Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia

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Overview

A New York Times Notable Book of 2007

"A tremendous achievement."—The Sunday Times (London)

The Whisperers is a triumphant act of recovery. In this powerful work of history, Orlando Figes chronicles the private history of family life during the violent and repressive reign of Josef Stalin. Drawing on a vast collection of interviews and archives, The Whisperers re-creates the anguish of family members turned against one another—of the paranoia, alienation, and treachery that poisoned private life in Russia for generations. A panoramic portrait of a society in which everyone spoke in whispers, The Whisperers is "rigorously compassionate. . . . A humbling monument to the evil and endurance of Russia's Soviet past and, implicitly, a guide to its present" (The Economist).

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Its importance cannot be overestimated. . . . This book should be made compulsory reading in Russia today."—The Times (London)

"Extraordinary . . . 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 Book Review

"A profound service . . . Figes redeems the gloom by demonstrating compassion for flawed human beings and revealing compelling examples of moral courage and kindness."—The Christian Science Monitor

"An extraordinary work of synthesis and insight . . . an awfully good read . . . Figes is both a prodigious researcher and a gifted writer."—St. Petersburg Times

"Lucid, thorough, and essential to understanding Stalinist society . . . an exemplary study in mentalits."—Kirkus Reviews

"Extraordinary."—The New Yorker

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.
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: 297,973
  • 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, the NCR Book Award, the W. H. Smith Literary Award, the Longman/History Today Book Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He is a professor of history at Birkbeck 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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