Putin, Stalin, and Cultural Legacies

After the end of the Cold War, many people thought the United States no longer needed to pay much attention to Russia and that the Middle East was now our primary object of international concern. Wake up, people! This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made merry in Tehran, part of Putin’s continuing message to the world that Russia is once again on the rise. As I watch these news reports, I have been reading an extraordinary book: “The Whisperers,” by the British scholar Orlando Figes, whose previous work, “Natasha’s Dance,” is a rich history of modern Russian and Soviet culture.
In the new volume, which will be published next month in the U.S., Figes details the effect of Stalinist policies on ordinary citizens in the Soviet Union, focusing on the period from 1928, when Stalin consolidated his power, through 1953, when he died. The details of the effects that drastic policies (collective agriculture, communal apartments, a rampant encouragement of informers) had on family life is extraordinary. On page after page of Figes’ book, you say to yourself, “If this story were in a novel, nobody would believe it.” As I’ve indicated above, Figes’ act of excavation has special resonance at the moment, when Russia is ruled by the domestically popular Putin, who has said that the dismantlement of the Stalinist state was “a catastrophe.” It’s hard to agree with that statement after reading Figes’ book. For a fuller review of “The Whisperers,” click here.

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