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

Orlando Figes
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 13, 2007 0805074619 978-0805074611 1st
From the award-winning author of A People's Tragedy and Natasha's Dance, a landmark account of what private life was like for Russians in the worst years of Soviet repression
There have been many accounts of the public aspects of Stalin's dictatorship: the arrests and trials, the enslavement and killing in the gulags. No previous book, however, has explored the regime's effect on people's personal lives, what one historian called "the Stalinism that entered into all of us." Now, drawing on a huge collection of newly discovered documents, The Whisperers reveals for the first time the inner world of ordinary Soviet citizens as they struggled to survive amidst the mistrust, fear, compromises, and betrayals that pervaded their existence.
Moving from the Revolution of 1917 to the death of Stalin and beyond, Orlando Figes re-creates the moral maze in which Russians found themselves, where one wrong turn could destroy a family or, perversely, end up saving it. He brings us inside cramped communal apartments, where minor squabbles could lead to fatal denunciations; he examines the Communist faithful, who often rationalized even their own arrest as a case of mistaken identity; and he casts a humanizing light on informers, demonstrating how, in a repressive system, anyone could easily become a collaborator.

A vast panoramic portrait of a society in which everyone spoke in whispers--whether to protect their families and friends, or to inform upon them--The Whisperers is a gripping account of lives lived in impossible times.

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.


“Extraordinary… vividly reveals a people whose entire existence was defined by the taboo against private life as well as the resilience, and resistance, of the human soul in the face of forcible reorientation.”—The New Yorker

“Extraordinary… Thanks to Figes, these survivors overcame their silence and have lifted their voices above a whisper.”—Joshua Rubenstein, The New York Times Book Review

“Gripping… The Whisperers is one of the best literary monuments to the Soviet people… a fascinating encyclopedia of human relations during the Stalinist Terror.”—Andrey Kurkov, New Statesman

“Brilliant and shocking… a powerful history of emotional life in a society in which the personal was ruthlessly repressed for three-quarters of a century.”—Geraldine Bedell, The Guardian (UK)

“The everyday lives of Russians between the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the death of Josef Stalin in 1953 is the subject of Orlando Figes’ illuminating and profoundly moving new book. Filled with the stories of hundreds of survivors, many of which make for desperately painful reading, The Whisperers offers the most thorough account so far of what it meant to live under Soviet totalitarianism.”—Douglas Smith, The Seattle Times

“A tapestry of the Stalinist era woven from the personal experiences and words of Soviet citizens, both betrayers and betrayed… the research is extensive and subtle, Figes uses it to elucidate the texture of daily life and the ways humanity was perverted by a regime of terror.”—The Atlantic

“Remarkable.”—The New York Sun

‘“Magisterial’ may be an overworked adjective in book reviews, but it accurately describes Orlando Figes’s latest volume. He deserves kudos for his penetrating narrative.”—The New Leader

“This book, about the breakers and the broken, explains in brutal detail how a political ideal contrived to beat an entire country's heart out of place. The author of A People’s Tragedy and Natasha’s Dance has outdone himself.”
Telegraph (UK)

“Figes organizes his material superbly, and writes with such self-effacing lucidity that these people seem to speak directly to the reader. This is a very important book—authoritative, vivid, precise, and in places, almost unbearably moving.”
Sunday Telegraph

“Masterfully composed and controlled as a narrative by Figes, this is a collective testimony in which you can hear voices through a doorway open at last, recounting the hopes, fears and numberless awful tragedies of the Soviet era…. The Whisperers is like a rainbow over a graveyard.”
—Alexander Cockburn, The Sunday Times (UK)

“This book is the result of a large-scale research project and its importance cannot be overestimated. Figes and his team have unearthed diaries and accounts from archives and interviewed hundreds of survivors. This is a heartrending book… which should be made compulsory reading in Russia today.”
—Antony Beevor, The Times (UK)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 740 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books; 1st edition (November 13, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805074619
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805074611
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #520,962 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
58 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Private Life on Stalin's Conveyor of Deaths April 14, 2008
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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66 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Dark Tale Movingly Told! January 11, 2008
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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54 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shout it out January 25, 2008
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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68 of 77 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars beautiful and essential 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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Should be read by all, especially by all left ...
Should be read by all , especially by all left minded teachers and politicians.
Published 6 days ago by Moczarski Jaroslaw
1.0 out of 5 stars Kindle edition poor quality
I am sure I will enjoy this book, having read excerpts and received high recommendations from others who've read it. Read more
Published 1 month ago by ccat11
5.0 out of 5 stars a must for those interested in the period
I've been interested in the times of pre-war Soviet Union and have read quite a few books on the theme. This one is quite astonishing as it deals with the lives of ordinary people. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Bea
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent street level portrait of the soviet Terror.
The title of this book (very good, if somewhat depressing) refers to both the fear of people to speak freely, as whispers of confident to report. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Diogenes
5.0 out of 5 stars Such an eye opener
I was totally amazed and saddened by the lives that the Russian people were forced to live. There are many examples of the heritage they have inherited still in people around me... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Janice Ottley
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Research
Figes is one of the best authors of books about Russian history. I have read all of his books, and always find them insightful.
Published 5 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Sobering
A homely history of the Soviet era from the point of view of the citizenry, from minor officials down to the educated peasants. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Jeffrey Huntington
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a must read about the history of the Soviet Union under...
Anyone interested in the Stalin years of the Soviet Union needs to read this book first and then follow up with the others. This is well written and documented. Read more
Published 7 months ago by TOM
4.0 out of 5 stars Comments
It was a very interesting as well as disturbing book. Wished the author didn't jump around so much. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Linda Manion
5.0 out of 5 stars Important piece of scholarship to help understand the Soviet-Stalinist...
Orlando Figes has contributed much with his scholarship to understanding how Lenin and Stalin created their dictatorship in Russia and transformed Russia and the Russian Empire... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Nick
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