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The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia Paperback – November 25, 2008

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The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia + A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924 + Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
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Editorial Reviews

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.


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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Product Details

  • Paperback: 784 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (November 25, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312428030
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312428037
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.4 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (78 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #442,535 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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79 of 81 people found the following review helpful By Solomon Tetelbaum on April 14, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I learned about the book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, by Orlando Figes due to 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.
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71 of 74 people found the following review helpful By Gilberto Villahermosa on January 11, 2008
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.
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57 of 59 people found the following review helpful By M. A Newman VINE VOICE on January 25, 2008
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.
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70 of 79 people found the following review helpful By LuelCanyon on December 6, 2007
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!
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