to the factional infighting between the Spanish Communists, the Trotskyists, the Anarchists and other left-wing groups. It led him to conclude that in the Soviet Union political repression was urgently required to crush not just a ‘fifth column’ of ‘Fascist spies and enemies’ but all potential opposition before the outbreak of a war with the Fascists.

A paranoic fear of ‘enemies’ was, it seems, in Stalin’s character. It had been reinforced by the suicide of his wife Nadezhda in 1932 and by the murder of Kirov, a man Stalin claimed to love like a brother. ‘Maybe Stalin never trusted people very much,’ wrote his daughter Svetlana, ‘but after their deaths he stopped trusting them at all.’* Stalin blamed the Kirov assassination on the ‘Zinovievites’ (the ‘Leningrad Opposition’) and issued orders for the supporters of Zinoviev, the former boss of Leningrad, to be arrested, even though there was no evidence to connect them with the murder. Many of them were ultimately convicted of ‘moral complicity’ in Kirov’s killing on the grounds that they had created a climate of opposition which encouraged the assassination of Soviet leaders. In the two and a half months following the murder, when Stalin took charge of the investigation in Leningrad, nearly a thousand ‘Zinovievites’ were arrested. Most of them were exiled to remote settlements. Zinoviev and Kamenev, allies with Trotsky in the United Opposition against Stalin in the 1920s, were arrested: Zinoviev was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, Kamenev to five. When the NKVD officials proved reluctant to arrest so many Party loyalists, Stalin called in Iagoda, the NKVD boss, and warned him to be more vigilant, or else ‘we will slap you down’. Iagoda’s position was further undermined in 1935, when Yezhov, who was placed in charge of the Party purge, claimed to have uncovered a large network of ‘foreign spies’ and ‘terrorists’ organized by Trotsky and Zinoviev and undetected by the NKVD in the heart of the Kremlin. Stalin finally lost patience with Iagoda and replaced him with Yezhov, a brutal executioner without any moral conscience who was prepared to indulge Stalin’s paranoic fantasies by fabricating evidence of ‘counter-revolutionary conspiracies’ and ‘spy rings’ everywhere. For several years, Yezhov had promoted the theory that Kamenev and Zinoviev had been plotting on Trotsky’s orders from abroad to murder Kirov, Stalin and other members of the Party leadership. On this basis, Stalin now reopened the Kirov investigation. In August 1936, Zinoviev, Kamenev and fourteen other Party leaders were put on trial for treason. All of them were sentenced to death, along with 160 other people arrested in connection with the trial.19

This was the first of several ‘show trials’ in Moscow. Their aim was to reveal and root out a coordinated ring of ‘spies’ and ‘terrorists’ organized by former oppositionists. A second show trial, in January 1937, witnessed the conviction of Georgii Piatakov, Deputy Commissar of Heavy Industry, Karl Radek and fifteen other former supporters of Trotsky for industrial sabotage and espionage. In April–May 1937, eight of the country’s senior military commanders, including Marshal Tukhachevsky (Deputy Commissar of Defence), General Uborevich (Commander of the Belorussian Military District) and General Iakir (Commander of the Kiev Military District), were arrested, tortured brutally and tried in camera for treason and espionage. It was said that they were financed by the Germans and the Japanese. All of them were shot on the same day. In the last and biggest of the show trials, in March 1938, Bukharin, Iagoda and Rykov, along with thirteen other senior officials, were sentenced to be shot for conspiring with the Zinovievites and Trotskyists to assassinate the Soviet leaders, sabotage the economy and spy at the behest of the Fascist powers. Iagoda’s involvement in the plot supposedly explained why it had taken so long to uncover it.

When a Party leader was arrested, everybody in his social orbit came under suspicion. The typical provincial town was ruled by a clique of senior officials – the district Party boss, the police chief, the heads of the local factories, collective farms and prisons, the local Soviet leader – who each had their own patron–client networks in the town’s institutions. These officials protected one another as long as their power circle was maintained. But the arrest of one would inevitably lead to the arrest of all the other members of his circle, as well as their hangers-on, once the NKVD got to work revealing the connections between them. In 1937, for example, the NKVD arrested the Party Secretary of Nikopol, in the eastern Ukraine. It also arrested his

assistants, his friends, the men and women he had put into jobs anywhere in Nikopol. The Commandant of the Nikopol garrison went into the hunters’ bag, then the local Prosecutor and all his legal staff, finally the Chairman of the Nikopol Soviet… the local bank, the newspaper, all commercial institutions were ‘cleansed’… the manager of the Communal Administration, the Chief of the Fire Brigades, the head of the Savings Institution…20

The terror in the leadership thus spread down through the Party ranks, Soviet institutions and society. According to one estimate, 116,885 Party members were executed or imprisoned in 1937–8. The more senior a Party member was, the more likely he was to be arrested, for juniors in the ranks were always ready to denounce their superiors in order to replace them in their posts. Of the 139 Central Committee members elected at the Seventeenth Party Congress in 1934, 102 were arrested and shot, and five more killed themselves in 1937–8; in addition, 56 per cent of the congress delegates were imprisoned in these years. The decimation of the Red Army was even more complete: of the 767 members of the high command (brigade commanders and above), 412 were executed, 29 died in prison, 3 committed suicide, and 59 remained in jail.21

Stalin must have known that the vast majority of these victims were entirely innocent. But since it only took a small handful of ‘hidden enemies’ to make a Revolution while the country was at war, it was fully justified, in his view, to arrest millions to root these out. As Stalin said in June 1937, if just 5 per cent of the people who had been arrested turned out to be actual enemies, ‘that would be a good result’. Evidence was a minor consideration. According to Nikita Khrushchev, then the head of the Moscow Party Committee, Stalin ‘used to say that if a report [denunciation] was ten per cent true, we should regard the entire report as fact’. Everybody in the NKVD knew that Stalin was prepared to arrest thousands to catch just one spy. They knew that holding back from their quota of arrests would only get them into trouble for lack of vigilance. ‘Better too much than not enough,’ Yezhov warned his NKVD operatives. If ‘an extra thousand people are shot [in an operation], that is not such a big deal’.22

For Stalin and his supporters, the Great Terror was a preparation for the coming war. Molotov and Kaganovich continued to defend this rationale until their deaths. ‘Stalin played it safe’ (perestrakhoval), explained Molotov in 1986. The ‘great purge’ was an ‘insurance policy’ – a necessary means for the leadership to ferret out the ‘waverers’, ‘careerists’ and ‘hidden enemies’ in the Party who might have proved troublesome in time of war. There were mistakes, Molotov admitted, many people were arrested unjustly, but ‘we would have suffered greater losses in the war – and perhaps defeat – if the leadership had flinched and allowed internal strife’.

We were obligated to ensure that in time of war there would be no fifth column. It is doubtful that all of these people were spies, but… the main thing is that in the decisive moment there was no relying on them… If Tukhachevsky and Iakir and Rykov and Zinoviev joined the opposition during war, there would have been a cruel struggle and colossal losses… Everyone would have been destroyed!

In the 1980s, Kaganovich similarly justified the Great Terror: the leadership had realized that a war was approaching, and that the country needed to protect itself by ‘draining the swamp (boloto)’ – that is by ‘destroying unreliables and waverers’. This was not just a post facto rationalization by Kaganovich. In June 1938, he had told the Donbass Party that the mass repressions were necessitated by the threat of war and that the country ‘would be at war already’, if its ‘internal enemies and spies’ had not been destroyed in the ‘great purge’.23

Coordinated in the Kremlin and carried out by the NKVD in the localities, the Great Terror spread throughout society as a series of mass campaigns to purge the country of ‘anti-social’ and potentially ‘anti-Soviet’ elements in the event of war. By far the biggest of these mass campaigns was the ‘kulak operation’ instituted by the infamous Directive 00447: it accounted for half of all arrests (669,929) and more than half the executions (376,202) in 1937–8. Nearly all the victims were former ‘kulaks’ and their families who had recently returned from ‘special settlements’ and Gulag labour camps after completing the standard eight-year sentence for ‘counter-revolutionary agitation and propaganda’ imposed during the collectivization campaign in 1929–30. Stalin was afraid that the country would be swamped by disgruntled and embittered ‘kulaks’ who might pose a threat in time of war. He was particularly concerned by NKVD reports about a White monarchist organization, the Russian General Military Union (ROVS), which was said to be preparing a ‘kulak uprising’ to coincide with a Japanese invasion of Siberia. Tens of thousands of alleged ROVS members were shot in the course of the ‘kulak operation’, although they were seldom counted in official statistics (the Altai NKVD, for example, made a separate report on the 22,108 ROVS members it had shot in 1937). The ‘kulak operation’ was connected to a wholesale purge of the local Soviets. It was particularly brutal in border areas, like the western provinces, and in regions, like the Donbass and western Siberia, where the regime feared the population most.24

There were also large-scale ‘national operations’, wholesale deportations and executions of Soviet minorities who were deemed potential ‘spies’ in the event of war: Germans, Poles, Finns and Latvians, Armenians and Greeks, Koreans, Chinese, even Kharbin Russians, who had returned to the Soviet Union from Manchuria following the 1935 sale of the Eastern China Railway to Manchukuo, the puppet Manchurian state set up by the Japanese in 1932. Stalin’s distrust of the Poles in the western Soviet regions was particularly strong. It dated from the Russian Civil War, when Poland had invaded the Ukraine and then defeated the Red Army when it counter-attacked against Warsaw – a military defeat in which Stalin had been personally humiliated because of his tactical mistakes as a front-line commissar. Stalin saw the Soviet Poles (and many Belorussians and Ukrainians, whom he considered to be really ‘Poles’) as a fifth column of the ‘semi-Fascist’ Polish state of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, which the Soviet leader feared would unite with Nazi Germany to attack the Soviet Union again. As a result of the ‘national operation’ against the Poles, launched by Directive 00485 in August 1937, almost 140,000 people were shot or sent to labour camps by November 1938.25

So many people disappeared in 1937–8, particularly in the Party and intelligentsia circles of the major capitals, that the arrests appeared random, as if anyone could be picked up by the Black Marias that roamed the streets at night. The prison population was a broad cross-section of the population. Most prisoners had no idea for what crime they were in jail. By the autumn of 1938, virtually every family had lost a relative, or knew of someone with imprisoned relatives. People lived in fearful expectation of the knock on the door in the middle of the night. They slept badly and awoke when they heard a car pull up outside. They would lie there waiting for the sound of footsteps to pass by on the staircase or in the corridor, before going back to sleep, relieved that the visitors were not for them. Liubov Shaporina, the founder of the Puppet Theatre in Leningrad, wrote in her diary on 22 November 1937:

The joys of everyday life. I wake up in the morning and automatically think: thank God I was not arrested last night, they don’t arrest people during the day, but what will happen tonight, no one knows. It’s like Lafontaine’s lamb – every single person has enough against him to justify arrest and exile to parts unknown. I’m lucky, I am completely calm; I simply don’t care. But the majority of people are living in complete terror.26

Vladimir Piatnitsky, Osip’s son, recalls the atmosphere in the House on the Embankment before the arrest of his father:

There were more than 500 flats for elite Party workers in that gloomy building, and arrests were a regular occurence. Because I was always playing in the yard and corridors, I saw several arrests. In the evenings, as it grew dark, the house became deserted and silent. It was as if the inhabitants had gone into hiding in the expectation of catastrophe. Suddenly, several cars would drive into the yard, men in uniform and plain clothes would jump out and walk towards staircase entrances – each one knew the way to ‘his’ address. Then one saw the lights go on in several apartments. Since I knew where everybody lived, I could work out who was being arrested. If all the lights in the apartment went on, it meant there was a search. In those days many people expected to be arrested, but they did not know when their turn would come.27

People waited for their turn. Many packed a bag and kept it by their bed in order to be ready when the NKVD knocked on the door. This passivity is one of the most striking features of the Great Terror. There were many ways to avoid arrest – moving out of town and taking on a new identity by buying papers on the black market being the most simple and effective, for the NKVD was not good at tracking down people on the move.28 The Russian people had a long tradition of fleeing persecution by the state – from the Old Believers to runaways from serfdom – and this tactic was adopted by millions of peasants who ran away from the collective farms and ‘special settlements’. But the urban population by and large remained in place, without any sign of resistance, and waited for the Terror to take them.

Looking back, the film writer Valerii Frid (1922–98), who was arrested in 1943, thought that most people were paralysed by fear. They were so hypnotized by the power of the NKVD, which they believed was everywhere, that they could not contemplate resistance or escape.

I can think of no analogy in human history. So I’ll have to make do with an example from zoology: the rabbit hypnotized by the boa constrictor… We were all like rabbits who recognized the right of the boa constrictor to swallow us; whoever fell under the power of its gaze would walk quite calmly and with a sense of doom into its mouth.29

Viacheslav Kolobkov recalls the panic of his father, a factory worker in Leningrad, when a car stopped outside their house at night.

Every night he would stay awake – waiting for the sound of a car engine. When it came he would sit up rigid in his bed. He was terrified. I could smell his fear, his nervous sweating, and feel his body shaking, though I could barely see him in the dark. ‘They have come for me!’ he would always say when he heard a car. He was convinced that he would be arrested for something he had said – sometimes, at home, he used to curse the Bolsheviks. When he heard an engine stop and the car door slam, he would get up and start fumbling in panic for the things he thought he would need most. He always kept these items near his bed in order to be ready when ‘they’ came for him. I remember the husks of bread lying there – his biggest fear was going without bread. There were many nights when my father barely slept – waiting for a car that never came.30

Faced with arrest, the Bolshevik elite were particularly passive. Most of them were so indoctrinated by their Party’s ideology that any thought of trying to resist was easily outweighed by a deeper need to prove their innocence before the Party. Yevgeniia Ginzburg was the wife of a senior Party leader in Kazan and herself a Party activist. After her husband was taken, she lost her job and feared that her own arrest was imminent. Her mother-in-law was ‘a simple, illiterate peasant woman born in the days of serfdom’, recalls Ginzburg; she ‘was of a deeply philosophical cast of mind and had a remarkable power of hitting the nail on the head when she talked about the problems of life’. This old peasant woman advised her to run away:

‘ “Out of sight, out of mind,” they say. The farther away you are the better. Why not go to our old village, to Pokrovskoye?’…

‘But how can I, Grandmother? How can I leave everything, the children, my work?’ [Ginzburg replied].

‘Well, they’ve taken your job away anyhow. And the children won’t come to any harm with us.’

‘But I must prove my innocence to the Party. How can I, a Communist, hide from the Party?’31

The belief in their own innocence disabled many Bolsheviks. Somehow they managed to convince themselves that only the guilty were arrested, and that they would be protected by their innocence. Elena Bonner recalls overhearing a late-night conversation between her parents, lifelong Party loyalists, following the arrest of a close friend. Elena had woken up in the middle of the night, anxious because this arrest had made her realize ‘that our turn was coming, inexorably and soon’.

It was dark in the dining room, but there were voices in my parents’ room. I went to the door. And I could hear my mother blow her nose. Then she spoke, crying. I had never seen her cry. She kept repeating ‘all my life’ and sobbing… Papa replied softly, but I couldn’t make out his words. Suddenly she shouted, ‘I’ve known Styopa all my life. Do you know what that means? I’ve known him three times longer than you. Understand? Do you understand?’ Then only sobs. And a creak and slippers shuffling on the floor – Papa had gotten out of bed. I jumped away from the door, afraid he was coming out. But he began pacing the room – five steps to the window, five to the bed, like a pendulum. He struck a match. Mama began speaking again, ‘Tell me do you believe it? Do you believe this nightmare?’ She had stopped crying. ‘Do you believe that Agasi… Do you believe that Pavel, that Shurka… Do you believe that they…?’ She didn’t complete her sentences, but it was clear. Then she spoke calmly and softly and said, ‘I know that you can’t believe it.’ Papa replied in a strange, pleading voice, ‘But Rufa-djan [his name for Elena’s mother Ruth], how can I not believe?’ After a pause he went on. ‘They’re not arresting you and me, after all.’32

There were other Bolsheviks, among them Piatnitsky, who were so committed to their Communist beliefs that they were ready to confess to the charges against them, even if they knew that they were innocent, if that was what the Party demanded.* According to Communist morality, a Bolshevik accused of crimes against the Party was expected to repent, to go down on his knees before the Party and accept its judgement against him. This is what Piatnitsky must have meant when he said on the eve of his arrest that if a sacrifice was needed for the Party he would ‘bear it joyously’.

Many Bolsheviks attempted to prepare their family for the likelihood of their arrest and, as best they could, to protect them. Pyotr Potapov, a transport official on the Kama River, sent his family to visit relatives in Nizhny Novgorod a few days before his arrest in August 1937. ‘We had not been on holiday for more than five years,’ recalls his daughter. ‘He sensed what lay ahead and was afraid for us. He wanted us to be out of the way when the NKVD came for him.’ Lev Ilin, a senior official on the Murmansk railway, moved his family out of their spacious flat in Leningrad and put them in a small cooperative apartment, so that they would not be forced to share their living space with another family in the event of his arrest. He made sure that his wife, who had never worked, took a job in a textile factory, so that someone in the family would be able to support their daughter. He begged his wife to divorce him, in the hope that she would be protected from arrest herself, but she refused, on the grounds that it would be a ‘shameful act of betrayal’. There were bitter arguments between the couple on this point, right up to the day of Lev’s arrest.33

Stanislav and Varvara Budkevich, who were both arrested in 1937, tried to prepare their fourteen-year-old daughter Maria to cope on her own. They trained her to go shopping by herself, taught her not to say a word about her parents if they were arrested and forced her to read about the show trials in the newspapers, so that she might understand the nature of the threat that might take them both away. ‘I understood everything,’ recalls Maria. ‘My father was close to Tukhachevsky, he worked with him in the General Staff, and our house was full of military personnel, so I understood what was happening when people were arrested, one by one.’ Maria’s father was arrested on 8 July; her mother on 14 July.

Mama sensed that they would come for her that night. For a long time that evening we sat together on our own, without Andrei [Maria’s younger brother], although Mama knew that I had exams the next morning. It was midnight when at last she said to me, ‘It is getting late, off you go to bed.’

The next morning Maria awoke to find her mother gone – she had been arrested during the night – and the NKVD men searching through her room. By her bed her mother had left Maria a goodbye note with some money.34

The jurist Ilia Slavin was arrested on the night of 5 November 1937. He had not written the book commissioned by the NKVD about the reforging of Gulag labourers on the White Sea Canal. On the day of his arrest, Ilia was called into the Party’s offices in Leningrad and offered the position of Director of the Institute of Law; the previous director had just been arrested. Slavin was relieved. He had been expecting the worst, but now it seemed he had been saved. He returned home in a cheerful mood. That evening the Slavin family was celebrating Ida’s sixteenth birthday. As Ida recalls:

Mama laid out a delicious spread. My brother made a special ‘birthday edition’ of our wall-newspaper ‘Hallelujah’ [an agitational billboard maintained at home by the Slavin family] and became the pianist for the evening. I put on a smart new dress to receive my schoolfriends… Papa was in his best form: he played with us, fooled around just like a child, danced with all the girls, drank a lot and even sang his favourite song, ‘The Nightingale’.

When the guests had gone, Ilia began to talk about his plans for the next summer holiday. ‘He wanted us to spend it all together as a family and spoke of going to the Caucasus and the Black Sea.’

The NKVD came at 1 a.m. Ida remembers:

I was suddenly awoken by a bright light and a strange voice, telling me to get dressed quickly. An NKVD officer was standing at the door. He made half an effort to look away as I struggled to get dressed and then led me into Papa’s office. There was Papa, sitting on a stool in the middle of the room, looking suddenly much older. Mama, my brother and his pregnant wife sat with me on the divan. The yardman stood in the doorway while the NKVD officer made himself at home…

I remember only certain moments from that night:

Looking around my father’s office, the NKVD officer (I shall always remember his name: Beigel) would sigh from time to time: ‘What a lot of books you have. I am a student, and I don’t have this many books.’ Leafing through the books, he would stop whenever he found one with an inscription to my father, pound his fist on the table and demand in a loud voice, ‘Who is this author?’

Then in an almost tragi-comic scene Beigel told me to bring my German textbook. Theatrically (he had evidently played this scene in many households with children of my age) he turned to an article by Karl Radek at the end of the textbook. At that time Karl Radek had been arrested but had not yet been sentenced or listed in the press as an ‘enemy of the people’. With a grand gesture Beigel tore the pages out of the textbook, lit them with a match, and said, as if he was a noble hero: ‘Be thankful that this thing has been destroyed and that I won’t have to take you away with your daddy.’ I was too frightened to say anything. But then my father broke the silence, and said ‘Thank you.’…

Aside from this officious Beigel the main thing engraved in my memory is the motionless figure of my father. I had never seen him like that before – so totally dejected, his spirit somehow gone, almost indifferent to the humiliation he was suffering. He was unlike himself… When I looked at him, there was no expression on his face, he did not see or feel my gaze. He just sat there in the middle of the room – motionless and silent. It was him – and yet not him.

The house-search went on all night. From the office they went into the dining room and then into my brother’s room. The floor was covered with pages ripped from books and manuscripts which had been pulled out of the cupboards and glass-fronted cabinets, photographs from family albums, which had been carefully stored in a special trunk. Many of these things they took away. They also took a camera, a pair of binoculars (evidence of ‘espionage’) and a typewriter – our old Underwood on which my father had typed all his articles…

What was he thinking during that long night, as they leafed through the pages of his life? Did it destroy his faith? What terror did he feel when Beigel (that insignificant worm!) recorded the details of his Party membership as evidence of his crime?

It was morning when the search came to an end; everything was registered for confiscation, and father was led into the corridor. We followed him. The door to my parents’ room was sealed. They told Papa to get dressed. Mama had his things all ready in a little case [it contained a pair of spectacles, toiletries, a handkerchief and 100 roubles cash].

Then my father broke his silence and said: ‘Goodbye.’ Mama clung to him and cried, while he stroked her head, saying over and over, ‘Don’t worry, it will be sorted out.’

That night destroyed something inside me. It shattered my belief in harmony and meaning in the world. In our family there had been a cult of our father. He stood on such a pedestal for us that, when he fell, it felt as if the whole world was ending. I was terrified to look him in the eye, in case he saw my fear. The NKVD men led Papa towards the door. I followed him. Suddenly he turned around to look at me once more. He could see the chaos of emotions inside me. Choked by tears, I threw myself at him. He whispered in my ear: ‘Little one, my beloved daughter, there are mistakes in history, but remember – we started something great. Be a good Young Communist.’

‘Quiet!’ shouted Beigel. Then someone pulled me away from Papa.

‘Farewell, my loved ones. Believe in justice…’ – he wanted to say something else but they took him out and down the stairs.35

The idea that Ida might be arrested was not an idle threat by the NKVD officer. At sixteen years of age, she could be arrested and imprisoned, and even executed, for the same crimes as any adult. In 1935, the Soviet government had lowered the age of criminal responsibility to just twelve – partly with the aim of threatening those in prison with the arrest of their children if they refused to confess to their crimes (a second decree that year allowed the arrest and imprisonment of relatives of anyone who was in prison for crimes against the state). In effect a hostage system was declared. Many Bolsheviks were threatened with the arrest of their relatives during the interrogations that preceded the show trials. Kamenev, for example, was threatened with the execution of his son: he agreed to sign his confession on Stalin’s personal assurances that his family would not be touched. Zinoviev did the same. Ivan Smirnov gave in during his interrogation when he saw his daughter being roughly treated by the guards. Stanislav Kosior withstood brutal tortures but cracked when his sixteen-year-old daughter was brought into the room and raped in front of him.36

The Whisperers

Ida Slavina (left) and her parents, 1937

Whatever Stalin promised these Bolsheviks before their trial, once they had been shot, he ordered the arrest of many of their relatives. Kamenev’s son was shot in 1939 (a younger son was sent to an orphanage and had his name changed to Glebov). Kamenev’s wife, who had been sent into penal exile in 1935, was retried in 1938 and shot in 1941. Zinoviev’s son was shot in 1937. His sister was sent to the Vorkuta camps and later shot. Three other sisters, two nephews, a niece, a cousin and a brother-in-law were sent to labour camps. Three of Zinoviev’s brothers and a nephew were also shot. Smirnov’s daughter was imprisoned. His wife was shot in one of the Kotlas labour camps in 1938. Virtually all the Trotsky clan was murdered by the NKVD between 1936 and 1938: Trotsky’s brother Aleksandr; his sister Olga; his first wife Aleksandra Sokolovskaia; his sons Lev and Sergei; and both husbands of his daughter Zinaida (who had committed suicide in 1933).37

Stalin’s obsession with punishing the kin of his enemies was perhaps something he had picked up from Georgia: vendettas between clans were part of politics in the Caucasus. In the Bolshevik elite, family and clans intersected with political allegiances; alliances were made through marriages; careers were broken through ties of blood to oppositionists and enemies. As Stalin saw it, the family was collectively responsible for the behaviour of its individual members. If a man had been arrested as an ‘enemy of the people’, his wife was guilty automatically, because unless she had denounced him, it was assumed that she had shared her husband’s views or had tried to protect him. At the very least she was guilty of lack of vigilance. Stalin considered the repression of these relatives as a necessary measure to remove disgruntled people from society. Asked why the families of Stalin’s ‘enemies’ had been repressed, Molotov explained in 1986: ‘They had to be isolated. Otherwise, they would have spread all kinds of complaints, and society would have been infected by a certain amount of demoralization.’38

Julia Piatnitskaia lived in expectation of her own arrest. She confessed her worries to the diary she started keeping in the days leading up to the arrest of Osip on 7 July. Her fears floated on a sea of daily problems and anxieties. Vladimir, her younger son, had to be brought back from the Crimea, where he had been at the Artek camp for Pioneers since the start of June. Julia was afraid that he might be taken to an orphanage by the NKVD, if she was arrested before she could arrange for relatives and friends to take him in. Her older son Igor had just turned sixteen. Before the arrest of his father he had been eager to make a name for himself in the Komsomol, but everything was different now, and he too was in danger of arrest. Julia tried to deal with Igor’s mixed emotions – anger at his father, grief at his loss, despondency and shame – while struggling to contain her own, equally confused feelings. ‘Igor spends the whole day reading on his bed,’ Julia noted in her diary on 11 July.

He says nothing about Papa, nor about the actions of his former ‘comrades’. Sometimes I express my foul and poisonous thoughts, but he, like the Young Communist he is, forbids me to speak like that. Sometimes he says: ‘Mama, I can’t stand you when you’re like this, I could murder you.’39

Julia’s immediate concern was to make ends meet. Like many wives deprived of their husbands in the Great Terror, she was so preoccupied by the daily struggle to survive, so traumatized by her sudden fall in status, that she barely stopped to think about the danger she was in.40 During the house search Julia lost her savings book and any valuables she might have been able to sell. All she had was a tiny salary from her office job, which hardly sufficed to feed the five dependants who were living in her flat (her sons, her aged father and stepmother and their daughter Liudmila, who did not have a job). They also had a boxer dog. The family lived on soup and kasha. Accustomed to a life of privilege as the wife of a senior Bolshevik, Julia found it hard to adapt to her poverty. She felt bitter and sorry for herself. She even went to the Party offices and complained to an official, who told her to toughen up and get used to the lifestyle of the proletariat. She spent much of her spare time wandering round the city in a fruitless search for a better job. The steel construction trust (TsKMash) had no room for ‘specialists’ (‘We are not Fascist Germany,’ the official said to Julia). Even the factory at the Butyrki prison had no need for workers of ‘her sort’ (i.e. wives of ‘enemies’). ‘The factory official didn’t even look at my papers,’ Julia wrote in her diary, ‘he didn’t want to ask me anything: he just looked at me and said “no”.’ Work colleagues refused to help. ‘Everyone avoids me,’ Julia wrote. ‘Yet I so much need support, even just the slightest attention or advice.’ At home, meanwhile, tensions grew as the situation steadily worsened. Julia’s half-sister and stepmother frequently complained about the lack of food and blamed Osip for their troubles. They even tried to get Julia evicted from the apartment. After a few weeks, Liudmila got a job and moved out with her parents to another flat rather than ‘be dragged down’ with the Piatnitskys. ‘If all of us can’t be saved,’ Liudmila said, ‘then let those who are able save themselves.’ Julia wondered if Liudmila and her parents felt ashamed of their behaviour. She doubted it:

It is only shameful that for seven years they were fed by Piatnitsky, Liuba [Liudmila] got to go to a good school, and they lived in a good apartment. As soon as we get into trouble, they think only about how to run as fast as possible from me and my children – from the unfortunates.41

Not long after they moved out, Julia and her sons were evicted from their home and placed in a smaller apartment on a lower floor of the House on the Embankment. They shared the apartment with the family of an Armenian Bolshevik who had been arrested in the spring. Julia was desperate, she felt as if her life was collapsing and she thought of suicide. In her desperation she went to see a neighbour, the only person in the House on the Embankment who was not afraid to speak to her, and talked about her woes. The old lady told her not to feel so sorry for herself: there were many officials who lived in smaller rooms. Besides, the woman said, Julia was better off without Piatnitsky, because, she explained, ‘you were not getting along so well’. Now she only had to think about herself and her two sons, not about her husband any more. Reflecting on the conversation, Julia wrote in her diary that night: ‘It is true that he did not spend much time with us. He was always working. And it was obvious to everyone who came to scrounge from us – that is almost everyone – that we were not getting along.’42 It was not the only doubt that Julia would have about her husband over the next year.


The diary of the writer Mikhail Prishvin, 29 November 1937:

Our Russian people, like snow-covered trees, are so overburdened with the problems of survival, and want so much to talk to one another about it, that they simply lack the strength to hold out any more. But as soon as someone gives in, he is overheard by someone else – and he disappears! People know they can get into trouble for a single conversation; and so they enter into a conspiracy of silence with their friends. My dear friend N… was delighted to spot me in a crowded [train] compartment, and when at last a seat was free, he sat down next to me. He wanted to say something but was unable to say it in such a crowd. He became so tense that every time he prepared himself to speak he looked around at the people on one side of us, and then at the people on the other side, and all he could bring himself to say was: ‘Yes…’ And I said the same in return to him, and in this way, for two hours, we travelled together from Moscow to Zagorsk:

‘Yes, Mikhail Mikhailovich.’

‘Yes, Georgii Eduardovich.’43

Talking could be dangerous at the best of Soviet times, but during the Great Terror a few careless words were all it took for somebody to vanish for ever. Informers were everywhere. ‘Today a man talks freely only with his wife – at night, with the blankets pulled over his head,’ the writer Isaak Babel once remarked. Prishvin wrote in his diary that among his friends there were ‘only two or three old men’ to whom he could talk freely, without fear of giving rise to malicious rumours or denunciations.44

The Great Terror effectively silenced the Soviet people. ‘We were brought up to keep our mouths shut,’ recalls Rezeda Taisina, whose father was arrested in 1936.

‘You’ll get into trouble for your tongue’ – that’s what people said to us children all the time. We went through life afraid to talk. Mama used to say that every other person was an informer. We were afraid of our neighbours, and especially of the police. I am still afraid to talk. I cannot stand up for myself, or speak out in public, I always give in without saying a word. That’s in my character, because of the way I was brought up when I was a child. Even today, if I see a policeman, I begin to shake with fear.45

Maria Drozdova grew up in a strictly religious peasant family in Tver province. In 1930, the Drozdovs fled the countryside to escape the collectivization of their village. With false documents they moved to Krasnoe Selo near Leningrad, where Maria’s father worked in a furniture factory and her mother Anna in a hospital. Anna was an illiterate peasant woman. Convinced that the Bolsheviks were the Antichrist, whose agents heard and saw everything she did, she was afraid to go out in public or to talk outside the family’s room in the communal apartment where they lived. When her father, a church warden, was arrested in 1937, Anna became paralysed with fear. She would not leave the house. She became afraid of talking in the room, in case the neighbours overheard. In the evenings she was terrified of switching on the lamp, in case it drew the attention of the police. She was even afraid to go to the toilet, in case she wiped herself with a piece of newspaper which contained an article with Stalin’s name.46

Among acquaintances there was a tacit agreement not to talk about political events. Anyone could be arrested and forced by the police to incriminate his friends by reporting such conversations as evidence of their ‘counter-revolutionary’ activities. In this climate, to initiate political discussions with anyone except one’s closest friends was to invite suspicion of being an informer or provocateur.

Vera Turkina recalls the silence with which her friends and neighbours responded to the arrest of her father, the chairman of the provincial court in Perm:

There were three girls in the house opposite ours whose father had also been arrested… We all tried to avoid the subject. ‘He is not here, he has gone away, somewhere’, is all that we would say… My father was a victim of his ‘loose tongue’ – that’s what we understood in our family – he was too direct and outspoken, and somewhere he had said more than he should have done. The belief that talk had been the cause of his arrest reinforced our own silence.47

Silent stoicism was a common reaction to the loss of friends and relatives. As Emma Gershtein wrote about the poet Mandelshtam in 1937: ‘He did not speak of departed and now dead friends. No-one then did… Anything but tears! Such was the character of those years.’48

Silence reigned in many families. People did not talk about arrested relatives. They destroyed their letters, or hid them from their children, hoping it would protect them. Even in the home it was dangerous to talk about such relatives, because, as it was said, ‘the walls have ears’. After the arrest of her husband, Sergei Kruglov, in 1937, Anastasia and her two children were moved into a communal apartment, where a thin partition wall separated them from the family of an NKVD operative in the neighbouring room. ‘Everything was audible, they could hear us sneeze, even hear us talk in the quietest whisper. Mama was always telling us to be silent,’ recalls Tatiana Kruglova. For thirty years, they lived in fear of talking, because they were convinced that their NKVD neighbour was reporting what they said (in fact he kept them in this state of fear because he wanted quiet and obedient neighbours).49

After the arrest of her father, Natalia Danilova was taken by her mother to live with her family, the Osorgins, where all talk about her father was prohibited. The Osorgins were a noble family, and several of its members had been arrested by the Bolsheviks, including the husband of Natalia’s aunt Mania, who ruled the household with her forceful personality. ‘She was hostile to my father, perhaps because he was a peasant and a socialist,’ Natalia recalls. ‘She seemed to think he was guilty, that he had merited his own arrest, and that through his actions he had brought trouble to the family. She forced this version of events upon the rest of us. She alone had the right to speak about such things; the rest of us could only whisper in dissent.’50

Families developed special rules of conversation. They learned to speak elliptically, to allude to ideas and opinions in a manner that concealed their meaning from strangers, neighbours and servants. Emma Gershtein recalls a cousin’s wife, Margarita Gershtein, a veteran oppositionist, who was living with her family in Moscow for a while. One day Margarita was talking about the pointlessness of opposing Stalin and was in the middle of a sentence (‘Of course, we could rub out Stalin, but…’) when

the door opened and into the dining-room came Polya, our housemaid. I shuddered and was terrified, but Margarita, without altering her lazy pose, rounded off the phrase in exactly the same intonation, in the same clear voice: ‘so, Emmochka, go ahead and buy the silk, don’t hesitate. You deserve a new dress after all you’ve done.’ When the housemaid had left, Margarita explained that one should never give the impression of having been caught unawares. ‘And don’t creep about furtively or look uneasily around you.’51

Children, talkative by nature, were particularly dangerous. Many parents took the view that the less their children knew the safer everyone would be. Antonina Moiseyeva was born in 1927 to a peasant family in Saratov province. The Moiseyevs were categorized as ‘kulaks’ and exiled to a ‘special settlement’ in the Urals in 1929. After their return to Chusovoe, a town near Perm, in 1936, Antonina’s mother made a point of telling her children:

‘You must not judge anything, or you will be arrested,’ she always said. We would stand all night in a queue for bread, and she would say to us, ‘You must not judge! It’s none of your business if the government doesn’t have bread.’ Mama told us that it was a sin to pass judgement. ‘Hold your tongue!’ she would always say when we left the house.52

Vilgelm Tell grew up in a Hungarian family in Moscow. His father was arrested in one of the ‘national operations’ in 1938, when Vilgelm was nine years old. As far as he recalls, there were no specific warnings or instructions from his mother or his grandparents about how he should behave, but he sensed the atmosphere of fear:

I knew subconsciously that I had to keep quiet, that I could not speak, or say what I thought. For example, when we travelled in a crowded tram, I knew I had to remain silent, that I could not mention anything, not even things I saw out the window… I also sensed that everybody felt the same way. It was always quiet in public places like a tram. If people spoke, it was only about something trivial, like where they had been shopping. They never spoke about their work or serious things.53

Oksana Golovnia remembers travelling on a crowded Moscow bus with her father, Anatoly, the film-maker, and mentioning her ‘uncle Lodia’ (the film director Pudovkin):

Papa whispered in my ear: ‘Never say anybody’s name when you are in a public place.’ To my inquiring and frightened look, he then said aloud: ‘Don’t those little dumplings look just like little ears!’ I knew what he meant to say – that someone sitting near by was listening. Papa’s lesson stood me in good stead for life.54

In his diary of 1937 Prishvin wrote that people were becoming so adept at concealing meaning in their speech that they were in danger of losing the capacity to speak the truth altogether.

10 July:

Behaviour in Moscow: one cannot speak of anything or with anyone. The whole secret of behaviour is to sense what something means, and who means it, without saying anything. You have to eliminate completely in yourself any remnant of the need to ‘speak from the heart’.55

Arkadii Mankov noted a similar phenomenon in his diary:

It is pointless to talk about the public mood. There is silence, as if nothing has happened. People talk only in secret, behind the scenes and privately. The only people who express their views in public are the drunks.56

As people drew into themselves, the social realm inevitably diminished. ‘People have completely ceased to confide in each other,’ Prishvin wrote in his diary on 9 October. It was becoming a society of whisperers:

The huge mass of the lower class simply goes about its work and whispers quietly. Some have nothing to whisper about: for them ‘everything is as it ought to be’. Others whisper to themselves in solitude, retreating quietly into their work. Many have learned to keep completely silent… – as if lying in a grave.57

With the end of genuine communication, mistrust spread throughout society. People concealed their true selves behind public masks. Outwardly they conformed to the public modes of correct Soviet behaviour; inwardly they lived in a realm of private thought, inscrutable to public view. In this atmosphere fear and terror grew. Since no one knew what was concealed behind the mask, it was assumed that people who seemed to be normal Soviet citizens could in fact be spies or enemies. On the basis of this assumption denunciations and reports of ‘hidden enemies’ became credible, not just to the general public but to colleagues, neighbours and friends.

People sought refuge in a private world of truth. Some people took to diary-writing during the Great Terror. In spite of all the risks, keeping a diary was a way to carve out a private realm free of dissembling, to voice one’s doubts and fears at a time when it was dangerous to speak.58 The writer Prishvin confessed his greatest fears to his diary. In 1936, he had been attacked by literary bureaucrats in the Writers’ Union for a bitter comment he had made at a New Year’s party, a comment he now feared would cost him his freedom. ‘I am very frightened,’ he wrote, ‘that these words will drop into the file of an informer reporting on the characteristics of Prishvin the writer.’ Prishvin withdrew from the public sphere and retreated to his diary. He filled its pages with a microscopic scrawl, barely legible with a magnifying glass, to conceal his thoughts from the police in the event of his arrest and the seizure of the diary. For Prishvin, his diary was an ‘affirmation of individuality’ – a place to exercise his inner freedom and speak in his own true voice. ‘One either writes a diary for oneself,’ Prishvin mused, ‘to dig down to one’s inner self and converse with oneself, or one writes to become involved in society and secretly express one’s views on it.’59 For Prishvin, it was both. He filled his diaries with dissident reflections on Stalin, on the destructive influence of Soviet mass culture, and on the indestructibility of the individual human spirit.

The playwright Aleksandr Afinogenov began keeping a diary in 1926. He filled it with self-criticisms and thoughts on how he could improve himself as a Communist. Then, in the middle of the 1930s, he ran foul of the regime: the psychological perspective of his proletarian plays fell out of favour with the literary authorities, now committed to the doctrines of Socialist Realism. His play The Lie (1933) was attacked by Stalin, who said it lacked a positive Communist hero dedicated to the workers’ cause. The literary group he belonged to – led by the former head of RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers) Leopold Averbakh – was said to be a ‘Trotskyist agency in literature’ plotting the downfall of the Soviet regime. In the spring of 1937, Afinogenov was expelled from the Party and evicted from his Moscow apartment by the NKVD. He moved to his dacha in Peredelkino, where he lived with his wife and daughter in almost total seclusion, not speaking to anyone. Old friends turned their back on him. One day, on a train, he overheard a conversation between two army officers who expressed their satisfaction that ‘the Japanese spy Averbakh’ had finally been caught and that his ‘henchman Afinogenov’ was in jail awaiting trial. As Afinogenov retreated to his inner world, his diary changed in character. There were still moments when he criticized himself, when he accepted the charges against him and tried to purge himself as a Communist, but there was more introspection, more pyschological immediacy, and more use of the ‘I’ rather than the ‘he’ which he had used before to refer to himself. The diary became a secret refuge for his private thoughts and reflections:

2 November 1937

Coming home, I sit down with my diary and think only of my private corner of the world, which remains untouched by politics, and I write about that. Now that I have been excluded from the general flow of life, I suddenly feel the need to talk with people about everything that’s going on… but now that yearning for communication can only be fulfilled in these pages, because nobody will speak with me.60

Yevgeniia (Zhenia) Yevangulova started keeping a diary in December 1937, the year both her parents were arrested. The diary became a place for her to pour her emotions and keep up what she called an ‘internal conversation’ with her parents, who had disappeared in the Gulag. ‘The burning hope will not leave me that one day my loved ones will read this diary, so I must try to make it true,’ she wrote in the opening entry. For Yevangulova, a student at the Leningrad Institute of Technology, the diary was increasingly important as a connection to her individual self, which she feared was being submerged in the institute’s collective way of life. She wrote on 8 March 1938: ‘Maybe I have not expressed this correctly: my inner self has not gone away – whatever is inside a personality can never disappear – but it is deeply hidden, and I no longer feel its presence within me.’ She felt that her personality could only be expressed through genuine connection with others – but there was no one. Her fellow students mistrusted her as the daughter of ‘enemies of the people’; all she had was her diary. As she wrote in December 1939: ‘Sometimes I feel a desperate yearning to find a true friend, someone who could understand me, somebody with whom I could share all my agonizing thoughts, apart from this silent diary.’61

Arkadii Mankov, like Yevangulova, yearned for human connection. He decided to show his diaries to a fellow student on the course he attended at the Public Library in Leningrad. Mankov’s diary was filled with anti-Soviet thoughts, so it was an act of immense trust, even foolishness, to reveal it to a man he hardly knew, but as he confessed to his diary, he had acted out of ‘loneliness, the daily, endless loneliness in which I lead my aimless life’.62

Prishvin too succumbed to the temptation for human connection. In December 1938, he asked a friend to help him find a secretary who could assist him with editing his diaries. He realized how dangerous it could be to let a ‘stranger into my laboratory and understand the whole of me’. That night he had a nightmare. He was crossing a big open square and lost his hat. He felt that he had been laid bare. Asking a policeman where his hat had gone, he suddenly recalled, as he analysed it in his diary, that he had ‘asked a stranger to get involved in the most intimate details of my life. The loss of my hat of secrecy had exposed me.’ The woman who arrived at Prishvin’s house a few days later for an interview was also apprehensive about the idea of working on the diaries of a man she did not know. She suggested that the two of them should get to know each other before they started on the work. They talked without a break for eight hours. They fell in love and within a year they were married.63


Informers were everywhere – in factories and schools and offices, in public places and communal apartments. By any estimate, at the height of the Great Terror millions of people were reporting on their colleagues, friends and neighbours, although it is hard to be precise because there are only scattered data and anecdotal evidence. According to one senior police official, every fifth Soviet office worker was an informer for the NKVD. Another claimed that regular informers numbered 5 per cent of the adult population in the major urban areas (in popular belief the number was higher still). The level of surveillance varied widely between cities. In Moscow, which was heavily policed, there was at least one informer for every six or seven families, according to a former NKVD official. In Kharkov, by contrast, there were only fifty informers in a city of 840,000 people (that is one informer for every 16,800 people), according to a former NKVD man, who claimed to have controlled all the city’s informers. Between these two extremes the city of Kuibyshev may be more representative of the Soviet Union as a whole: in 1938, the police claimed to have about a thousand informers in a population of 400,000 people.64 These figures represent only the registered informers, regularly used by the police and usually rewarded in some form (with money, jobs, housing, special rations, or protection from arrest). They do not include the millions of paid ‘reliables’ (factory and office workers, student activists, watchmen, janitors, etc.) who acted as the eyes and ears of the police in every nook and cranny of society.65 Nor do they count the everyday reporting and denunciation – unsolicited by the NKVD – which made the police state so powerful. Everybody knew that ‘loyal Soviet citizens’ were expected to report suspicious conversations they had overheard: fear of punishment for ‘lack of vigilance’ compelled many people to collaborate.

There were two broad categories: voluntary informers, who were usually motivated by material rewards, political beliefs or malice towards their victims; and involuntary informers, who were entrapped by police threats or promises to help arrested relatives. It is difficult to condemn the informers in the second category: many found themselves in almost impossible situations where anybody might have given in to pressure from the NKVD.

In 1943, the writer Simonov was visited by ‘X’, a former classmate at the Literary Institute. After the arrest of his father, ‘X’ had been threatened with expulsion from the institute, unless he agreed to write reports about the conversations he overheard among his fellow students. From 1937 on, ‘X’ had worked as an informer for the NKVD. Moved by guilt and feelings of remorse, he sought out Simonov to warn him that he had reported their conversations. ‘X’ was ‘overcome with shame,’ he said. He was perhaps a little frightened too, for by 1943 Simonov had become a famous writer, with good connections to the Kremlin; it was even possible that he already knew about the reports of his former friend. ‘X’ told Simonov that he would kill himself if he discovered that anyone had suffered as a consequence of his informing. He explained that he had tried to keep his reports free of incriminating evidence, but he still felt that by his actions ‘he had made his life unbearable’.66

Wolfgang Leonhard recalls an encounter with a fellow student in 1939, a girl with whom he had always felt that he could speak quite openly. They would go for walks in the parks of Moscow and discuss the grand political issues of the moment. One day she confessed that she had given in to pressure from the NKVD to write reports on what her fellow students were saying. Sad and burdened by her conscience, she wanted to warn Leonhard that, although she had not yet been required to report on him, they should not meet and have their conversations any more.67

Valerii Frid recalls how he was recruited as an informer in 1941. He was in the Komsomol and studying at the All-Union State Film Institute (VGIK), which had been evacuated from Moscow to Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan. The food situation was desperate. Frid was involved in a petty scam involving forged ration cards. One day he was called in to the offices of the NKVD. His interrogators knew all about the ration cards and warned that he would be expelled from the Komsomol and the institute unless he agreed to their demands and proved himself to be a ‘Soviet person’ by reporting on his fellow students. Interrogated through the night, he was threatened with violence and told that he would be put on trial. Frid gave in and signed an agreement to write the reports. As soon as he had signed, his interrogators shook his hand and became kind and friendly towards him. They said that he would not get into trouble with his ration cards – in fact he was free to continue dealing – and gave him a special number to call should he have any problems with the police. On his return to the hostel Frid broke down in tears. For three days he could not sleep or eat. In the end he wrote reports on only three students. He made sure the reports were very general and contained no incriminating facts. The NKVD officer, a small man with a complete set of gold teeth, to whom Frid gave these reports, was not pleased. But Frid was saved from any punishment by VGIK’s return to Moscow in 1943.68

Sofia Ozemblovskaia became an informer when she was just seventeen. She was born into a Polish noble family in Osipovichi near Minsk in Belarus. After the Revolution of 1917, her parents turned themselves into peasant farmers, but during the collectivization of agriculture they were exiled as ‘kulaks’ to the Komi region of the North. In 1937, the family returned to Osipovichi, but they were later rearrested in one of the ‘national operations’ against the Poles and sent to a ‘special settlement’ near Perm. Sofia decided to escape. ‘I had to get away to give myself a chance in life,’ she explains. Sofia enrolled at a factory school – the quickest means of getting some ‘proletarian origins’ – and then entered the medical college in Kudymkar, a town near Perm in the Urals. No one asked her any questions about her ‘kulak’ origins. They did not even ask for her passport, which she did not have. Six months later, she was called in to the offices of the NKVD. ‘I thought they were going to put me into jail because I had run away,’ recalls Sofia. Indeed she was told that she would have to work for the NKVD if she did not want to be expelled from the college for hiding her social origins. Her task was to start up conversations with her fellow students about political events and write reports on everything they said. Sofia was given a passport. With the protection of the NKVD, she graduated from medical college and had a successful career in the ambulance service in Perm. Looking back, she feels no remorse for her actions, even though she knows that many students were arrested as a direct consequence of her reports. She believes that her actions were the necessary price of survival for a ‘kulak’ daughter in the Stalin years. Sofia married the son of a senior NKVD officer. When her children were growing up, she told them nothing about her police activities. But in the 1990s, ‘when there was freedom and nothing left to fear’, she decided to come clean:

I decided to tell my children and grandchildren everything. They were very glad. My grandson said: ‘Oh, Granny, you are very clever to remember everything. We will remember this all our lives – how you were repressed, how our parents were repressed.’69

In her memoirs Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg tells the story of a young informer, the son of a Bolshevik executed in the Great Terror, whose task was to become acquainted with other children whose parents had been arrested. He reported every word of dissatisfaction they said, every doubt and question they raised. Many of his friends were arrested as a result of his reports. Olga met some of them in the Butyrki prison after her own arrest in 1949. She asked them what they thought about the boy. They were strangely understanding. The general opinion was that he was a ‘good boy, but naive, who believed every slogan he heard and every word he read in the newspapers’. The boy’s mother, ‘a wonderful and honest woman’, insisted to Olga that her son had not acted out of any malice but from the highest convictions. ‘She talked a lot about his exceptional kindness, his brilliance and honesty.’ Perhaps the boy felt he was acting patriotically by denouncing his own friends for the cause of Soviet power – just as the boy hero Pavlik Morozov had done in denouncing his father.70

Undoubtedly, during the Great Terror, many people wrote denunciations in the sincere conviction that they were performing their patriotic duty as Soviet citizens. They believed the propaganda about ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’ and set out to expose them, even among their friends. But above all, they were afraid of getting into trouble if somebody they knew was arrested and they had failed to denounce them: it was a crime to conceal one’s contacts with the enemy and ‘lack of vigilance’ was itself the cause of thousands of arrests. In the climate of universal fear people rushed to denounce others before they were denounced by them. This mad scramble of denunciations may not explain the enormous numbers of arrests in the Great Terror – most of the NKVD’s victims were arrested en masse in the ‘national’ and ‘kulak operations’ which did not depend on denunciations but on a prepared list of names – but it does explain why so many people were sucked into the police system as informers. Hysterical citizens would appear at the NKVD and Party offices with the names of relatives and friends who might be ‘enemies of the people’. They would write with details about their colleagues and acquaintances, listing even a single meeting with people who had been connected with these ‘enemies’. One old woman wrote to the Party office of her factory to inform them that her sister had once worked as a temporary cleaner in the Kremlin and had cleaned the office of a man who was later arrested.71

Fear drove people to try to purge themselves – to put themselves on the side of the pure – by removing the stain of contact with potential ‘enemies’. Many of the most fanatical informers were people with a ‘spoilt biography’ (the children of ‘kulaks’ and ‘class enemies’ or former oppositionists) who had more reason than most to fear arrest. Informing on their friends became a way to prove their worthiness as ‘Soviet citizens’. The NKVD had a deliberate policy of recruiting informers from vulnerable groups. They often picked on the relatives of the arrested who feared arrest themselves. Aleksandr Karpetnin, a former NKVD operative who was himself arrested in 1938, recalls his training in the recruitment of informers:

You would look for people who had something suspicious in their background. Let’s say a woman whose husband had been arrested. The conversation would go like this:

‘Are you a true Soviet citizen?’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘Are you ready to prove it? Everyone says they’re good citizens.’

‘Yes of course I’m ready.’

‘Then help us. We won’t ask much. If you notice any anti-Soviet acts or conversations, let us know. We can meet once a week. Beforehand you should write down what you noticed, who said what, who was present when they spoke. That’s all. Then we’ll know that you really are a good Soviet citizen. We’ll help you if you have any problems at work. If you’re sacked or demoted, we’ll help you.’

That was it. After that the person would agree.72

Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg tells the story of a young woman named Zina, a mathematics teacher from Gorkii, whom she met in the Lubianka jail. Zina had been arrested for failing to denounce one of her teachers, a lecturer in dialectical materialism who came to Gorkii from Moscow once a week. In conversations with Zina the lecturer had openly expressed his criticisms of the Stalinist regime. Because he stayed in Gorkii in a dormitory, he had used Zina’s apartment to entertain his friends and had kept a trunk of his books there. When the NKVD carried out their search, it turned out the books were Trotskyist. Zina acknowledged her guilt. She decided to expiate her sin and ‘clean all the stains from [her] conscience’ by informing on other ‘enemies’ to the NKVD. She told her interrogators about a certain professor who had given lectures at her institute. One day there had been a power cut while the professor was performing an experiment. There were no candles, so, as she explained, Zina

split a ruler and lit a splinter from it, as the peasants do, to provide light. The professor finished his experiment by the light of the splinter and at the end remarked [poking fun at Stalin’s famous phrase], ‘Life has become better, life has become more joyous. God be praised, we have reached the age of the splinter!’

The professor was arrested. Zina did not feel that she had acted wrongly in denouncing him – just a little awkward when she had to confront him during his interrogation. Asked by Olga what she thought about having ‘ruined someone’s life’ for such a petty thing, Zina replied: ‘There are no petty things in politics. Like you, I failed to understand at first the criminal significance of his remark, but later I realized.’73

Many denunciations were motivated by malice. The quickest way to remove a rival was to denounce him as an ‘enemy’. Lower-class resentments of the Bolshevik elite fuelled the Great Terror. Workers denounced bosses, peasants denounced kolkhoz chairmen, if they were too strict in their demands. Servants were frequently employed by the NKVD to inform against their employers. Markoosha Fischer, the Russian wife of an American journalist, employed a nanny who believed in ‘enemies’. She ‘truly represented the mentality of the woman and man on the street’, Markoosha wrote. ‘She was not bothered by political doubts and accepted every official utterance as gospel.’74 There were families that lived in constant fear of their servants.

In 1935, the NKVD placed new servants in the homes of many Party workers in Leningrad, as part of the campaign to increase surveillance following the assassination of Kirov. Anna Karpitskaia and Pyotr Nizovtsev, senior Party officials in Leningrad, were forced to sack their old housekeeper Masha, the devout Old Believer who had made herbal remedies. The new housekeeper, Grusha, was a ‘stern, unpleasant woman’, recalls Anna’s daughter Marksena, who was then aged twelve. ‘She had been sent to us by the police so that she could keep an eye on us.’ Marksena and her younger half-brothers realized instinctively that they were not to talk in Grusha’s presence. ‘We barely ever said a word to her,’ Marksena recalls. Grusha slept in the kitchen, apart from the family rooms, where Milia, the nanny who had been with the family for many years, was allowed to live. Grusha was also treated as a servant, unlike Milia or their old housekeeper, who had been considered part of the family. Anna and Pyotr were hostile to Stalin. Marksena remembers whispered conversations in which her parents shared their suspicions that Stalin was responsible for Kirov’s death. They could have spoken openly in the presence of Masha – her religious background as an Old Believer had been a guarantee of her silence – but it was dangerous to voice such sentiments when Grusha was around. In July 1937, Marksena’s parents were arrested (they were both shot in the autumn of that year). Her younger brothers were taken to an orphanage. Marksena moved to a communal apartment with her nanny Milia. Grusha disappeared.75

In this atmosphere of mistrust, hatred and malice it did not take a lot for petty arguments and jealousies to turn into denunciations. In 1937, Boris Molotkov, a country doctor from the Gorkii region, was approached by the district NKVD officer, an old friend of the family, who asked him to perform an abortion for his mistress. When Molotkov refused (abortions were illegal at that time), the NKVD officer arranged a series of informers to denounce the doctor as a ‘counter-revolutionary’. Boris was arrested and imprisoned in the district jail. His wife was also arrested on trumped-up charges for the murder of a worker in the local hospital.76

Sexual and romantic interests often played a part in these deadly arguments. Unwanted lovers, wives and husbands – they were all denounced in large numbers in the Great Terror. Nikolai Sakharov was an engineer. His father was a priest who had been executed in 1937, but Nikolai was valued for his expertise in industry, and thought this would protect him from arrest. But then one day someone took an interest in his wife and denounced him as an ‘enemy of the people’. Lipa Kaplan got into trouble with her factory boss when she refused his sexual demands. The boss arranged for an informer to denounce Lipa on the basis of some comment she had made after Kirov’s murder three years earlier. At that time she had not been arrested (the denunciation was considered too absurd) but in 1937 it was sufficient to send her to Kolyma for ten years.77

Career motives and material rewards provided incentives for nearly all informers, although these motives were often mixed with political beliefs and fears in complex ways. Thousands of lower-ranking officials made their way up the Soviet hierarchy by reporting on their bosses (as the regime had encouraged them to do). One man, Ivan Miachin, promoted his career by denouncing no less than fourteen Party and Soviet leaders in Azerbaijan between February and November 1937. Justifying his activities, Miachin later said, ‘We thought this was what we had to do… Everybody was writing.’ Perhaps Miachin thought that he was displaying vigilance. Perhaps he derived malicious pleasure from ruining the lives of his superiors, or pride from helping the police. There were informers of that type: busy-body letter-writers who carefully numbered their reports and signed them ‘One of us’ (svoi) or ‘Partisan’ to demonstrate their loyalty. But personal promotion, better pay and rations, or the promise of more living space, certainly played their part. When an apartment was vacated by the arrest of its inhabitants, it was often taken over by the NKVD officers, or divided up and occupied by other servitors of the Stalinist regime, such as office workers and chauffeurs, some of whom had no doubt been rewarded for giving information on the previous occupants.78

Ivan Malygin was an engineer in Sestroretsk, north of Leningrad. He was highly skilled and respected by the workers in his factory, who called him the ‘tsar-engineer’ and even helped his family when he was arrested by the NKVD. Malygin was something of a local celebrity. He wrote textbooks, popular pamphlets, and articles for the Soviet press. He lived with his wife and their two children on the outskirts of the town in a large wooden house, which he had built himself. But, as often happens, his wealth and fame attracted jealousy. Malygin was arrested on the basis of a denunciation by a colleague at the factory, who was envious of his success. He claimed that Malygin used his house to maintain secret contacts with the Finns. It turned out that the denunciation had been organized by a small group of NKVD officers, who forced Malygin to sell them his house for 7,000 roubles (it had recently been valued at nearly half a million). The officers threatened to arrest his wife if he refused to sell. Malygin was shot. His wife and children were evicted from the house, which was taken over by the NKVD officers and their families.79 Their descendants live there to this day.

The Whisperers

The Malygin house in Sestroretsk, 1930s

To make a career in the years of the Great Terror necessarily involved moral compromise, if not by outright informing, then by silent collusion with the Stalinist regime. Simonov, whose own career took off in these years, wrote with extraordinary candour and remorse about what he saw as the collaboration of the silent Soviet majority in the Great Terror. In his memoirs, dictated on his death-bed in 1979, Simonov accused himself:

To be honest about those times, it is not only Stalin that you cannot forgive, but you yourself. It is not that you did something bad – maybe you did nothing wrong, at least on the face of it – but that you became accustomed to evil. The events that took place in 1937–8 now appear extraordinary, diabolical, but to you, then a young man of 22 or 24, they became a kind of norm, almost ordinary. You lived in the midst of these events, blind and deaf to everything, you saw and heard nothing when people all around you were shot and killed, when people all around you disappeared.

Seeking to explain this detachment, Simonov recalled his own reaction to the arrest in 1939 of Mikhail Koltsov, a hugely influential writer, whose reports from the Spanish Civil War were an inspiration to the young literary circles in which Simonov moved. Deep down Simonov had never believed that Koltsov was a spy (as he confessed to the writer Fadeyev in 1949), yet somehow at the time he had managed to suppress his doubts. Whether out of fear and cowardice, or the desire to believe the state, or simply from an instinct to avoid subversive thoughts, he had made a small interior accommodation in order to conform to the necessities of the Stalinist regime. He had realigned his moral compass so as to navigate his way through the moral morass of the Great Terror with his own career and beliefs intact.80

Simonov was not an informer, but he was pressured by the Soviet authorities, which perhaps wanted him to become one. In the spring of 1937, Simonov was invited by Vladimir Stavsky, the Secretary of the Writers’ Union, to join three other young prose writers from the Literary Institute on a working holiday in the Caucasus. They were to write about the life of Sergo Ordzhonikidze, the former Commissar for Heavy Industry, a famous Georgian and comrade of Stalin in the Civil War, who had just committed suicide. Shortly before they were due to leave, Simonov was summoned to Stavsky’s office. Stavsky demanded that Simonov tell him ‘all about the anti-Soviet conversations [he had been conducting] at the institute’. He wanted him to confess and repent, to put him in a position where it would be difficult to refuse the demands of the authorities. When Simonov denied that he had held such conversations, Stavsky claimed to ‘have information’ about him. He told him it was ‘best to tell the truth’. Stavsky ‘was clearly irritated by my apparent inability to be sincere and speak the truth’, recalled Simonov. After several rounds of accusations by Stavsky and denials by Simonov, there was a stalemate, with Simonov refusing to cooperate. Stavsky accused him of spreading ‘counter-revolutionary poetry’ and banned him from the trip. Gradually it dawned on Simonov where Stavsky’s ‘information’ had come from. Among the students at the institute there was a craze for Kipling’s poetry. One day Simonov was drawn into a conversation about Kipling with a young teacher who then asked him what he thought about the poetry of Nikolai Gumilyov (who had been shot as a ‘counterrevolutionary’ in 1921). Simonov replied that he liked some of Gumilyov’s poetry, though not as much as Kipling’s. Encouraged by the teacher, he recited some of Gumilyov’s verse. As he recalled the scene, Simonov felt terrified for the first time in his life. He knew he was in danger of arrest, not just for his views on Gumilyov, but also on account of his noble origins, which were, it seems, connected by the teacher to Simonov’s indulgence of Gumilyov in his report to Stavsky. For the rest of the academic term Simonov avoided the teacher, who was himself arrested later that year (he had turned informer in a last desperate effort to save himself and had tried to entrap Simonov).81

By the spring of 1937, the Literary Institute was in a state of high anxiety. Like other Soviet institutions, the institute had been caught unawares by the sudden launching of the Great Terror; and inside it there was a sense of panic that this surprise attested to a ‘lack of vigilance’. At a series of purge meetings, students and teachers called hysterically for greater ‘Bolshevik vigilance and real self-criticism’ to rid the institute of all ‘formalists’ and ‘Averbakhians [Trotskyists]’. Several students were arrested, some for liberal or religious motifs in their poetry, others for defending Boris Pasternak (who had been criticized in the Soviet press for his individualistic style). About a dozen students were ‘worked over’ by the Komsomol (i.e. forced to recant their work at a student meeting where they were severely criticized). One of these students was expelled from the institute and handed over to the NKVD after she refused to renounce her father, a poet then out of favour, and bravely told her massed accusers: ‘My father is the most honourable person in the Soviet Union.’ For this she did ten years in Kolyma.82

Two of Simonov’s good friends at the institute suffered persecution in the Great Terror: the poet Valentin Portugalov was arrested in February 1937, after a fellow student reported to the police something he had said; and in April of that year, Vladimir Lugovskoi, the charismatic teacher, was denounced by the Presidium of the Writers’ Union for having allowed the republication (in 1935) of some poems from the 1920s (romantic verses about Russian nature), which had since come to be considered ‘politically harmful’. Forced to recant his poems, Lugovskoi wrote ‘On My Mistakes’, a ten-page exercise in self-abasement, in which he pledged to purge himself of ‘all the outmoded thoughts’ that had prevented him from ‘keeping up with the march of history’.83 Lugovskoi was terrified. For the next few years he published no poetry, except for a ‘Song About Stalin’, which was set to music in 1939.84 A soft-spoken and mild-mannered man, Lugovskoi also made a series of rabid political speeches in which he called for the blood of enemies. ‘It is time,’ he told a group of Moscow writers in October, ‘to purge our country of all those bastard-enemies, the Trotskyists, to sweep away with an iron broom all those people who betrayed our Motherland, and to purge those elements within ourselves.’85

Simonov, too, reacted out of fear. Until the incident in Stavsky’s office, he had been regarded as a model student and Soviet loyalist, but now this reputation was in doubt. Looking back at the Stavsky incident, Simonov recalled that he was ‘stunned and shocked, not so much by a sense of sudden danger… but more by the realization that they no longer believed or trusted me’. He set out to prove his worth in a series of attacks against the ‘formalists’ and other ‘enemies’ at the purge meetings in the institute.86 The most extraordinary of these speeches, which he gave at an open meeting of the institute on 16 May, included a vitriolic condemnation of his friend Yevgeny Dolmatovsky:

Often there are conversations [in the institute] where people only speak about themselves. In particular, I recall having to listen to a disgusting speech by Comrade Dolmatovsky at a meeting of the fourth class. He did not say, ‘the institute’ and ‘we’, but rather, ‘I and my institute.’ His position was: ‘The institute does not pay enough attention to individuals like me. The institute was founded to educate two or three talents, like me, Dolmatovsky, and only that justifies its existence. For talents like me – Dolmatovsky – the institute should lay on the best of everything, even at the expense of the rest of the students.’87

Perhaps Simonov had spoken in the spirit of self-criticism (which included criticism of one’s closest friends) that had always been a part of the Komsomol ethos. Students were expected to demonstrate that they were loyal and vigilant. Perhaps he had meant no harm to his friend, although he was clearly jealous of the high regard for Dolmatovsky’s talent, which was frequently expressed by the institute’s Director (who placed Simonov in a lower category that was ‘only good enough for teaching, journalism, or editorial work’).88 In the event, Simonov’s denunciation had relatively minor consequences for Dolmatovsky. After graduating from the institute in 1938, he was sent to work as a journalist in the Far East – a posting well below his literary worth and one which he described as the hardest in his life. It could have been much worse. The two men remained on amicable terms and often wrote in praise of each other, but among Simonov’s friends there was always the suspicion that Dolmatovsky harboured a grudge against him.89

As for Simonov, the years of the Great Terror, which were so catastrophic for many of his friends, catapulted him to prominence as a poet favoured by the Stalinist regime. In 1937, he contributed several poems to the cult of Stalin, including one, ‘Parade’, which was written for an orchestra and chorus:

This is a song about Him,

About his true friends,

His true friends and comrades.

The whole people

Are His friends:

You cannot count them,

They are like drops of water in the sea.90

In ‘Ice Battle’ (1938) Simonov counterposed the nationalistic story of the thirteenth-century Russian prince Aleksandr Nevsky and his military defeat of the Teutonic Knights with the Soviet struggle against foreign and domestic enemies (a theme also handled in the epic film by Sergei Eisenstein, Aleksandr Nevsky, which was made in the same year). The poem, which was part of the propaganda effort to prepare the country for the likelihood of war with Germany, was the first real literary success for Simonov. It brought him ‘fame and popularity’, in the words of Lugovskoi, who cited it in recommending him for membership to the Writers’ Union in September 1938.91 Whatever damage had been done to Simonov’s career by his refusal to become an informer was rectified, it seems, by the patriotic verses he had written since, for he was accepted as the youngest member of the Union with the full approval of Stavsky.

Simonov’s betrayal of Dolmatovsky was not unusual in the frenzied atmosphere of the Great Terror. One informer recalled how he struggled with his conscience when approached by the NKVD to report on his friends (who had turned their back on him after the arrest of his father). He asked himself: ‘Who are my friends? I have no friends. I owe loyalty to no one but those who can extract it from me – and to myself.’92 Fear tore apart the bonds of friendship, love and trust. It tore apart the moral ties that hold together a society, as people turned against each other in the chaotic scramble to survive.

After her arrest, in 1937, Yevgeniia Ginzburg was betrayed by many of her friends. They were forced to denounce her to her face during her interrogation in the Kazan jail (such ‘confrontations’ were frequently arranged by the NKVD). One of them was Volodia Diakonov, a writer on the editorial staff at the newspaper where she had worked. ‘We were old friends,’ Ginzburg recalls.

Our fathers had been schoolmates, I had helped him to get his job, and had gladly, almost lovingly, taught him his trade as a journalist. He was five years my junior. He had often said he was as fond of me as of a sister.

During their confrontation the interrogating officer (who spoke Russian poorly) read out the statement that Diakonov had made, denouncing Ginzburg as a member of a ‘counter-revolutionary terrorist group’ at the newspaper. Diakonov attempted to deny this, claiming he had only said that she had held an important post on the editorial staff, but the officer insisted that he sign a statement confirming the existence of such a group.

‘Volodya,’ I said mildly, ‘you know it’s a trick. You never said anything of the kind. By signing this you’ll be causing the death of hundreds of your comrades, people who have always been decent to you.’

[The interrogator’s] eyes nearly popped out of his head.

‘How dare you exert pressure on witness! I send you straight away to the lowest punishment cell. And you, Dyakonov, you signed all this yesterday when you were alone here. Now you refuse! I have you arrested at once for giving false evidence.’

He made a show of reaching for the bell – and Volodya, looking like a rabbit in front of a boa constrictor, slowly wrote his name in a hand as shaky as though he had had a stroke and quite unlike the bold sweep of the pen with which he signed his articles on the moral code of the new age. Then he whispered almost inaudibly:

‘Forgive me, Zhenya. We’ve just had a daughter. I have to stay alive.’93


How did people respond to the sudden disappearance of colleagues, friends and neighbours in the Great Terror? Did they believe that they were really ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’, as claimed by the Soviet press? Surely they could not think that of people they had known for many years?

For true Communists there could be no doubting what they were told by the Party leadership. It was not a matter of whether they believed that Tukhachevsky or Bukharin was a spy, but whether they accepted the judgement of the Party in which they placed their faith. There were all sorts of ways to resolve the questions which arose when a trusted friend and comrade suddenly became an ‘enemy’. Anatoly Gorbatov, a Red Army officer in Kiev, recalls the adjustment which he, like many in the army, had to make when Tukhachevsky and other senior military leaders were denounced as spies.

How can it be that men who took such a part in routing foreign interventionists and internal reactionaries… have suddenly become enemies of the people?… Finally, after mulling over a host of possible explanations, I accepted the answer most common in those days… ‘Obviously,’ many people said at the time… ‘they fell into the nets of foreign intelligence organizations while abroad…’

When General Iakir was arrested it was a ‘terrible blow’.

I knew Yakir well and respected him. Deep down, I nursed a hope that it was only a mistake – ‘It will be sorted out and he will go free’ – but this was the sort of thing that only the closest friends risked saying among themselves.94

Apparently, Iakir himself was prepared to accept the Party’s decision, judging from his final words before the firing squad: ‘Long live the Party! Long live Stalin!’95

Stalin’s jails were full of Bolsheviks who continued to believe in the Party as the source of all justice. Some confessed to the charges against them just in order to preserve that faith. Although torture was frequently employed to extract confessions from the Bolsheviks, the ‘decisive factor’ in their surrender was not violence, according to a former prisoner (who was not a Communist), but the fact that the majority of convinced Communists had to at all costs preserve their faith in the Soviet Union. To renounce it would have been beyond their powers. Great moral strength is required in certain circumstances to renounce one’s long-standing, deep-rooted convictions, even when these turn out to be untenable.96

Nadezhda Grankina encountered many Party members in the Kazan prison in 1938. They all continued to believe in the Party line. When she told them of the famine in 1932, they said ‘it was a lie, that I was exaggerating so that I could slander our Soviet way of life’. When she told them how she had been kicked out of her home for no reason, or how the passport system had destroyed families, they would say, ‘True, but that was the best way to deal with people like you.’

They thought I had got what I deserved because I was critical of the excesses. Yet when the same happened to them, they thought it was a mistake that would be fixed – because they had never had any doubts whatsoever, and whatever instructions had come down from the top, they had always cheered and carried them out… And when they were being expelled from the Party, none of them stood up for each other; they all kept quiet or raised their hands in support of the expulsion. It was some kind of universal psychosis.97

For the mass of the population there were always two realities: Party Truth and truth based on experience. But in the years of the Great Terror, when the Soviet press was full of the show trials and the nefarious deeds of ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’, few were able to see through the propaganda version of the world. It took extraordinary will-power, usually connected to a different value-system, for a person to discount the press reports and question the basic assumptions of the Terror. For some people it was religion or their nationality that allowed them to take a critical view; for others a different Party creed or ideology; and for others still it was perhaps a function of their age (they had seen too much in Russia ever to believe that innocence protected anybody from arrest). But for anyone below the age of thirty, who had only ever known the Soviet world, or had inherited no other values from his family, it was almost impossible to step outside the propaganda system and question its political principles.

The young were particularly credulous – they had been indoctrinated in this propaganda through Soviet schools. Riab Bindel remembers:

At school they said: ‘Look how they won’t let us live under Communism – look how they blow up factories, derail trams, and kill people – all this is done by enemies of the people.’ They beat this into our heads so often that we stopped thinking for ourselves. We saw ‘enemies’ everywhere. We were told that if we saw a suspicious character on the street, we should follow and report him – he might be a spy. The authorities, the Party, our teachers – everybody said the same thing. What else could we think?

After leaving school, in 1937, Bindel found a job in a factory, where the workers regularly cursed the ‘enemies of the people’.

When the factory had a breakdown, they would say: ‘Comrades, there is sabotage and treachery!’ They would look for someone who had a blemish on his record and call him an enemy. They would put him in prison, beat him up until he confessed that he had done it. At his trial they would say: ‘Look at the bastard who was working secretly among us!’98

Many workers believed in the existence of ‘enemies of the people’ and called for their arrest because they associated them with the ‘bosses’ (Party leaders, managers and specialists) whom they already blamed for their economic difficulties. Indeed, this mistrust of the elites helps to explain the broad appeal of the purges among certain sections of the population, which perceived the Great Terror as a ‘quarrel among the masters’ that did not affect them. This perception is neatly illustrated by a joke that circulated widely in the years of the Terror. The NKVD bangs on the door of an apartment in the middle of the night. ‘Who’s there?’ the man inside asks. ‘The NKVD, open up!’ The man is relieved: ‘No, no,’ he tells them, ‘you’ve got the wrong apartment – the Communists live upstairs!’99

The arrest of a close relative was not enough to shake most people from their belief in ‘enemies’. Indeed, in many cases it reinforced it. Ida Slavina, whose father was arrested in 1937, held firm to her Komsomol convictions until 1953:

I didn’t believe that my father was an enemy of the people. Of course I thought that he was innocent. Yet at the same time I believed that there were undoubtedly enemies of the people. I was utterly convinced that it was through their sabotage that good people like my father were being wrongly put in jail. The existence of these enemies was obvious to me… I read about them in the press and hated them as much as anyone. With the Komsomol I went on demonstrations to protest against the enemies of the people. We cried: ‘Death to the enemies of the people!’ The newspapers gave us these slogans. They filled our heads with the show trials. We read the terrible confessions by Bukharin and other Party leaders. We were horrified. If such people were spies, then the enemies were everywhere.100

Roza Novoseltseva, whose parents were arrested in 1937, never thought that they were really ‘enemies’, but she was prepared to believe that senior Party leaders like Bukharin might be, because, as she put it at the time, ‘someone has to be responsible for the tragic circumstances of our family’. Vladimir Ianin, who grew up in a family of Soviet diplomats, believed all the charges against the ‘enemies of the people’ – he thought that Yezhov was a ‘great man’ – even though his father, his older sister, six of his uncles and an aunt were all arrested in the Great Terror. It was only after the arrest of his mother, in 1944, that he began to question his belief. He wrote to Stalin to tell him that his mother was entirely innocent and to warn him that her arrest had proved that the NKVD had been taken over by the ‘enemies of the people’.101

Even Stalin’s victims continued to believe in the existence of ‘enemies of the people’. They blamed them for their own arrest (which they put down to ‘counter-revolutionary sabotage’) or presumed that they themselves had been mistaken for real ‘enemies of the people’. Dmitry Streletsky was the son of a ‘kulak’ family exiled as ‘enemies of the people’. He continued to believe in all the propaganda of the Stalinist regime, becoming an ardent Stalinist until 1953. Looking back on his life, Streletsky believes that ‘it was easier for us [the repressed] to survive our punishments if we continued to believe in Stalin, to think that Stalin was deceived by enemies of the people, rather than to give up hope in him.’

We never thought that Stalin was to blame for our suffering. We only wondered how it was that he did not know that he was being duped… My father himself said: ‘Stalin does not know, which means that sooner or later we are bound to be released [from exile]’… Perhaps it was a form of self-deception, but psychologically it made life much easier to bear, believing in the justice of Stalin. It took away our fear.102

Pavel Vittenburg, the geologist who spent many years in labour camps, supported the Great Terror against ‘enemies of the people’. As he explained in a letter to his wife from an expedition to Severnaia Zemlia in February 1937:

You asked if I heard about the trial of Piatakov on the radio. I heard it all – and now I understand that my own downfall is entirely due to those scoundrels the Trotskyists – they tried to destroy our [Soviet] Union. So many innocent non-party people have been sent into exile as a consequence of their dark ways.103

For those who were less certain about the existence of all these ‘enemies of the people’, it was not so much the show trials that gave rise to doubts (few people questioned the veracity of the prosecution case) as the sudden disappearance of colleagues, friends and neighbours, whose guilt did not seem plausible.

A common way to deal with such troubling thoughts was not to think – to shun all politics and withdraw entirely into private life. Many people managed to live through the Great Terror oblivious to political events, even the political elite, who must have shut their eyes to the disappearances in their circle. Mikhail Isaev was a leading Soviet jurist, a member of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union, who lived in Moscow in some style with his wife and their four children. Throughout the years of the Great Terror there was never any talk of politics at home, judging from the recollections of his wife Maria, even though the mass arrests affected many friends. Isaev seemed astonishingly unaware of what was going on, even in his own house. In a letter to his daughter, written in December 1937, he complained about the disappearance of the housekeeper, an elderly spinster, who had not come to work for several days. The house was in disorder, and Isaev was obviously annoyed that she had ‘gone away without any warning whatsoever’. He had ‘no idea’ why the housekeeper had disappeared and wondered whether he should fire her. It never crossed his mind that the housekeeper had been arrested – as indeed she had – and that she had nobody to pass a message to her employers.104

Many of the children of these elite families were sheltered from political events. Nina Kaminskaia, the daughter of a lawyer and former Kadet (liberal) activist, never thought about politics – the subject was avoided in her parents’ home. Even when her father lost his job in a Soviet bank, Nina went on living her ‘carefree student life’ at the law school where she had enrolled in 1937. Years later, she discussed this with a friend. Both of them agreed that they had lived quite happily through the Great Terror, without fear or even much awareness of what was going on: ‘We had simply failed to perceive the horror and despair that gripped our parents’ generation.’ Nina’s friend recalled an incident from 1937. She had come home from a party late at night and had lost her key:

There was nothing for it but to ring the bell and wake up her parents. For a long time there was no response, so she rang a second time. Soon she heard footsteps and the door was opened. There stood her father, dressed as though he had not been to bed at all but had just come in or was on the point of going out again. He was wearing a dark suit, a clean shirt, a neatly tied necktie. On seeing his daughter he stared at her in silence and then, still without a word, slapped her across the face.

Nina knew her friend’s father. He was a cultivated man, without any violence in him. His reaction to the late-night knock was obviously sparked by his fear that ‘they’ had come for him. At first her friend was shocked by the assault:

Overcome by self-pity, she burst into tears and reproached her father, but after a while she completely forgot about the incident. Years passed before she recalled her father’s pale face, his silence, and that blow – no doubt the only time in his life he ever hit anyone. She told me this story with great pain, racked by guilt at her own incomprehension and that of our whole generation.105

People dealt with their doubts by suppressing them, or by finding ways to rationalize them so as to preserve the basic structures of their Communist belief. They did not do this consciously and generally only became aware of their behaviour years later. Maia Rodak’s father was denounced as an ‘enemy of the people’ in 1937 because he had inadvertently uttered a phrase once used by Trotsky in a letter to the Soviet authorities. After his arrest, Maia tried, as she now understands, to reconcile her doubts about the Terror with her Communist beliefs.

I was troubled by so many questions. In reaction, I made myself become a conformist. That’s what happened, although I use the word ‘conformist’ only now… It was not a game but a strategy of survival. For example, my friend Alla and I did not like the cult of Stalin, but the idea that it might be wrong was simply inadmissible, even to ourselves. I was aware of the constant need to correct myself, to purge myself of doubts.106

In his memoirs Simonov reflects on his reaction to the arrest of a relative (the brother of his mother’s aunt), a senior army officer, in connection with the trial of Tukhachevsky and other senior military commanders in 1937. Simonov recalls that he had his doubts about the guilt of the accused. As a boy he had worshipped Tukhachevsky (whom he had often seen at his uncle’s Moscow flat). Simonov’s mother was irate about the arrest and certain of their relative’s innocence. Consequently, Simonov weighed up the evidence with special care, but in the end he decided to accept what he had read in the Soviet press. Like most people at that time, Simonov assumed that nobody would dare to execute such senior commanders without conclusive evidence of treason against them:

It was impossible to doubt the existence of a dreadful conspiracy. Any doubts on that score were inconceivable – there was no alternative. I am talking of the spirit of those times: either they were guilty or it was impossible to understand.

By the same reasoning Simonov was ready to accept that his relative was guilty of some crime. Because his relative had been arrested once before (in 1931) and then released for lack of evidence, it seemed to Simonov that his rearrest must mean that firmer proof about his guilt had now come to light (a conclusion reinforced by the fact that his stepfather, who had also been arrested in 1931, was now left untroubled by the police).107 In other words, Simonov interpreted the indicators in a way to reinforce his system of Communist belief, because disbelief was ‘inconceivable’.

Another way for people to reconcile the sudden disappearance of friends and relatives with their belief in Soviet justice was to tell themselves that some good people were arrested ‘by mistake’. According to this rationale, there were bound to be errors in identifying the true ‘enemies of the people’, because there were so many ‘enemies’, and they were so well hidden. In this way of thinking, the real enemy was always someone else – the sons and husbands of all the other women in the queue to hand in parcels at the prison gates – and never one’s own friends and relatives.

Recalling the arrest of her husband in 1936, Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg summarized her reaction:

No, it was impossible; it couldn’t happen to me, to him! Of course there had been rumours (just rumours – it was only the beginning of 1936) that something was going on, that there were arrests. But surely all this happened to other people; surely it couldn’t happen to us.108

Olga’s husband thought that there had been some ‘misunderstanding’ when he was arrested by the NKVD. Like millions of others, he left saying to his wife that it would all soon be sorted out (‘It must be a mistake’). Sure that he would soon return, he took only an overnight bag. Slavin and Piatnitsky did the same.

Convinced that an error had been made, many people wrote to Stalin to appeal for the release of relatives. Anna Semyonova, who was brought up as a Communist, recalls writing to Stalin after the arrest of her father in June 1937. ‘I imagined that after a few days Stalin would receive my letter, read it and say, “What is going on? Why has an honest man been arrested? Release him immediately and apologize to him.”’ Three months later, when Anna’s mother was taken away, she told herself again that ‘it must be a mistake’.109

The downfall of Yezhov, the NKVD chief behind the Great Terror, reinforced this system of belief. Yezhov was brought down amidst a host of scandals (not all of them entirely false) about his private life in the autumn of 1938. There were homosexual affairs, bisexual orgies, bouts of heavy drinking and fantastic stories of his wife as an ‘English spy’. But the real reason for Yezhov’s fall was Stalin’s growing sense that mass arrests were no longer a workable strategy. At the rate the arrests were going, it would not be long before the entire Soviet population was in jail. Stalin made it clear that the NKVD could not carry on incarcerating people, solely on the basis of denunciations, without checking their veracity. He warned against careerists who made denunciations to promote their position in society. After Yezhov’s dismissal in December 1938, his replacement, Lavrenty Beria, immediately announced a full review of the arrests in Yezhov’s reign. By 1940, 1.5 million cases had been reviewed; 450,000 convictions had been quashed, 128,000 cases closed, 30,000 people released from jail, and 327,000 people let out of the Gulag’s labour camps and colonies. These releases restored many people’s faith in Soviet justice. They allowed waverers to put the ‘Yezhov terror’ (Yezhovshchina) down to a temporary aberration rather than to systemic abuse. The mass arrests had all been Yezhov’s doing, it was said, but Stalin had corrected his mistakes and exposed Yezhov as an ‘enemy of the people’ who had been trying to undermine the Soviet government by arresting its officials and spreading discontent. On 2 February 1940, Yezhov was tried by the Military Collegium, convicted of a terrorist conspiracy and of spying for Poland, Germany, Britain and Japan and shot in a special building which he himself had built for shooting ‘enemies’ not far from the Lubianka.110

Beria’s appointment was greeted with relief. ‘We were overjoyed by the appearance of this pure and ideal figure, as Beria appeared to us,’ remembers Mark Laskin, who hoped, like many people, that ‘all the innocents would now be released, leaving only the real spies and enemies in jail’.111 Simonov recalls that Beria’s review was enough to restore his belief in Soviet justice and dispel any doubts he may have had over the arrest of relatives. Indeed, its effect on Simonov was to reinforce his conviction that anybody who was not released, or who was arrested subsequently, must be guilty of some crime. Recalling his reaction to the arrest in 1939 of the writer Isaak Babel and the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, Simonov confessed:

Despite the importance of these men in literature and the theatre, and the huge shockwaves which their sudden disappearance caused – already at that time – the fact that these arrests were so sudden and, in general, in those circles, so unusual, and because they took place under Beria, who was correcting Yezhov’s mistakes – all this made me think: maybe these men are indeed guilty of something. Many of the people arrested during Yezhov’s reign were perhaps innocent, but these people had been left untouched by Yezhov and were suddenly arrested when the old mistakes were being corrected. So it seemed likely that there were good reasons for their arrest.112

One of the people to have serious doubts about the charges against Meyerhold and Babel was Vladimir Stavsky, the former General Secretary of the Writers’ Union, who had attempted to recruit Simonov as an informer. Born into a working-class family in the provincial town of Penza, Stavsky could not have risen to the summit of the Soviet literary establishment without learning how to compromise his moral principles. As Stalin’s ‘executioner of Soviet literature’, he had authorized the arrests of numerous writers and personally wrote the denunciation which led to the arrest of Mandelshtam in the spring of 1938.113 But all this time Stavsky was tormented by doubts and fears. He confessed his despair to his diary, which, like Prishvin, he wrote in a tiny scrawl, barely legible to anybody else. Stavsky was particularly troubled by a story he had heard about a Party official who used his chauffeured car as a brothel. ‘I don’t understand how it happened,’ the chauffeur had said of the official. ‘He was just an ordinary boy, one of us, but then he crossed some dividing line and turned into a pig with his whole mug covered in filth. A regular worker doesn’t get that dirty in a whole lifetime.’114 Perhaps as a response to his loss of faith, Stavsky began drinking heavily, put on weight and became ill, often not appearing at work for days on end, as he recovered from his latest alcoholic binge. He avoided meetings where writers were denounced, or only spoke against them in the mildest terms. For this he himself was finally denounced by the Party Committee of the Writers’ Union in November 1937:

As the leader of the Writers’ Union, comrade Stavsky makes a lot of noise about the need for vigilance in literature, he calls for a campaign for the revelation of enemies. But in reality he has helped to conceal the Averbakhians, he does not really speak out to disarm the enemies of the people and alien elements of the Party and he remains silent about his own mistakes in habouring connections with the enemy.115

Stavsky came under growing pressure from his political masters and was ultimately dismissed from the leadership of the Writers’ Union in the spring of 1938.

There were many people, like Stavsky, who had doubts about the mass arrests, but few who spoke out against them. The possibilities for effective opposition were extremely limited in any case, as Piatnitsky’s protest at the Party plenum clearly showed. Groups and individuals wrote to Party leaders to express their outrage at the mass arrests but nearly always did so anonymously. ‘Hundreds of thousands of innocent people are languishing in jails, and no one knows what for… Everything is based on lies,’ wrote one unnamed group to Molotov in June 1938 (‘Excuse us if we do not sign our names, it is forbidden to complain’).116 There were some protests by Party members in the localities, particularly by the older Bolsheviks, whose political morals had been formed before the rise of Stalin.

Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg tells the story of one Old Bolshevik called Altunin she came across in Kolyma in 1939. He came from somewhere in Voronezh province and had worked as a tanner before joining the Party. A handsome middle-aged man with a reddish beard, he had once been very strong, but working in the mines had weakened him. By the time Olga met him he had been transferred to a women’s construction brigade in Magadan, where he worked as a toolmaker. He told Olga his story:

When it all started in 1937, first this comrade was an enemy, then that one, and we expelled them from the Party, we all raised our hands; and then we killed them all, our own comrades.

At first I pretended to be ill. That way I didn’t have to go to the Party meetings and raise my hand. But then I saw that something needed to be done: we could not go on like this, we were destroying the Party, killing good and honest people. I did not believe that they were all traitors, I knew these people well.

One evening I sat down and wrote a letter. I sent one copy to my local Party organization, one to Stalin, and one to the [Party’s] Central Control Commission. I wrote that we were killing the Revolution… I poured my whole heart into this letter. I showed it to my wife. She said: ‘This is suicide. The day after you send that letter they will put you in prison.’ But I said: ‘Let them put me in prison. Better to be behind bars than to raise my hand and kill a comrade.’

Well, she was right. I sent my letter and three days later I was in jail. They worked me over – and I got ten years in Kolyma.

Asked if he ever regretted what he had done, Altunin replied that there had been one occasion, when he was thrown into an isolation cell after his labour team had failed to clear the tree-roots of a forest in a very heavy frost:

Suddenly I felt really sorry for myself: other people had been sentenced for nothing, but I had put myself away. And what was the point of writing what I wrote? Nothing would change. Maybe Solts [head of the Central Control Commission] felt a bit ashamed, but the old Moustache [Stalin] – what did he care? There was no getting through to him. And right now, I thought, I could be sitting at home with my wife and children around the samovar in a warm room. As soon as I thought that, I began beating my head against the wall to stop such thoughts from entering my mind. All night long I ran around my cell cursing myself for such regrets.117

The only source of opposition capable of having any real influence was within the system of repression itself. Judges in the local courts were often quite effective in softening sentences, sometimes even throwing cases out on the grounds of lack of evidence, though after the summer of 1937, almost all the people swept up in the mass arrests were summarily tried and sentenced by the troikas, the special three-man tribunals (usually made up by the NKVD, the Procuracy and the Party) set up to circumvent the courts.118 Within the NKVD, too, there were some brave officials willing to speak out against the mass arrests, particularly during the ‘kulak operations’, which reminded many local NKVD agents of the bloody chaos in 1928–33. Eduard Salyn, the NKVD chief in Omsk province, spoke out at a conference convened by Stalin and Yezhov to discuss the ‘kulak operation’ in July 1937. Salyn said that in his region there were

insufficient numbers of enemies of the people and Trotskyists to warrant a campaign of repression, and in general I consider it to be completely wrong to decide beforehand how many people to arrest and shoot.

Shortly after the conference Salyn was arrested, tried and shot.119

Mikhail Shreider was another NKVD officer who voiced his opposition to the mass arrests. In his memoirs, written in the 1970s, he describes himself as a ‘pure Chekist’, inspired by the Leninist ideals of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka in 1917. Shreider wrote his memoirs to justify his work in the Cheka and portray himself as a victim of the Great Terror. According to his version of events, he became disillusioned with the Stalinist regime as he observed the corruption of his fellow NKVD officers during the 1930s. Comrades he had known as decent and honest men were now prepared to use any form of torture against ‘enemies of the people’, if it meant advancing their careers. Shreider was also troubled by the scale of the arrests. He could not believe in the existence of so many ‘enemies of the people’. But he was afraid to express his doubts in case he was denounced. He soon discovered that many of his colleagues shared his fear, but no one would break the conspiracy of silence. Even when a trusted colleague disappeared, the most that any of his comrades dared to say was that he might be an ‘honest man’. Nobody suggested that he might be innocent, because this would expose them to the risk of denunciation for questioning the purge. ‘No one understood why all these arrests were happening,’ recalled Shreider, ‘but people were afraid to speak out, because that might raise suspicion that they were aiding or communicating with the “enemies of the people”.’120

For several months, Shreider watched in silence as old friends and colleagues were arrested and sentenced to death. Unable to oppose the Terror, he became a sort of conscientious objector by not attending the executions of NKVD colleagues in the Lubianka yard. Then, in the spring of 1938, Shreider was transferred to Alma-Ata, where he became the second-in-command to Stanislav Redens, the NKVD chief of Kazakhstan (and the brother-in-law of Stalin). Shreider and Redens became close friends. They lived next door to each other, and their families were always in each other’s homes. Shreider noticed Redens’ growing disgust with the torture methods of his operatives. He thought that Redens was a man of humane sensibilities. Redens, for his part, had marked out Shreider as somebody who shared his doubts about the methods used in the Great Terror. Late one night he drove him out of town and stopped the car. The two men got out and began to walk. When they were out of earshot of the chauffeur, Redens said to Shreider. ‘If Feliks Eduardovich [Dzerzhinsky] were still alive, he would have the lot of us shot for the way we’re working now.’ Shreider made out that he did not understand: to show complicity in such a thought was enough to warrant his immediate arrest, and he could not be sure that what his boss had said was not a provocation. Redens continued talking. It became clear to Shreider that he had meant what he had said. Shreider opened up his troubled soul as well. Once this trust had been established, the two men confided in each other. Redens regretted that all the decent Communists had been destroyed, while the likes of Yezhov remained untouched. Yet there were still subjects that were too dangerous for him to talk about. Looking back on these whispered conversations, Shreider thought that Redens knew far more about the Terror than he had let on: ‘His situation and the circumstances of the times obliged him, like all of us, not to call things by their name, and not to talk about such things, even with his friends.’121

Shreider was emboldened by his conversations with Redens. They made him feel remorseful and angry. He wrote to Yezhov to protest against the arrest of an old colleague in the NKVD, and against the arrest of his wife’s cousin, a student in Moscow, vouchsafing the innocence of both these men. A few days later, in June 1938, Redens received a telegram from Yezhov ordering the arrest of Shreider. Presented with this news in Redens’ office, Shreider begged Redens to appeal to Stalin: ‘Stanislav Frantsevich, you know me well, and you, after all, are his brother-in-law. It must be a mistake.’ Redens replied: ‘Mikhail Pavlovich, I shall put in a word for you, but I fear it is hopeless. Today it is you, no doubt tomorrow it will be my turn.’ Shreider was imprisoned in the Butyrki prison in Moscow. In July 1940, he was sentenced to ten years in a labour camp followed by three years in exile. Redens was arrested in November 1938. He was shot in January 1940.122


On the night of her father’s arrest, in May 1937, Elena Bonner was sent by her mother to stay with her aunt Anya and her uncle Lyova so that she would be out of the way during the NKVD search of the Bonner apartment. The fourteen-year-old Elena walked through Leningrad and knocked on the door of her relatives. ‘The door opened immediately, as if they were expecting me,’ recalls Elena, who then explained to her aunt and uncle what had happened. Her uncle was frightened and angry. He started asking questions about her father’s work:

I didn’t understand what he was getting at and tried to enter the apartment. Anya said something. Lyova practically shouted at her, ‘Anya, damn it, you’re always…’ And he barred my way with his right arm across the doorway. Then he spoke in a loud whisper, very fast, ‘We can’t let you in; we can’t. What’s the matter? Don’t you understand that?’ He repeated it several times, spraying me with his spittle. Anya said something. I could see her mouth moving, but I heard nothing except Lyova’s whisper as loud as a shout. I retreated from the door until my back was pressed against the bannister. The door slammed. I stood there, unable to comprehend what had happened to me. Then I wiped my face with my hand and started down the stairs. I hadn’t reached the bottom of the flight when I heard the door opening. When I turned, Lyova was in the doorway. I was afraid he would call me back. But he said nothing and then started to close the door slowly. I shouted, ‘Scoundrel!’ and I saw him turn white.123

There are countless such stories of abandonment by friends and neighbours and even by kin following the arrest of a close relative. People were afraid of making contact with the families of ‘enemies of the people’. They crossed the street to avoid them, did not talk to them in the corridors of communal blocks and forbade their children to play with theirs in the courtyard. People removed the photographs of friends and relatives who had disappeared, sometimes even tearing out or scribbling over faces in family portraits.

According to Solzhenitsyn:

The mildest and at the same time the most widespread form of betrayal was not to do anything bad directly, but just not to notice the doomed person next to one, not to help him, to turn away one’s face, to shrink back. They had arrested a neighbour, your comrade at work, or even your close friend. You kept silence. You acted as if you had not noticed.124

Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg recalls that when her husband was arrested,

People spoke to me in a special tone of voice; they were afraid of me. Some would cross the road when they saw me coming towards them. Others paid me special attention, but this was heroic on their part, and I and they were both aware of it.125

After the arrest of her parents, in June 1937, Inna Gaister and her sister were evicted from their family dacha at Nikolina Gora. On the instructions of their parents they were taken by their nanny to the house of the poet Aleksandr Bezymensky, an old friend of their father, who they hoped would take them in. The poet drove them to the nearest station and put them on the first train to Moscow. ‘He was too afraid to get involved,’ recalls Inna. ‘He often used to stay in my grandmother’s house, but he and his wife had a new baby, and fear must have got the better of his decency.’126

When Stanislav and Varvara Budkevich were arrested, in July 1937, their daughter Maria and her younger brother were evicted from the family’s two rooms in the communal apartment where they had lived in Leningrad. The rooms were then occupied by one of their neighbours, a wife and husband with three small children, who had been on friendly terms with the Budkeviches until 1937, when the wife had denounced them to the NKVD as counter-revolutionaries and spies (Stanislav was of Polish origin). The woman had even claimed that Varvara, a historical researcher, was a prostitute who brought her clients to the apartment. Maria’s brother was taken to an orphanage, but she was left entirely by herself; she was then just fourteen. For the first few days Maria stayed with a schoolfriend. Then she found a room where she lived on her own. An old friend of the family, the wife of a Bolshevik official, advised Maria to ask her former neighbours if they knew anything about the whereabouts of her parents. When Maria went back to the communal apartment, she received a hostile reception:

My God, they were so afraid of me, they would not even let me in. Can you imagine? The woman who had taken over our rooms was annoyed and angry to see me. Whether her husband had already been arrested or was afraid that they would come for him, I don’t recall. Maybe the family was in trouble. Anyway they would not help. The woman simply said: ‘I don’t know anything. Nothing. Understand? And please don’t come here again!’127

Neighbours became strangers overnight. For nearly thirty years the Turkins had lived next to the Nikitins. They shared the ground floor of a three-storeyed wooden house on the corner of Soviet and Sverdlov Streets in Perm – the seven Turkins (Aleksandr, Vera and their two daughters, Vera’s mother and her brother and sister) occupying three rooms on the right side of the house, and the Nikitins, a family of four, occupying three rooms on the left. Aleksandr Turkin was a veteran Bolshevik, one of Sverdlov’s comrades from the revolutionary underground in Perm. Like all his family, Aleksandr was employed at the Motovilikha steelworks. He was also a journalist for the local newspaper and a judge in the regional court. In 1936, he was arrested as a Trotskyist. His guilt was accepted as a ‘proven fact’ by his wife Vera, a factory worker who took no interest in politics. Vera’s mother, a domineering woman who ran the Turkin household, also thought that Aleksandr was guilty. She cut his face out of the family portrait in the living room. ‘If we have an enemy among us, we must clear him out,’ she said. Vera was dismissed from her job at the Motovilikha plant after being injured in an accident (as the wife of an ‘enemy of the people’ she did not qualify for sickness benefit). The only job that she could find was selling newspapers in a street kiosk. Vera’s brother and her sister Valia were also sacked from jobs at the plant. Valia, who was pregnant, was immediately renounced by her husband, who was granted a divorce on political grounds. The family struggled to make ends meet. There was never much to eat. But the hardest thing to bear, according to Vera’s daughter, was their ostracism by friends and neighbours:

Everybody was afraid of us. They were afraid to talk to us, or even come near us, as if we had the plague and would infect them… Our neighbours avoided us, they forbade their children to play with us… In 1936 [when Aleksandr was arrested], nobody said anything about ‘enemies of the people’ – they just remained silent. But by 1937 everybody called us ‘enemies of the people’.

The Nikitins, too, turned their backs on their neighbours. Anatoly Nikitin was a senior accountant at the Motovilikha works. Perhaps it was his fear of being sacked that made him cut all links with the Turkins. The two families used to eat together in a shared kitchen; their children used to play together in the yard outside. But now they kept apart and did not talk. The Nikitins even wrote to the Soviet to renounce their old neighbours and were rewarded with an extra room at the expense of the Turkins. Valia and her young baby were moved out of their room. They joined Valia’s brother and mother in the room next door. Anatoly’s sister then took over Valia’s room, which was joined with the Nikitin side by reopening a connecting door.128

The Whisperers

The Nikitin and Turkin apartments, Perm

The Piatnitskys were similarly ostracized after Osip’s arrest in July 1937. Evicted from their apartment, with barely enough money to feed her sons, Julia turned for help to old friends in the Party. First she went to Aron Solts, a close friend of Osip for nearly thirty years. When she knocked on his door, Julia was told by his housekeeper: ‘He is afraid. He will throw me out if he sees you here. He told me to tell you that he does not know you.’ Julia then turned to Tsetsiliia Bobrovskaia, an Old Bolshevik whom she had known since 1917. At first she, too, refused to see Julia, but then she agreed to let her come in ‘for a few minutes’ before she went to work. She did not want to listen to Julia’s story but told her tearfully: ‘Go directly to the authorities, to Yezhov. Don’t ask anything of your comrades. Nobody will help and nobody can help.’ A few days later, Julia was on the Metro when she came across the widow of the Bolshevik leader Viktor Nogin: ‘She looked at me but said nothing… Then Lapev – a railwayman who knew Piatnitsky well – came into the carriage: he saw me and then for the whole journey turned to face the other way.’ Julia’s sons, Igor and Vladimir, were similarly abandoned by their friends. Vladimir’s best friend, Yevgeny Loginov, the son of one of Stalin’s secretaries, stopped coming to visit them. No one called on them any more. Vladimir was the target of a bullying campaign at school. ‘They taunted me, calling me an enemy of the people,’ he recalls, ‘and they stole things from me, books and clothes, just because they knew that I couldn’t defend myself.’ Isolated and betrayed by all her friends, Julia reflected on the tenuous nature of human connection. She wrote in her diary on 20 July:

How awful people are to one another these days! I am convinced that if someone is friendly, or even just acts in a friendly or ‘comradely’ way, it’s not from any human interest or feelings of goodwill, but simply because of some sort of material interest, or other kind of advantage. Everybody knows we’ve lost everything, that we have nothing to live on, that we have nothing to eat, and yet no one lifts a finger to help us. We are dying, and nobody is interested.129

As Elena Bonner discovered, even relatives turned their backs on the families of ‘enemies of the people’. Aleksei Yevseyev and his wife Natalia were active Communists. Aleksei was a doctor, a senior consultant to the Red Army on venereal disease, Natalia an economist in the Far Eastern Timber Trust. They lived with their daughter Angelina in Khabarovsk in the Far East. In 1937, Aleksei and Natalia were both expelled from the Party (Aleksei was connected to Marshal V. K. Bliukher, whose Far Eastern Army was the target of a major purge). Angelina, who was then fifteen, recalls her father coming home after his expulsion from the Party:

He was terror-struck. He came home and said in horror: ‘They’re going to arrest me!’ I was just a stupid girl, fifteen years of age, and I said: ‘If you are arrested, it means it is necessary.’ My father had always said to me, ‘If they are arrested, it means it is necessary.’ All my life I have lived with the echo of my words: ‘It means it is necessary.’ I didn’t understand what it was all about.

Aleksei was arrested on 1 June. He was convicted of participating in a ‘Fascist plot against the Soviet government’ (he was shot in Khabarovsk in March 1938). After his arrest, Natalia and Angelina were evicted from their flat. Fearful of her own arrest, Natalia fled with Angelina to Moscow, where her family lived, hoping to leave her daughter in the care of relatives. At fifteen years of age, there was a danger that Angelina would be taken to an orphanage in the event of Natalia’s arrest. None of Natalia’s relatives, all ardent Communists, would help. Her younger sister, a Komsomol activist, when asked to take in Angelina, replied: ‘Let Soviet power bring her up, we do not need her.’ Natalia’s mother was even more hostile. She told her granddaughter to her face: ‘I hate your father, he is an enemy of the people, and I hate you as well.’ For several days, Natalia and her daughter slept on a bench in the park, until at last they were taken in by Andrei Grigorev and his wife, old friends of Aleksei from his student days at Moscow University’s Faculty of Medicine. At enormous personal risk, the Grigorevs concealed Angelina in the communal apartment where they lived, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. Angelina had no legal papers allowing her to remain in the Soviet capital, but the Grigorevs’ neighbours in the communal apartment (among them Molotov’s sister-in-law) turned a blind eye to the hideaway: it suited them to keep the doctors in the house. Leaving her daughter in Moscow, Natalia returned to Khabarovsk, where she was arrested a few weeks later.130

Shamsuvali and Gulchira Tagirov were schoolteachers in the Tatar region of Barda, 140 kilometres south-west of Perm. Shamsuvali was a revolutionary activist who had played a leading role in the establishment of the kolkhoz in their village of Akbash. In 1936, Shamsuvali was arrested as a ‘Muslim nationalist’ along with thirty-four other Tatar teachers and religious leaders in the Barda area (he was shot in 1938). Gulchira was left on her own with six children, the eldest aged eleven and the youngest just a few weeks old. As one of the people in the village who could read (in Tatar and in Russian), Gulchira was respected by the villagers, who made sure that she had enough food to feed her family. Even the arresting officer, who was filled with remorse for having to arrest a good man like Tagirov, helped Gulchira and her family. He brought them milk or fed them at his house. Once a week he passed letters between Gulchira and Shamsuvali, who was imprisoned in Barda. ‘Forgive me,’ he wrote to Shamsuvali in a letter of his own, ‘I had no choice. They forced me to arrest you, even though I knew that you were innocent. Now I shall redeem my guilt and help your family.’ Gulchira stayed on as a teacher in the Akbash village school, although her lessons were often monitored by NKVD operatives; they checked for signs of Muslim nationalism in everything she said.

In 1937, Gulchira and her six children were evicted from their house, following a denunciation by the chairman of the village Soviet. With their possessions on a horse and cart, they walked 20 kilometres to the village of Yekshur, where Shamsuvali’s mother lived with her eldest son in a large two-storeyed house with room to spare. Shamsuvali’s mother was an educated and religious woman: her house was full of books. But she refused to take them in. She blamed Gulchira for the arrest of her son. Having heard the rumours of her daughter-in-law’s growing friendship with the arresting officer, perhaps she suspected that Gulchira had played an active part in Shamsuvali’s arrest. Gulchira’s daughter, Rezeda, believes that her father’s relatives were motivated by the fear that Gulchira was an ‘enemy of the people’ who had been responsible for the arrest of her husband and who might endanger them as well. Shamsuvali’s mother told Gulchira that her house was full. She would not let her in, or even give her food for the children after their long walk. That night the family of Shamsuvali’s younger brother moved into the spare rooms on the second floor (he sold his own house in Akbash, where he was a trader, to consolidate the move). Turned away by her husband’s family, Gulchira and her children found a room to rent from a kolkhoz worker on the edge of the village. Shamsuvali’s mother came to visit them on one occasion but complained about the noise made by the children and did not come again. Gulchira and her children lived in Yekshur for fifteen years, but only rarely did they see the Tagirov family, who refused to talk to them. ‘The most painful thing,’ recalls Gulchira, ‘was to see them pass us on the street – surely there was no one to hear them there – but they still wouldn’t speak to us, not even say hello.’ Gulchira’s children grew up in the same village as their cousins but rarely mixed with them. ‘We went to school with them, but we never played with them, or went to their house,’ recalls Rezeda. ‘They were always cold towards us, and we were cold towards them.’131

The Whisperers

Gulchira Tagirova and her children (Rezeda centre), 1937. The photograph was taken in a studio in Sarapul and sent to Shamsuvali in prison

Fear brought out the worst in people. Yet there were also acts of extraordinary kindness by colleagues, friends and neighbours, sometimes even strangers, who took enormous risks to help the families of ‘enemies of the people’. They took their children in, gave them food and money or put them up when they were evicted from their homes. There were Bolshevik officials and NKVD men who took pity on their victims’ families and tried their best to assist them by warning them of danger or tracking down arrested relatives.132

In March 1937, the architect Mikhail Stroikov was rearrested in exile in Arkhangelsk. His wife Elena and their ten-year-old daughter Julia were taken in by an old friend of the family, Konstantin Artseulov, who was also living in exile in the town of Mozhaisk, 100 kilometres south-west of Moscow, with his wife Tatiana and their son Oleg, who was Julia’s age. Konstantin was unemployed. An artist by training, he had been dismissed from his job as a pilot in the Soviet air force shortly before his arrest and as an exile could not find work in Mozhaisk. The whole burden of supporting the two families fell on Tatiana, who worked as a teacher in Mozhaisk. ‘They sold everything they could in order to ensure that we were fed,’ recalls Julia. ‘They risked their own necks to take us in.’ Julia remained with the Artseulovs while her mother went in search of work. In November 1937, Konstantin was denounced by a neighbour for harbouring the daughter of an ‘enemy of the people’. He was rearrested, imprisoned and later shot. Still his wife Tatiana continued to shelter Julia, carefully concealing her from their malicious neighbours. Eventually, in 1938, Tatiana smuggled Julia to Moscow, where friends of Konstantin agreed to take her in until her mother found a job. Elena came for her that summer and took her to Pushkino, a small town north of Moscow, where Konstantin’s connections helped her find a job in the Moscow City Committee of Artists, an organization responsible for producing portraits of the Soviet leaders. Elena became one of the leading portraitists of the Soviet leadership – an ironic ending for the wife of an ‘enemy of the people’.133

Oleg Liubchenko’s father, a Ukrainian journalist, was arrested in 1934 and shot in 1937. Exiled from Kiev, Oleg and his mother Vera ended up in Maloiaroslavets, a small town south-west of Moscow. They did not have a passport for Moscow, but they often went to stay there in a communal apartment on the Arbat, where Vera’s family, once well-known landowners in Riazan, had lived for several years in the 1920s. Vera’s sister still lived in the apartment. From 1936 to 1941 Oleg and his mother stayed in the flat illegally. All the inhabitants of the apartment were very welcoming, risking eviction and perhaps arrest for harbouring illegal immigrants. The elder of the apartment, an old Chekist called Klavdiia Kolchina, was particularly supportive. It was she who had originally invited Vera’s family to live in the apartment at the end of the Civil War, when she had come to Moscow from Riazan and had met them on the street. Klavdiia had known of Oleg’s father in Riazan, and was certain that he was innocent of the crimes for which he had been shot. Having been part of the Cheka, and knowing how they worked, she would often say: ‘We have laws but no legality.’ The head of the house committee was also well disposed, even though she was an active Communist. She was well aware that illegals were living in the flat but, recalls Oleg, on the rare occasions when he or his mother ventured into the courtyard, or when the head of the house committee saw them entering through a side door, she would ‘look right past us with a stern expression, as if trying not to notice us’.134 There were lots of illegals in the housing blocks of the Arbat, a prestige area of the capital that was hit hard by the Great Terror.

After Ilia Slavin was arrested in November 1937, his wife Esfir and their daughter Ida were ejected from their three-room apartment in the House of the Leningrad Soviet. They were moved to a tiny room, 8 metres square, in a communal apartment, without running water or electricity, in the distant outskirts of Leningrad. Five months later, Esfir was arrested too. She was imprisoned in the Kresty jail and then sentenced to eight years in the Akmolinsk Labour Camp for the Wives of Traitors to the Motherland (ALZhIR) in Kazakhstan. Suddenly, the sixteen-year-old Ida, who had lived the sheltered life of a professor’s daughter, was left on her own. ‘I was completely unprepared for the daily chores of existence,’ she recalls. ‘I did not even know the price of bread, or how to wash my clothes.’ Without any other relatives in Leningrad, Ida was unable to support herself; she could not even pay the rent on her small room. But she was saved by her classmates and their parents, who took turns to put her up for a few days (if they kept her any longer they would run the risk of being denounced by their neighbours for harbouring the daughter of an ‘enemy of the people’). For many of these families, housing and feeding an extra child was a real burden. For Ida the importance of their help was inestimable: ‘They not only gave me food and shelter, but the spiritual support I needed to survive.’

Ida studied hard at school for the exams she had to pass to graduate to the tenth and final class, from which she could apply to a higher institute. With help from friends, she found a cleaning job, which enabled her to pay the rent for her small room. Every day, she would travel for three hours between home and school, and then another hour to get to her cleaning job. Two nights a week, she would stand in prison queues trying to find out where her parents had been taken, and if they were still alive.

The other person to help Ida was the director of her school, Klavdiia Alekseyeva. An old and respected Party member, Alekseyeva had always been opposed to the Party culture of purging in her school and she had done her best to resist it by quietly protecting those children whose parents had been named as ‘enemies of the people’. She had, for example, organized the lodging system that had rescued not just Ida but many other orphaned children in the school. On one occasion Alekseyeva had bravely overruled the Komsomol when it had tried to expel a fifteen-year-old girl for ‘failing to denounce’ her own mother, who had been arrested as an ‘enemy of the people’. Ida recalls that Klavdiia opted for a relatively simple tactic. She was deliberately ‘naive’ and ‘literal-minded’ in her fulfilment of Stalin’s famous ‘directive’: ‘Sons do not answer for fathers.’*

In our school there were many children whose parents had been arrested. Thanks to Klavdiia, no one was expelled. There were none of those frightful meetings – which took place in other schools – where such children were obliged to renounce their parents… The day after my mother’s arrest, when I appeared at school, Klavdiia called me to her office and told me that until the end of the academic year my school meals would be paid for by the parents’ committee. She suggested that I write a letter asking to be exempted from the school exams on health grounds [thus allowing Ida to advance automatically to the tenth class]. ‘But Klavdiia Aleksandrovna,’ I replied, ‘I am perfectly healthy.’ She shrugged her shoulders, smiled and winked at me.

Ida was exempted from the exams. But life continued to be very hard, and she came close to giving up her studies many times:

When I spoke of leaving school in order to find work, Klavdiia took me to her office and told me: ‘Your parents will return – you must believe that. They will not forgive you, if you fail to finish your studies and make something of yourself.’ That inspired me to continue.135

Ida became a teacher.

Ida Slavina was not the only child to be supported by the director of her school. Elena Bonner, a classmate of Ida’s, was also helped by Klavdiia Alekseyeva. After the arrest of her parents, in the summer of 1937, Elena worked as a cleaner in the evenings, but that was not enough to pay the school fees (introduced in middle-level schools from 1938). She decided to leave school and get a full-time job, continuing her studies at night school, where she would not have to pay. Elena took the application form to Alekseyeva for her approval.

Klavdiia Alexandrovna took the piece of paper from me, read it, got up from her desk, shut the door to her office and said quietly, ‘Do you really think I’d take money from you for your education? Go!’

To get an exemption from the school fees Elena had to apply to a party official, the Komsorg, or Komsomol organizer, who ‘kept an eye on the political and moral state of the students and teachers’ and ‘terrified everyone in the school – as the obvious representative of the NKVD’. Bonner was too frightened to apply. Her school fees ended up being paid by somebody anonymously – she believes by Klavdiia herself. Looking back on these events, Elena recalls that in their class of twenty-four there were eleven children whose parents had been arrested.

We all knew who we were but we did not talk, we did not want to draw attention to ourselves, but just carried on as normal kids… I am almost certain that every one of those eleven children finished the tenth class at the same time as me – they were all saved by the director of our school.136

Of all the professions, teachers feature the most frequently as the protectors and even saviours of children such as Ida Slavina. Many teachers had been schooled in the humanitarian values of the old intelligentsia, especially in elite schools like Slavina’s. ‘Most of our teachers were highly educated, humane and liberal people,’ recalls Ida.

Our physical culture teacher had been an officer in the tsarist army and had fought in the Red Cavalry in the Civil War. He was fluent in three European languages… We had a drama group and a poetry club, both encouraged by our teachers, I now realize, as a way of exposing us to nineteenth-century literature, which had no place in the ‘Soviet classroom’. Our history teacher, Manus Nudelman, was a brilliant story-teller and popularizer of history. He was a nonconformist, both in his ideas and in the way he dressed, which was eccentric and bohemian. In his lessons he carefully avoided the cult of Stalin which was mandatory for all history lessons in those times. He was arrested in 1939.137

Svetlana Cherkesova was only eight when her parents were arrested in 1937. She lived with her uncle and went to school in Leningrad, where her teacher, Vera Yeliseyeva, taught the children to be kind to Svetlana because she was ‘an unfortunate’ (a word from the lexicon of nineteenth-century charity). Svetlana remembers:

In our class there were no enemies of the people – that was what our teacher said. She made a point of taking in the children of people who had disappeared. There were lots of them. There was one boy, for example, who was living on the streets, he was always dirty, without shoes or clothes, for there was nobody to care for him. She bought him a coat out of her own money and took him home to clean him up.138

Vera Yeliseyeva was arrested in 1938.

Dmitry Streletsky was also treated kindly by his schoolteachers in Chermoz, where his family lived in exile from 1933. His physics teacher gave him money for his lunch, which his family could not afford. Dmitry wanted to thank his teacher, but when she put the money in his hand she would put her finger to her mouth to signal that he should not speak. The teacher was afraid of getting into trouble if it became known that she had been helping the son of an ‘enemy of the people’. Dmitry recalls:

There were never any words: I never got the chance to say thank you. She would wait for me outside the dining hall and, as I passed, would slip three roubles in my hand. Perhaps she whispered something as I passed – something to encourage me – but that was all. I never spoke to her, and she did not really speak to me, but I felt enormous gratitude, and she understood.139

Inna Gaister’s school (School No. 19) was in the centre of Moscow, close to the House on the Embankment where many of the Soviet leaders lived, and it had lots of children who had lost their parents in the Great Terror. At the nearby Moscow Experimental School (MOPSh), favoured by many of the Bolshevik elite, such children would have been expelled or forced to renounce their parents after their arrest. But at Gaister’s school the atmosphere was different; the teachers had a liberal and protective attitude towards their students. After the arrest of both her parents, in June 1937, Inna went back to her school at the start of the academic year. For a long time she was frightened to tell her teachers what had happened. ‘We were brought up on the story of Pavlik Morozov,’ explains Inna, who feared that she would be expected to renounce her parents like the boy hero. But when at last she summoned up the courage and told her teacher everything, the teacher merely said: ‘Well, so what? Now let’s go to class.’ Inna’s father was one of the accused in the high-profile Bukharin trial, but none of her teachers drew attention to this fact. When school fees were introduced, her teacher paid them out of her salary (Vladimir Piatnitsky, Osip’s youngest son, a student at the same school, was also supported by a teacher). Through the influence of these courageous teachers, School No. 19 became a place of safety for children of ‘enemies of the people’. The other children were encouraged to feel protective towards them. Inna recalls an occasion involving one of the roughest boys in her class (he had been adopted by his parents from an orphanage and had severe behavioural problems). The boy had compiled a list of twenty-five ‘Trotskyists’ in the class (i.e. children of ‘enemies of the people’) and put it up on the classroom wall. He was attacked by all the other children in the class. Inna also remembers an incident connected with the Tukhachevsky trial, when Soviet schools were instructed to erase the image of this ‘enemy of the people’ from textbooks. At Gaister’s school there was a different policy:

Some of the boys were defacing Tukhachevsky’s picture in their books, adding a moustache or a pair of horns. One of our teachers, Rakhil Grigorevna, said to them: ‘I have already said this to the girls and now I will say it to you: I am going to give each of you a piece of paper, and I want you to paste it neatly into your books to cover Tukhachevsky’s face. But do it carefully, because today he may be a bad person, an enemy of the people, but tomorrow he and the others may return, and we may come to think of them all as good people once again. And then you will be able to take away the piece of paper without disfiguring his face.’140


When Sofia Antonov-Ovseyenko was arrested in the Black Sea resort of Sukhumi, on 14 October 1937, she did not realize that her husband Vladimir had been arrested three days earlier in Moscow. Vladimir was Sofia’s second husband, and Sofia his second wife. The couple had met in Prague in 1927, when Vladimir, a veteran Bolshevik who had led the storming of the Winter Palace in October 1917, was the Soviet ambassador to Czechoslovakia (he was later the ambassador to Poland and to Spain). In 1937, when Vladimir was recalled to Moscow to take up the post of Commissar of Justice, they were still very much in love, but Sofia’s arrest threw all that into doubt. After her arrest she was brought back to Moscow. From her prison cell, she wrote to Vladimir, begging him to believe that she was innocent. Sofia did not know that he would read the letter in another Moscow prison cell.

M[oscow]. 16/X. Prison.

My darling. I do not know if you will receive this, but somehow I sense that I am writing to you for the last time. Do you recall how we always said that if someone in our country was arrested then it must be for good reason, for some crime – that is for something? No doubt there is something in my case as well, but what it is I do not know. Everything I know, you know as well, because our lives have been inseparable and harmonious. Whatever happens to me now, I shall always be thankful for the day we met. I lived in the reflection of your glory and was proud of it. For the past three days I have been thinking through my life, preparing for death. I cannot think of anything (apart from the usual shortcomings that differentiate a human being from an ‘angel’) that could be considered criminal, either in relation to other human beings or in relation to our state and government… I thought exactly as you thought – and is there anybody more dedicated than you are to our Party and country? You know what is in my heart, you know the truth of my actions, of my thoughts and words. But the fact that I am here must mean that I have committed some wrong – what I do not know… I cannot bear the thought that you might not believe me… It has been oppressing me for three days now. It burns inside my brain. I know your intolerance of all dishonesty, but even you can be mistaken. Lenin was mistaken too, it seems. So please believe me when I say that I did nothing wrong.

The Whisperers

Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko with his wife Sofia (right) and stepdaughter Valentina (Valichka), 1936

Believe me, my loved one… One more thing: it is time for Valichka [Sofia’s daughter from her first marriage] to join the Komsomol. This will no doubt stand in her way. My heart is full of sorrow at the thought that she will think that her mother is a scoundrel. The full horror of my situation is that people do not believe me, I cannot live like that… I beg forgiveness from everyone I love for bringing them such misfortune… Forgive me, my loved one. If only I knew that you believed me and forgave me! Your Sofia.141

The Great Terror undermined the trust that held together families. Wives doubted husbands; husbands doubted wives. The bond between parent and child was usually the first of these family ties to unravel. The children of the 1930s, brought up on the cult of Pavlik Morozov, had been taught to put their faith in Stalin and the Soviet government, to believe every word they read in the Soviet press, even when it named their parents as ‘enemies of the people’. Children were put under pressure by their schools, by the Pioneers and the Komsomol, to renounce arrested relatives, or suffer the consequences for their education and career.

Lev Tselmerovsky was eighteen years old when his father – a shock-worker and military engineer – was arrested in Leningrad in 1938. Lev had been a member of the Komsomol, a trainee pilot, who dreamed of joining the Red Army, but after the arrest of his father he was exiled without trial as a ‘socially alien element’ to Chimkent in Kazakhstan, where he worked in a factory. His mother and two sisters lived in Kazalinsk, 500 kilometres away. In September 1938, Lev wrote to Kalinin, the Soviet President, to renounce his father and appeal against the principle of being punished for his crimes:

A few words about my father. My mother told me that he was banished to the Northern camps for being a malcontent. I personally never believed it, because I myself heard him tell his sisters how he fought against the Whites in the North. He told us about his exploits. When S. M. Kirov was assassinated, he cried… But maybe this was all a clever disguise. He did tell me a few times that he had been in Warsaw… I think that my father should be allowed to answer for himself, but I do not want to suffer the disgrace that he has caused. I want to serve in the Red Army. I want to be a Soviet citizen with equal rights because I feel that I am worthy of that title. I was educated in a Soviet school in the Soviet spirit and therefore my views are obviously completely different from his. It is heartbreaking for me to carry the papers of an alien person.142

Anna Krivko was eighteen in 1937, when her father and her uncle – both factory workers in Kharkov – were arrested. Anna was expelled from Kharkov University and kicked out of the Komsomol as an ‘alien element’. She went in search of a job to support her mother, her grandmother and her sister, who was then just a baby. She worked for a while on a pig farm but was sacked when they found out about the arrest of her father. She could not find any other employment. In January 1938, Anna wrote to her Soviet deputy, the Politburo member Vlas Chubar. She renounced her father and begged Chubar to help her family. Anna threatened to kill herself and her baby sister, if she couldn’t grow up to live a decent life in the Soviet Union. Anna’s letter of renunciation was extreme; she was desperate to prove that she was worthy of salvation as a loyal Stalinist. But it may also be that she genuinely hated her father for bringing such disaster to her family:

I do not know what my father and his brother are accused of, or how long they have been sentenced for. I feel ashamed and I do not want to know. I believe profoundly that the proletarian court is just, and if they have been sentenced, then it means they deserved it. I have no feelings of a daughter towards my father, only the higher feeling of duty as a Soviet citizen to the Fatherland, the Komsomol, which educated me, and the Communist Party. With all my heart I support the decision of the court, the voice of 170 million proletarians, and rejoice in that judgement. By my father’s own admission, he was mobilized into Denikin’s army, where he served as a White Guard for three months in 1919, and for this he was sentenced to two and a half years [in a labour camp] in 1929; that is all I know about his activities… If I had noticed any other sign of his anti-Soviet views – even though he is my father – I would not have hesitated for a moment to denounce him to the NKVD. Comrade Chubar! Believe me: I feel ashamed to call him my father. An enemy of the people cannot be my father. Only the people, who have taught me to hate all scoundrels, all enemies, without exception or mercy, can have that role. I hold on to the hope that the proletariat, Lenin’s Komsomol and the Party of Lenin and Stalin will take the place of my father, that they will care for me as their true daughter and that they will help me on my path through life.143

Some parents, after their arrest, encouraged their children to renounce them, concerned not to jeopardize their social or career prospects. Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg met a woman called Liza in the Kazan jail in 1937. Liza had grown up in St Petersburg before the Revolution. She had spent her childhood on the streets because her mother was a beggar. After 1917, Liza worked in a factory. She joined the Party and married a Bolshevik official on the factory management committee. They lived well and brought up their two daughters, the eldest Zoia and the younger Lialia, to be model Pioneers. ‘Sometimes we would have a children’s morning at the factory,’ Liza told Olga,

and our little girl Zoia would stand up and sing in her silk dress with her Pioneer’s tie, and my husband would say to me, ‘There’s not a girl in the world who is better than our Zoia. She’s going to be an Artist of the People when she grows up.’ Then I would remember how I had tramped from door to door as a child… and I loved our Soviet government so much that I would have given up my life for it.

Liza’s husband was arrested as a supporter of Zinoviev (‘If I had known that he had betrayed Lenin, I would have throttled him with my own hands,’ Liza said). Then she was arrested too. One day Liza got a letter from Zoia. It arrived late, on a Saturday, the day allotted for the prisoners to write, just as Liza was writing to Zoia:

Dear Mama, I’m fifteen years old now and I’m planning to join the Komsomol. I have to know whether you are guilty or not. I keep thinking, how could you have betrayed our Soviet power? After all, we were doing so well, and you and Papa were both workers. I remember how well we lived. You used to make us silk dresses and buy us sweets. Did you really get money from ‘them’ [‘enemies of the people’]? You’d have done better to let us go around in cotton frocks. But maybe you are not guilty after all? In that case I won’t join the Komsomol and I’ll never forgive them on your account. But if you’re guilty, then I won’t write to you any more, because I love our Soviet government and I hate its enemies and I will hate you if you are one of them. Mama, tell me the truth. I’d rather you weren’t guilty, I wouldn’t join the Komsomol. Your unhappy daughter, Zoia.

Liza had already used up three of the four allotted pages of her letter to Zoia. She thought for a moment and then wrote on the final page in big capital letters:


Liza showed the correspondence to Olga, and then banged her head on the table. Choking on her tears, she said: ‘It is better she hates me. How would she live without the Komsomol – an alien? She would hate Soviet power. It is better she hates me.’ From that day, recalls Olga, Liza ‘never said a word about her daughters and did not receive any more letters’.144

For many children the arrest of a close relative raised all sorts of doubts. All the principles they had believed as ‘Soviet children’ were suddenly in conflict with what they knew of the people they loved.

When her father was arrested as a ‘Trotskyist’, Vera Turkina did not know what to believe. Her mother and grandmother both accepted Aleksandr’s guilt. There were reports in the Soviet press about the criminal activities of her father, who was a well-known Bolshevik in Perm. Wherever Vera went, she heard people whispering about her, the daughter of an ‘enemy of the people’, behind her back. ‘My father became a source of shame,’ Vera remembers.

People said to me that if he had been arrested, then he must be guilty of something. ‘There is no smoke without fire,’ everybody said. When my mother went to ask about my father at the NKVD offices, they told her: ‘Wait and see, he will confess to everything.’ I too assumed that he must be guilty. What else was I to believe?145

Elga Torchinskaia was a model Soviet schoolgirl. She loved Stalin, venerated Pavlik Morozov and believed in the propaganda about ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’. She still thought this way when her father was arrested in October 1937. A veteran Bolshevik increasingly opposed to Stalin’s policies, he had never talked to her about his political opinions. In the Torchinsky household in Leningrad, as in many families, politics was not a subject for discussion in the presence of children. Elga thus had no perspective on the mass arrests beyond the one she had learned in school – she had no other way to understand the reasons for the arrest of her father, no way of her own to question why it had happened. In 1938, two of Elga’s uncles were arrested. One of them returned from the labour camps in 1939 and told Elga awful stories about his torture by the NKVD. Even this could not shake Elga from her conviction that if someone was arrested, it ‘must have been for something he had done’. In 1939, when she turned sixteen, Elga applied to join the Komsomol. In her application she declared that her father was an ‘enemy of the people’, and falsely claimed that he was divorced from her mother. Her declaration was a renunciation of sorts, but, as Elga now admits, she was confused at the time, she was afraid to question anything and it was from ignorance that she rejected him. ‘We were all zombies – that is what I think. My God, we were just young girls. We had been educated by the Komsomol. We believed everything we were told.’146

The silence, the lack of any news or information, exacerbated a family’s uncertainty. Without word from the arrested person or anything to prove his innocence, relatives had nothing to cling to, nothing to oppose the public assumption of guilt.

Nina Kosterina was the daughter of a long-time Bolshevik. She had a model Soviet childhood, joining the Komsomol at the end of 1936, just as the first tremors of the Terror began to register on her political consciousness. When her uncle was arrested, Nina struggled to make sense of the event. She wrote in her diary on 25 March 1937:

Something frightful and incomprehensible has happened. They say that Uncle Misha was involved with some counter-revolutionary organization. What is going on? Uncle Misha – a member of the Party from the very first days of the Revolution – and suddenly an enemy of the people!

When their landlord was arrested, Nina wondered how she would react if the arrests came closer to home:

Something strange is happening. I thought and thought, and came to the conclusion: if my father also turns out to be a Trotskyist and an enemy of his country, I shall not feel sorry for him! I write this, but (I confess) there is a gnawing worm of doubt.

In December 1937, Nina’s father was expelled from the Party and dismissed from his official position. Anticipating his arrest, he wrote to Nina to warn her: ‘you must be sure that your father was never a scoundrel… and has never blemished his name by anything dirty or base’. The letter played a crucial role: although confused and in despair, Nina was able to cling to the belief in her father’s innocence when he was finally arrested, in September 1938. As she noted in her diary:

September 7

What an ominous darkness has shrouded my whole life. Father’s arrest is such a blow… Until now I have always carried my head high and with honour, but now… Now Akhmetev [a classmate] can say to me, ‘We’re comrades in misfortune!’ And just to think how I despised him and despised his father, a Trotskyist. The nightmare thought oppresses me day and night: is my father also an enemy? No, it cannot be, I don’t believe it! It’s all a terrible mistake!

Nina’s father spent two years in prison waiting for his ‘trial’ by a troika, which sentenced him to five years in a labour camp as a ‘socially dangerous element’. In November 1940, he wrote his first letter home. Nina was touched by the beauty of the letter, in which she felt the spirit of her father, his ‘strength and freshness’, despite the hardships of the camp. But her mother was annoyed and merely asked: ‘Is he guilty, or is he not guilty? If he’s innocent, why doesn’t he appeal against the sentence?’ The next letter effectively answered her mother’s question. ‘There is nothing more to be said about my case,’ Nina’s father wrote. ‘There is no case, only a soap bubble in the shape of an elephant. I cannot refute what is not, was not, and could never have been.’147

The disappearance of a father and a husband placed enormous strain on families. Wives renounced husbands who had been arrested, not necessarily because they thought their spouses might be ‘enemies of the people’, although they may have had that thought, but because it made survival easier and gave protection to their families (many husbands for this reason advised wives to renounce them). The state put pressure on the wives of ‘enemies’ to renounce their husbands publicly. Failure to do so could have serious consequences. Some women were arrested as the ‘wives of enemies’ and sent to labour camps, with or without their children. Others were evicted from their homes, dismissed from jobs, deprived of rations and civil rights. Financial pressures were applied as well: salaries were docked, savings frozen and rents raised. To encourage women to renounce their husbands, the cost of a divorce, which normally would set a couple back 500 roubles, was reduced to just 3 roubles (the price of a canteen meal) in cases of divorce from a prisoner.148

It took extraordinary resilience, and not a little bravery, for women to resist these pressures and stand by their husbands. Irina and Vasily Dudarev had been married for nearly fifteen years when Vasily was arrested in 1937. They had met in Smolensk in the early 1920s, when both of them were training to become teachers. A Bolshevik from the Civil War, Vasily became a senior Party figure in Orel. In 1933, he was sent to Azov, a town near Rostov at the mouth of the River Don, where he became the Party boss. Irina worked in a hosiery factory. She was not a political person, but out of love for Vasily she joined the Party and became a ‘Party wife’. When he was arrested, Irina went in search of him – not just at the jails but also at the railway depots of Rostov and Bataisk, 30 kilometres away, where on Sunday evenings the trains containing prisoners were prepared for their departure to the labour camps:

I would walk along the tracks beside the trains in the hope of finding my husband so that I could give him some things for the journey. I saw many convoys. The ice-coated goods wagons were nailed shut; even the windows at the top were blocked with metal strips, leaving just a little crack. From the wagons I could hear the muffled hum of voices. As I passed along the train, I would call out: ‘Is Dudarev there?’ The hum would die away, and sometimes a voice would answer, ‘No.’… But then one day a voice answered, ‘Dudarev? Yes.’ It was the train guard… I took out the clean clothes I had prepared and handed them in a little bag to the guard. He let me write a note, ‘on business affairs’. I was so happy that Vasily would know that I was looking for him, and that I was thinking about him. I had been so afraid that, without news from me, he would think I had renounced him… In my note I wrote a list of the things I had handed to the guard and signed off: ‘All are well. I kiss you.’ A few minutes later the guard returned my bag with the note. On the other side was written in Vasily’s hand: ‘Got all. Thank you.’

Irina never doubted her husband’s innocence. She was summoned repeatedly by the NKVD, presented with the ‘evidence’ of his criminal activities and threatened with arrest if she failed to denounce him, but she refused every time. Irina recalls a Party meeting at her factory where she was called upon to disclose her husband’s crimes against the state. In similar circumstances most wives claimed that they had never known about their husband’s crimes, but Irina courageously denied that hers had committed any crime:

I sat alone at one end of the table, while everybody else sat as close as they could to the committee leaders at the other end. No one would talk to me. One of the Party secretaries informed the meeting that Dudarev had been arrested as an enemy of the people, and that now they had to decide about me. The Party members spoke in turn. They did not have much to say except slogans. About me they said nothing, except that I had deceived the Party. They demanded that I tell them about my husband’s crimes and explain why I had concealed them. No one looked at me. Trying to stay calm, I answered briefly, thinking very carefully about every word. I said that I had lived with my husband for fifteen years, that I knew him to be a good Communist, that through his influence I had joined the Party and that I did not believe for a moment that he had been involved in anything wrong. This gave rise to a lot of muttering. Someone shouted: ‘But he has been arrested!’ As if that were proof of guilt. One by one they tried to convince me that it was my Party duty to disclose Dudarev’s crimes. But no one dared to state the charges against him… Again and again they asked me to denounce Dudarev as an enemy of the people. Each time I refused.

Irina was expelled from the Party. She lost her position on the management committee of her factory and was demoted to a poorly paid job in the accounts department. A few days later, the town Soviet levied a large back-tax on her apartment, explaining that it was to pay for the ‘surplus living space’ she and her husband had occupied for several years. In July 1938, Irina was arrested ‘for failing to denounce the enemy activities of her husband’. She was released the following December and returned to Smolensk.149 Dudarev was shot in 1937.*

Julia Piatnitskaia did not know what to believe about her husband after his arrest. She wanted to think the best of him, but the desperate position in which Osip had left her made it hard not to bear him a grudge – as her sons did – for bringing such misfortune on the family. Sixteen-year-old Igor felt let down by his father, whose arrest had isolated him from his friends in the Komsomol. Twelve-year-old Vladimir blamed his father for ruining his dreams of a career in the Red Army. ‘Vova [Vladimir] hates his father bitterly and feels sorry for Igor,’ Julia wrote in her diary. Bullied by his former friends and frequently in trouble at school, Vladimir was shaken by an incident in the Pioneers: the leader had questioned him about his father, and when Vladimir refused to answer, declared, for everyone to hear: ‘Your father is an enemy of the people. It is now your duty to decide your relation towards him.’

Julia and Vladimir had constant fights. On one occasion, when Vladimir was angry because his mother had refused to write to Yezhov for the return of his toy gun and some military books, which had been confiscated by the NKVD during the house search, he said to her in anger: ‘It is a shame they have not shot Papa, since he is an enemy of the people.’ On another, when he came home with a poor mark from school, Julia lost her temper and swore at Vladimir. She told him, as she put it in her diary, ‘that his bad behaviour showed he was the son of an enemy of the people.’ Bursting into tears, Vladimir replied: ‘Is it my fault that I was born the son of an enemy? I don’t want you as my mother any more, I am going to an orphanage.’ Julia threatened to send him off to bed with just a crust of bread. Vladimir said he would ‘cut her throat’. Then she hit him twice across the face.150

Julia was at the end of her rope. Evicted from their flat and struggling to find a proper job, she began to question her husband even more intensely. ‘There is only one thought in my head – who is Piatnitsky?’ Julia asked herself.

20 July 1937

… Yesterday evening I thought about Piatnitsky and I was full of bitterness: how could he have let us fall into such a shameful mess? How can it be that he worked with those people and knew their methods, and yet could not foresee that they would condemn us to a life of torment and hunger?… One could bear a bitter grudge against Piatnitsky. He let his children be destroyed; he lost all our money, and it wasn’t much to begin with. But who exactly are these men who have stolen all our things? Authority now is nothing but arbitrary terror – and everybody is afraid. I am going mad. What am I thinking? What am I thinking?151

For six months Julia carried on this self-interrogation in her diary, trying to work out who her husband really was. Informed that he had been charged with espionage and counter-revolutionary activities on 7 February 1938, Julia wrote in her diary:

Who is he? If he is a professional revolutionary, as he claimed to be, this man I knew for seventeen years, then he was unfortunate: he was surrounded by spies and enemies, who sabotaged his work, and that of many others, and he just didn’t see it… But evidently Piatnitsky never was a professional revolutionary, but a professional scoundrel and a spy, which explains why he was so closed and severe as a man. Evidently, he was not the man we thought he was… And all of us – I, his wife, the children – had no real significance for him.152

Igor was arrested on 9 February 1938. He was in his classroom at school when two soldiers came for him. Igor was imprisoned in the Butyrki jail. Consumed by worry for her son, Julia fell into complete despair. According to Vladimir, she had a nervous breakdown – she spent whole days in bed and often thought of suicide.153 The only thing that kept her going was the idea of living for her sons, which she repeated like a mantra in her diary. ‘It would be best to die,’ she wrote on 9 March. ‘But that would leave my Vovka and Igor without a human being in the world. I’m all they have, and that means that I must fight to stay alive.’ Yet there were moments when Julia felt so despondent that the only salvation she could imagine was to break all human ties, even with her sons:

17 February 1938

Last night I thought I had found the solution: not death, though that is the easiest and most appealing solution, given my weak will and deep despair… but this idea: the children are not necessary: give Vovka to the state and live just for work – work ceaselessly, take time only for reading, live close to nature… have no feelings for any human being. It seemed such a good solution – to spend oneself in work, and not to have anybody close for them to take away. Why do I have Vovka and what good am I to him? I am buried by a mountain much too big to enjoy the life of a normal human being, to live for Vovka. He just wants to live, to have friends, the sun, a cosy home, a meaningful existence, but I – I am the wife of a counter-revolutionary.154

Julia tried to figure out the reasons for the arrest of Osip and Igor. Unlike Vladimir, she could not bring herself to hate Osip as an ‘enemy of the people’. She noted in her diary: ‘Vovka torments me because I am unable to hate Piatnitsky; at first I thought that I would surely end up hating him, but in the end I have too many doubts.’ She tried to reason with Vladimir, arguing that his father ‘could be innocent and they made a mistake, or maybe he was deceived by the enemies’.155 Julia believed in the existence of ‘enemies of the people’. She often pointed out ‘suspicious’ people in her diary, and she had no doubts about the justice of the Soviet courts. During the Bukharin trial, she was convinced that the ‘evil-doers’ had been rightly sentenced to be shot. Politically, she was naive, slow to understand the reality that engulfed her. She was more than willing to make Bukharin a scapegoat for the catastrophe that had destroyed her family. Commenting on the execution of Bukharin and his co-defendants in March 1938, Julia thought that ‘the spilling of their evil blood’ was ‘too small a price for them to pay for the suffering the Party has endured’.

Today they are going to erase them from this earth, but that won’t do much to reduce my hatred. I would give them an awful death: build a special cage for them in a museum for counter-revolutionaries, and let us come and gawk at them… That would be unbearable for them: citizens coming to stare at them as if they were animals. Our hatred for them would never cease. Let them see how we go on working to build a better life, how we are all united, how we love our leaders, leaders who are not traitors. Let them see how we struggle against Fascism while they do nothing but feed themselves like animals, for they are not worthy to be called people.

Picturing the ‘better life’ of the future, when ‘only honest people will be allowed to live and work’, Julia saw some hope for her own family:

Maybe Igor will return, and Piatnitsky as well – if, that is, he is honest and, of course, innocent of the crimes which were committed by so many enemies, or of failing to detect all these reptiles; if his intentions were honest, then of course he will return. How I’d like to know! Piatnitsky – are you guilty in any way? Did you disagree with the Party line? Were you opposed to even one of our leaders? How much easier my life would be, if I knew the truth. And as far as Igor is concerned, I think of the words of F—. ‘Everything that is well made will withstand the fire. And that which doesn’t, we don’t need.’156

Julia resolved to place her faith in the fire: if Osip was innocent, he too would survive the Terror.

Piatnitsky was imprisoned in the Butyrki jail, the same prison where his son was held. Lev Razgon encountered him in a crowded cell (built for twenty-five but housing sixty-seven) at the start of April 1938. Razgon saw a ‘thin and crooked old man [Piatnitsky was then fifty-six] who bore the marks of battle in his face’.

[Piatnitsky] explained, when he saw me looking at his face, that these were the marks left by the metal buckle of his interrogator’s belt. I had seen Piatnitsky in the early months of 1937… The man who stood before me now was totally unrecognizable as the man I had seen before. Only the eyes were the same bright, lively eyes, though now much more sad. They betrayed an immense spiritual suffering.

Piatnitsky asked about Razgon’s case, about how he had been incriminated, and then Razgon asked him about his:

He went silent. Then he said that he had no illusions about his fate, that his case was moving to a close and he was prepared. He told me how they questioned him without a break, how they tortured him, beating out of him exactly what they needed, and threatening to beat him to death. He hadn’t finished talking when they came for him again.157

On 10 April, Piatnitsky was transferred to the Lefortovo prison, where he was systematically tortured and interrogated every night from 12 April until his trial at the end of July. According to his main interrogator, who denied using physical measures of coercion, Piatnitsky behaved ‘calmly and with restraint, but once, when he was in a state of agitation for some reason, he asked me for permission to have a drink, and going up to the water carafe, struck himself on the head with it’.158 Osip was tried by the Military Tribunal of the Supreme Soviet, along with 137 other prisoners, on 27 July. He was charged with being one of the leaders of a Fascist spy-ring of Trotskyists and Rightists in the Comintern. A list of names of the convicted was sent by Yezhov to Stalin. At the top of the list, preserved in the Presidential Archives in the Kremlin, there is a brief handwritten order: ‘Shoot all 138. I. St[alin]. V. Molotov.’159

None of this was known to Julia. She did not even know that Piatnitsky was being held in the Butyrki when she joined the queues outside its gates to hand in a parcel for her son. The longer she heard nothing from Osip, the harder it became for her to hold on to the hope that he was innocent. Everybody told her to forget Osip, to think about herself and her two sons. On 12 April, the night Osip’s torture recommenced in the Lefortovo prison, Julia had a nightmare. She dreamed that she was being tormented by a cat. She thought the dream was significant and wondered if it meant that her son Igor was being tortured in the Butyrki (she had heard rumours about such things from the women in the prison queues). The thought of Igor’s suffering altered Julia’s feelings towards Osip, as she recorded in her diary:

My life has become an endless downward spiral. I talk with myself, in a whisper, and feel complete despair – for Piatnitsa [Piatnitsky] and Igor, but especially for my poor boy. He is spending his seventeeth spring in a miserable, dark and dirty prison, in a cell with strangers. The main thing is that he is innocent. Piatnitsky has lived his life – he failed to recognize the enemies who surrounded him, or became degenerate, which is not so astonishing, because he gave himself to politics, but Igor…160

The idea that it was too late to do anything for Osip reinforced Julia’s determination to do whatever necessary to help Igor, whose life was still ahead of him. She had accepted the possibility of her husband’s guilt. But she was not prepared to accept that her sixteen-year-old son could have been involved in any crime. Julia decided to renounce her husband in the hope that it would help save her son.

She went to the procurator’s office in Moscow. Informed that Piatnitsky had committed a serious crime against the state, Julia replied: ‘If that is the case, he means nothing to me any more.’ The procurator advised Julia to begin a new life. She told him she would like to work for the NKVD, and he encouraged her to make a formal application, promising to support it. Julia saw the procurator as a sympathetic man:

I shook his hand warmly, though perhaps this was to display too much sentiment, something which I have never been able to control – but I felt close to this man, whose task is difficult but necessary, and I wanted to express my respect for him as a comrade, to show my moral support for those comrades who are rooting out the swine from our Party. Again I emphasize: despite my own suffering, and despite the possibility that innocents are being sacrificed (let one of these not be my Igor!), I must be true to principles, I must stay disciplined and patient, and I must, I absolutely must, find a way to make an active contribution, or else there will be no place for me among people.

Once she had adandoned her husband, Julia was prepared to think the worst of him. She wrote in her diary on 16 April:

Oh, I just can’t understand it! But if it is so, then how I despise him, how I hate his base and cowardly, yet to me incomprehensible, soul!… Oh, what a good act he put on! Now I understand why he surrounded himself with the ‘warm companionship’ of all those spies, provocateurs and bureaucrats. But surely he had no real friends. He was essentially a gloomy man who never opened himself to me… Maybe he never loved the Party, maybe he never had its interests at heart? But what about us, me and the children, what was he thinking?161

Three weeks later, Igor was hauled before a three-man tribunal and charged with organizing a counter-revolutionary student group – a charge so absurd that even the tribunal threw it out, though it sentenced Igor to five years in a labour camp on the lesser and much vaguer charge of anti-Soviet agitation.* Julia was told of her son’s conviction on 27 May. She became hysterical and demanded that the procurator arrest her as well: ‘If he is guilty, so am I.’ Reflecting on events that evening, Julia groped towards an understanding of the Terror:

Perhaps Piatnitsky really was bad, and we must all perish on his account. But it is hard to die when I do not know who Piatnitsky really is, nor what crime Igor committed. He could not have done anything wrong. But then why did they take him? Maybe as someone who might become a criminal, because he is the son of an enemy… Maybe it’s a way of forcefully mobilizing that part of the population which is not trusted by the state but whose labour can be used? I don’t know, but it is logical. Of course if that is the case then Igor, and all the other people like him, will never come back. They serve a useful purpose to the state, but they depart from life. Anyway it is terrifying to have to remain behind – to have to wait and not to know.162

Julia herself was arrested on 27 October 1938. She was thirty-nine years old. Her diary was seized at the time of her arrest and used as evidence to convict her of conspiring with her husband against the government. She was sent to the Kandalaksha labour camp in the far northern region of Murmansk. Vladimir was sent with her, although he was very ill, having just recovered from an operation, and had to be taken from his bed. At Kandalaksha Vladimir was kept in the barracks and fed twice a day by an NKVD guard while Julia went to work on the construction of Niva-GES, a hydro-electric station near the camp. Shortly after their arrival Vladimir escaped and made his way back to Moscow, where he stayed with various schoolfriends, including the family of Yevgeny Loginov, whose father worked in Stalin’s personal secretariat. Earlier the Loginovs had turned their back on the Piatnitskys, but now something made them change their minds. Common decency perhaps. Vladimir stayed with the Loginovs for three months. Then, one evening, he overheard a conversation between the Loginovs: Yevgeny’s father had got into trouble for taking in Piatnitsky’s son. To save them from any more trouble, Vladimir turned himself in to the Moscow Soviet. The official to whom he spoke was an old comrade of Piatnitsky from October 1917. He ordered sandwiches for Vladimir and then called the police. Vladimir was taken to the NKVD detention centre in the old Danilov Monastery, from which the children of ‘enemies of the people’ were sent on to orphanages across the Soviet Union.163

In March 1939, Julia was denounced by three co-workers at Niva-GES. They claimed that she had said that her husband had been wrongly arrested, that he was innocent, and that he had considered Stalin to be unfit as a leader of the proletariat. Convicted of anti-Soviet agitation, Julia was sentenced to five years in the Karaganda labour camp in Kazakhstan. Igor was a prisoner in the industrial section of the camp, and somehow Julia arranged a meeting with him there. ‘We spent a remarkable and very sad day together,’ recalls Igor, ‘and then she went back [to the women’s section of the camp].’ Physically frail and mentally unbalanced, Julia was in no condition to withstand the hardships of camp life. She was still beautiful and attracted the attention of the camp commandant (which may explain why she had been allowed to visit Igor); but she refused his sexual demands, for which he punished her by sending her to work as a manual labourer in the construction of a dam. For sixteen hours every day she stood waist-high in freezing water, digging earth. She became ill and died on an unrecorded date in the winter of 1940.

In 1958, after his release from the labour camps, Igor was visited by an old acquaintance of the family, a woman called Zina, who had seen his mother in the Karaganda camp, where she too was a prisoner. Zina told Igor that Julia had died in the camp hospital and that she was buried in a mass grave. In 1986, Igor received another visit from Zina, by this time a woman of eighty. She told him that on the previous occasion she had lied about his mother, because Julia, before she died, had made her promise to spare Igor the awful details of her death (and because, as Zina now admitted, she had been afraid to speak the truth). But recently Zina had seen Julia in her dreams – Julia had asked her about her son – and she saw this as a sign that she should tell Igor about his mother’s final days. Julia had not died in hospital. In December 1940, Zina had gone to look for Julia in the Karaganda camp. No one wanted to tell her where she was, but then one woman pointed to a sheep-pen on the steppe and said that she could be found there. Zina walked into the pen. Amongst the sheep, lying on the freezing ground, was Julia:

She was dying, her whole body was blown up with fever, she was burning hot and shaking. The sheep stood guard around her but offered no protection from the wind and snow, which lay around in mounds. I crouched beside her, she tried to raise herself but did not have the strength. I took her hand and tried to warm it with my breath.

‘Who are you?’ she asked. I told her my name and said only that I came from you, that you had asked me to find her…

How she stirred: ‘Igor – my boy,’ she whispered from her frozen lips. ‘My little boy, help him, I beseech you, help him to survive.’ I calmed her down and promised to look after you, as if that depended on me. ‘Give me your word,’ Julia whispered. ‘Do not tell him how his mother died. Give me your word…’

She was half-delirious. I crouched down beside her and promised her.

Then from behind me a guard shouted: ‘Where did you come from? How did you get here?’ The guard grabbed me and frog-marched me out of the sheep-pen. ‘Who are you?’

I explained that I had come as the section leader of a tool workshop and had found the woman accidentally. But I was detained. They told me that I should not breathe a word about what I had seen: ‘Shut your mouth, and say nothing!’

Julia died in the sheep-pen. She had been left there when she fell ill, and no one was allowed to visit her. She was buried where she died.164


Remnants of Terror



It was a warm summer evening, 28 July 1938, and Nelly’s grandmother had gone to pick the raspberries in the garden, leaving her in charge of her sister Angelina while her mother, Zinaida Bushueva, nursed her baby brother and prepared the meal. Since the arrest of her father, nine months earlier, Nelly had grown used to helping in the house, although she was only four years old. Zinaida was breast-feeding Slava when the front door opened and two NKVD soldiers appeared. They told her to get dressed, and took her with the children to the NKVD headquarters in the centre of Perm. A few minutes later, Nelly’s grandmother returned with the raspberries: the house was empty, her family had gone.

At the NKVD building the interrogator arranged for the two girls to be sent to children’s homes. ‘Your mama is going away on a long work trip,’ he explained to Nelly. ‘You will not see her again.’ Zinaida became hysterical. When two guards came to take away the girls she began to scream and bite the other guards who held her down. As Nelly was led away, she looked back to see her mother being hit across the face. The two sisters were sent to different homes – Nelly to a Jewish orphanage (on account of her darker looks), Angelina to a nearby children’s home. It was NKVD policy to break up the families of ‘enemies of the people’ and to give the children a new identity.

Zinaida was allowed to keep Slava – he had pneumonia and needed to be nursed by her. For three weeks, the mother and her baby son were held in a crowded prison cell. Zinaida was charged with failing to denounce her husband and sentenced to eight years in the Akmolinsk Labour Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland (ALZhIR), part of the Karaganda camp complex in Kazakhstan. She was in a large

The Whisperers

Angelina and Nelly Bushueva, 1937

convoy of female prisoners transferred from Perm to Akmolinsk in September 1938. On the day of their departure, they were made to kneel for several hours in one of the city’s squares while they awaited transportation in small groups by horse and cart to the station. The residents of Perm stood around and watched the spectacle, but no one tried to help the prisoners, though Zinaida’s mother, who had spotted her with Slava in the middle of the square, tried to get one of the guards to take a pullover for her. ‘Get away, old woman,’ the guard said, pushing her away with the point of his gun. At the station the convoy was loaded into cattle trucks. It took ten days for the train to get to Akmolinsk, a journey of 1,500 kilometres. Zinaida was in a truck with common criminals. At first they harassed her and tried to take her baby, believing it would get them released early from the camp, but after a few days, as Slava became sicker, they took pity on the mother and shouted for the guards to bring milk for her baby. On their arrival at the camp, Zinaida was forced to give up Slava to the orphanage at Dolinka, the administrative centre of the Karaganda camps. She did not see him for the next five years. A qualified accountant, Zinaida was offered work in the camp offices, a privileged position for a prisoner, but she begged to be employed in the heaviest agricultural work instead. ‘I will lose my mind if I have time to think,’ Zinaida explained to the camp commandant. ‘I have lost my three children. Let me forget myself in manual labour.’

After she had seen her daughter kneeling with Slava in the square, Zinaida’s mother went in search of Angelina and Nelly. With the help of her two sons, she found Nelly after a few weeks. But it was not until the spring of 1940 that she found Angelina, who by then, at the age of four, was old enough to recall something of the incident:

My cousin Gera, the son of uncle Vitia, lived near the orphanage. One day the orphanage children were out walking by the river, we walked in pairs in a long column, and I was at the very end. Gera and his parents were also out by the river. He recognized me immediately. He shouted, ‘Look, there’s our Aka!’ Everybody stopped. There was quite a scene. The women from the orphanage would not let my relatives come near me, but uncle Vitia spoke to one of them, who said that I was called Alei, or Angelina, they were not sure…

Granny began to write appeals to the orphanage and then one day she came to get me… I remember the day. She brought a pair of red shoes with sparkly buckles and put them on my feet. I lifted up my feet and looked at the soles of the shoes – they were so smooth and clean and red. I would brush the dust from them. I wanted to take off the shoes and lick their soles, because they were such a bright colour, but Granny said: ‘Enough, leave your shoes alone, let’s go and find your sister Nelly.’ I still recall my confusion – what was a sister? Who was Nelly? I had no idea. When we left the orphanage there was a girl waiting by the entrance. Granny said, ‘This is Nelly, your sister.’ I said, ‘So?’ The only thing I understood was that she was called Nelly, but not what a sister was. The girl came up to me. She had short black hair. She wore a grey raincoat. She was chewing the end of the collar. And I said: ‘Why is she eating the collar?’ And Granny scolded her: ‘Again chewing your collar!’1

Angelina’s childhood memories are dominated by the feeling of hunger. The daily fare in the orphanage had been so poor (dry brown bread and a thin grey gruel) that Angelina’s first reaction to her bright red shoes was to try to eat them like a tomato. Things were not much better when she went to live with Nelly and her grandmother, who was too old and sick to work and lived in desperate poverty in a small room in a communal apartment, having been evicted from the family home following the arrest of Zinaida in 1938. By 1941 there were near-famine conditions in Perm (from 1940 known as Molotov). Many of the central avenues had been converted into vegetable allotments for selected residents, but Angelina’s grandmother was not one of these. ‘We learned to eat all sorts of things,’ recalls Angelina: ‘the spring leaves of linden trees; grass and moss; potato peelings which we collected at night from the rubbish bins of people who were better off than us.’ Angelina was conscious of her hunger as a source of shame and degradation. It was hunger that defined her as a lower class of human being rather than the arrest of her parents as ‘enemies of the people’ – a concept which in any case she was too young to understand. Angelina was bullied by a gang of boys from the house across the street where factory workers lived. The boys knew that Angelina took the peelings from their bins, and they always mocked her about it when she passed them on the street. Angelina learned to hold her tongue and not answer back. But one day the leader of the gang, the biggest of the boys who came from a family of factory officials, gave a piece of buttered bread to a beggar on the street. ‘He did it just for me to see,’ recalls Angelina, ‘he wanted to humiliate me, and I could not help myself; the sight of buttered bread was just too much, I would have given anything to have it for myself and could not bear to see it go to a beggar. I shouted at the boys: “What are you doing? There is butter on that bread!” They all laughed at me.’2

Like many children who had lost their parents in the Great Terror, Angelina was not fully aware of her loss. She could not remember her parents – she was only two when they were arrested – so unlike Nelly, who was old enough to recall them, she had no sense of having suffered when they disappeared. Once she learned to read, Angelina made up fantasies about her parents’ death which she derived from books, especially from her favourite stories about Napoleon and the fire of Moscow. She recalls a conversation from the post-war years, when she was about ten:

A friend of my grandmother’s came to visit us. She talked about my mother and father. My grandmother had pictures of all her children on the walls of our room. The woman pointed to each photograph and asked me who it was.

‘Who is that?’

‘Auntie Nina,’ I replied.

‘And that?’

‘Uncle Sanya’

‘And that?’

I said: ‘That is Nelly’s mother.’

‘What do you mean Nelly’s mother? She is your mother too.’

And I said: ‘No, that is not my mother, but Nelly’s mother.’

‘So where is your mother?’

‘My mother died in the fire of Moscow.’3

The real maternal figure in Angelina’s life was her grandmother. It was she who rescued Angelina and Nelly from children’s homes and eventually reunited them with their mother. Tales of children being saved by their grandmothers are commonplace from that time. From the beginning of the Great Terror, it often fell to grandmothers to try to keep together the scattered remnants of repressed families. Their untold acts of heroism deserve to be counted among the finest deeds in Soviet history.

Natalia Konstantinova and her sister Elena lost their parents in the Great Terror. Their father was arrested in October 1936 and executed in May 1937. Their mother, Liudmila, was arrested the following September and sentenced to eight years in a labour camp near Magadan as the wife of an ‘enemy of the people’. Natalia, who was ten, and her sister, twelve, were both sent to an orphanage. They were rescued by their grandmother, a kind and gentle woman with nerves of steel, who struck a deal with the NKVD. Elena Lebedeva was born in Moscow in 1879 to a family of prominent merchants. She had four years of schooling before getting married, at the age of seventeen, and gave birth to seven children, the fourth of them Liudmila in 1903. When she appealed to the NKVD headquarters for the release of her granddaughters, Elena was told that she could only take the girls if she went to live with them in exile, but that she could stay in Leningrad if she left them in the orphanage. Elena did not hesitate. She took the girls, sold off her property and bought train tickets for the three of them to go to Ak-Bulak, a remote town on the steppeland between Orenburg and Kazakhstan (it was only after they arrived that she discovered that the NKVD paid the outbound fares of all exiles).

Ak-Bulak was a small dusty railway stop on the main line connecting Russia with Central Asia. The railway employed many of the 7,000 people who lived there, mainly Russians and Kazakhs, although there was also a sizeable community of political exiles who were unemployed. There was certainly no work for a fifty-eight-year-old grandmother. But relatives in Leningrad regularly sent Elena small amounts of cash and goods to sell at the market or trade with local women, whose friendship she worked hard to cultivate. Elena could not find a room to rent, so she lived with her granddaughters in a shack she bought and then divided with another exiled family. It was one of the oldest buildings in the town, dating back to the nineteenth century, and made from bricks of camel dung with a clay roof. They heated it in winter by burning dung in a clay oven. During the first year, in 1938–9, when there was famine in the area, it was a real struggle to survive. The girls had no shoes to wear. They went barefoot to the tin-shed school for exiled children, separated from the brick-made school for the children of the railway workers. But the girls did well at school and in the second year they were allowed to transfer to the other school. They even joined the Pioneers. Relations between the exiles and the railwaymen were good. ‘No one called us exiles,’ Natalia recalls. It was not until 1942, when both girls applied to join the Komsomol, that anybody pointed to the fact that their father was an ‘enemy of the people’, and even then, it was not one of the local children, but an evacuee from Moscow, who brought this up as an obstacle to their inclusion in the Komsomol.4

The Whisperers

The house in Ak-Bulak where Elena lived with her granddaughters, 1940s

Looking back on the years she spent in Ak-Bulak, from 1938 to 1945, Natalia believes that she and her sister had a happy childhood, despite all the hardships they endured. ‘We were very lucky to grow up in our grandmothers’ little world. We never had enough to eat, we barely had a thing to call our own, but we were happy because we were loved by our grandmother. No one could steal that from us.’ Friends at school would often ask Natalia where her parents were. She tried to avoid their questions. She never talked about her parents, afraid that people would assume that ‘they must have been guilty of something if they had been arrested’. Their arrest was a source of shame and confusion for Natalia. She did not understand what they had done or why they had disappeared. But never for a moment did she doubt their innocence. Natalia believes that her grandmother played a crucial role in sustaining this belief: without her she would have given in to the pressures she encountered later on from the Pioneers and the Komsomol to renounce her parents as ‘enemies of the people’. ‘My grandmother had seen it all,’ Natalia recalls. ‘She understood what Soviet power was about, and was not taken in by anything: she was nearly forty when the Revolution came.’

The Whisperers

Elena Lebedeva with her granddaughters, Natalia (left) and Elena Konstantinova, Ak-Bulak, 1940

Elena’s values had been formed in a different century and social milieu, but she understood that her granddaughters needed to survive in the Soviet world, and did not try to impose on them her own antiSoviet views. She told them that their parents were good people who had been arrested by mistake, and that one day they would both return. She told them stories about their mother when she had been their age: about how she was so beautiful; how she loved to play tennis; how she had so many handsome young admirers; how she met their father; and how they were so happy as a family. She told the girls that their mother had been just like them. Through these stories the two girls came to know their mother, and to feel her presence in their lives. According to Elena, ‘Our grandmother was the most important person in our lives, even more important than our mother… She took the place of our mother, even after we returned to Leningrad [in 1946] and were reunited with our real mother [in 1951].’5

Caring for grandchildren could be a heavy burden for grandparents, who were frequently deprived of housing, jobs, savings, pensions and rations after the arrest of their own children as ‘enemies of the people’. And not all grandchildren could be saved. Veronika Nevskaia’s father was arrested in August 1936, three years after the death of her mother in 1933, and sent to the Vorkuta labour camps. The six-year-old Veronika and her younger brother Valentin were sent to an orphanage. Veronika was adopted by her father’s aunt Maria, who took her in the knowledge, as she had been warned by the NKVD, that, if she did, they would all be sent to live in exile in the Kirov region, 1,200 kilometres east of Maria’s native Leningrad. A devoutly religious woman in her early seventies, Maria saw it as her Christian duty to care for all the children in her family: she lived on her own, her husband having died many years before, and she had no children of her own. Maria found her nephew’s children in the orphanage. She had always had a soft spot for Veronika. She bought her gifts and liked to read to her from the classics. But she was too old and weak to cope with Valentin, a difficult, unruly boy, who needed special care (he had been born with a malformed bladder that left him incontinent). Maria took Veronika but left her younger brother in the orphanage. They never heard from him again. In 1941 they received a telegram telling them that Valentin had died – he was then only seven – in the hospital of the orphanage. Looking back on these events, Veronika believes that her grandmother (as she calls her father’s aunt) could not have coped with Valentin. But she also thinks that she was filled with feelings of remorse. A few days after they received the telegram, Maria died. Veronika was taken in by distant relatives, but she was soon passed by them to other relatives, and by them to others: no one was interested in an extra mouth to feed. Thus she lived for the next five years, an unwanted guest in the homes of distant family, until 1946, when she travelled to Vorkuta to be reunited with her father.6

The Whisperers

Veronika and Maria, Slobodskoi, Kirov region, 1939

The arrest of a parent turned many children into adults overnight. The eldest child, in particular, was suddenly expected to perform an adult role, helping with the household chores and caring for the younger children.7 Inna Gaister was twelve years old when her parents were arrested in the summer of 1937. Together with her younger sisters, Natalia (seven) and Valeriia (one), and her cousin Igor (nine), Inna lived with her grandmother in the family apartment in the House on the Embankment in Moscow. Inna was charged with a large number of new responsibilities that cast her in the role of an auxiliary, if not the main, parent in the household. Inna wrote to the NKVD to ask for the return of their property sealed up in the family flat. She organized the parcels for her parents, and queued all night to hand them in at the Butyrki jail. When she discovered that her mother had been sent to the Akmolinsk labour camp (ALZhIR), Inna took an evening job, teaching younger children after school, so that she could save some money for the monthly parcels they were allowed to send to Akmolinsk from the summer of 1939. Shortly after the arrest of their parents, the Gaister children were evicted from their apartment. With their grandmother the four children moved into a rented room shared with eight other Gaister relatives – all children who had lost their parents in the Great Terror. There were thirteen people (twelve children and one grandmother) living in a room of 20 square metres. As the eldest child, Inna had to do the washing and help with the cleaning and cooking. It took at least an hour for Inna to travel by tram from her new home to her school; returning in the evening, she struggled to get the washing done and have it dried for the next day. She was physically exhausted (in photographs she appears with large dark rings around her eyes). Looking back on this period of her life, Inna thinks that it helped her to develop necessary survival skills:

It was a life that trained me for struggle. I was always fighting to survive – not just for myself but for the sake of Valiushka [Valeriia] and Natalka [Natalia]. I was only twelve when my parents were arrested. But with their arrest I grew up overnight. I understood that my childhood had come to an end. The first thing that happened is that our nanny left – she could not get on with granny. It was my job to look after Valeriia, who was still only a baby. I remember the last thing our nanny said before she left: ‘You must wash her every evening!’ I was horrified. ‘Her nappy will be very soiled,’ she said… I found myself in a completely new situation. I had to do the washing for the whole family, which was very large. And I had to study hard if my life was not to be ruined completely. I had Igor to support and Natalka too. Natalka would ask why everybody had a mother and a father except us. I told her that we had a grandmother who loved us very much.

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Inna Gaister (aged thirteen) with her sisters Valeriia (three) and Natalia (eight), Moscow, 1939. The photograph was taken to send to their mother in the Akmolinsk labour camp (ALZhIR)

In many ways I was like a mother to Natalka and Valiushka, even though, in other ways, I was still a child myself.8

Inna’s grandmother, like Elena Lebedeva, often spoke to the children about their parents. She wanted them to know that their parents had not abandoned them, that they loved them and would return to them. But other grandmothers took a different view.

The parents of Iraida Faivisovich were hairdressers in Osa, a small town in the Urals, south of Perm. They were arrested in the spring of 1939, supposedly for organizing a political conspiracy against the Soviet government, following reports by clients from their salon that they had heard the Faivisoviches complain about shortages. The four-year-old Iraida was taken in by neighbours and then passed around to various relatives, none of whom was keen to take her in, until at last she was rescued by her maternal grandmother, Marfa Briukhova. A simple peasant woman, devoutly Orthodox, Marfa had brought up sixteen children, including five who were not her own. Blaming her son-in-law for his arrest, and for the arrest of her daughter, she said that he had talked too much and told Iraida that she should learn to hold her tongue. Iraida grew up in an ‘atmosphere of enforced silence’ in which she was forbidden to talk or ask about her mother and father. Her feelings of inferiority, rooted in her status as an orphan child at school, were strengthened by this silence, which forced her to internalize her fears and longings for her parents. She heard their voices in her dreams. Imprisoned in a labour camp near Arkhangelsk, Iraida’s mother wrote to her in Osa once a week, but Marfa burned the letters without even opening them. Marfa hid the photographs of Iraida’s parents so that she would forget them. ‘We will survive, the two of us, together,’ she said to her granddaughter.9

Grandmothers played a crucial role as correspondents between the home and the labour camp. As writers and readers they sustained that crucial link between a parent and a child by which millions of families survived the separation of the Gulag.

When their parents were arrested, in 1936 and 1937, Oleg Vorobyov and his sister Natasha were rescued by their grandmother. Nadezhda Mikhailovna was a brave, intelligent woman, one of the first to qualify as a doctor in Tbilisi before the Revolution of 1905. Warned that the NKVD would take the children to an orphanage, she hurried them away to the Tula countryside, where she concealed them with their godparents for several months, before returning to Moscow, where she lived with the children and their grandfather in a series of rented rooms in a working-class suburb of the city. She believed that it would be safer there than in the centre of the capital where they had lived previously. It was generally the case that workers were less interested in the political background of their neighbours (they were more likely to be hostile towards them on class or ethnic grounds).10 To protect her grandchildren Nadezhda adopted them and changed their names. Every week she wrote long letters to their father (in the Solovetsky labour camp) and their mother (in the Temnikovsky camps) with details of their everyday routines:

25 January 1939.

… Oleg is eager to go to school. Grandpa gets him up at half past seven in the morning – he only has to say it’s time and he gets up. We put on the electric kettle and make fresh sandwiches with egg, fish, salami, and he washes it all down with a hot chocolate, coffee, tea or milk before he goes to school. He is very fussy with his food and does not eat a lot: half a roll and a glass of milk and he’s full. He wants only half a roll to take to school.11

Few of the details were actually true (there was no egg, fish or salami, as far as Oleg can recall, only bread and sometimes butter) but the letters gave his parents the comforting idea that family life was continuing as normal in their absence and would be there for them when they returned.

Oleg’s father Mikhail was a senior engineer. Before his arrest he had worked in the Ministry of Defence in Moscow. In 1940, he was transferred from Solovetsky to the Norilsk labour camp in the Arctic Circle, where expertise like his was badly needed for the building of the huge industrial complex, which would soon become the country’s main producer of nickel and platinum. As a specialist, Mikhail was allowed to receive parcels and write home once a week. By corresponding with Nadezhda, Mikhail had a good idea of Oleg’s state of mind, so that he could write to him with advice on his studies, reading, hobbies and his friends. ‘His letters were a profound influence on me,’ Oleg recalls.

I was guided by these letters perhaps even more than I would have been guided by my father if he had actually been there while I was growing up. Because I longed for a father, I tried to behave in a way that I imagined he would have approved of, at least as I knew him from his letters.

Oleg was fortunate to have this connection with his father. Letters were written proof of a parent’s love, something in which children could believe and which they could read as a sign of their parents’ innocence. Sometimes they contained a drawing or a line of poetry, a dried flower or even fragments of embroidery, which expressed feelings and emotions that could not be conveyed by censored words. Relationships were built on these fragments.12

In all his letters Mikhail pressed upon Oleg the need to be a ‘little man’.

25 August 1940.

My dear son, why have you not written to me for so long? I understand that you are on holiday… but I urge you to write at least one letter every five days… Put your drawings in with the letter and let Natasha write a little too… Never forget you are her protector. She is still very little and sometimes capricious, but you should talk sense to her. I have written many times that it is your duty as a man to protect Natasha, Granny and Grandpa, to make sure that they are safe, until my return. You are my second-in-command. You are the head of our little family. All my hopes depend on you.

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Oleg and Natasha, 1940. The photograph was taken to send to Mikhail in Norilsk

Although only ten, Oleg felt that he became an adult when he received this letter. He felt responsible for Natasha, which made him view the world no longer as a child. In his own words, ‘I grew up overnight.’13


The Bushuevs, the Gaisters and the Vorobyovs were the lucky ones – they were rescued by their relatives. But the arrest of their parents left millions of other children on their own. Many ended up in orphanages – intended for those under the age of sixteen – but others roamed the streets begging or joined the children’s gangs, which controlled much of the petty crime and prostitution at railway stations, markets and other busy places in the big cities. It was largely to combat the mounting problem of child criminality that a law was passed in 1935 to lower the age of criminal responsibility to twelve. Between 1935 and 1940, the Soviet courts convicted of petty crimes 102,000 children between the ages of twelve and sixteen. Many ended up in the children’s labour colonies administered by the NKVD.14

Some children slipped through the system and were left to fend for themselves. Mikhail Mironov was ten years old when his parents were arrested in 1936. They were both factory workers from the Ukraine, Red partisans in the Civil War, who had risen through the ranks of the Party, first in Moscow and then in Leningrad, before their arrests. Mikhail’s sister Lilia had already left the family home in Leningrad to study medicine in Moscow. So Mikhail was alone. For a while, he lived with various relatives, but he was a burden to them all, factory workers struggling to survive with large families of their own. In September 1937, Mikhail was accepted as a student at the drawing school established by the House of Pioneers in Leningrad. His aunt Bela, who had taken care of Mikhail in the previous months, saw it as an opportunity to be rid of him, and sent him off to live in the student dormitory attached to the House of Pioneers. Mikhail lost all track of his father (who was shot in 1938) and never heard from his sister, who was afraid that she would be expelled from medical school if she revealed her spoilt biography by writing to her relatives. His only contact was with his mother, and he wrote to her often in the labour camps of Vorkuta. He was isolated and lonely, without friends or family, and in desperate need of a mother’s love (his letters often end with such sentiments as ‘I kiss you 1000000000 times’). In the spring of 1941, Mikhail was excluded from the drawing school – for lack of talent – and enrolled instead in a factory school. Expelled from the dormitory in the House of Pioneers, he found a room in a barracks. ‘It is very boring for me,’ the fifteen-year-old boy wrote to his mother in July. ‘There is no one here. Everyone has gone, and I am on my own.’ In September, as the German troops encircled Leningrad, Mikhail escaped to Moscow, but by the time he arrived there, his sister had already been evacuated to Central Asia with her medical institute. None of his other Moscow relatives would take him in, so Mikhail ended up by living on the street. He was killed in the battle for Moscow in October 1941.15

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Mikhail Mironov and his drawings (extract from a letter to his mother)

Maia Norkina was thirteen when her father was arrested in June 1937. A year later, when the NKVD took her mother too, Maia was expelled from her school in Leningrad. Maia had a number of aunts and uncles in Leningrad, but none would take her in. ‘They were all afraid to lose their jobs,’ Maia explains. ‘Some were Party members – they were the most afraid and refused outright.’ Everyone expected that Maia would be taken to an orphanage. But no one came for her. So she continued living in the three rooms that belonged to her family in a communal apartment conveniently situated in the centre of the city. Her relatives, eager to hang on to the precious living space, moved in one of her uncles and registered him as a resident, although in fact he was never there, because he lived with his wife and children in another part of the city. ‘I was living on my own, completely independently,’ recalls Maia. The fourteen-year-old girl would borrow books from her old school-friends. She’d travel for an hour to her aunt’s for meals, or buy food with pocket money from her relatives; neighbours in the communal apartment sometimes gave her scraps of food. Every day she would stand in queues at the NKVD headquarters in Leningrad, hoping to hand in a parcel for her father; the officials took the parcels for a while and then told her that her father had been sentenced to ‘ten years without rights of correspondence’ (meaning – though she did not find this out for years – that he had been shot). To get a parcel to her mother, in the Potma labour camps, was even more onerous: it required her to stand in queues for two whole days and nights. Maia went on living this way until August 1941, when she turned eighteen and joined the People’s Volunteers for the defence of Leningrad. She had no formal schooling and had little other choice.16

Zoia Arsenteva was born in 1923 in Vladivostok. Her father, the captain of a steamship, was arrested on a trip to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on 25 November 1937; her mother was arrested in her home in Vladivostok on the same day. Zoia was not taken to an orphanage: although only fourteen, she looked older than her years. She was left to fend for herself in the communal apartment where her family had lived since 1926. She had no other relatives to whom she could turn. Her mother’s sister lived in Khabarovsk, but only came to Vladivostok, where she had a dacha, in the summertime; her father’s family was in Leningrad. Zoia had enjoyed a sheltered childhood. Her mother did not work and had devoted herself to her only child. But now Zoia was forced to do everything for herself. She went to school. She cooked her meals on the little primus stove in the corridor of the communal apartment. With the help of her neighbours she sold off bits of the family inheritance (a gold watch, her mother’s silver ring, her father’s old binoculars and a camera, books and sculptures) to buy food and canteen meals in the factory near her house. Much of the money she raised this way was used to launch the appeal for the release of her father (accused of belonging to a ‘Trans-Pacific Counter-revolutionary Organization’), who sent her weekly letters from his jail in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky with complex instructions about obscure points of law and the recovery of bank accounts. Once a week she wrote back to her father with a report on his case; once a week she queued up overnight outside the jail in Vladivostok to hand in a parcel for her mother. Her father was impressed with the way she had grown up and responded to the family crisis. In May 1940, he wrote to his wife, who was by then in a labour camp near Iaia in Siberia:

I have received two letters from Zizika [Zoia]. I feel so bad for her but rejoice too over her success; she is flourishing and healthy – soon she will be seventeen, and she is completely independent. She is a clever girl and deserves praise for her bravery – she was not afraid to live entirely on her own at the age of fourteen. She has even come to enjoy it. I imagine her as a little mistress of the house, fully in command of her domestic and school affairs.17

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Zoia Arsenteva, Khabarovsk, 1941

From Zoia’s perspective, coping on her own was not at all enjoyable. As she said years later, ‘One day Mama was arrested, the next day I began my adult life.’ In her letters to her parents she did not trouble them with the problems she faced. People posing as her parents’ friends tried to take advantage of her, offering to help her sell her precious items and keeping half the profits for themselves. In the spring of 1939, a genuine acquaintance of her mother, a secretary in the city Soviet, moved her things into Zoia’s room. She claimed that she was trying to protect her from having to share her living space with another family. But in fact, a few weeks later, the woman called for the police to arrest Zoia and take her to an orphanage, thus getting the room for herself. In the orphanage Zoia went on a hunger strike to protest against having been sent there. Eventually, through one of the workers in the orphanage, she made contact with her aunt from Khabarovsk, who had recently arrived to spend the summer at her dacha. Zoia stayed in the orphanage for three months, until her aunt managed to reclaim her room in the communal apartment and, on her sixteenth birthday, Zoia was allowed to return to it. She worked her way through the last year at school, studying at evening classes, and then attended the Railway Institute in Khabarovsk. In the winter of 1940, her father was sentenced to five years in a labour camp in Siberia, where he died in 1942. Her mother was released in 1944.18

Marksena Karpitskaia was thirteen when her parents, senior Party officials in Leningrad, were arrested on 5 July 1937. Marksena’s younger brothers were sent to different orphanages – the older Aleksei (who was ten) to a children’s home near Kirov, the younger Vladimir (who was five) to one in the Tatar Republic. Marksena was not taken to an orphanage because, like Zoia, she looked older than she was. Instead, she moved into a room in a communal apartment with her nanny, Milia, a simple peasant woman, who helped her and exploited her in equal measure. Like many children raised in Communist households in the 1920s, Marksena was brought up to be responsible from an early age. Her parents treated her as a ‘small comrade’ and put her in charge of her younger brothers. Now this training stood her in good stead:

Milia was with me, but I was in charge of everything, including the money. I paid Milia her salary, but then she began to steal from me, so I told her that I did not need her services any more. Still, I let her go on sleeping in my room, because she had nowhere else to stay.19

For a thirteen-year-old, Marksena was amazingly resourceful. She managed to survive by salvaging her parents’ personal possessions, which were sealed up in their flat on their arrest, and selling them through Milia in a commission shop, the last official remnant of the private market, where Soviet citizens could buy and sell their household goods. The key to this complex operation was the assistance of senior party official and family friend Boris Pozern (‘Uncle Boria’), at that time the Prosecutor for Leningrad Oblast, who had known Marksena since she was a little girl. Pozern sent a soldier to open up the flat so that Marksena could retrieve some money and take out things to sell: her father’s suit and shoes; her mother’s dress and a fur jacket; towels and sheets. ‘Uncle Boria’, who had risked his life to help the orphan girl, was arrested and shot in 1939.

The Whisperers

Marksena, Leningrad, 1941

Marksena stored these items in her room in the communal apartment. Piece by piece, if not sold off, they were gradually stolen by the neighbours in the other rooms. Then Milia moved her boyfriend into the room, until Marksena found the courage to kick the couple out and put a lock on the door. For the next three years, Marksena lived in the communal apartment on her own. She sold her last possessions through an aunt, who had barely dared to talk to her after the arrest of her parents, but who now jumped at the opportunity to help Marksena sell her property. The communal apartment where Marksena lived was situated in a deeply proletarian area of Leningrad; all her neighbours were factory workers. They knew that she was living on her own – an illegal situation for a minor to be in – but none reported her to the police (apparently, they were more interested in keeping her near so they could steal from her). Bullied at school by one of the teachers as the daughter of an ‘enemy of the people’, Marksena transferred to a different school, where the headteacher was more sympathetic and helped her to conceal her spoilt biography. In 1941, at the age of seventeen, Marksena graduated with top marks in all subjects. She enrolled as a student in the Faculty of Languages at Leningrad University. When the university was evacuated, in February 1942, she remained in Leningrad, working in the Public Library. Until the city was cut off by the German troops, she kept writing to her brother Aleksei in his orphanage. Aleksei returned to Leningrad, deeply damaged by the orphanage, in 1946. Her younger brother Vladimir disappeared without a trace.20

The Great Terror swelled the orphan population. From 1935 to 1941 the number of children living in the children’s homes of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine alone grew from 329,000 to approximately 610,000 (a number which excludes the children ‘lent out’ by the orphanages to Soviet farms and factories).21 Most children’s homes were little more than detention centres for homeless juveniles and runaways, young ‘hooligans’ and petty criminals, and the ‘strange orphans’ (as the writer Ilia Ehrenburg described them), who had lost their parents in the mass arrests of 1937–8. Conditions in these homes were so appalling that dozens of officials were moved to write to the authorities to express their personal distress at the overcrowding and the dirt, the cold and hunger, the cruelty and neglect, to which the children were systematically subjected. Children of ‘enemies of the people’ were singled out for harsh treatment. Like Marksena’s younger brothers, they were often sent to different children’s homes as part of a policy of breaking up the families of ‘enemies’. They were told to forget their parents and, if young enough, were given different names to forge a new identity. They often suffered bullying and exclusion, sometimes at the hands of the teachers and caretakers, who were afraid to show them tenderness, in case they were accused of sympathizing with ‘enemies’.22

After the arrest of their parents, Inessa Bulat and her sister Mella were sent to different children’s homes. Inessa, who was three, was taken to a home in Leningrad, while Mella, eleven, was sent to one near Smolensk. Both girls were constantly reminded that they were the daughters of ‘enemies of the people’ – their parents having been arrested in connection with the trial of Piatakov and other ‘Trotskyists’ in January 1937.* Inessa has no recollection of her childhood prior to the orphanage. But what she recalls from the two years she spent there left a deep scar on her consciousness:

Conditions there were terrible – I could not even go into the toilet: the floors were covered ankle-deep in liquid shit… The building faced a big red-brick wall. It felt like being trapped in a kind of hell… The head of the home would always say to me: ‘Just remember who your parents are. Don’t make any trouble: just sit quietly and don’t stick your spy’s nose into anything.’… I became withdrawn. I shut myself away. Later, I found it very difficult to lead a normal life. I had spent too long in the orphanage, where I had learned to feel nothing.

In Mella’s orphanage there were ‘several dozen’ children of politicals. As she recalls:

None of us whose parents had been arrested ever dared to speak about our families. They called us ‘Trotskyists’ and always lumped us together, so we formed a sort of group. There was no particular friendship between us, but we tried to stick together… The other children would throw stones at us and call us names, so we kept together to protect ourselves.

Mella wrote to her grandmother in Leningrad. When her parents were arrested, her grandmother had refused to look after her and Inessa. Recently divorced from an alcoholic husband who had beaten her, she was living in terrible conditions in a basement room and working as an inspector at the Leningrad Tobacco Factory. She was afraid that she might lose her job if she gave shelter to children of ‘enemies of the people’. She also thought that her grandchildren would be better off in a children’s home. But Mella’s letters shocked her. She had no idea of the appalling conditions in which her granddaughters had been living. In 1939, she rescued both girls from the children’s homes and brought them back to live with her in her basement room in Leningrad.23

When Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko and his wife Sofia were arrested, in October 1937, their daughter Valentina was aged fifteen. Sofia and Vladimir were both shot on the same day, 8 February 1938. Vladimir was Valentina’s stepfather. Her real father was Aleksandr Tikhanov, a printer from a large working-class family in Moscow who became an editor at the Young Guard publishing house in Moscow and then moved to International Books in Prague, where Sofia had met Vladimir, the Soviet ambassador. Valentina had seen her father before 1934, but then they lost contact. ‘He did not come to see us when we returned to Moscow. I did not ask my mother why,’ Valentina says, ‘and she did not explain it. No doubt my father did not want to intrude on our life.’ When Sofia and Vladimir were arrested, Valentina was taken to the NKVD detention centre in the grounds of the old Danilov Monastery, from which the children of the ‘enemies of the people’ were sent to orphanages across the Soviet Union. Immediately on her arrival Valentina became ill. Her father, Aleksandr, knew where she was but did not try to rescue her. Recently remarried, perhaps he was afraid of endangering relations with his new wife, who was herself arrested in 1938. From the Danilov Monastery, Valentina was transferred to a children’s home in Dnepropetrovsk, where she remained until 1941, when she returned to Moscow. Reflecting on her life in this period, Valentina says:

The orphanage was a trauma that I never overcame. This is the first time I have spoken about it to anyone. These were the years when I was growing up, I needed a mother, a mother and a father, and when I began to understand that they were dead, a sense of loss cut into everything. At the orphanage they used to give us sweets for the New Year, sometimes the teachers made a fuss of us. But the only thing I felt was this awful sense of loss, of being on my own, without anyone. I was the only girl who had no mother to contact, who had no letters. I was all alone. The only one in the whole group whose mother had been shot [long silence]. And I felt that bitterly.24

The Whisperers

Girls from Orphanage No. 1, Dnepropetrovsk, 1940. Valentina is in the centre of the second row from the top

The one redeeming feature of the orphanage – it saved her from despair – was the strength of the friendships she formed there with the other orphan girls.

There are countless horror stories about growing up in orphanages. But there also examples of children finding love and ‘family’ there.

Galina Kosheleva was nine years old when she was taken to an orphanage, following the arrest and execution of her father, a peasant from the Podporozhe region, north-east of Leningrad, during the ‘kulak operation’ of 1937. The family dispersed. Galina and her brother were taken to Kirov, from where he was sent to an orphanage in the nearby town of Zuevka, and she northwards to Oparino, between Kirov and Kotlas. As soon as she arrived, Galina caught pneumonia. ‘I had travelled all the way from Leningrad in a summer dress, with a white pelerine, nothing else, and just a pair of light sandals; it was summer when we left but November by the time we reached Kirov.’ Throughout that winter Galina was very sick. She was nursed by the director of the orphanage, a young Siberian woman called Elizaveta Ivanova, who gave Galina her own winter coat and bought her milk with her own money from the neighbouring collective farm. The relationship between Elizaveta and Galina resembled one between mother and child. Without children of her own, Elizaveta doted on the nine-year-old girl: she read to her at night and helped her with her studies when she could not go to school. She wanted to adopt her but did not have the living space to qualify for adoption rights. Then, in 1945, Galina’s mother suddenly appeared. In 1937, she had fled the NKVD and lived in hiding with a new-born baby. She had worked as an ice-breaker on the Murmansk Railway, until her capture by the German army, when she was sent to a Finnish concentration camp in Petrozavodsk. Liberated by Soviet troops in 1944, she went in search of her children. Galina was very sad to leave Elizaveta and the orphanage. She moved to Podporozhe with her mother and brother, and then to Leningrad in 1952. Throughout these years she kept on writing to Elizaveta at the orphanage. ‘I loved her so much that it made my mother envious,’ she recalls. ‘I did not love my mother half as much, and relations between us in any case were not so good.’25

Nikolai Kovach was born in 1936 in the Solovetsky labour camp. Both his parents had been sentenced to ten years in the White Sea island prison in 1933. Because his mother was then pregnant with his older sister Elena, they were allowed to live together as a family within the prison. But then, in January 1937, the NKVD prohibited cohabitation in all labour camps. Nikolai’s mother was sent to a camp in Karelia (where she was shot in November 1937); his father was dispatched to Magadan (where he was shot in 1938). Elena was sick with TB at the time, so she was sent to an orphanage in Tolmachyovo, south of Leningrad, where medical provision was part of the regime; but Nikolai was taken north to Olgino, the resort on the Gulf of Finland favoured by the Petersburg elite before 1917, where the NKVD had set up an orphanage for children of ‘enemies of the people’ in a wing of the old white palace of Prince Oldenburg.

Like Nikolai, many of the children in the orphanage had no recollection of their family. But they forged a special bond with the kitchen workers, who gave them love and affection, and perhaps the feeling of a family. ‘There was a back staircase down to the kitchen area,’ recalls Nikolai.

I would go that way and the cooks would say: ‘Here comes Kolia!’ They would stroke my hair and give me a piece of bread. I would sit there at the bottom of the stairs and eat the piece of bread, so that no one else saw me with it. Everyone was hungry then – I was afraid to lose my piece of bread… The cooks, ordinary women from the local area, felt sorry for us orphans and tried to help us.

The children also visited the old people in the area and helped them on their allotments. ‘That was very good for us,’ Nikolai recalls:

If we helped an old grandpa he would be pleased and would do something nice for us. He might be affectionate and stroke our hair. We needed warmth and affection, we needed all the things a family would have given us – although we didn’t know what those things were. It didn’t bother us that we didn’t have a family, because we didn’t know what a family was, or that there was such a thing. We simply needed love.

Often, they found it in their relationships with animals and pets. ‘We had dogs, rabbits, horses,’ Nikolai recalls.

Behind the fence at the orphanage there was a horse farm. We loved it there, we felt free. Sometimes in the summer the stable workers let us take the horses to the river. We rode bareback, swam in the river with the horses and rode back with squeals and cries of joy. On the meadow by the town there were horse races in the summertime. We were always there. No one knew the horses better than we did. We were in love with them.

Among the orphans, small informal groups of mutual support performed many of the basic functions of a family: boys of the same age would join together to protect themselves from the boys who called them ‘enemies of the people’ and tried to beat them up; older children would protect the younger ones, help them with their lessons and their chores and comfort them when they cried at night or wet their bed. All the children were united in their opposition to the teachers at the orphanage, who were strict and often cruel.26

Nikolai had no idea what his parents looked like. He did not even know that they were dead. But he saw his mother in his dreams:

I often dreamed of Mama. I think it was Mama. I did not see her face, or even her figure. They were very happy dreams. I was flying in the sky with Mama. She was hugging me and helping me to fly. But I could not see her – somehow she had her back to me, or we were side by side. We weren’t flying high – just over the meadows and marshes near the orphanage. It was summertime. She would speak to me: ‘Don’t be afraid, we won’t fly too high or too far away.’ And we were smiling, we were always smiling in my dreams. I felt happiness – the physical sensation of happiness – only in those dreams. Still, today, when I think of happiness, I recall those dreams, that feeling of pure happiness.

Nikolai built up an imaginary picture of his parents, as did many other orphans. He never dreamed of his father but he pictured him as a pilot – a hero-figure in the Soviet Union in the late 1930s and 1940s. In his dreams he yearned for a family, even though, as Nikolai reflects, he had no idea what a family was. He did not see an actual family, not even a mother with her child, until he was thirteen.27

Without the influence of a family, Nikolai and his fellow orphans grew up with very particular ideas of right and wrong; their moral sense was shaped by what he calls the ‘laws of the jungle’ in the orphanage. These laws obliged every child to sacrifice himself for the collective interest. Nikolai explains:

If a person had done something wrong, for which we could all be punished, then that person was made to confess to the authorities. We would make him take the punishment rather than be punished as a group. If we could not persuade him verbally, we would use physical methods to make him own up to his crime. We would not denounce him – it was forbidden to betray one’s own – but we made sure that he confessed.

But if it was forbidden to betray one’s own, a different law applied to the relations between children and adults. The orphans all admired Pavlik Morozov. ‘He was our hero,’ Nikolai recalls.

Since we had no understanding of a family, and no idea what a father was, the fact that Pavlik had betrayed his father was of no significance to us. All that mattered was that he had caught a kulak, a member of the bourgeoisie, which made him a hero in our eyes. For us the story was all about the class struggle, not a family tragedy.28

The moral system of the orphanage – with its strong collective and weak familial links – made it one of the main recruiting grounds for the NKVD and the Red Army. There were millions of children from the 1930s who spent their lives in Soviet institutions – the orphanage, the army and the labour camp – without ever knowing family life. Orphan children were especially susceptible to the propaganda of the Soviet regime because they had no parents to guide them or give them any alternative system of values. Mikhail Nikolaev, who grew up in a series of children’s homes in the 1930s, recalls that he and his fellow orphans were indoctrinated to believe that the Soviet Union was the best country in the world, and that they were the most fortunate children in the world, because everything had been given to them by the state, headed by the father of the country, Stalin, who cared for all children:

If we had lived in any other country, we would have died from hunger and from cold – that is what we were told… And of course we believed every word. We discovered life, we learned to think and feel – or rather learned not to think or feel but to accept everything that we were told – in the orphanage. All our ideas about the world we received from Soviet power.29

Mikhail, too, was very struck by the legend of Pavlik Morozov. He dreamed of emulating his achievement – of exposing someone as an enemy or spy – and was very proud when he became a Pioneer. Like many orphans, Mikhail saw his acceptance by the Pioneers as the moment he fully entered Soviet society. Until then, he had always been ashamed about his parentage. He had only fragmentary recollections of his mother and father: a memory of riding with his father on a horse; a mental picture of his mother sitting by a lamp and cleaning a pistol (which made him think that she must have been a Party official). He did not know who his parents were; nor did he know their names (Mikhail Nikolaev was the name he had been given when he first came to the orphanage). He recounted an incident from when he had been four or five years old: his former nanny had come to visit him in the children’s home and had told him that his parents had been shot as ‘enemies of the people’. Then she said: ‘They should shoot you too, just as they shot your mother and father.’ Throughout his childhood Mikhail felt ashamed on this account. But this shame was lifted when he joined the Pioneers: it was the first time he was recognized and valued by the Soviet system. As a Pioneer, Mikhail looked to Stalin as a figure of paternal authority and care. He believed all goodness came from him: ‘The fact that we were fed and clothed, that we could study, that we could go to the Pioneers Camp, even that there was a New Year’s tree – all of it was down to comrade Stalin,’ in his view.30

The children at Mikhail’s orphanage were put to work at an early age. They washed the dishes and cleared the yard from the age of four, worked in the fields of a collective farm from the age of seven, and, when they reached the age of eleven, they were sent to work in a textiles factory in the nearby town of Orekhovo-Zuevo, 50 kilometres east of Moscow. In the summer of 1941, Mikhail was assigned to a metal factory in one of the industrial suburbs of Orekhovo-Zuevo. Although he was only twelve, the doctors at the orphanage had declared him to be fifteen on the basis of a medical examination (Mikhail was big for his age) and had given him a new set of documents which stated – incorrectly – that he was born in 1926. There was a policy of declaring orphaned children to be older than their age so that they would become eligible for military service or industrial work. For the next two years Mikhail worked in the steel plant in a brigade of children from the orphanage. ‘We worked in shifts – one week twelve hours every night, the next twelve hours every day. The working week was seven days.’ The terrible conditions in the factory were a long way from the propaganda image of industrial work that Mikhail had received through books and films, and for the first time in his life he began to doubt what he had been taught. The children slept in their work clothes on the floor of the factory club and took their meals in the canteen. They were not paid. In the autumn of 1943, Mikhail ran away from the factory and volunteered for the Red Army – he did so out of hunger, not patriotism – and became a tank driver. He was just fourteen.31

Like Mikhail, Nikolai Kovach was extremely proud when he joined the Pioneers. It gave him a sense of inclusion in the world outside the orphanage and put him on a par with other children his age. Kovach went on to join the Komsomol and become a Party activist; The History of the CPSU was his ‘favourite book’. He joined the Red Army as a teenager and served in the Far East. When he was demobilized he could not settle into civilian life – he had lived too long in Soviet institutions – so he went to work for the NKVD: it enabled him to study in the evening at its elite military academy. Kovach served in a special unit of the NKVD. Its main task was to catch the children who had run away from children’s homes.32


Maria Budkevich, the fourteen-year-old girl who had been trained by her parents to survive on her own in the event of their arrest, was able to do so for the better part of a year after they were taken by the NKVD in July 1937. She lived by herself in the family’s apartment in Moscow until the summer of 1938, when the NKVD took her to the detention centre in the Danilov Monastery. While she had been living on her own, Maria had been helped by an old friend of her parents, Militsa Yevgenevna, who felt sorry for the child. Militsa’s husband, a Bolshevik official, had been arrested shortly before Maria’s parents, so Militsa presumed that they had been arrested on account of him. She soon became frightened of the consequences for herself if she continued to assist the daughter of an ‘enemy’, and called the NKVD. When they came for Maria, Militsa said to her: ‘Don’t be cross with me… It will be better for you in a children’s home. Afterwards it will be easier, you will no longer be the child of an enemy of the people.’33

From the Danilov Monastery Maria was transferred to an orphanage near Gorkii with twenty-five other children of ‘enemies of the people’. The director of the orphanage was a paternal type who encouraged Maria to study hard and make a career for herself, despite her spoilt biography. She joined the Komsomol, though she was warned that she would be forced to renounce her parents before she was admitted, and took part in its activities, which mainly involved shrill denunciations of ‘enemies of the people’ and singing songs of thanks to Stalin and the Party in mass meetings and marches. As she recalls, she joined the Komsomol in the belief that this was what her parents would have wanted her to do: ‘How could I have not joined? Mama always said that I had to become a Pioneer and then a Young Communist. It would have been shameful not to join.’ Yet at the same time – without quite grasping the political events that led to the arrest of her parents – she felt that it was somehow wrong to join. She remembers feeling a sense of guilt towards her parents, as if she had betrayed them, although, as it turned out, she was not called upon to renounce them. Still, she felt awkward about taking part in Komsomol propaganda, and, as she recounts, ‘only made a show of singing in praise of Stalin, mouthing words I did not quite believe’. At the root of her discomfort was her instinctive sense that her parents had been wrongly arrested (she even wrote to Stalin to protest in 1939), a conviction that conflicted with the political identity she had to adopt to survive and advance. As a member of the Komsomol, Maria was able to enroll at the Polytechnic Institute of Leningrad, a leading science university seldom attended by children of the ‘enemies of the people’.34

Millions of children grew up in the grey area between the Soviet system and its ‘enemies’, constantly torn by competing loyalties and contradictory impulses. On the one hand, the stigma of a tainted biography reinforced their need to prove themselves as fully equal members of society, which meant conforming to Soviet ideals, joining the Komsomol and perhaps the Party too. On the other, these children could not help but feel alienated from the system that had brought such suffering on their families.

Zhenia Yevangulova had mixed emotions following the arrest of her parents in the summer of 1937. She was nineteen years old, she had just finished school, and now her chance of going on to study in Moscow was dashed. Instead she went to live with her father’s uncle, a retired professor of metallurgy in Leningrad, who helped her to get into the Workers’ Faculty (rabfak), from which she hoped to transfer to the Polytechnic Institute. As the day of her application to the institute approached, Zhenia became more fearful, knowing she would have to reveal the arrest of her parents in the anketa. She felt like a ‘leper’ and feared that she would be disqualified from joining the institute, even though she had got top marks in the entrance examinations. In 1938, she was admitted, albeit to the Metallurgical Department, where competition for places was not as acute as in other departments. Throughout her first year there, Zhenia confessed in her diary to a feeling of depression, even to thoughts of suicide. Reflecting on this sadness, she explained it to herself as the ‘shutting down’ of her personality that followed her parents’ disappearance. At the Workers’ Faculty, their arrest had been a source of constant shame; her fellow students had bullied her mercilessly, calling her the daughter of a ‘traitor to the motherland’. At the institute, Zhenia tried to overcome this stigma by proving herself a model student.

There were moments when she struggled to break free of her parents, to enjoy herself with the other students, to move on with her life. But these brief moments of happiness were always followed by feelings of guilt when she recalled her parents in the camps. Shortly after the arrest of her father, Zhenia had had a dream in which her father reappeared as an aggressor. It continued to haunt her:

My father appeared from the mist of an adjoining room, pressed his pistol to my heart and shot. There was no physical pain, only the sensation that I had failed to stop him… And then I noticed that my chest was soaked in blood.

While at the institute, she went skating with her friends one evening and felt happy for the first time in many months. But that night she again saw her father in the dream and the next morning she awoke with a ‘heavy feeling of depression’.35

Looking back on their teenage years, many of these ‘strange orphans’ recall that there was a moment – a moment they had all hoped for – when the stigma of repression was at last lifted and they were recognized as ‘Soviet citizens’. This desire for social acceptance was felt by nearly all the children of the ‘enemies of the people’. There were few who turned their backs on the Soviet system or became opposed to it.

For Ida Slavina, that moment of acceptance came in the summer of 1938, shortly after the arrest of her mother (her father was taken in 1937). She was invited by her physical education teacher to take part in a school parade. Ida was an athlete, tall and fit. She had participated in school marches as an athlete and gymnast since the age of fourteen, but after the arrest of her father she had been excluded from the parade team. In her memoirs (1995) she recalls her joy on being readmitted to the parade team as a gymnast-parachutist for a demonstration on the theme ‘On Land and Sea and in the Sky’ to celebrate the achievements of Soviet sport:

The Whisperers

‘On Land and Sea and in the Sky’ gymnastic demonstration, 1938: Ida is in the middle of the back row

I remember the surprise of my interviewers,* when they recognized me in a photograph among a group of athletes at the parade. How, they asked, could I bring myself to go on a parade when my mother had only just been sent to a labour camp? Thinking back, I recognize the egoism of youth, of course; I was sixteen, I couldn’t stand to be unhappy, I longed for happiness and love. But there was more to it than that. Joining the parade was also an expression of my deep desire to feel whole again in my shattered world. To feel again the sensation of being part of an enormous ‘We’. Marching in columns, with everybody else, singing the proud song, ‘We Have No Borders’, it seemed to me that I was indeed a fully equal representative of my Motherland. I was filled with the belief [in the words of the song] that we would ‘carry our Soviet banner over worlds and centuries’. I was with everyone! My friends and teachers once again believed in me – and that meant, or so I thought, that they must also believe in my parents’ innocence.36

For most teenagers it was their admission to the Komsomol that symbolized their transition from children of an ‘enemy of the people’ to ‘Soviet citizens’. Galina Adasinskaia was seventeen when her father was arrested in February 1938. Galina’s parents were active oppositionists and there was no expectation that she would become a member of the Communist youth organization. Exiled with her mother from her native Leningrad to Iaroslavl, Galina felt acutely the stigma of repression and tried to overcome it by applying to the Komsomol nonetheless. She wrote to the Komsomol committee at her school, asking them, as she put it, to ‘look into my case’ (i.e. to examine her appeal to join in the light of her father’s arrest). There was in this, as she admits, a conscious element of self-purging, an open declaration of her ‘spoilt biography’ in the hope of forgiveness and salvation by the collective. At the Komsomol meeting to discuss her appeal, the leaders ruled that Galina ‘should be disqualified from membership as an enemy of the people’. But one of her classmates protested, and threatened that all the students would leave if Adasinskaia was excluded. ‘The Party instructor became red with rage,’ recalls Galina:

He sat there on his stool and began to shout: ‘What is this? A provocation! Lack of vigilance!’ But I was allowed to join the Komsomol. I was even elected as the class organizer and our organization took first place [in the socialist competition] at school.

For Galina this was the moment she was brought back into the collective fold. When she herself was arrested in 1941, she recalls, ‘my investigator’s eyes practically fell out when he saw my Komsomol record’.37

The renunciation of family traditions and beliefs was usually the sacrifice required for entry into Soviet society. Liuba Tetiueva was born in 1923, the fourth child in the family of an Orthodox priest in the town of Cherdyn, in the northern Urals. Liuba’s father, Aleksandr, was arrested in 1922 and held in prison for the best part of a year. After his release he was put under pressure by OGPU to become an informer and write reports on his own parishioners, but he refused. When his church was taken over by the obnovlentsy, church reformers supported by the regime, Aleksandr was arrested for a second time but released a few months later in the autumn of 1929. Liuba’s mother, Klavdiia, was subsequently dismissed from her job in the Cherdyn Museum, and her brother Viktor was expelled from school as the son of a ‘class enemy’. In 1930, Aleksandr, eager to protect his family by distancing himself, took his son and moved to the town of Chermoz. In the hope of improving the boy’s prospects Aleksandr gave Viktor up for adoption to a family of workers active in the Church; as a ‘workers’ son’ Viktor finished seventh class at school and qualified as a teacher. The rest of the family also left Cherdyn, where they faced ruination, and went to live with Klavdiia’s mother in Solikamsk, a new industrial town 100 kilometres to the south.

Growing up in Solikamsk, Liuba was brought up to ‘know her place’.

Mama constantly reminded me that I was the daughter of a priest, that I should be careful not to mix with people, not to trust them, or to speak with them about my family. My place was to be modest. She used to say: ‘Others are allowed but you are not.’

The family was very poor. Klavdiia worked as an instructor in likbez (an organization established to end illiteracy among adults) but her pay was not enough to feed the family without a ration card. They managed to survive thanks to small sums from Aleksandr, who worked in Chermoz as a priest. Then, in August 1937, Aleksandr was arrested yet again. In October he was shot. Klavdiia and the children kept going by selling their last possessions and growing vegetables. Help finally came in the form of money sent by some of Aleksandr’s old parishioners – peasants helped by the Church during collectivization.

Liuba had seen her father only once after he moved to Chermoz. She visited him there in June 1937, a few weeks before his arrest. ‘Papa was upset by my ignorance of religion,’ recalls Liuba. ‘He tried to teach me Old Church Slavonic, and I resisted. It was the first and last religious lesson in my life.’ Years of repression had made Liuba want to break away from her family background. During the first year at her new school in Solikamsk she had been the target of an anti-religious propaganda campaign: the teacher would point to Liuba and tell the other children that they would all turn out as badly as she had, if they were exposed to religion. Bullied by the other children, Liuba was reduced to ‘such a state of fear and hysteria’, as she herself recalls, that

I was afraid to go to school. Eventually my mother and grandmother decided not to take me to church any longer; they told me it was best to have one education, and that I was to believe everything I was told about religion at my school.

Liuba joined the Pioneers. She was proud to wear the scarf, a sign of her inclusion, and became an activist, even taking part in demonstrations against the Church in 1938, when banners called for ‘Death to all the priests!’ Liuba became a teacher – the chosen profession of three of Aleksandr’s four children. For nearly fifty years she taught the Party line against the Church. Looking back, Liuba is filled with remorse for having turned her back on her family’s traditions and beliefs.* ‘I always thought: how much easier it would have been for me if my father had been a teacher rather than a priest, if I had had a father, just like every other girl.’38 Compared with her brother Viktor, who formally renounced his father at a meeting of the Komsomol, it could be said that Liuba only did what was absolutely necessary to survive in Soviet society.

Becoming a Soviet activist was a common survival strategy among children of ‘enemies of the people’. It both deflected political suspicions from their vulnerability and enabled them to overcome their fear.

Elizaveta Delibash was born in 1928 in Minusinsk, Siberia, where her parents were then living in exile. Her father, Aleksandr Iosilevich, was the son of a Leningrad printer, a veteran Bolshevik and Cheka official from the beginning of the Soviet regime and the partner of Elizaveta Drabkina (the teenager who had found her father in the Smolny Institute in October 1917), until he fell in love with Nina Delibash, the daughter of a minor Georgian official, and married her in 1925. Two years later, Aleksandr was arrested after falling out with his former OGPU employers (he had left the police to study economics in Moscow in 1926). Exiled to Siberia, he was followed there by Nina, who was pregnant with their daughter. In 1928, Nina and her baby went back to the Soviet capital, followed after his release by Aleksandr, who found a job in the Ministry of Foreign Trade. In 1930, Aleksandr was rearrested and sentenced to ten years in the labour camp at Sukhobezvodny, part of the Vetlag Gulag complex near Gorkii. Nina was arrested at the same time and sent to a series of ‘special settlements’ in Siberia, from which she returned to Moscow in 1932. Elizaveta stayed with her father’s family in Leningrad, occasionally visiting her mother in exile or in Moscow, until 1935, when she and Nina rejoined Aleksandr in the Sukhobezvodny camp. Nina worked as a volunteer, and the family lived together in the barracks of the camp, where Elizaveta went to school. But then, in April 1936, Elizaveta’s parents were both rearrested. Aleksandr was executed in May 1937; Nina was sentenced to ten years in the Solovetsky labour camp, where she was shot in November 1937.

After the arrest of her parents, Elizaveta was saved from being sent to an orphanage by one of the other prisoners at Sukhobezvodny who brought her back to Leningrad after her release in 1936. Elizaveta stayed with various relatives – first with an uncle Grigorii (who was arrested in April 1937); then with an aunt Margo (who was arrested in July); and then with an aunt Raia (who was arrested in August) – whereupon some distant relatives rescued her from Leningrad and took her off to their dacha near Moscow, where they concealed her from the NKVD, before sending her to her mother’s family in Tbilisi. Passed between these relatives, unaware of their concern to get her out of the police’s way, she began to feel like an unwanted child.

Elizaveta’s grandparents were plain folk – her grandfather was of peasant origin and her grandmother the daughter of a trader – but they had both been educated and they had imbibed the liberal-Christian values of the intelligentsia in Tbilisi. Elizaveta did not go to school but was taught at home by her grandmother, who had been a teacher in the Tbilisi Gymnasium before 1917. Her grandparents had no illusions about the purges. They told her that her parents were innocent and decent people who had been punished unjustly. Nina wrote twice to her parents from the Solovetsky camp. She added a few words of comfort and encouragement for her daughter. Her last letter was written just before her execution on 2 November 1937 and passed to one of her executioners, who sent it on illegally. ‘Papa, Mama, I am going to die. Save my daughter,’ Nina wrote. She told Elizaveta that she could always find her by the Great Bear in the night sky. ‘When you see that, think of me,’ she wrote, ‘because I will be up there.’ Nina’s letters and all her photographs were destroyed after the arrest of her brother in Tbilisi in December 1937.*

But the memory of that final letter, which her grandmother read to her a dozen times, remained close to Elizaveta’s heart: ‘I was always waiting, always waiting for my mother,’ she recalls. ‘Even as an adult, when I went out at night, I would always look for the Great Bear and think about my mother. Until 1958 [when she found out that her mother had been shot] I saw it as a sign that one day she would return.’

The Whisperers

Elizaveta Delibash, 1949

The arrest of her uncle made it dangerous for Elizaveta to remain in Tbilisi, as mass arrests swept through the Georgian capital. Although she was nearly ten, Elizaveta had not been to school, but none in Tbilisi would accept the daughter of an ‘enemy of the people’. In January 1938, her grandparents put her on a train for Leningrad, where she lived with her mother’s sister Sonia. A trade-union official at the Kirov Factory, a senior Party activist and an ardent Stalinist, Sonia was the only one of all her aunts and uncles not to be arrested in the Great Terror. Looking back on these traumatic years, Elizaveta thinks she did not really feel or understand the impact of the Terror on her life. Her relatives had not told her very much. By the time she was ten, she had already lived through such extraordinary things – growing up in exile and in labour camps, losing both her parents, finding salvation in a dozen different homes – that she had little sense of where ‘normal’ ended and ‘abnormal’ began. What she felt, she now recalls, was a rather vague and general feeling of disorientation and despondency rooted in the sense that she was ‘unwanted and unloved’. This sense was exacerbated by the atmosphere in her aunt’s apartment which, by comparison with the friendly cheer of her grandparents’ house, was cold, severe and tense after the arrest of Sonia’s husband in January 1938. Expelled from the Party shortly afterwards, Sonia kept a bag packed with some clothes and a few bits of dried bread in readiness for her own arrest, which she expected every night. Elizaveta became increasingly withdrawn. She developed a ‘fear of people’, she recalls. ‘I was afraid of everyone.’ She recounts an incident when her aunt had sent her out to buy some things from the local store. The shop assistant had mistakenly given her an extra 5 kopeks in change. When she returned home, her aunt told her to return the money to the shop and apologize. Elizaveta was terrified, not because of any shame that might have been attached to taking the extra change, but because she was afraid to approach the shop assistant (a stranger) and speak to her in a personal way.

Despite the arrest of her husband, the repression of virtually all her other relatives, and her own expulsion from the Party, Sonia remained a firm supporter of Stalin. She taught her niece to believe everything in the Soviet press and to accept the possibility that her parents had been guilty of some crime. She told her that her father had belonged to an opposition group and had therefore been arrested as an ‘enemy of the people’, although she also said that Nina had probably been innocent. ‘Sonia rarely mentioned my parents,’ recalls Elizaveta. ‘I was afraid to ask her about them in case she said something disapproving about them. I understood that conversations on this theme were forbidden.’ Perhaps Sonia thought her niece would be held back or become alienated from the Soviet system if she thought too much about her family’s fate. Encouraged by her aunt, Elizaveta enrolled in the Pioneers and then the Komsomol. On each occasion she disguised the truth about her parents, as Sonia had advised her, by claiming that they had been arrested in 1935 (before the general purge of ‘enemies of the people’). Elizaveta recalls entering the Komsomol:

I was overwhelmed with fear – it went back to the arrest of my parents when I was left all alone – fear of the outside world, fear of everything and everyone. I was afraid to make contact with anyone in case they asked about my family. Nothing was more frightening than a meeting of the Komsomol, where questions about origins were always asked.

Gradually she overcame her fears. Having been accepted by the Komsomol, Elizaveta gained confidence. ‘For the first time in my life, I no longer felt like a black sheep,’ she recalls. She excelled in her studies, which gave her genuine authority among her schoolmates. She became an activist – the elected secretary of her Komsomol at school and then the secretary of the Komsomol in the district where she lived in Leningrad. Looking back, Elizaveta thinks that her activism saved her, granting her some measure of control:

When I joined the Komsomol and became one of ‘us’, when I mixed with my contemporaries and became their leader, I was no longer so afraid. I could go and fight their cause, negotiate for them with the authorities. Of course, I was also fighting for myself, because, by appearing strong, I could keep my own fear in check.39

For ‘kulak’ children, who grew up in ‘special settlements’ and other places of exile, embracing the Soviet cause was the only way to overcome the stigma of their birth. By the late 1930s, many of the children exiled with their ‘kulak’ parents had reached the age of adulthood. The NKVD was inundated with petitions from these teenagers asking to be released from exile and rehabilitated into Soviet society. Some wrote official statements renouncing their families. During the early 1930s, only a very few appeals were successful: some ‘kulak’ daughters were allowed to leave their places of exile to marry men with the full rights of a Soviet citizen, but otherwise the view of the government was that the return of ‘kulak’ children would contaminate and demoralize society. However, from the end of 1938 there was a change of policy, with a new emphasis on the reforging and rehabilitation of ‘kulak’ children. At the age of sixteen they were now allowed to leave their places of exile and regain their civil rights – provided they renounced their family.40

Dmitry Streletsky was one such ‘kulak’ child. Born in 1917, in the Kurgan region, he was exiled with his family to a ‘special settlement’ near Chermoz in the northern Urals during collectivization. Growing up in the settlement, Dmitry felt the stigma of his ‘kulak’ origins acutely. ‘I felt like an outcast,’ he recalls. ‘I felt that I was not a complete human being, that I was somehow blemished and made bad because my father was exiled… I did not feel guilty, like an enemy, but I did feel second-rate.’ Education was his way out: ‘“Study, study, children!”, Father always said. “Education is the one good thing that Soviet power can give you.”’ And Dmitry studied. He was the first boy from the settlement to complete the tenth class at the school and was rewarded for his industry by being admitted to the Komsomol in 1937. ‘Proud and happy’ to be recognized at last as an equal, he soon became an activist. Dmitry identified his own progress with the ideals of the Party. He saw the Party as a higher form of community, a ‘comradeship of fair-minded, first-rate people’, in which he could find his salvation. On his father’s advice, Dmitry paid a visit to the NKVD commandant of the ‘special settlement’ and asked for help to continue his studies at a university. Commandant Nevolin was a decent type. He felt sorry for the bright young man, whose success at school was already known to him, and he clearly saw him as someone worth helping. Nevolin gave Dmitry a passport and 100 roubles, more than twice the monthly wage in the ‘special settlement’, and sent him to Perm with a letter of recommendation from the NKVD, which enabled him to enrol as a physics student at the university.

Dmitry never tried to hide his ‘kulak’ origins. He declared them in the questionnaire he filled out on entering the university and as a result he was bullied by the other students. He finally left, thinking that the farther he ran the more likely he was to find a place where he could study without being held back by his past. First he enrolled at the Sverdlovsk Mining Institute; then he moved even further east to Omsk, where he became a student at the Agricultural Institute. But here too his origins came back to haunt him. Six weeks into the first term, Dmitry was called in by the dean and told he had to leave the institute: they had received orders to expel the children of ‘kulaks’, priests and other ‘alien social elements’. Despondently, he resolved to return to the Kurgan region, where he still had some relatives. Other than returning to the ‘special settlement’, he had nowhere else to go. Dmitry went to see his old teacher in the village school where he had studied as a boy, before being sent into exile. The teacher remembered him and invited him to work as a physics tutor in the school. Dmitry had no degree from a higher institute, but in truth the only qualification he really required was a sound knowledge of Stalin’s history of the Party, the Short Course, and that was Dmitry’s favourite book. He taught in the school for a year. In the summer of 1939, he went to visit his parents in Chermoz, who had written to tell him that conditions had improved in the ‘special settlement’. In fact, when he arrived, the new commandant of the settlement, a less forgiving type than Nevolin, arrested him, confiscated his passport and threatened to send him to a labour camp. Once again, Dmitry was saved by his outstanding record as a student. The director of the Chermoz school, who recalled his star pupil, appealed to the NKVD, claiming that he desperately needed teaching staff. And so Dmitry was allowed to stay. He taught at the settlement’s school for the next two years, until the outbreak of the war, when he was conscripted by the Labour Army and sent to a lumber camp (‘kulak’ sons were banned from front-line service in the army until April 1942).

The Whisperers

Physics teacher Dmitry Streletsky (seated far right) with schoolboys of the seventh class in the Chermoz ‘special settlement’, September 1939. The director of the school, Viktor Bezgodov, is standing on the right

Despite all his suffering at the hands of the Soviet regime, Dmitry was a Soviet patriot, he believed fervently in the justice of the Party’s cause, and wanted desperately to become a part of it. ‘I dreamed of joining the Party,’ he explains.

I wanted to be recognized as an equal human being, that is all I wanted from the Party. I did not want to join for my career. For me the Party was a symbol of honesty and dedication. There were honest, decent people who were Communists, and I thought I deserved to be counted among them.

It was a huge disappointment when he was turned down for Party membership in 1945 (recounting the episode sixty years later, his hands shake and he finds it hard to speak from emotion). But after 1956, when the Party tried to attract members from the groups which Stalin had repressed, he was at last admitted to the comradeship of equals he had yearned to join for over twenty years.41


Zinaida Bushueva was sentenced to eight years in the ALZhIR Labour Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland near Akmolinsk in Kazakhstan. After five years in the camp she was transferred from the inner prison zone to the surrounding settlement, where conditions were better, and families could sometimes join the prisoners. Zinaida wrote to her mother in Molotov. Although she was desperate to be reunited with her two daughters, Angelina and Nelly, Zinaida did not want to ‘spoil their lives’ by subjecting them to the hardships of camp life. In Molotov, however, there were chronic shortages of food. It was a city overcrowded by evacuees from the war-torn Soviet territories, and families like the Bushuevs, ‘enemies of the people’ who had no food ration or allotment, were in dire straits. Zinaida’s mother decided it was best to reunite the girls with their mother. She could not imagine that conditions in the camp could be any worse than they were in Molotov.

To get the children to ALZhIR they first had to be given to an orphanage: once they had been made wards of the state, Zinaida could appeal for their transfer to the labour camp. After three months at the orphanage, Angelina and Nelly were collected by their grandmother and taken on the train journey from Molotov to Kazakhstan, arriving in Akmolinsk late one January evening. Zinaida came to meet them at the station, where she found them sitting on the platform sheltering themselves from a snowstorm. She was dressed in a quilted jacket, trousers and felt boots, the standard winter clothes of a prisoner. When Nelly, who was nine, saw her mother, she ran up to her and flung her arms around her neck. But Angelina, who was only two when she had last seen her mother, was too young to remember her. She recoiled in fear. ‘That’s not my mama,’ Angelina said. ‘That’s just a peasant uncle (diaden’ka muzhik) in his winter clothes.’ After five years of hard labour, Zinaida had lost her feminine appearance; she no longer looked like the ideal image of a mother Angelina had seen in family photographs and built up in her mind.42

The Whisperers

Left: Zinaida with her brothers, 1936. Right: Zinaida (centre) in ALZhIR, 1942. A rare private photograph of Gulag prisoners, it was taken to send to relatives. The three women were photographed together to reduce the costs

ALZhIR was the largest of the three labour camps in the Gulag system exclusively for female prisoners (the others being the Tomsk labour camp and the Temnikovsky camp in the Republic of Mordovia). Built in a hurry to meet the regime’s urgent demand for prisons for the wives of ‘enemies of the people’, it received its first convoys of female convicts in January 1938. Most of them were housed in the barracks of a former colony for orphan children under the control of the NKVD. By 1941, there were an estimated 10,000 women in the camp, most of them employed in agriculture, like Bushueva, or in the textiles factory, which made uniforms for the Red Army. Conditions in the camps of Kazakhstan were relatively good compared to those in the Far North or Siberia. But for the women of ALZhIR – especially for those who had grown accustomed to the comfortable lifestyle of the Soviet elite – camp life was very difficult, particularly during the first years. Initially categorized as a high-security penal institution, ALZhIR imposed an extremely punitive ‘special regime’ (spets-rezhim) on its prisoners, as part of the campaign of repression against the ‘wives of traitors’. The inner prison zone, distinct from the barracks settlement, was enclosed by a wire fence with observation towers and patrolled by guards with dogs. The women were awoken at 4 a.m. for work; the last roll-call before they were allowed to sleep was at midnight, although, as many prisoners recall, the guards were so innumerate that they often had to get the women up again to recheck their numbers. Food rations were given in accordance with the prisoner’s fulfilment of her working quota; anyone who failed to meet the quota for ten days in succession was transferred to the ‘death barracks’ and left to die. ‘Every morning the dead were carted out and buried in the mass grave just outside the camp,’ recalls a former guard. The hardest thing to bear for many prisoners was the prohibition on letters from relatives (a condition of the ‘special regime’). After May 1939, the ‘special regime’ was lifted. ALZhIR was designated as a ‘general labour camp’ and conditions began to improve. The barracks settlement was gradually enlarged, as more women completed their sentences in the prison zone or were rewarded for their labour in the prison with an early release to the settlement.* Conditions there were much more bearable. There were no fences, the women were escorted by the guards to work and counted every evening on their return, but otherwise they were left largely to themselves. There was a vibrant cultural life in the club house of the settlement, which was encouraged by the camp commandant, Sergei Barinov, who was to be remembered as a relatively kind and decent man. Among the women in the camp were the wives and relatives of many senior Bolsheviks and Red Army commanders; they included writers, artists, actresses and singers, even soloists from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. According to Mikhail Iusipenko, the deputy commandant of ALZhIR, there were 125 doctors, 400 qualified nurses, 40 actresses and 350 pianists in the first convoy of prisoners. Mikhail Shreider, the second-in-command to the NKVD chief of Kazakhstan, recalls his discomfort on visiting ALZhIR, where there were so many of his former colleagues’ wives, ‘for whom I could do nothing’. The camp administration assured Shreider that the prisoners enjoyed good conditions at ALZhIR, but it still seemed to him a ‘frightful place’, as bad as any of the Gulag camps, not because of the physical conditions, but because it contained such a concentration of mothers separated from their children.43

In this respect the Bushuevs were fortunate to be together. Zinaida’s son Slava, who had been put into the orphanage on their arrival at ALZhIR, was reunited with his mother when she was transferred to the barracks settlement. Her transfer also meant that Nelly and Angelina could join her. They all lived in one of the barracks, which had long rows of sleeping planks on two levels. As Angelina remembers:

The Whisperers

Children at ALZhIR, 1942. Slava Bushuev is standing far right

The other women rearranged themselves so that we could live as a family in one corner, with two of us on top and two below, a bedside table and a little corner shelf, which was all our own, where we kept our bread and jam… We took our meals from the canteen and ate them sitting on our sleeping planks… No one ever stole our things… There were four families in our barracks. Each one had a corner, where they could enjoy some privacy. It was agreed that this was right.

Angelina and Nelly went to the school in the labour camp. They even joined the Pioneers, which operated in the camp, encouraged by the authorities to cultivate a Soviet ethos in the children of ‘enemies of the people’. There were no red scarfs in the labour camp, so the Pioneers made their own by dyeing cotton strips with the blood of mosquitoes, which swarmed all around the camp.44

However, most of the women at ALZhIR had little connection to their families. Once ALZhIR became a general labour camp the inmates were permitted to write and receive letters according to the rules of correspondence stipulated by the Gulag code of 1939: prisoners were allowed one letter and one parcel every month, or once every three months if, like most of the women of ALZhIR, they had been convicted of ‘counter-revolutionary crimes’. But in reality the number of letters the women received depended on the whim of the camp guards, on the regime inside the camp and on the location of the camp (some labour camps were too remote to be reached by any mail). Inna Gaister recounts the elaborate arrangements for sending parcels to her mother in ALZhIR. Normal post offices did not accept parcels for dispatch to labour camps. Special posting stations were designated for the purpose, but since there were no public announcements about their location (the existence of the camps was not acknowledged by the Soviet authorities), people had to rely for information on the rumours that circulated within the prison queues. In 1938, all dispatches from Moscow were stopped, so Inna had to travel to Mozhaisk, a town 100 kilometres south-west of Moscow, and battle with the crowds to hand in a parcel at a designated carriage on a special train taking prisoners to Kazakhstan.45

To be deprived of these letters was a form of torture for the women of ALZhIR, who were sometimes known to make their feelings heard. When Esfir Slavina, the wife of the jurist Ilia Slavin, arrived at ALZhIR in 1938, she was horrified to find a large number of teenage girls – many of them younger than her sixteen-year-old daughter Ida – who had somehow ended up in the labour camp. Esfir was afraid that Ida, too, was in a camp somewhere, but she had no rights of correspondence and had heard nothing from her daughter. In fact Ida was coping on her own, staying in the homes of various schoolfriends in Leningrad and sending parcels to her mother, which never reached her. Esfir went on a hunger strike. It was the first sign of protest at ALZhIR, where the prisoners – mostly Party members or the wives of Bolsheviks – had on the whole been loyal to the Soviet regime and done their work conscientiously and without complaint. Esfir was not involved in politics. She had never paid attention to her husband’s legal affairs, and her only interest was in her family. When she refused to eat, Esfir was put into a punishment block, but after several weeks, as she neared the point of physical collapse, the camp administrators finally agreed to let her receive letters from her family. Perhaps Esfir’s hunger strike was not the determining factor: it is hard to imagine that the camp authorities were concerned about an individual death, and they were in any case already preparing to transfer ALZhIR from a ‘special regime’ to a ‘general labour camp’, which would allow the prisoners to receive letters from their relatives. But the authorities may have been concerned by the possible reaction by the other prisoners in the event of Esfir’s death, for feelings on this issue had been running very high, and there had been frequent complaints about the lack of mail. A few days after the capitulation of the camp authorities, Ida was summoned to the NKVD headquarters in Leningrad and informed that she could send a parcel to her mother. It arrived in the winter months of early 1940, a time when hardly anyone in ALZhIR was receiving letters, let alone parcels. Esfir’s victory made her a celebrity. Hundreds of women gathered in her barracks to inspect the precious contents of her parcel. It encouraged some of the others to protest to the camp authorities.46

As the rules of correspondence were relaxed, the women of ALZhIR poured all their emotions into their letters, often making little gifts to enclose for their children as tokens of their love. ‘We so wanted for our children to have something we had made for them,’ recalls one of ALZhIR’s prisoners.47

Dina Ielson-Grodzianskaia was sentenced to ALZhIR in 1938, following the arrest of her husband Yevgeny, the director of the Moscow Higher Technical School, in December 1937 (he was shot in 1938). Their daughter Gertrud (Gerta), who was then aged five, and her younger brother were adopted by their aunt. A trained agronomist, Dina played a senior role in the agricultural management of the labour camp – one of the many ‘trusties’ in the Gulag system who worked as specialists or collaborated with the camp authorities to earn those small advantages which in a labour camp could make the difference between life and death.48 Compared to the other prisoners, Dina was allowed to send and receive letters relatively frequently. She often sent her daughter little presents she had made by hand – a piece of clothing or a toy, or on one occasion a beautiful embroidered towel with animals, which Gertrud was to treasure all her life. ‘I always kept it on my bed, wherever I was, in student dormitories, in every place I lived,’ she recalls. ‘In my mind it was synonymous with the fairy-tale mother of my imagination. In her absence I had constructed an image of a mother who was good and beautiful, but who lived far away.’49

The Whisperers

Embroidered towel (detail) made by Dina for Gertrud

The yearning for a mother found its parallel in the yearning for a child, even in the conditions of a labour camp. A printer from Ukraine, Hava Volovich was twenty-one when she was arrested and sentenced to a labour camp in the Far North in 1937. Feeling isolated and lonely, she longed to have a child, to feel the joy of a child’s love. It was a longing felt by many women in the camps, as she recalls in a memoir full of emotion:

Our need for love, tenderness, caresses, was so desperate that it reached the point of insanity, of beating one’s head against a wall, of suicide. We all wanted a child – the dearest and closest of all people, someone for whom we would give up our own life. I held out for a relatively long time. But I did so need and yearn for a hand of my own to hold, something I could lean on in those long years of solitude, oppression, and humiliation.

Hava had an affair with an unnamed man (‘I did not choose the best of them by any means’) and had a little girl with golden curls whom she called Eleonora. The camp had no special facilities for mothers. In the barracks where Hava gave birth three mothers were confined in a tiny room.

Bedbugs poured down like sand from the ceiling and walls; we spent the whole night brushing them off the children. During the daytime we had to go out to work and leave the infants with any old woman we could find who had been excused from work; these women would calmly help themselves to the food we had left for the children.

Motherhood gave Hava a new purpose and belief in life:

I believed neither in God nor in the Devil. But while I had my child, I most passionately, most violently wanted there to be a God… I prayed that God would prolong my torment for a hundred years if it meant that I wouldn’t be parted from my daughter. I prayed that I might be released with her, even if only as a beggar or a cripple. I prayed that I might be able to raise her to adulthood, even if I had to grovel at people’s feet and beg for alms to do it. But God did not answer my prayer. My baby had barely started walking, I had hardly heard her first words, the wonderful heartwarming word ‘Mama’, when we were dressed in rags, despite the winter chill, bundled into a freight car, and transferred to the ‘mothers’ camp’. And here my pudgy little angel with the golden curls soon turned into a pale ghost with blue shadows under her eyes and sores all over her lips.

Hava was put to work in a brigade felling trees and then transferred to a sawmill. By bribing the nurses in the children’s home, she was allowed to see her daughter outside the normal visiting hours, before the morning roll-call and during her lunch break. What she found was disturbing:

I saw the nurses getting the children up in the mornings. They would force them out of their cold beds with shoves and kicks… Pushing the children with their fists and swearing at them roughly, they took off their night clothes and washed them in ice-cold water. The babies didn’t even dare to cry. They made little sniffing noises like old men and let out low hoots. This awful hooting noise would come from the cots for days at a time. Children already old enough to be sitting up or crawling would lie on their backs, their knees pressed to their stomachs, making these strange noises, like the muffled cooing of pigeons.

One nurse, responsible for seventeen infants, found ways to speed up her work:

The nurse brought a steaming bowl of porridge from the kitchen, and portioned it out into separate dishes. She grabbed the nearest baby, forced its arms back, tied them in place with a towel, and began cramming spoonful after spoonful of hot porridge down its throat, not leaving it enough time to swallow, exactly as if she were feeding a turkey chick.

It was only their own children that the nurses cared for properly, and these, claims Hava, ‘were the only babies who lived to see freedom’. Eleonora became sick. Her little body was covered in bruises:

I shall never forget how she grabbed my neck with her tiny skinny hands and moaned, ‘Mama, want home!’ She hadn’t forgotten the bug-ridden slum where she first saw the light of day, and where she’d been with her mother…

Little Eleonora… soon realized that her pleas for ‘home’ were in vain. She stopped reaching out for me when I visited her; she would turn away in silence. On the last day of her life, when I picked her up (they allowed me to breast-feed her) she stared wide-eyed somewhere off into the distance, then started to beat her weak little fists on my face, clawing at my breast, and biting it. Then she pointed down at her bed. In the evening, when I came back with my bundle of firewood, her cot was empty. I found her lying naked in the morgue among the corpses of the adult prisoners. She had spent one year and four months in this world, and died on 3 March 1944.50

Most labour camps that included female prisoners also had children’s homes. The children’s compound in ALZhIR had 400 infants under the age of four in 1944. Nearly all of them had been conceived in the camp. In other labour camps some women wanted to be pregnant so as to be released from hard work, to receive better food, or perhaps even to be amnestied, as women with small children sometimes were.51 Amnesties did not apply to most of the women of ALZhIR, because they had been convicted of ‘counter-revolutionary crimes’, and the other motivations were equally irrelevant to most of the prisoners who gave birth in the camp. According to a number of former ALZhIR prisoners, most of these 400 babies were conceived through rape by guards, above all by Mikhail Iusipenko, the deputy commandant of the camp, who preyed on the women prisoners. In later life, he liked to boast that he had ‘enjoyed power over several thousand beautiful women, the wives of fallen Party leaders, at ALZhIR’.52

Sexual relations between female prisoners and their jailers were not always based on rape or the desire to conceive. Some women sought the protection of a guard by giving in to his sexual demands: to have sex with one man was better than to be raped by many. In mixed labour camps (with male and female zones) women also entered into sexual relations with trusties, whose privileged position brought them food and clothes, or a prized job in the kitchens or the offices.53 Other than the laws of the jungle, it is hard to judge what governed these relationships – the power of the trusties to protect, harass and threaten the women, or the sexual power of the women, who were vastly outnumbered by the trusties – but from the women’s perspective they were usually motivated by the struggle to survive.

Ketevan Orakhelashvili was sentenced to five years of hard labour in ALZhIR following the arrest of her husband, Yevgeny Mikheladze, the director of the Tbilisi Opera, in 1937.* Ketevan knew nothing of her husband’s fate (he was shot in 1937), nor anything about her two children, Tina and Vakhtang, who grew up in a series of orphanages (they were sent to labour camps when they reached the age of adulthood). Ketevan was young and beautiful. In ALZhIR she attracted the attention of many of the guards and Gulag administrators, including Sergei Drozdov, whom she married on her release in 1942. With their son, Nikolai, born in 1944, they lived in Karaganda, where Drozdov worked as an official in the administration of the labour camps in Kazakhstan.54

The Whisperers

Ketevan with Sergei and their son Nikolai, Karaganda

Liudmila Konstantinova, the mother of Natalia and Elena, was a graduate of the Smolny Institute for Noblewomen in St Petersburg. Her first husband, a seismologist at the Pulkovo Observatory in Leningrad, was arrested in 1936; Liudmila herself was sentenced to eight years in a camp near Magadan. In 1938, Liudmila met a fellow prisoner, Mikhail Yefimov, a mechanic of peasant origins, who had completed his three-year sentence for ‘hooliganism’ (he had been arrested after getting involved in a drunken brawl), but had decided to stay on as a voluntary worker at the camp, where he lived in his own house in the settlement for officials and guards. Mikhail took an interest in Liudmila. At first, she rejected his approaches, because she still looked forward to the day when she would rejoin her husband and their family (she did not know that he had been shot). But then Liudmila became ill with a kidney infection. Mikhail sent her love letters with gifts of money. He brought her food. Liudmila never fully recovered from her illness. As time passed, she gave up hope of seeing her husband, presuming he had died, and became increasingly dependent on Mikhail, who showered her with attention. Granted a divorce from her husband (it was easy to divorce an ‘enemy of the people’), Liudmila married Mikhail, settling with him in Rostov-on-Don after her release in 1945.55

It was not just to Gulag officials that women in the camp looked for protection. The fate of female prisoners could sometimes be determined by powerful protectors outside the camps. One of the prisoners in ALZhIR was Liuba Golovnia, the ex-wife of the film-maker Anatoly Golovnia. Liuba was arrested and sentenced to five years in the labour camp in April 1938, four months after the arrest of her second husband, Boris Babitsky, the head of the Mezhrabpomfilm studios in Moscow, who was shot in 1939. Liuba later thought that she had been arrested because she had purchased furniture from the NKVD warehouses in Leningrad (she felt so guilty about the furniture, which had been confiscated from the victims of arrests, that she sold it all after her return from the labour camps). But in fact she was arrested just because she was Babitsky’s wife. Babitsky had been caught up in a scandal that led to dozens of arrests in the Soviet film world. The hit songs from Grigorii Aleksandrov’s film Veselye rebiata (‘Jolly Fellows’) had somehow found their way to the USA, where they were released as a phonogram, leading to charges of espionage in the Mezhrabpomfilm studios in 1937–8.

When Liuba was arrested, the couple’s three children from three different marriages were taken by the NKVD from her apartment in the Comintern hotel: the two-year-old Alyosha, Liuba’s son from her marriage to Babitsky, was sent to an orphanage in the centre of Moscow, while Volik, Babitsky’s thirteen-year-old son from his first marriage, and Oksana, eleven, Liuba’s daughter from her marriage to Anatoly, were taken to the NKVD detention centre at the old Danilov Monastery. Oksana was kept with twenty other girls in one of the monastery’s many cells, all filled to bursting with children. Volik was taken to a special area for the over-twelves who, having reached the age of criminal responsibility, would be transferred to the special ‘children’s camps’ and penal colonies administered by the NKVD. Volik’s fingerprints and mug-shots were taken for his criminal record.

A few weeks later, Oksana’s father, Anatoly Golovnia, appeared at the monastery. Oksana recalls the moment she first saw her father in the courtyard. Dressed in a leather coat, he had his back to her, but she recognized him, even at a distance, and began shouting ‘Papa! Papa!’ from her cell window as loud as she could. Anatoly walked towards the gates. He was about to leave, having been informed by the director that Oksana was not there. A Black Maria – one of the notorious NKVD vans used to pick up suspects from their homes – passed Anatoly and drove through the gates, the noise of its engine blocking out the cries of his child. Oksana became desperate. She realized that this was her last chance. She let out one more shout. This time Anatoly turned around. She yelled again and waved her hands through the iron bars on the window. Anatoly looked up at the building. There were so many windows and so many faces peering out that Golovnia had a hard time finding his daughter’s face, but at last he picked her out with his cameraman’s eyes. He hurried back to the director’s office, to which Oksana was summoned. She told her father that Volik had been brought to the monastery as well. To get her out was relatively straightforward: legally she was still Anatoly’s child. But to rescue Volik, who was considered an adult, and in any case was not Anatoly’s son, required help from contacts in the NKVD. After hours of negotiations and several phone calls to the Lubianka, Volik was released. As for Alyosha, Anatoly could not find out what had happened to him. But Oksana remembered where the NKVD car had dropped him before taking her and Volik to the monastery. With her father, she retraced the route they had followed from the Babitsky flat in the Comintern hotel. Locating the orphanage, Anatoly ‘went inside and half an hour later reappeared with Alyosha in his arms’, recalls Oksana.56

All three children found a refuge in Anatoly’s home, two small rooms in a communal apartment in the centre of Moscow that he shared with his mother, the haughty Lydia Ivanovna. A year later, in September 1939, Volik’s mother came for him, and the two disappeared into the countryside. Liuba’s older sister Polina took Alyosha to the Babitsky dacha at Kratovo, where they lived with Polina’s sister Vera and her father in two small rooms; the third and largest room was occupied by another family. Polina worked in Moscow and sometimes stayed at Anatoly’s apartment. Widowed twice, without children of her own, Polina stoically bore the suffering life brought her. After her sister’s arrest she had been evicted from her home and sacked from her job as the Secretary of the Moscow Maly Theatre. She worked for a while as a room-attendant in the Moscow Theatre Museum, but was fired from that job as well, and ended up as a machine operator in a factory.57

Nothing was heard from Liuba for a year. The ‘special regime’ at ALZhIR forbade prisoners to write to relatives. Then, in the spring of 1939, just as the ‘special regime’ was lifted, a telegram arrived. Polina wrote back to her sister, and a busy correspondence started up between the two, nearly all of it about domestic details and the bringing up of the children, although, according to Oksana, there was much else said as well, but in code to conceal it from the censors. A devoted sister, Polina wrote to Liuba almost every week. She sent money, books, clothes, typed-out articles from magazines and photographs of the children, especially of Alyosha.

Anatoly wrote to Liuba less often, and his letters had a different character. He sent her money, food parcels and a manual for film projectionists, so that she could learn a practical skill. During the first year, Liuba had worked on a building site but she fell and broke her hand while hauling logs and was transferred to lighter work by Barinov, the camp commandant, who, after receiving a request from Anatoly, allowed her to run the cinema in the club house. This was not the only privilege that Liuba received from Barinov. In 1942, Polina died in Dzhambul, Kazakhstan, where she had fled with Alyosha when she became afraid of her own arrest in January of that year. Alyosha was placed in an orphanage by distant relatives, who then sent a telegram to Liuba in ALZhIR. Liuba was allowed to travel to Dzhambul, several hundred kilometres to the south of Akmolinsk, retrieve Alyosha from the orphanage and bring him back to live with her in ALZhIR’s outer zone. It was an extraordinary concession to make to a prisoner, and Barinov, who signed the release papers, did so at great personal risk. It is possible that Liuba’s beauty played its part in winning these concessions, though this is not the view of her fellow prisoners, who stressed instead the influence of Anatoly Golovnia. In his letters to Liuba, Anatoly wrote without apparent fear of the censors (in many of his letters he criticized the Soviet film authorities). Anatoly wrote about his love for Liuba. He forgave her for leaving him, and pleaded with her to come back to him on her release (‘which may not be so far away as you believe… I am sure I can get somewhere if I petition the authorities for you’). Liuba, unaware of Babitsky’s fate, warded him off. But Anatoly perservered. He wrote about the success of his films, Minin and Pozharsky (1939) and Suvorov (1941); about the prizes he had won (the Order of Red Labour in 1940 and the Stalin Prize in 1941); about the affluent life he enjoyed and the parties he attended in the Kremlin. He played on Liuba’s emotions, emphasizing how much their daughter needed her: ‘I shall wait for you and pray for your return, if only for Oksana’s sake. I am a bad parent, as you know, and have little time for it. And our daughter is now at an age when she needs a mother’s influence. She is shy with me.’58 Anatoly must have known that Babitsky would not return. He made this clear to Liuba and tried to make her see that she would now be better off with him. He also clearly thought, or wanted to give Liuba the impression, that he possessed the influence to speed up her release, if only she agreed to come back to him.


In January 1939, the writer Konstantin Simonov married Zhenia Las-kina, the youngest of Samuil Laskin’s three daughters, who had been a student with Simonov at the Literary Institute since 1936. They had started their romance the previous spring, when Simonov was still married to Natalia Tipot, another classmate, although in those days the civil marriages formed in the bohemian circles of the Moscow student world did not have much real significance. According to Zhenia, Simonov began to court her with a romantic poem (‘Five Pages’) that he had originally written for Natalia. It was typical perhaps of all young poets to recycle love poems for new sexual conquests, and certainly typical of Simonov’s relations with women at that time. He was quick and clumsy, prone to fall head over heels in love and sexually inexperienced.59

Zhenia was a tiny woman, almost pocket-sized, with graceful features. But Simonov was also clearly drawn by her spiritual qualities: she was generous and patient, devoted to her friends and she had that rare capacity to get on with almost anyone (a talent she inherited from her father) and to affect them with her kindness. Zhenia was the Secretary of the Student Union at the Literary Institute. During the purge meetings at the institute in 1937, when Simonov had denounced Dolmatovsky, she had courageously defended two foreign students – too weak to defend themselves – whose work she felt had been unfairly criticized by members of the teaching staff.60 Whatattracted Zhenia to Simonov is hard to tell. She fell in love with him and continued to love him throughout her life. No doubt she was attracted by his good looks, by his poetic talent and intelligence, by his masculinity, and by his qualities of leadership, which had always made him stand out at the institute.

The Whisperers

Zhenia and Konstantin on their honeymoon in the Crimea, 1939

Eight months after their wedding, in August 1939, their son Aleksei was born. After a difficult delivery, Zhenia and Aleksei were both ill and kept in isolation in the hospital for several days. ‘I love you very much my little darling, everything in our lives together will be fine, I am convinced of that,’ Simonov wrote to Zhenia.

I talked with the doctor, he said all is well. And the baby will recover gradually. Write to me what you like most about our son… Today I began on a new poem. Now I shall write every day… My sweetie, I so want to hear your voice, to see your little face which is no doubt pale and thin… Ask if I can send you Jewish liver.61

Shortly after the birth of their son, Simonov received his first assignment as a military correspondent. The newspaper Geroicheskaia Krasnoarmeiskaia (‘Heroic Red Army’) sent him to Khalkin Gol to cover the conflict between the Soviet Union and Japanese-controlled Manchuria. From Mongolia, where the Soviet forces were massed, he wrote to Zhenia, sending her the poem ‘A Photograph’.

I did not bring your photographs on my travels,

Without them, as long as we remember, we will see.

On the fourth day, the Urals far behind,

I did not show them to my curious neighbours.62

The battle of Khalkin Gol (known in Japan as the Nomonhan Incident) was the decisive engagement of a border war that had been brewing since the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the establishment of the Manchukuo puppet state in 1932. Stalin was afraid of Japan’s imperial ambitions in Siberia as well as Mongolia, which though nominally part of China had been under Soviet influence since 1921. When skirmishes broke out on the disputed border between the Mongolians and the Japanese, Stalin sent in his heavy troops: 57,000 infantry, massed artillery, 500 tanks, and the best planes of the Soviet Air Force, all under the command of the rising star of the Red Army, General Georgii Zhukov. The Soviet forces pushed the Kwantung Army back from the Khalkin Gol River, where the Japanese maintained the border was, to Nomonhan, 16 kilometres further east, the border according to the Russians. Surprised by the heavy concentration of Red Army tanks and artillery, the Japanese bid for a cease-fire on 16 September. The Soviets claimed a mighty victory. The Red Army’s invincibility – proclaimed by Soviet propaganda – had been confirmed, it seemed. The reality, however, was significantly less inspiring. As Simonov knew from his own experience, the losses on the Soviet side were far greater than acknowledged by the government (the Red Army claimed 9,000 killed and wounded but the actual number was 24,000, of whom 7,000 men were killed).63 And there was no end of dreadful sights. Frustrated by the censorship of the military press, Simonov tried to offer a truer picture in his poetry. ‘Tank’ tells the story of a platoon of Soviet soldiers who suffer heavy losses in their hard-won victory against the Japanese. The soldiers leave behind a burned-out tank, which the poet puts forward as a monument to their bravery and sacrifice. Simonov’s political minder, who was no less than Vladimir Stavsky, the former leader of the Writers’ Union who had reprimanded him for ‘anti-Soviet’ conversations in 1937, blocked the poem’s publication. He warned Simonov to stick more closely to the propaganda mission of the writer, namely to present an upbeat vision of the war. To that end, Stavsky suggested he replace the burned-out tank in the poem’s final image with a brand new one.64

The border conflict with Japan strengthened Stalin’s fears of becoming embroiled in a two-front war against the Axis powers. In the spring of 1939, Hitler’s armies had marched into Czechoslovakia, unopposed by the British or the French, who continued to appease Hitler and who, it seemed to Stalin, were encouraging the Nazis and the Japanese to direct their aggressions against the Soviet Union. Although France and Britain were engaged in negotiations with the Soviet government for an alliance to defend Eastern Europe and the Baltic states against Nazi aggression, the Czechoslovak crisis demonstrated to Stalin that the Western powers were not acting in good faith. Throughout the spring of 1939, the British and the French had been dragging out the negotiations with the Soviets, using the reluctance of the Poles to allow Soviet troops to cross their borders as a stumbling block; they wanted the Soviet Union on their side to deter the Nazis diplomatically but were not prepared to sign a military pact. Meanwhile, the Germans were making overtures to the Soviet government, whose neutrality was essential if they were to launch their planned invasion of Poland. They proposed to divide Eastern Europe into separate spheres of influence, with the Soviet Union gaining Eastern Poland and the Baltic lands. By August, Stalin could no longer wait for the British and the French. Convinced that a European war was imminent, he knew that the Soviet Union would not be able to resist Nazi Germany, especially with so many of its forces in Manchuria; as he saw it, he had little option but to come to an agreement with Hitler. It was these immediate events of 1939, rather than a long-term calculation, as many have supposed, that persuaded Stalin to sign the notorious Pact of Non-Aggression with Hitler’s Germany on 23 August 1939. As the Soviet leader saw it, the pact would provide the Soviet Union with the breathing space it needed to arm itself as well as create a useful buffer zone in Eastern Europe and the Baltic lands. By remaining neutral in a war between two forces he considered hostile to the Soviet Union – the capitalist powers of the West and the Fascist states – Stalin hoped to see them wipe each other out in a long and draining conflict that might spark revolutions in both camps (as the First World War had done in Russia in 1917). As he told the Comintern, ‘We are not opposed [to war], if they have a good fight and weaken each other.’65

Assured of Soviet neutrality, Germany invaded western Poland on 1 September; two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany; and shortly afterwards the Red Army entered Poland from the east, in accordance with the secret protocols of the Nazi–Soviet Pact which had divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet zones. After the occupation of Poland, the Soviet Union began to pressure the Baltic states and Finland to accept territorial changes and Soviet bases on their soil. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania gave in to the Soviet demands, signing pacts of ‘defence and mutual assistance’, which allowed their occupation by the Red Army. The invading Soviet troops were accompanied by NKVD units to carry out arrests and executions: 15,000 Polish POWs and 7,000 other prisoners were shot by the NKVD in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk; and at least a million ‘anti-Soviet elements’ were deported from Poland and the Baltic lands. Finland proved less compliant, rejecting Soviet demands for army bases on its soil. The Soviets launched an invasion of Finland in November 1939, certain of victory after their military successes in Manchuria, Poland and the Baltic states. But the war in Finland went disastrously. The Soviet troops were unprepared for winter fighting and could not breach the solid Finnish defences. In four months, 126,000 Soviet troops were killed and nearly 300,000 injured, until Soviet reinforcements finally broke through the Finnish lines and forced the Finns to sue for peace.66

For Simonov, as for many Communists throughout the world, the Nazi–Soviet Pact was a huge ideological shock. The struggle against Fascism was a fundamental aspect of the Communist mentality and rationale. ‘My generation – those of us who turned eighteen around the time when Hitler came to power in 1933 – lived in constant expectation of a war with Germany,’ Simonov recalled in the 1970s. ‘For us that war began, not in 1941, but in 1933.’ The Spanish Civil War was of particular significance to this generation, not least because they had been too young to fight in the Russian Civil War, whose history had inspired their heroic dreams. But also because they fervently believed that the Spanish Civil War was the opening battle in the last great struggle between Communism and Fascism that would reach its climax in a fight to the death between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. ‘At Khalkin Gol,’ Simonov recalled, ‘that fight was no longer imaginary, it was no longer something we anticipated in the future, but something we had seen with our own eyes.’ Simonov was at Khalkin Gol when he heard the news of the Nazi–Soviet Pact. His mind full of the bloody struggle the Soviet forces were then waging against the Japanese, he initially understood the pact as a pragmatic measure to keep the Germans from ‘delivering a fatal blow to our backs’. He even welcomed the Soviet invasion of Poland and the Baltic lands as a necessary defensive measure against German military expansion. But morally, he was troubled. He felt the pact was a betrayal of Europe, of the Communist promise to defend the weak against tyrants, and he was uncomfortable with the new ideological order in which it was suddenly not acceptable to criticize Nazi Germany. ‘They were still the same Fascists,’ Simonov recalled, ‘but we could no longer write or say aloud what we thought of them.’67

This inner conflict surfaced in several of Simonov’s works, especially in his first major play, A Young Man from Our Town (Paren’ iz nashego goroda), which he wrote in the autumn of 1940 on his return from Khalkin Gol. The play tells the story of a brash young Red Army officer, a Komsomol enthusiast called Sergei, who returns to Russia from the Spanish Civil War and volunteers to fight at Khalkin Gol. As a call to arms against Fascism, A Young Man from Our Town at moments seems to invite its audience to feel hostility towards Nazi Germany, but, as Simonov recalled, he could not make these sentiments explicit because of the Hitler–Stalin Pact. When the play was first performed, by the Lenin Komsomol Theatre in March 1941, it was left to the actors to suggest their opposition to the pact by adding more emotion to any lines that had anti-German implications.68

Conflicts of a different, more intimate sort run through the play as well. Its hero was modelled on the poet Mikhail Lukonin (1918–76), a friend of Simonov’s at the Literary Institute who had fought in the war against Finland. Lukonin was only three years younger than Simonov, but he was considered to belong to a different generation of Soviet poets, mainly because he had been born after 1917 and had come from a proletarian family without any trace of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia culture that marked Simonov’s peers. Simonov idealized Lukonin: the younger poet, who had worked in a tractor factory in Stalingrad before joining the Literary Institute in 1937, embodied for him the ideal of the ‘Soviet’ and ‘proletarian writer’ he had tried so hard to become. In 1939, Simonov gave the completed draft of A Young Man from Our Town to the playwright Afinogenov, who liked the play but thought that its hero should have a surname. Simonov was at a loss – he did not know what to call him. Afinogenov asked Simonov what surname he would have chosen for himself, given the choice. Perhaps he recognized that Simonov had given his fictional hero all the qualities that he would have wanted for himself. Without hesitation Simonov replied that he would have liked to be called Lukonin and on that basis he named the hero of his play. The real Lukonin was not pleased: ‘How would you like it if I wrote a play about a football player and called him Simonov?’69

The heroine of A Young Man from Our Town also had personal resonances: Simonov had written the lead female part for Valentina Serova, a star of the Soviet screen and stage, with whom he had fallen hopelessly in love. Simonov had first seen Valentina in a play at the Lenin Komsomol shortly after his return from Khalkin Gol, and although he was a married man and must have known that he had little chance of winning her heart, he brought A Young Man from Our Town to that theatre so that he could get closer to the actress. In that play, the female character is a rendering of Valentina, not as she was in reality, but as Simonov wanted her to be (trusting, loving, patient and forgiving), just as the hero of the play, Sergei Lukonin, is a portrait of Simonov as he would have liked himself to be (more masculine, more courageous, more Soviet than he was in reality). These two literary prototypes, the ideal Valentina and the ideal Simonov, reappear in nearly all his poems, plays and novels during the 1940s.

The Whisperers

Valentina Serova, 1940

Valentina was young and beautiful, a famous widow and film star, but she had a secret history that made her vulnerable. Her father, Vasily Polovyk, a hydro-engineer from the Kharkov region of eastern Ukraine, had been arrested in Moscow during the industrial purges of 1930, when Valentina was thirteen, and sent to a labour camp. Released in 1935, Vasily was rearrested in 1937 and sentenced to eight years in the Solovetsky labour camp. All these facts were carefully concealed by Valentina’s mother, a well-known actress at the Kamerny Theatre in Moscow, where Valentina spent much of her childhood, playing all the leading parts for girls. Valentina’s mother changed her name from Polovyk, a Ukrainian name, to the Russian Polovikova, and worked hard to erase all trace of her Ukrainian past. Valentina was brought up to deny all knowledge of her father (in later years she claimed she had never seen him as a child). It was not until 1959 (fifteen years after his release from the Solovetsky labour camp) that she summoned up the courage to meet him, and then only after he had got in touch with her.70

In 1935, Valentina joined the Komsomol. She soon attracted the attention of Aleksandr Kosaryov, the leader of the organization, whose well-known fondness for young actresses was easily indulged through his control of the Lenin Komsomol Theatre in Moscow. Kosaryov promoted the career of his beautiful young protégée.But in November 1938 he was arrested (and later shot) in a general purge of the Komsomol leadership, which was accused by Stalin of failing to root out the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ in its ranks. At a banquet in the Kremlin shortly before Kosaryov’s arrest, Stalin had approached him, clinked glasses, and whispered in his ear: ‘Traitor! I’ll kill you!’ The arrest of her patron placed Valentina in serious danger, particularly when she was denounced as a ‘counter-revolutionary’ by a jealous former boyfriend, whom she had jilted for Kosaryov. Called to account for herself at a purge meeting in the theatre workers’ union, she was questioned about the arrest of her father and made to renounce him to avoid expulsion.71

What saved Valentina in the end was the influence of her new husband, the famous aviator Anatoly Serov, whom she had met at a banquet thrown by Kosaryov. Pilots featured prominently in the pantheon of Soviet heroes. The air force, in particular, symbolized the Soviet Union’s military power and progress, and it was the glamour of the aeroplane that inspired many young men to join the military. With his handsome, clean-cut, healthy ‘Russian’ looks and perfect proletarian origins, Serov was the ideal figure for this propaganda role. His exploits in the Spanish Civil War were legendary, and by the time he met Valentina he had become a national hero and celebrity, one of the most honoured pilots of them all, and a Kremlin favourite. Married ten days after their first meeting, Anatoly and Valentina moved into the sumptuously furnished apartment recently vacated by Marshal Yegorov, who had been arrested in connection with the Tukhachevsky trial. They enjoyed the decadent lifestyle of the Stalinist elite, with late-night parties and receptions at the Kremlin. Disaster struck on their first wedding anniversary. Anatoly was killed in an air crash. The circumstances of the accident remain unclear, but Serov and his fellow pilot Polina Osipenko were flying at low altitude in poor weather. Both pilots were buried in the Kremlin Wall with full state honours. Four months later, in September 1939, Valentina gave birth to Anatoly’s son, whom she named after him. As the widow of a military hero, she enjoyed the protection of the Soviet leadership, which helped to launch her career in the cinema. Her first major part, the title role in the hit film A Girl With Character (1939), was tailor-made for her. Stalin himself became one of her admirers. At his sixtieth birthday banquet in the Kremlin he proposed a toast to the widows of two famous pilots, Anatoly Serov and Valerii Chkalov, who were sitting near the end of one of the far tables. Stalin then invited Valentina to come up to his table to drink the toast with him. Her hand shook so violently that she spilled her wine. According to Valentina, Stalin squeezed her hand and said quietly: ‘Don’t worry, it’s nothing. Just hold on, comrade Serova, we’ll stand by you.’72

By the summer of 1940, Simonov was head over heels in love with Valentina, but she remained cool towards him. She was still in mourning for her husband – she had his baby son – and she did not want to encourage Simonov, a married man with a baby son the same age as her own. Simonov, Zhenia and Aleksei were now living in the Laskin apartment on Zubov Square. And though Zhenia did not realize the full extent of her husband’s growing passion for the beautiful actress, she could not fail to notice his frequent absences from the Laskin home.73 For a year their marriage soldiered on, while Simonov pursued his new romantic interest with little effect. Simonov was not the sort of man that Valentina was usually attracted to. He was too arduous in his attentions, too serious and dry, and he lacked the poise and confidence of her previous suitors, who were more successful and more powerful than Simonov. At the first rehearsal of A Young Man from Our Town, Simonov asked Serova what she thought about the play. In front of everyone, she said she thought it was ‘a shitty play’. But even this did not deter him. He showered her with gifts. He wrote plays with parts for her. But most of all he sent her poetry, some of it recycled:

I did not bring any photographs on my travels.

Instead I wrote poems about you.

I wrote them from sorrow

I missed you

And carried you with me…

Gradually, by the power of his pen, he wore her down, but it was not until 1943, when his love poem ‘Wait For Me’ had made Simonov the country’s favourite poet and a figure of real influence in the Kremlin, that Serova succumbed to his eager passions and agreed to marry him. Simonov and Serova would become celebrities through ‘Wait For Me’, a poem that inspired millions of people to go on fighting through the war. But no one knew about the politics their marriage would serve, nor about Simonov’s previous wife, whom he had abandoned with their child.74


‘Wait For Me’



In June 1941, Leonid Makhnach was staying at his grandparents’ house in the small town of Krichev in Belorussia, 600 kilometres from the Soviet border with Poland. He had been sent there for a holiday by his parents, who were unable to leave Moscow, but wanted him to get out of the capital, where the heat that summer had been stifling. Leonid’s father, Vladimir, was the director of the Mosgaz Trust, the main supplier of gas to the Soviet capital, and had to stay in Moscow to write a major report for the Party leadership on plans for energy in the event of war. The grandparents’ house stood at the edge of Krichev, where the town gave way to thick oak woods and pasturelands. It was a modest wooden house of the sort inhabited by smallholders, labourers and traders throughout the western regions of the Soviet Union, with a little yard for pigs and a garden full of apple trees.

Although it was located in the western borderlands, Krichev had no defence plan to put into operation when the Germans launched their huge invasion force against the Soviet Union at first light on Sunday 22 June. The Soviet leadership was not prepared for war, and towns like Krichev had no inkling of the imminent invasion until noon that day, when Molotov, in a faltering voice, announced the beginning of hostilities on the radio. For the next three days the radio was Krichev’s only source of news about the war. Then, on 26 June, without any warning from the Soviet authorities, Krichev was bombed by German planes. There was havoc in the town. People fled into the woods. Cows and pigs were left to run wild. Dead bodies lay in the street.

In the middle of this chaos Leonid’s mother, Maria, arrived in Krichev. She had left Moscow on the first day of the invasion in the hope of rescuing her family before they were cut off by the German troops. Vladimir just then had left on a brief work trip to the Leningrad region and was not due to return to Moscow until the end of June. So Maria set off on her own. She managed to travel as far as Smolensk, which was under heavy aerial bombardment, but there were no trains to take her further west, towards the Soviet front. Maria made her way on foot, against the flow of retreating soldiers and civilians, reaching Krichev, 120 kilometres to the south-west, four days later. ‘She was almost black with dust and grime, when she arrived,’ recalls Leonid, ‘and totally exhausted from the journey.’

The people of Krichev hurried to pack up their belongings and head east. The 2,000 Jews, almost half the town’s population, were among the first to leave, worried by the rumours they had heard of the Nazis’ brutality; they were soon followed by the Communists, who had just as much to fear from the invading troops. As the relatives of a senior Soviet official, the Makhnach family needed to get out as fast as possible. Maria delayed the family’s departure from the town for as long as possible in the hope that her husband would contact them. On 16 July, the day before the Germans took Krichev, she had still not heard from Vladimir, so she wrote him a letter in Moscow, packed some belongings on a horse and cart and set off with Leonid and her parents, moving slowly east on the smallest country roads to avoid the German planes, which dropped their bombs on the main highways. She had no idea that Vladimir was speeding west towards them in his chauffeured limousine. ‘Travelling on the highway from Smolensk, he could not have been more than a few kilometres away when we passed each other,’ concludes Leonid.

Vladimir got to Krichev just in time to see the Germans entering the town. From the meadows on the opposite bank of the Sozh River he watched the town’s wooden houses go up in flames, he heard the screams, and then the shots. Thinking that his family was about to be massacred, Vladimir tried to cross the river and reach the town by foot to rescue them, but he was stopped by the retreating Soviet troops. Believing that his family had probably been killed, he returned to Moscow. The next day the letter from his wife arrived: she was heading towards Briansk, 200 kilometres east of Krichev, and would travel on to Stalingrad, where she had relatives. Maria thought it would be safer than going back to Moscow, which, it was rumoured, was about to fall to the Germans.

Going back to Moscow proved to be Vladimir’s undoing. Shortly after his return he was arrested and sentenced to ten years in a labour camp for ‘defeatist talk and panic-mongering’. In a conversation with a work colleague at the Mosgaz Trust he had talked about the chaos he had witnessed at the front. Many people were arrested for such talk in the first months of the war, when the Soviet authorities desperately tried to suppress all news about the military catastrophe. The NKVD in Moscow built the arrest of Makhnach into a ‘Trotskyist conspiracy’ among the city’s leading energy officials and made dozens of arrests. It was not until the autumn that Vladimir was able to get word to his wife about his whereabouts. On the long train journey to Siberia, he threw a letter from the window of his carriage addressed to her in Stalingrad. A peasant picked it up and posted it:

My dear ones! I am alive and well. Circumstances prevented me from writing to you earlier. Do not worry about me. Look after yourselves. Maria, my beloved, it will be hard for you. But do not give up hope. I am going to Siberia. I am innocent. Wait for me, I will return.1

The German assault was so powerful and swift that it took the Soviet forces completely by surprise. Stalin had ignored intelligence reports of German preparations for an invasion. He even dismissed last-minute bulletins confirming a massive German build-up on the frontier as a British ploy to lure the Soviet Union into war (he had the bearers of this information shot as ‘British spies’). The Soviet defences were in total disarray. After the signing of the Nazi–Soviet Pact the old defensive lines had been abandoned; the new fortifications, hastily constructed in the occupied Baltic states, had hardly any heavy guns, radio equipment or minefields. They were easily overrun by the nineteen Panzer divisions and fifteen motorized infantry divisions that spearheaded the German invasion force. Soviet units were rushed towards the front to plug the gaps, only to be smashed by German tanks and planes, which had control of the sky. By 28 June, six days into the invasion, German forces had advanced in a huge pincer movement through Belorussia to capture Minsk, 300 kilometres into Soviet territory, while further north they had cut through Lithuania and Latvia to threaten Leningrad.

Konstantin Simonov saw much of the chaos on the Belorussian Front. When the war began he was called up to the front as a correspondent for an army newspaper and sent to join the political department of the Third Army near Grodno on the border with Poland. Travelling by train, he arrived in Borisov early in the morning of 26 June, but could not travel any further because the line to Minsk was under heavy bombardment. Simonov disembarked and found a driver to take him on to Minsk by car, but they soon came up against the Soviet forces falling back in disarray. German planes flew overhead, firing on the troops with machine-guns and dropping bombs on to the road. The soldiers fled into the woods. An officer was standing in the middle of the road, shouting at the men that he would shoot them if they did not turn around. But they simply ignored him. The woods were swarming with soldiers and civilians trying to find cover from the German planes, which swooped above the trees, firing on the crowds below. Simonov was nearly killed when a captured Soviet plane mowed down several people around him: it flew so low above the trees that he could see the faces of its German crew. When it was dark he stumbled back on to the road and found a commissar, ‘a young unshaven man with a pilotka [fore-and-aft cap], a winter coat and for some reason a spade in his hands’. Simonov introduced himself as a journalist and asked for directions to the Front Headquarters. ‘What headquarters?’ asked the officer. ‘Can’t you see what’s happening here?’2

Simonov retreated with the army to Smolensk. The roads were full of soldiers and civilians – women, children, old people, many of them Jews – heading east on every type of cart, or walking on the road with heavy bundles of household possessions on their backs. In the first days of July he passed through Shklov and Orsha – ‘quiet rural towns’ inhabited by numerous Jewish families, including his wife’s relatives, the Laskins. Stopping for water at a house in Shklov, Simonov was asked by the frightened Jews if he thought they should flee. He advised them to stay, assuring them that the Germans would be routed by the Red Army before reaching Shklov. A few days later, the Germans captured Shklov. They killed nearly all the Jews, some 6,000 men, women and children, whom they shot and buried in a pit outside the town. On 16 July, the Germans took Orsha, and set about building a Jewish ghetto. Most of Orsha’s Jews were transported to the Nazi death camps in 1943, although some, like Samuil Laskin’s brother Iakov, a doctor in Orsha, ran away to join the Red Army.3

Looking back on the catastrophe of 1941, Simonov would come to realize that its origins were rooted in the policies of the Stalinist regime. By the middle of the 1950s, when he began to write his great war novel The Living and the Dead (1959), Simonov had come to recognize that Stalin was to blame for the disaster, not just because he had failed to understand the situation and prepare for war in 1941, but more fundamentally because his reign of terror had created so much fear and mistrust that the country was virtually incapable of coordinated action in its self-defence. Simonov did not see this at the time – his advice to the Jews of Shklov was clear evidence of his belief in the propaganda version of reality – but from 1942 he began to grapple with these troubling ideas in his war diaries (on which he later drew for The Living and the Dead). It became clear to him that the fundamental problem of the Soviet armed forces in 1941 was the climate created by the military purges of 1937–8. He saw that the Terror had undermined the officers’ authority and made them fearful of taking responsibility for military decisions and initiatives in case they were punished by superiors, or denounced by the commissars and other political officers (politruki) who watched their every move. They waited passively for decisions from above, which always came too late to make a positive difference to the military situation on the ground.4

None of these ideas was printable, of course, in the war years (or, for that matter, at any other time before the ‘Thaw’ of 1956). What Simonov had written in his diaries could never have been published in Krasnaia zvezda, the main Red Army newspaper, for which he worked as a correspondent from July 1941. Censorship was tightened on the outbreak of the war. Through the Soviet Information Bureau (Sovinform-biuro), created on the third day of the war to control all printed and radio reports, the government attempted to conceal the military catastrophe from the public and manipulate the news to boost morale. Journalists like Simonov were expected to give their reports a positive and optimistic gloss, even when they were writing about disasters at the front, and what they wrote was in any case nearly always cut or changed by the censors.

Simonov was in a particularly difficult position. Arriving in Moscow on 19 July, three days after the German capture of Smolensk, he was the first correspondent to return from the Belorussian Front. People in the capital had no idea about the extent of the military debacle. News of the fall of Smolensk had been suppressed to avoid causing panic (it was not until 13 August, following the failure of Soviet forces to regain a foothold in the town, that the information was finally released). Muscovites bombarded Simonov with questions about the military situation. But he could not answer truthfully without running the risk of being denounced, like Makhnach, for ‘defeatist talk and panic-mongering’. So he resolved to hold his tongue and keep to himself his depression, which, he noted in his diary, ‘even people close to me mistook as a sign of exhaustion’. Writing in the press, Simonov struggled to find something positive to say about the events he had seen. ‘It seemed impossible to write about what had actually happened,’ he recalls. ‘Not just because it would not have been printed, but also because there was something inside me’ that would not accept so dark an outcome. He needed to find some sign of hope in the catastrophe. The incident he focused on had taken place amidst the chaos of the retreat to Smolensk. Simonov had seen two men, a captain and a brigadier, walking west, against the human tide, towards the front. The last remaining men of their platoon, which had been wiped out by a German bomb, the two men were driven, it seemed to Simonov, by some innate sense of patriotic duty, in which, as time went on, he came to see the seeds of a future Soviet victory.5

In the absence of any reliable information from the Soviet media, rumours spread and people started to panic. It was said that the government had fled; that there was treason in the army staff; that the Soviet leadership was preparing to abandon Moscow and Leningrad. It was even rumoured that the German bombing of the capital, which began in mid-July, had been led by the famous Soviet aviator Sigizmund Levanevsky, who had disappeared on a flight across the North Pole to the USA in 1937. The journalist N. K. Verzhbitsky recorded in his diary a conversation with ‘a lively old man’ in a Moscow street: ‘Why hasn’t anybody spoken to us on the radio?’ the old man said. ‘They should say something – anything, good or bad. But we are completely in a fog, and must all think for ourselves.’ Stalin’s absence from the public scene added to this feeling of uncertainty. Apparently, he had suffered some sort of breakdown in the first days of the war: he locked himself away in his dacha and took no interest in anything. It was not until 1 July that Stalin returned to the Kremlin and not until two days later that he made his first war speech to the nation. Pausing frequently, as if distressed, to take a drink, Stalin addressed the Soviet people as ‘my brothers and sisters, and my friends’. He called on them to unite for ‘the life-or-death struggle’, which he described as a ‘war of the entire Soviet nation’. It was the first time that Stalin had defined the Soviet people in such fraternal and inclusive terms: there was no longer mention of the class struggle or ideology. Simonov recalls the impression the speech made on himself and the soldiers at the front: ‘Nobody had spoken to us like that for a long time. All those years we had suffered from the lack of friendship. And in that speech, as I recall, it was the words “My friends” that moved us to tears.’6

Despite the galvanizing effect of Stalin’s speech, the outbreak of the war witnessed an explosion of open talk and criticism of the Soviet regime, prompted perhaps by the uncertainty or the release from fear. ‘One hears conversations that only a short time ago would have led to a tribunal,’ Verzhbitsky noted in his diary on 18 October, when the Germans were a few miles from the capital. Much of this disgruntlement came from peasants and workers, who criticized the lack of preparation for the war, the stringent labour discipline, the reduction of food rations, the coercive conscriptions and the flight of the Party bosses to the rear, which had left ordinary people to face the invasion on their own. In Leningrad, where half the city’s Party members took flight in the first six months of the war, the anti-Soviet mood of the workers was so strong that some even welcomed the prospect of a German victory. The many strikes and workers’ demonstrations in the first months of the war signalled a return to something like the revolutionary atmosphere of 1917. At one demonstration in the Ivanovo region, in October 1941, when the Party bosses tried to calm the crowds, the strike leaders shouted to the workers: ‘Don’t listen to them! They know nothing! They’ve been deceiving us for twenty-three years!’ At factory meetings workers showed that they were not afraid to blame the Communists for the outbreak of the war and the defeats at the front. According to the NKVD’s surveillance groups, there were many workers and peasants who welcomed the invasion on the grounds that it would sweep away the Soviet regime. It was a commonplace that only Jews and Communists had anything to fear from the Germans.7

The government responded to this vocal opposition by declaring war on ‘panic-mongerers’. Thousands were arrested and many people shot for loose (‘defeatist’) talk about the situation at the front. Roza Vetukh-novskaia was arrested on the third day of the war and charged with treason against the motherland. When she got to her prison cell she found that she was one of many women who had been arrested for something they had said: ‘This one said that the German army is stronger’; ‘That one said that our crops are poor’; ‘Yet another said that we work like slaves in the kolkhoz’. Most of these women were ordinary workers and peasants. Irina Shcherbov-Nefedovich was arrested in Leningrad on 30 July, one week after she had been denounced for ‘panic-mongering and spreading rumours’ by a Party worker at the Institute of Vaccines where she worked. It turned out that all she had done was to tell a friend about the bombing of Smolensk, which she had heard about in a radio broadcast by Sovinformbiuro. Sentenced to seven years in a labour camp near Khabarovsk, she died there in 1946. Irina’s husband and daughter were never told what had happened to her. They assumed that she had died in the bombing of Leningrad. It was not until 1994 that they learned the truth about her death.8

On 20 July, after the fall of Smolensk, Stalin assumed control of the military command (Stavka) by appointing himself Commissar of Defence. He sent Marshal Timoshenko, the former defence chief, to take command of the Western Front and launch a counter-offensive for the recapture of Smolensk. For a while the German advance towards Moscow was slowed down, not least because part of the German army was diverted to the south to seize the rich agricultural land, the mines and industries of Ukraine. Convinced that economics was the key to victory, Hitler thought control of these resources would help make the Third Reich invincible. During August, Hitler focused on the conquest of Ukraine, allowing the Red Army to push the Germans back on the Smolensk–Moscow front. On 6 September, Soviet forces briefly regained control of the outskirts of Smolensk, before falling back for lack of basic military equipment. Further north, on 25 September, the Germans reached the shores of Lake Ladoga, effectively surrounding Leningrad. Wanting to preserve his northern troops for the battle of Moscow, Hitler decided to lay siege to Leningrad and starve its population out of existence rather than to try to conquer it. In strictly military terms the fate of Leningrad had little real significance for the outcome of the war, which would be decided on the Moscow and the southern fronts. But as the birthplace of the Russian Empire and the Revolution, and as a citadel of European values and culture in Russia, Leningrad had a huge symbolic importance. This goes a long way towards explaining why it was not abandoned by the Soviet command; and indeed why most of its population chose to stay in the besieged city in the autumn of 1941, when Leningrad was cut off from virtually all its food and fuel supplies (perhaps a million people, or one-third of the pre-war population, died from disease or starvation, before the siege was lifted in January 1944). Meanwhile, to the south, the German advance continued slowly, because the bulk of the Soviet forces had been stationed here to protect the rich industrial and food resources of the Ukraine. A huge pincer movement by the Germans managed to encircle Kiev and its eastern hinterlands. After several weeks of desperate fighting by the Soviet troops, in which nearly half a million soldiers were killed or taken prisoner, the Germans took the city on 19 September, though much street fighting continued after that. By the start of October, with Kiev captured and Leningrad besieged, Hitler concentrated his forces on the conquest of the Soviet capital. He vowed that Moscow would be totally destroyed, its ruins flooded by an artificial lake.9

As the Germans swept across the country, millions of families were broken up, as relatives were caught behind the front. Many children were at summer camps when the invasion began and could not be returned to their families before the German troops arrived. Decades later parents were still trying to trace them through public organizations and advertisements. Thousands of children ended up in orphanages or roamed across the country, joining children’s gangs or even units of the Red Army (according to one estimate there were as many as 25,000 children who marched with the army at some point in the war).10

Iurii Streletsky was twelve years old and living in an orphanage in Leningrad in 1941. His father had been arrested in 1937, and his mother exiled to Vyshnyi Volochek, half-way between Leningrad and Moscow. When the war broke out the orphanage was evacuated to Arzamas near Gorkii. During the journey, Iurii jumped off the train and ran away. He had been unhappy at the orphanage. He joined a children’s gang, which lived off petty thefts from railway travellers, but he soon became disgusted by their criminality and turned himself in to the police. The police handed him over to the NKVD, which sent Iurii to a military aerodrome in Arzamas, where he worked as an apprentice engineer. The engineers stationed there adopted Iurii as their mascot. They gave him alcohol and cigarettes and set him up with girls, who were attached to their unit. When twenty of the engineers were transferred to Tbilisi in the spring of 1942, they took the boy with them. Iurii had pleaded with the soldiers to let him go along. He knew that he had been born in the Georgian capital, though his family had left when he was very young, and remembered going there as a child to visit his godparents. He also knew that his older sister had gone to live with them after the arrest of their parents. During the journey to Tbilisi the soldiers concealed Iurii. He had no papers for the trip and would have been arrested, had he been discovered. ‘They were very kind to me,’ Iurii recalls:

They were risking a great deal by taking me along, but none of them complained, and they all gave me food from their own rations. They were fond of me and felt sorry because I had no family. When we approached Stalingrad our train was stopped by a patrol. The two NKVD guards asked to see my papers. They wanted to arrest me when I said that I had none. But the soldiers insisted that I was one of them, and refused to give me up to the two guards, who agreed to let me go for a hundred grams [of vodka].

In Tbilisi Iurii parted company with the soldiers and wandered round the city, hoping he would recognize the place where his godparents lived. Eventually he went to the city offices and obtained a copy of his birth certificate, which proved to be the start of a paper trail leading to them. From then on, Iurii lived with his godparents, who were both engineers, and his sister. Iurii became an engineer as well.11

The evacuation of the population from the western regions of the Soviet Union also broke up families. Eight million children were evacuated to the rear. The main priority was to rescue the industrial stock from cities under threat from the Germans. Three thousand factories were dismantled and transported east – to the Volga and the Urals and beyond – in more than a million railway trucks between June and December 1941. Factory workers and their families travelled east with them. Entire institutions were relocated with their staffs: government and public offices, universities and research institutes, libraries, museums, theatre companies and orchestras.12

For many families evacuation was a mixed blessing. Natalia Gabaeva was eleven years old when she was evacuated from Leningrad to Omsk, to a special children’s home belonging to the Union of Artists. Her mother, a painter, remained in Leningrad, so she could be close to her husband Sergei, a former exile who lived in Peterhof, near the city, and worked in the Agricultural Institute. In 1941, he moved to live with his sick and elderly father, a retired museum worker, in the basement of Leningrad’s Hermitage. Every day he visited his ailing mother, who was divorced from his father, in a distant suburb of the former capital. Natalia was a ‘spoiled young girl’, as she herself recalls. From Omsk she wrote ‘frightful letters’ to her mother, begging her to come and join her. ‘In one letter I even threatened to walk to Leningrad, if my mother did not come.’ In September 1941, she got her wish. Natalia’s mother arrived in Omsk. She had left Leningrad just before the Germans put up the blockade. Sergei suffered in her absence. He fell ill in the first weeks of the siege. He wrote to friends of his desperate need to see Natalia. But when he had the chance to leave Leningrad on one of the last flights from the city, in October 1941, he turned it down. As the sole support of his parents, he could not bring himself to leave them. Sergei understood that he would not survive the siege: people all around him were dying. On 1 January 1942, he wrote to his mother that his only wish was to see Natalia once more before he died. Five days later he was killed when the Hermitage received a direct hit from a German bomb. Throughout her life Natalia was haunted by a sense of guilt about her father’s death: she felt she was to blame for his abandonment by her mother, who might have helped him to survive if she had stayed with him in Leningrad. ‘I’ve been tormented by the same question since my childhood,’ Natalia recalls: ‘if my parents were threatened by some terrible danger, and I had it in my power to save only one of them, which one would I choose? I tried to banish the question from my mind, I couldn’t answer it, but it kept coming back.’13

The Whisperers

Natalia Gabaeva with her parents, 1934

Marianna Fursei was four years old in 1941. She came from an intelligentsia home in Arkhangelsk. Her father Nikolai was an artist and a musician. Her mother, Vera German, was a teacher from a family of famous pedagogues in Leningrad. They met in the Solovetsky prison camp, where both of them were prisoners, in 1929, and were exiled together to Arkhangelsk, where their son Georgii was born in 1933, and Marianna in 1937. In January 1941, Nikolai was arrested for ‘anti-Soviet agitation’ and sentenced to ten years in a labour camp near Arkhangelsk. Vera died of typhus in 1942. Marianna and her brother remained in the care of their grandmother, Anastasia Fursei, who had lived with the family in Arkhangelsk. During the first year of the war, food supplies to Arkhangelsk were drastically reduced: the town became a near-famine zone. The children became ill. By the spring of 1942, Marianna was so weak with hunger that she could no longer walk; it seemed only a matter of time before she would die. Anastasia could not cope. The doctor she consulted, a well-known TB specialist called Zina Gliner, advised her to give the girl away for adoption to a family that could afford to feed her and perhaps save her life. At first Anastasia refused, in the hope that Nikolai would soon return from the labour camp. But when she found out that he had been shot (in September 1942), she reluctantly took the doctor’s advice, gave away her granddaughter and went with Georgii to stay with friends in Irkutsk in Siberia. ‘Forgive me. I beg you not to curse me,’ she wrote to the German family in Leningrad. ‘I gave away Marinka [Marianna]. It was the only way to save her life.’ There was little else that Anastasia could do: Marianna was too sick to make the journey to Irkutsk; there were no other relatives in Arkhangelsk to care for her; and while the German family had kept in touch with Anastasia, the siege of Leningrad had ended any hope of delivering the girl to them.

Marianna was adopted by Iosif and Nelly Goldenshtein, who came from a large Jewish family in Mariupol, in south-east Ukraine. Iosif was a senior-ranking Communist in the Soviet air force who had been sent to Arkhangelsk in 1942. When, at the end of September 1942, the German army attacked Mariupol, Iosif flew back to try to save his family. Instead he witnessed a dreadful massacre. As he approached his family’s house, he heard screams from the courtyard. He could only watch from a distance as Hitler’s troops lined up nineteen of his relatives, including three of his own children, and shot them through the head. Traumatized by this experience, the Goldenshteins were desperate for a child to love, even – or perhaps especially – one as sick as Marianna, whom they could care for and nurse back to health.

The Whisperers

Anastasia with Marianna and Georgii Fursei, Arkhangelsk, 1939

Marianna’s maternal grandmother, Vera German, wrote to Anastasia in Irkutsk, asking for the name and address of the family that had adopted her granddaughter. But here there was a critical mistake: instead of writing Goldenshtein, Anastasia wrote the name Goldshtein in her reply. By the time the siege of Leningrad had been lifted, and Vera’s family was able to begin their search for Marianna, the Goldenshteins had moved to Tbilisi, and all trace of them in Arkhangelsk had vanished. In 1946, Georgii returned to Leningrad, where he was determined to study at the university: he was just thirteen years of age, too young to remember the Goldenshteins’ real name; and he never spoke with the Germans about his lost sister. Georgii had left behind his grandmother in Irkutsk, promising to come back for her later, but he never did. She died there in a home for invalids in 1957.14

The Goldenshteins were kind, well-meaning people, who loved Marianna as their own daughter. Knowing that her parents had been arrested as ‘enemies of the people’, and that her father had been shot, they tried to protect Marianna (and perhaps themselves) by keeping this information from her. They told Marianna nothing about her parents, although they encouraged her to become a musician like her father (in fact, she became a teacher, like her mother). The Goldenshteins belonged to the Communist military establishment in Tbilisi. Marianna grew up in this privileged environment and adopted many of its values and customs. She always thought of the Goldenshteins as her parents, and called them ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’. But some time around the age of eleven she began to realize that she had once belonged to a different family. The traumatic memories of her early childhood, so deeply buried in her consciousness, began to surface. The catalyst, it seems, was an incident at a Pioneer camp when Marianna was excluded by the other children from an expedition into the forest because, as they said, she was a ‘foundling’. Slowly, Marianna began to piece together the fragments of her former life in Arkhangelsk. She never spoke about these recollections to the Goldenshteins. But her growing sense that she was not ‘family’ focused her unhappiness, and perhaps her teenage resentments, both against the Goldenshteins, who were very strict with her, and against her real parents, who, she concluded, had abandoned her. Marianna explains:

Every night Papa would inspect my school work. I could not go to bed until it was perfect… And Mama was too ill to protect me. She had TB. At the age of thirteen or fourteen, I was expected to do all the household chores… When my mother and father were angry with me, I would think: if only I was living nearer Arkhangelsk, I would run away and find my grandmother [Marianna did not know that she had died]. My parents might be cross with me, but my grandmother would surely not be so angry. Then I would remember that I had no real mother or father. And that made me totally shut down. I was only rarely able to cry.15

On 1 October 1941, Stalin ordered the evacuation of the government from Moscow to Kuibyshev on the Volga. Panic spread in Moscow as the bombing of the city became more intense. There were reports that German troops had broken through the Soviet defences at Viazma, a few days’ march from the capital, on 16 October. At railway stations there were ugly scenes as crowds struggled to board trains for the east. Verzhbitsky reported that people were paying 20,000 roubles to go by car from Moscow to Kazan. The panic was partly based on memories of famine from the Civil War. And indeed the food situation quickly became desperate. Huge queues formed at all the shops, and there was widespread looting, which mass arrests did little to control. Verzhbitsky summed up the public mood in his diary on 17 October:

Who is the author of all this mess, this general flight, this thievery, this confusion in our minds? People talk quite openly in a manner that three days ago would have got them arrested. Queues, endless queues, nervous people on the edge. The hysteria has spread from the leadership to the masses. They’ve begun to remember and count up all the insults, oppressions, injustices, the bullying and bureaucratic machinations of officialdom, the contempt and arrogance of Party members, the draconian orders, deprivations, deceptions and the boastful self-congratulations of the newspapers. It is terrible to hear. People now speak from the heart. Can a city really hold out when it is in such a mood?16

On the same day, Stalin made a radio broadcast pledging to stand by the city to the end: it was a decisive turning-point. People rallied to the defence of the capital, motivated more by local patriotism for Moscow than by any allegiance to the Soviet regime. Muscovites recall that the inhabitants of the city all congregated in the centre – the outskirts were almost completely empty – as if from a collective impulse of self-defence or an unconscious need to unite against the enemy. A quarter of a million civilians dug ditches, carted food and medicines to the front and took injured soldiers into their homes. Tens of thousands volunteered for the citizens’ defence to fight alongside the regular soldiers, scratched together from the shattered armies that had fallen back from the Belorussian Front and reinforcements from Siberia who were thrown into battle directly on their arrival in Moscow. Under General Zhukov, military discipline was gradually restored. The new spirit of determination was symbolized by Stalin’s decision to hold the Revolution Day (7 November) parade on Red Square as usual: the troops marched past the Lenin Mausoleum, and were then sent straight off to the front. According to K. R. Sinilov, the Commandant of Moscow, the parade had a critical effect on the public mood. Before the parade the letters he received had been mostly defeatist: many people wanted to abandon Moscow rather than expose its population to danger. But afterwards people wrote with messages of defiance.17

These few weeks of desperate fighting determined the outcome of the war. By mid-November the German forces were bogged down in winter mud and snow. They were unprepared to survive a Russian winter and exhausted after marching for five months without a break. For the first time since the invasion had begun, they were taking heavy casualties. In December, the Soviets launched a counter-offensive and by April they had pushed the Germans back towards Smolensk. The defence of the capital was a huge boost for Soviet morale. People started to believe in victory. The country was still in a terrible position. By the end of 1941, it had lost 3 million troops, more than half the number that had begun the war; much of Soviet industry had been destroyed; while 90 million citizens, nearly half the pre-war Soviet population, lived in territories occupied by the Germans. But Moscow’s survival was crucial: having failed to capture the Soviet capital, Hitler’s forces stood no further realistic chance of defeating the Soviet Union.


Simonov went to war with a photograph of Valentina Serova in his breast pocket. He kept her image near his heart. In the last six months of 1941, when Valentina was evacuated to Sverdlovsk, he overwhelmed her with love poems. The poet fell in love with the woman he imagined in his poetry:

I want to say you are my wife,

Not so I can tell them you’re my own,

Not because our true relationship

Has long been guessed and generally known.

I do not boast of your beauty

Nor of the fame and fortune you have found.

Enough for me the gentle, secret woman

Who came into my house without a sound.18

Simonov did not write to his real wife. Zhenia Laskina had been evacuated with their son Aleksei, her parents, Samuil and Berta, and her two sisters, Fania and Sonia, to Cheliabinsk in the Urals in September 1941. The three sisters worked in the Cheliabinsk Tractor Factory, the biggest of the plants to be reassigned to the manufacture of tanks in a city that was nicknamed Tankograd. Sonia and Zhenia worked in the procurements offices, while Fania was a norm-setter (responsible for fixing the targets of production and the rates of pay). The Laskins all lived together in one room of a two-room flat which they shared with another family. ‘It was cramped, but warm and friendly,’ remembers Fania: ‘we were all very close.’ Simonov’s parents had also been evacuated to the Urals, to Molotov. Unlike Simonov, they stayed in touch with Zhenia, whom both of them adored. Towards the end of December, Simonov was given a few days’ leave for the New Year. He did not come to Cheliabinsk or Molotov, but went instead to visit Valentina in the nearby city of Sverdlovsk. She refused to receive him – she was about to return to Moscow – so he flew to the Crimea, where a major offensive had just been launched to retake the Kerch peninsula from the Germans.19

Valentina continued to resist Simonov’s approaches. Her affections lay elsewhere. She had, it seems, a brief affair with Stalin’s son, Vasily, and then fell in love with the military hero General Rokossovsky, whom she had met in the spring of 1942 whilst performing at a Moscow hospital, where he was recovering from battle wounds. A veteran of the Civil War, Rokossovsky was arrested in 1937, but released from the Butyrki jail in 1940, when he and his wife and daughter settled in Kiev. On the outbreak of the war, Rokossovsky was recalled by Stalin to Moscow and given the command of the Fourth Army near Smolensk. He took part in the crucial battles for Moscow in the autumn of 1941. When Kiev was occupied by the Germans, he lost contact with his wife. Rokossovsky believed – or wanted to believe – that he was free for Serova. He did not expect to see his wife again. But two months after he met Serova, Rokossovsky’s wife appeared with their daughter in Moscow. They had been evacuated from Kiev just before the Germans occupied the Ukrainian capital. In Moscow she soon heard of the romance between her husband and the film actress, who was still pursued by Simonov. The love-triangle had become the gossip of the Soviet elite, which dubbed it the ‘USSR’ (Union of Serova, Simonov and Rokos-sovsky). Determined to break up the affair, Rokossovsky’s wife complained to Stalin, who disapproved of his leading generals being distracted by personal affairs. In July 1942, Stalin ordered Rokossovsky to take up the command of the Briansk Front, south of Moscow, and focus his attentions on the war. Throughout that summer Valentina tried to revive the romance. Hopelessly in love with the handsome general, she flew out to the front to visit him. But after Stalin’s intervention, Rokossovsky refused to receive her. As it became clear that her passion for the general would not be reciprocated, Valentina softened towards Simonov, who had continued to send her gifts and poetry. She slept with him but said she was not in love with him. Sometimes she exploited him in cruel and humiliating ways. Once she even made him deliver one of her love letters to Rokossovsky at the front.20

By this time the ‘romance’ of Simonov and Valentina had become the subject of a cycle of lyric poems known by everyone. Their love affair became an established fact in the nation’s literary imagination even before it existed in reality.

The most famous of these poems was ‘Wait For Me’, written in the summer of 1941, when Simonov was a long way from conquering Valentina’s heart:

Wait for me, and I’ll come back,

But wait with all your might,

Wait when dreariness descends

With the yellow rains,

Wait when snowdrifts sweep the ground,

Wait during the heat,

Wait when others are given up

And together with the past forgotten.

Wait when from distant places

Letters do not arrive,

Wait when all who’ve waited together

Are already tired of it.

Wait for me, and I’ll come back,

Don’t give your approval

To those who say you should forget,

Insisting they are right.

Even though my son and mother

Believe I’m already gone,

Though my friends get tired of waiting,

Settle by the fire and drink

A bitter cup,

So my soul should rest in peace…

Wait. Do not make haste to join them

In their toast to me.

Wait for me, and I’ll come back,

Just to spite all deaths.

Let the ones who did not wait

Say: ‘It was his luck.’

It’s hard for them to understand,

For those who did not wait,

That in the very heat of fire,

By waiting here for me,

It was you who saved me.

Only you and I will know

How I survived –

It’s just that you know how to wait

As no other person.21

Simonov had written these love poems for Valentina and himself. He did not think that they were suitable for publication, because they lacked the mandatory ‘civic content’ of Socialist Realist poetry. ‘I thought these verses were my private business,’ Simonov said in 1942. But living in the dug-outs at the front, he had recited them to the soldiers, who wrote them down and learned them by heart. The men found an echo of their own emotions in these poems and encouraged Simonov to publish them in Krasnaia zvezda. In December 1941, when Simonov returned on leave to Moscow, several of his poems were broadcast on the radio and then published in Pravda. ‘Wait For Me’ had the greatest response. The poem was reprinted hundreds of times in the press. It was copied out and circulated in millions of private versions by soldiers and civilians. It became a hit song. In 1942, Simonov wrote the screenplay for a film (Wait For Me) in which Valentina played the leading role. A stage version was produced by theatres in cities across the land. Soldiers copied out the poem in their albums and notebooks. They kept it in their pockets as a talisman. They engraved the poem’s main refrain on tanks and lorries and tattooed it on their arms. Lost for words to express their own emotions, they simply copied out the verse in letters to their sweethearts, who responded with the same pledge. ‘My darling Volodenka,’ wrote one woman to her lover at the front. ‘I have not heard from you for a long time. But I’ll wait for you, and you’ll come back.’ Soldiers wrote their own love poems in imitation of ‘Wait For Me’, often adding some individual details from their own experience.22

The main reason for the poem’s huge success was its ability to voice the private thoughts and emotions of millions of soldiers and civilians, who linked their hopes of survival to the idea of reunion with somebody they loved. One group of soldiers wrote to Simonov in May 1942:

Whenever your poems appear in the newspapers, there is huge excitement in our regiment. We cut the poems out and copy them and pass these copies round by hand, because there are not enough copies of the newspapers, and we all want to read the poems and discuss them. We all know ‘Wait For Me’ by heart. It says exactly what we feel. For all of us have wives, fiancées or girlfriends back home, and we all hope that they will wait for us, until we return with victory.23

Everybody was involved in his own private version of the universal romance encapsulated by the poem – a tale of ‘You’ and ‘I’ against the background of the war. But romantic yearning was only half of it. The poem also voiced the soldiers’ deep anxiety about the fidelity of wives and girlfriends left behind. Many soldiers’ songs expressed that worry. One of the most popular had its origins in a song sung by women after the departure of their menfolk, but it had a resonance among the troops, who sang it as they went into battle:

I wanted to say so much to you,

But did not say a word.

Quietly but firmly you whispered in my ear:

‘Don’t love anybody except me!’

Do not worry when you go to war,

I will be true to you,

You will return from victory, my soldier,

And I will hold you firmly in my arms!

Variations on ‘Wait For Me’ also stressed fidelity. One group of soldiers from the Urals sang:

I shall wait for you, my darling,

I shall wait steadfastly.

I shall wait for the Urals winter,

For the flowers in the spring…

Another version added motifs, like the nightingale, from traditional Russian folk songs:

I shall wait, you will return, I know.

Let the yellow rains fall,

I shall wait for you, my sweet nightingale,

And believe with all my strength in our happiness…24

Soldiers passed harsh judgement on wives who were unfaithful to their husbands at the front. As the war went on, the suspicion of infidelity placed a growing strain on many families, not least because the majority of women (who had to live in the real conditions of the war) could not hope to match the ideal image of Soviet womanhood (the waiting girlfriend, the loyal and faithful wife) portrayed in propaganda films, plays and poems such as ‘Wait For Me’.25

Simonov himself became involved in a case of soldiers’ outrage against an unfaithful wife. In September 1943, he was attached to the Third Army on the Briansk Front. A few days after one of the commanders had been killed in action, a letter for him arrived from his wife in Vichuga, northeast of Moscow, in which she told her husband that she was leaving him for another man. Having opened the letter, the soldiers felt that they should answer it. They asked Simonov to write on their behalf, and told him what they wanted to say. But Simonov was called away to a different sector of the front before he had time to pen the text. Two months later, when he was in Kharkov to report for Krasnaia zvezda on the Nazi murders of the Jews there, he suddenly recalled his unfulfilled promise to the soldiers. Simonov still had the woman’s name and address, but instead of writing directly to her, he wrote the poem ‘An Open Letter to the Woman of Vichuga’ to give public voice to the sentiments of the soldiers. As he explained to the Party Secretary of Vichuga, in the poem he ‘cited many of the exact phrases and expressions the troops had used themselves’ when telling him what he should write to the unfaithful wife.26

I am obliged to inform you

That the addressee did not receive

The letter which you posted

Without a hint of shame.

Your husband did not get the letter,

He was not wounded by your vulgar words,

He did not wince, or lose his mind,

He did not regret the past.

So your former husband has been killed.

All is well. Live with your new one.

The dead cannot hurt you

In a letter with superfluous words.

Live, without fear or guilt,

He cannot write, he won’t reply

He won’t return to your town from the war

And meet you holding another’s hand.27

According to the poet Margarita Aliger, the key to the appeal of ‘Wait For Me’ and the other poems in the collection With You and Without You (1941–5) was the way they managed to express universal feelings in such an intensely personal voice. Soviet readers had rarely encountered such emotional and erotic poetry as they found in Simonov’s wartime verse. Before the war, the public and the private had been counterposed as cultural and political opposites. During the 1920s and 1930s there was no room for intimate or private themes in the public-oriented poetry of the Soviet Union. Couched in terms of ‘We’ (or ‘He’ in poems that portrayed Stalin as the voice of every Soviet citizen), poetry was dominated by the grand collective themes of the Revolution (even Mandelshtam declared that lyric verse was inappropriate for Soviet art, because the historical epoch no longer had ‘any interest in the human fate of the individual’). But wartime Soviet culture saw the gradual merging of the private and public. Poetry became more intimate. It took on personal themes. It talked about emotions and relationships, which gave it a new status and authority. In the words of the poet Semyon Kirsanov:

War does not lend itself to odes

And much in it is not suitable for books,

But I believe that the people needs

The spirit of this open diary.

(‘Duty’, 1942)

‘Wait For Me’ was the first major sign of this aesthetic shift. It conjured up a private world of intimate relationships independent of the state. Because it was written from the feelings of one person, it became necessary to millions. With the noise of battle everywhere, with shouting officers and barking commissars, people needed poetry to speak to their muted emotions; they yearned for words to express the sorrow and anger, hatred, fear and hope that agitated them. ‘Your poems live in our feelings,’ a group of soldiers wrote to Simonov in 1945. ‘They teach us how to act with other people, especially with women, and for that reason they are loved by all of us. You alone have managed to express our deepest thoughts and hopes.’28

For all the private impact of this poetry, its propaganda uses were clear for all to see. Poems such as ‘Wait For Me’ were powerful weapons in the Soviet campaign to maintain morale. The emotions they expressed helped to foster a kind of primary-level patriotism, centred on the family, comradeship and love, which, in turn, provided a foundation for the broader Soviet concept of national solidarity. Although Stalin was rumoured to have said that only two copies of ‘Wait For Me’ should have been printed (‘one for him and one for her’), the regime was in fact very quick to exploit the poem’s popularity. According to Aleksandr Shcherbakov, the head of the Main Political Department of the Red Army, the Kremlin even considered moving Simonov away from the danger of the front because of his value as a poet. The Party leadership had become alarmed by a stanza in one of his poems that hinted at martyrdom (it was a romantic gesture to Valentina) and Shcherbakov was ordered to advise him to be car