The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia Paperback – Nov 25 2008
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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)
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“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 YorkerSee all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
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?