I learned about the book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, by Orlando Figes due to Amazon.com which linked it with my memoir Family Matters and More. My first thought was that a person like me, who was born in Soviet Russia in the middle of the thirties, read a lot of about Stalin's time could hardly find much new in The Whisperers.
I left Soviet Russia at the end of 1988 and had witnessed many events, some of which were described in Orlando Figes' book. I was able to find and read a few books that were prohibited in the USSR. I didn't know the author of The Whisperers, never read his books before, and doubted that a foreign writer would be able to find many unknown details about this gloomy tragic time. Nevertheless, I decided to read it for the sake of curiosity.
I was hugely impressed; the book literally overwhelmed me. The author has done an incredible job interviewing thousands of people - victims of many years of terror. Those people were among the lucky few who managed to survive. I must say that the author recreated the forest while paying attention to each tree.
Telling about the fates of individual people and their families, the author shows what was going on in the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain. Living in the USSR over 50 years, I knew and had read a lot, but reading The Whisperers I felt indescribable pain and horror. Fates of hundreds of thousands, even millions of Soviet people were possible to describe with the same four words: falsely accused, arrested and shot. And what was even more horrible, all of this became habitual.
Recalling that not very remote time, I think about one more phenomenon: despite everything that was going on in the country, people wanted to live a normal life. In the daytime, they worked, entertained, attended theaters, movies and were busy with other activities. But at night they could learn that they, or their relatives, or their friends, or people they knew for a long time, all of a sudden, had become "enemies of the people," and were arrested, disappearing forever.
Orlando Figes in his The Whisperers showed very truthfully, through the tragic lives of many thousands of victims, one of the most awful political systems - totalitarian power. I would like everybody to read this book, both supporters and opponents of democracy. The opponents vividly will see that the totalitarian system is deadly for all, and the supporters one more time will be convinced that democracy is weak; it is needed to be defended.
In his book, the author of The Whisperers described in detail the years 1917 to 1956. Stalin died in 1953. It was the time when I began to understand events and the difference between slogans and reality; I began to realize that the Soviet power was killing in people everything human. The author showed great insight and deepness describing those times. But most importantly, he noticed that the fear of Great Terror penetrated deeply into Soviet people's souls and didn't disappear. He wrote that the KGB " had access to a huge range of draconian punishments ... and its power of surveillance...instilled fear in anyone...who could be seen as anti-Soviet."
In my second book, The Door Slammed in Ladspoli, I showed that this fear was so deep that in people of my generation and older it didn't disappear after many years, even when some of them were leaving the country. I still remember that paralyzing fear, but I also remember that despite that fear, people were dying to have a human life; Soviet power wasn't able to kill in people everything and this could be seen as a victory of humanity. "Human spirit cannot be destroyed" as Mr. Tsitrin wrote in his review." I would be extremely glad to see this topic as Orlando Figes' next project about Soviet Russia.
I would like to emphasize the actuality of Orlando Figes' book, especially now, in Putin's time when, according to the author, "the restoration of authoritarian government encouraged many Russians to return to their reticent habits."
I strongly recommend everybody to read the book. Nothing should be forgotten because what is forgotten has a tendency to be repeated.