This 666 page tome has been a companion over the last few weeks.
Back in 2012 I voted `Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea` by Barbara Demick as my favourite book of that year. It gave the readers a searing look into the life of ordinary people in the present day hell that is North Korea. Think of THE WHISPERERS, as `Nothing to Envy` on a much larger canvas and far more disturbing in its well researched details.
Some background : Growing up in the CBSE educational system in India meant you were invariably fed the bland sanitized Congress party approved version of global history and this invariably meant you were fed laughable lies that the `Planned Economy` , borrowed from the great USSR, was the ideal and only way for India to follow into its own destined utopia and that the USSR was already a well planned paradise. Nothing could be further from this appalling lie and it is exposed in excruciating detail in this book. The cost of following the corrupting ideology of Communism is scrupulously documented by Figes and reading the book helps you grasp the horrors that millions of Soviet citizens went through. It is frequently claimed that Winston Churchill once said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. Reading the book helps you understand what he was on about and how right he really was. The book goes a long way in explaining why Russians, even today, have only this barely tenuous link to a sense of civic duty, a moral compass and urban manners and why they are keenly reticent and mostly keep to themselves. And drink. Who can blame them after the horrors their parents and grandparents went through for almost 7 decades. And ow they are stuck with Putin.
There are so many sad tales well told here of families broken up, imprisoned, killed, tortured and dispersed. Roberto Benigni could make about another thousand ’Life is Beautiful’ movies from real life scripts. The one that most affected me was this gut wrenching story of a father, Nikolai, imprisoned for no reason really, because that is how real communism operates, who in the book, is writing to his young daughter, Alyonushka, from the Gulag, and trying to reassure her everything is going to be OK. He starts penning a tale, sent in parts, titled “THE UNUSUAL ADVENTURES OF SHAMMI” and the heart breaking details in the letters he writes to her are so depressing that I was forced to frequently stop reading and catch myself from giving up and just walking into oncoming traffic. That chapter, ironically titled “THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS”, ends with “…THIS WAS THE LAST LETTER. SHORTLY AFTERWARDS, ON 17 SEPTEMBER, NIKOLA WAS EXECUTED BY A FIRING SQUAD”.
The October 1917 revolution consumed its children in the end. USSR became the biggest Standford Prison Experiment in history. The chapter THE GREAT FEAR brings to mind this stanza I once read :
The dogs of hell, my friend,
Will find you too.
Maybe after they tire a while,
Of the taste of Me
Joseph Stalin was a thug and what he did to USSR makes what Hitler did to Germany, Europe and the Jews look like amateur hour. It is shocking to realize even today Hitler has more publicity as THE EVIL MAN when Stalin was far far far more brutal on a far longer time scale. While Hitler was forced to commit suicide, Stalin lived out his day in regal comfort right till the end.
In summary why read `The Whisperers’?
- Understand the USSR in far better detail that you were allowed in the classroom
- Truly familiarize yourself with Orwell was attacking in `1984` and `Animal Farm`. Totalitarianism is just a word. The reality is much much more scary and painful.
- See how the best intentions of founding visionaries get corrupted by the subsequent thugs who follow inevitably in their footsteps. Farmers and Workers (histories inevitable useful idiots) are always taken for a ride by these villains.
All in all, this is a really good book that I highly recommend.