Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia

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Overview

From the award-winning author of A People's Tragedy and Natasha's Dance, a landmark account of what private life was like for Russians in the worst years of Soviet repression

There have been many accounts of the public aspects of Stalin's dictatorship: the arrests and trials, the enslavement and killing in the gulags. No previous book, however, has explored the regime's effect on people's personal lives, what one historian called "the Stalinism that entered into all of us." Now, drawing on a huge collection of newly discovered documents, The Whisperers reveals for the first time the inner world of ordinary Soviet citizens as they struggled to survive amidst the mistrust, fear, compromises, and betrayals that pervaded their existence.

Moving from the Revolution of 1917 to the death of Stalin and beyond, Orlando Figes re-creates the moral maze in which Russians found themselves, where one wrong turn could destroy a family or, perversely, end up saving it. He brings us inside cramped communal apartments, where minor squabbles could lead to fatal denunciations; he examines the Communist faithful, who often rationalized even their own arrest as a case of mistaken identity; and he casts a humanizing light on informers, demonstrating how, in a repressive system, anyone could easily become a collaborator.

A vast panoramic portrait of a society in which everyone spoke in whispers--whether to protect their families and friends, or to inform upon them--The Whisperers is a gripping account of lives lived in impossible times.

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Editorial Reviews

Joshua Rubenstein
Figes, a leading historian of the Soviet period, concludes in The Whisperers, his extraordinary book about the impact of the gulag on "the inner world of ordinary citizens," [that] a great many victims "silently accepted and internalized the system's basic values" and "conformed to its public rules." Behind highly documented episodes of persecution, famine and war lie quieter, desperate stories of individuals and families who did what they could to survive, to find one another and to come to terms with the burden of being physically and psychologically broken…With the assistance of the Memorial Society, one of the few liberal institutions that emerged during the period of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and continues to exist today, Figes enlisted teams of researchers, who conducted thousands of interviews with gulag survivors and their families and collected letters, memoirs and other documents. Victims do not always make good witnesses. But thanks to Figes, these survivors overcame their silence and have lifted their voices above a whisper.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

One in eight people in the Soviet Union were victims of Stalin's terror-virtually no family was untouched by purges, the gulag, forced collectivization and resettlement, says Figes in this nuanced, highly textured look at personal life under Soviet rule. Relying heavily on oral history, Figes, winner of an L.A. TimesBook Prize for A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, highlights how individuals attempted to maintain a sense of self even in the worst years of the Stalinist purges. More often than not, they learned to stay silent and conform, even after Khrushchev's thaw lifted the veil on some of Stalin's crimes. Figes shows how, beginning with the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet experience radically changed personal and family life. People denied their experiences, roots and their condemned relatives in order to survive and, in some cases, thrive. At the same time, Soviet residents achieved great things, including the defeat of the Nazis in WWII, that Russians remember with pride. By seamlessly integrating the political, cultural and social with the stories of particular people and families, Figes retells all of Soviet history and enlarges our understanding of it. Photos. (Oct. 2)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
The people whisper while denunciations are shouted all around: an exemplary study in mentalites, asking how the norms of old were so thoroughly remade in the years of Soviet terror. Eminent Russologist/Sovietologist Figes (History/Cambridge Univ.; Natasha's Dance, 2002, etc.) observes that Russian society is closely organized around the family, and thus it was that "the family was the first arena in which the Bolsheviks engaged the struggle." The early Soviets took it as a matter of doctrine that the bourgeois family was the primary source of socially harmful, conservative mores and other manifestations of reaction, but that, the dialectic being what it is, the bourgeois family would eventually disappear once socialism was on a sure footing and the state assumed cradle-to-grave responsibilities for feeding, housing and carrying for the denizens of the worker's paradise. They tried to hurry matters along in the first years of the New Economic Policy by forcing the formerly rich to share their houses and apartments with the poor, thinking that the people would become "communistic in their basic thinking and behavior" as notions of personal property and privacy faded away. The Bolsheviks also liquidated and deported a few million irredeemably bourgeois types. The so-called new society that resulted was notable for the lack of affection parents showed children-which, as Figes notes, was the habit of the old aristocracy, now spread into the larger citizenry. Children repaid the favor by informing on their elders. By the 1930s, the vydvizhentsy, these unloved "sons (and very rarely, the daughters) of the peasantry and the proletariat," most educated for only seven years, would take the place ofthe Old Bolsheviks and become the conformist, unflinching functionaries of the Stalinist regime, the ones who obediently policed, deported and executed their fellow citizens. Figes's sociological approach explains much about these evils and how Russia fell under a complicit, fearful silence. Lucid, thorough and essential to understanding Stalinist society.
From the Publisher

“Extraordinary… vividly reveals a people whose entire existence was defined by the taboo against private life as well as the resilience, and resistance, of the human soul in the face of forcible reorientation.”—The New Yorker

“Extraordinary… Thanks to Figes, these survivors overcame their silence and have lifted their voices above a whisper.”—Joshua Rubenstein, The New York Times Book Review

“Gripping… The Whisperers is one of the best literary monuments to the Soviet people… a fascinating encyclopedia of human relations during the Stalinist Terror.”—Andrey Kurkov, New Statesman

“Brilliant and shocking… a powerful history of emotional life in a society in which the personal was ruthlessly repressed for three-quarters of a century.”—Geraldine Bedell, The Guardian (UK)

“The everyday lives of Russians between the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the death of Josef Stalin in 1953 is the subject of Orlando Figes’ illuminating and profoundly moving new book. Filled with the stories of hundreds of survivors, many of which make for desperately painful reading, The Whisperers offers the most thorough account so far of what it meant to live under Soviet totalitarianism.”—Douglas Smith, The Seattle Times

“A tapestry of the Stalinist era woven from the personal experiences and words of Soviet citizens, both betrayers and betrayed… the research is extensive and subtle, Figes uses it to elucidate the texture of daily life and the ways humanity was perverted by a regime of terror.”—The Atlantic

“Remarkable.”—The New York Sun

‘“Magisterial’ may be an overworked adjective in book reviews, but it accurately describes Orlando Figes’s latest volume. He deserves kudos for his penetrating narrative.”—The New Leader

“This book, about the breakers and the broken, explains in brutal detail how a political ideal contrived to beat an entire country's heart out of place. The author of A People’s Tragedy and Natasha’s Dance has outdone himself.”
Telegraph (UK)

“Figes organizes his material superbly, and writes with such self-effacing lucidity that these people seem to speak directly to the reader. This is a very important book—authoritative, vivid, precise, and in places, almost unbearably moving.”
Sunday Telegraph

“Masterfully composed and controlled as a narrative by Figes, this is a collective testimony in which you can hear voices through a doorway open at last, recounting the hopes, fears and numberless awful tragedies of the Soviet era…. The Whisperers is like a rainbow over a graveyard.”
—Alexander Cockburn, The Sunday Times (UK)

“This book is the result of a large-scale research project and its importance cannot be overestimated. Figes and his team have unearthed diaries and accounts from archives and interviewed hundreds of survivors. This is a heartrending book… which should be made compulsory reading in Russia today.”
—Antony Beevor, The Times (UK)

The Barnes & Noble Review
How could human feelings and emotions retain any force in the moral vacuum of the Stalinist regime? That's the question with which Orlando Figes begins The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia. The answer is revealed in spellbinding, often harrowing tales of endurance, love, idealism, betrayal, and grief. Eschewing published memoirs in favor of personal testimony, the author of A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 draws from countless letters, journals, documents, and interviews with ordinary Russians to capture life under the evolving Soviet regime from the period just after the revolution through the tumult of the "Five Year Plan," the living nightmare of the Great Terror, the Second World War, and the cycles of reform and repression which characterized Soviet life in the postwar period.

These stories don't merely record the horror of purges, denunciations, and mass arrests; Figes also portrays the idealistic fervor of the revolutionary generation, and the tragic beauty of simple family life under the shadow of an implacable power. His painstaking and inclusive method yields a majestic -- at times overwhelming -- profusion of narrative truth.
--Bill Tipper

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312428037
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 11/25/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 784
  • Sales rank: 305,261
  • Product dimensions: 9.18 (w) x 6.02 (h) x 1.33 (d)

Meet the Author

Orlando Figes is the author of Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia and A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924, which received the Wolfson Prize for History and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A frequent contributor to The New York Times and The New York Review of Books, among other publications, Figes is a professor of history at Birbeck College, University of London.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations     viii
Note on Proper Names     xiii
Maps     xiv
Family Trees     xxi
Introduction     xxvii
Children of 1917 (1917-28)     1
The Great Break (1928-32)     76
The Pursuit of Happiness (1932-6)     148
The Great Fear (1937-8)     227
Remnants of Terror (1938-41)     316
'Wait For Me' (1941-5)     379
Ordinary Stalinists (1945-53)     455
Return (1953-6)     535
Memory (1956-2006)     597
Afterword and Acknowledgements     657
Permissions     666
Notes     667
Sources     703
Index     713
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 24, 2010

    A new perspective on Stalinism

    I bought this book out of curiosity: there are few testimonies about the daily lives of ordinary people in the USSR during Stalinism. I found that and much more in this remarkable work. I couldn't simply let it aside! People is portrayed, their houses described in detail and the very atmosphere of Stalin´s USSR comes to life under your eyes... It´s obvious that such a book is the result of a thorough investigation, but it is not written in the usual aseptic essay tone.
    There re so many stories and information there, that I guess it deserves a second reading.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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