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The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia [Paperback]

Orlando Figes
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Nov. 25 2008

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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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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. Times Book 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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"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


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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Testimonies of extraordinary times Dec 5 2007
By J. C. Mareschal TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
This is an extraordinary book! "The whisperers" is by far the best book that I have read about this period. With hindsight, it is almost impossible to understand what happened in the Soviet Union between 1925 and 1965. How did Russian people live through the great terror? How, in the aftermath of the terror, did the Russian people rally and fight with extraordinary courage the Nazis? How their dreams for a better society were shattered by the cold war? Orlando Figes has collected the testimonies of survivors and of their children to explain those terrible years. It is the story of those families destroyed by the terror and by the war. It is the story of people's dreams, and of the brutal end of these dreams. It is the story of 12-14 years old children who found themselves head of their family after their parents were shot, took care of their younger brothers and sisters, survived, and managed to study successfully. It is the story of those ordinary Russians who helped them go to school in spite of the interdictions. It is the story of orphans compelled to renounce their parents who had been shot. It is the story of prisoners of the Goulag becoming stakhanovites. It is the story of ordinary Stalinians, like the writer Simonov, who may appear like one of Stalin's henchmen, but was not a vile man. He took part, however reluctantly, to the purging of the "cosmopolitan" writers in the late 40s, but also sent money to those writers he had just fired, and helped them get published. It is the story of the Russian people. The old pictures that the author has collected give further life to the people evoked in the book. This is a very human book and a very moving book. It is the best testimony that could be left in memory of the victims. Extraordinary people, those who died and those who survived ! They deserved such a book.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important and tragic May 26 2009
By Prairie Pal TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Anyone seeking a real understanding of the horrors of the Soviet system must read Orlando Figes' "The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia". It is the product of years of research in the Russian archives and tens of thousands of hours of oral testimony by the survivors of the Stalinist regime and their families. Never preachy or overwrought, Figes lets the stories of these people accumulate to paint a picture of what must surely be the cruelest and most unjust period in European history. "The Whisperers" is highly readable and will stand with Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago" as a literary monument to the millions of victims of the Marxist drive to create heaven on earth.
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1.0 out of 5 stars repetative--repetative--finally boring. Sept. 30 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I didn/t hate it. I actually became bored because of the repetative nature of the writing. The stories were sad but I kept waiting for a redeeming feature in at least one story. Halfway through the reading, I became obliviouys and quit reading it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Rodge TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
The era of Stalinism is nearly unimaginable for those of us in the West. We can't understand what motivated people to denounce one another and to become passive in the face of repression. This book will help. But ultimately a book is just a book.

Figes has done a superb job of collecting various accounts and turning the results into a masterwork which should remain a key reference point for anyone trying to understand the Stalinist period. No ruler has kept a people repressed and oppressed so effectively for so long.

Unfortunately, Figes has dealt his own reputation a blow through acts motivated by jealousy and further exacerbated by cowardice. The mistakes of the writer should not overshadow what he has achieved here, however.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  64 reviews
62 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Private Life on Stalin's Conveyor of Deaths April 14 2008
By Solomon Tetelbaum - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.

Sol Tetelbaum.
68 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Dark Tale Movingly Told! Jan. 11 2008
By Gilberto Villahermosa - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a tremendously moving book! It is incredibly well written, meticulously and thoroughly researched, powerful, and heartbreaking.

Indeed, it seems at times that the heartbreak will not end, as the author narrates the tragic lives of one family after another, and the reader must force him- or herself to plunge ahead and delve into the ruined lives of dozens and dozens of individuals and families that suffered unendurable heartbreak and tragedy.

Those individuals represent the tens of millions who were swallowed up by Stalin's prison camps, the notorious GULAGs. Many were executed or were simply worked to death, while even those that survived were emotionally, physically, and psychologically shattered.

But then the author provides an uplifting story, a ray of light in this evil history, and his dark spell is temporarily broken, allowing the reader to breath freely once more and to believe that the good in Man outweighs the bad.

This is a difficult book to finish, simply because the human heart and mind can only absorb so much tragedy and suffering. And yet this is a story that should be read by all, simply to remind ourselves of our capability for cruelty and kindness, suffering and forgiveness, condemnation and redemption.
54 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shout it out Jan. 25 2008
By M. A Newman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I like this book so much that I wish I had written it. Orlando Figes is the author of several great books including "Natasha's Dance" and also a history of the Russian Revolution. These were great works. This book is even better in that it rescues from oblivion stories of life during Stalin's reign.

The problem that historians in the 21st century will have writing a history of the Soviet Union will be the lack of conventional sources to learn what life was like. Historians looking at the United States in 1935 will have a whole host of magazines and newspapers that convey what life was like for a segment of the population. Anyone attempting to understand the mindset of the Soviet Union at the same period will be confronted with a sense that the entire population had to have been brain washed.

What Figes has accomplished is to bring to light the lives of the ordinary people who were swept up in Stalin's destruction of his own country in some cases before it is too late. He begins with the late 20s and continues through to the period after Stalin's death. A great deal of the material involves the use of interviews with survivors. There are also diaries from Stalin's victims as well. All in all, this is a work which is likely to have increased significance in the future.

I am certain that this book will be one of the more important works on Soviet history, not only does it provide the casual reader with a sense of what happened in the larger sense, but it also illustrates what life was like for those who found themselves the victims of history.
68 of 77 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars beautiful and essential Dec 6 2007
By LuelCanyon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
An absolutely fascinating book, and another jewel in the canon of Orlando Figes, whose every book quickly becomes essential. Tough to think of another scribe of Russian history at present who can match Figes' combination of scholarship and compelling prose. He really knuckles down in this epic book about the interior lives, really, of Russians during the Stalin years. Beautifully written, there's no fluff in The Whisperers, nothing unnecessary. It's pared down and boiled out. The result is a rich, moving account of a huge swath of human history, of violence and justice, told with exquisitely patient intimacy, told almost with a whisper. It's a remarkable achievement. From beginning to end, Figes takes us deep within the mystery of 'whispered' lives, going again and again to specific people with names and families, the nuts and bolts of suffering detailed clearly, coursing like a monodic procession ejecting myth forever. The opportunity to hear these Russians speak of these things as individuals, in their own voices, is overwhelming, and a gift to us. Orlando Figes visits these ordeals with enormous compassion, and a clearly gifted touch as a storyteller. I hope he writes forever. Recommended with gusto!
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Memorial Dec 10 2007
By H. H. Verveer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The whisperers is a remarkable book. In nine large chronological chapters Figes treats Russian history from 1917 till now, but does so from the viewpoint of its victims. Describing the several waves of repression during the Stalin-regime, and its effects on private life, Figes gives us the stories, not of he ones who were shot - as a simple, but many times repeated sentence tells us - but of the ones who survived and wound up in the miriad of camps all over the Soviet Union, from the Solovietsky Islands - now a tourist attraction - to Magadan and Kolyma. In a nutshell - one of 650 pages - it tells of the millions of families who were ripped apart, whose members disappeared and surfaced again after many years, trying to find their loved ones, or take up a normal life. It is not about hatred, as you would perhaps expect, but about shame, guilt, spoilt biographies, about silence, hiding your past and trying to build up a new life. And fear of course. Very much about fear. The book is based on interviews, letters and diaries, all collected with the help of Memorial which, as its website says, is many things, but especially a movement commemorating the millions who were killed, or held as slave labourers in the Russian gulag.
The Whisperers consists of hundreds of very sad short stories, and if there is one complaint you could have, it is this: that the book has no real center. Although Figes obviously tried to do what he did in A People's tragedy - where he uses several recurring figures as bearers of the story - and has said that he considers Konstantin Simonov, the Soviet writer, as the main character of The whisperers, and Simonov does indeed get extensive treatment, and although other characters are present in several parts of the book as well, the enormous amount of stories does not always make for light reading, certainly not for those who have a hard time distinguishing the Russian names. Simonov's story is interesting, by the way, and is well told, like everything else in the book. I didn't know he was responsible for publishing Bulgakovs Master and Margerita. The Whisperers is in effect a monument, a memorial, one with many names ingraved, and it would perhaps serve well, perhaps even better, as material for a series of documentaries, two of which have indeed been broadcasted by BBC radio. And I doubt if is is a coincidence that Figes' name on the cover of the book is printed in very small letters.
The saddest thing of course is that one wished to be able to say that Russian things have changed. But we all know that that is not the case. In the afterword Figes tells us that as a result of his investigations of Simonovs literary estate the official archives were closed for researchers until 2025. Didn't Putin, when Politkovskaja was shot - as the sentence goes again - say something like: She was an unimportant old woman?
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