Schechter on Frierson, 'Silence Was Salvation: Child Survivors of Stalin's Terror and World War II in the Soviet Union'

Cathy A. Frierson
Brandon Michael Schechter

Cathy A. Frierson. Silence Was Salvation: Child Survivors of Stalin's Terror and World War II in the Soviet Union. Annals of Communism Series. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 288 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-17945-3.

Reviewed by Brandon Michael Schechter (New York University) Published on H-War (November, 2017) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

Printable Version:

This book presents ten oral histories with the children of the “enemies of the people”—those who were repressed during the Great Terror in the Soviet Union. Cathy A. Frierson, who has previously published a collection of documents with commentary on this subject (with Semyon S. Vilensky, Children of the Gulag [2010]), has carefully chosen her cases to provide a range of demographics, fates, and viewpoints. The resulting book, part of Yale University Press’s Annals of Communism Series, offers little new for scholars of the Soviet Union but presents a thoughtful introduction to aspects of Soviet history and the practice of oral history.

Silence Was Salvation opens with an introductory essay that assumes little to no knowledge about Soviet history and succeeds handsomely at providing the necessary context to approach the volume’s subject. Frierson touches on the relevant laws and policies that created roughly ten million orphans during the terror, the marks of Soviet upbringing in how her interviewees viewed the world and in how they subsequently tell their own stories. She also engages in a polemic about oral history that shows its potential strengths and some of its weaknesses, highlighting both how victims voices can be suppressed and how interviewers can tamper with their witnesses’ voices by asking leading questions. The book, as can be expected, ultimately comes out strongly in favor of the power of eyewitness testimony, even of events at a great temporal remove. Frierson uses both historical and psychological literature to support her claims.

In the introduction, Frierson lays out clearly the main focus and methods of her interviews as well as her editorial choices, which may be its most interesting feature as a text for classroom use. These interviews follow a basic script, but the author consciously allowed the interviewees to drive the conversation. Frierson is open about breaking rules of etiquette to engage more intimately with her interviewees and also about presenting interviews with different levels of editing. One interview is left with awkward pauses, while others have summaries in place of quoted text. By laying bare her intentions and leaving a significant amount of variation in how she presents the interviews, Frierson allows us to see how the texts were created, something quite useful if this text is to be used in oral history courses.

The interviews themselves are, as one would expect, heartrending and follow familiar patterns of late-night arrests, loved ones who vanish, separation, displacement, and lives of hardship and limited opportunities. Frierson provides extensive context for each of her subjects: every chapter begins with a map of the travels of the interviewee and a roughly two-page introduction that provides a biography and a detailed description of the interviewee’s character and demeanor. She excels at giving a subjective sense of being there. These introductions often highlight what Frierson wants the reader to take away from the text, which at times seems a little forced. The discussions in the interviews reveal a diversity of fates and ways of understanding them. A repeated theme in the interviews is the near impossibility of understanding the times in which Frierson’s subjects lived, particularly for those who have not lived under dictatorship.

Overall this book, written in an accessible way, could be quite fitting for a course on trauma or oral history and somewhat useful in a course on Stalinism. As a stand-alone collection of documents, the book could have included significantly more archival documents that would allow students to contrast different types of sources and their use, but Frierson has already published a documentary collection on this subject. As a result, this book is ultimately an oral history collection and could be seen as an appendix to the previously published volume. The author succeeds in framing her subject in a way that both tells the story she wants to get across and invites critical engagement by the reader.

Citation: Brandon Michael Schechter. Review of Frierson, Cathy A., Silence Was Salvation: Child Survivors of Stalin's Terror and World War II in the Soviet Union. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2017. URL:

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