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on August 29, 2008
This book is a new look at the Soviet Union, emphasizing what life was like during the period from the NEP to Stalin's death and its immediate aftermath. Based on a large number of personal accounts and archival records of personal letters and testimony, many from ordinary citizens, many party members or associates, the book reveals a terrifying portrait of what life was like for most people in the nation. The title refers to a near complete lack of privacy so that conversations among adult family members often occurred in a whisper under a cloud of fear. It reveals how children could report parents' deviations, how neighbors might report families, how arbitrary condemnation to the Gulags could be, how being a relative of an enemy of the state reflected on even distant relatives, how rapid and total was the resocialization of citizens in many cases, and how prisoners could feel guilt during their imprisonment and afterward all in the words of the people themselves. It also portrays changes in experiences at the end of NEP, the 1930's purges, WWII, after Stalin's death, and after Khrushchev. The research is sound and the writing excellent. This is the only solid, book length account I know of that conveys information and emotional depictions of life under Stalin from a broad base of individuals who endured that life. It is must read to those who wish to gain understanding of life under communism in the USSR. It should also make one appreciate living in a liberal democracy to a much greater extent.
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on January 21, 2016
Horrifying, beyond depressing, but all true. One of the few books about which I could not thinking, long after finishing it. Certainly puts everything I learned & observed about the Soviet Union 1950's thru 1980's into perspective.
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on June 5, 2010
The "Whisperers" to which the title of the book refers are the everyday Soviet citizens during Stalin's Terror. They whispered for a variety of reasons: in communal homes, (where space was at a premium and familes had 12 square meters of personal space) it was a necessity; parents whispered lest their children hear and inadvertently betray them; the fear that was a result of the Terror similarly demanded guarded discussions, carried on in hushed tones. The breadth, scope and variety of experiences of Soviet life in the 1920s - 1940s are related through a plethora of narratives in a meticulously cited history.

The Terror has been studied almost ad nasuem. Figes' history, however provides some nuance to the time, and examines some aspects of the phenomenon that have previously been overlooked. The role of education, particularly among the children of the revolution is given much attention - the role, pedagogy and impact of the Soviet school system was especially interesting to read, as kids played "Whites and Reds" (rather than "Cowboys and Indians" or "Cops and Robbers"), conducted show-trials of their own, and formed their own collectives at school. The challenges of communal living (sometimes looked back with an element of nostalgia and fondness) was also discussed in great detail. The deportations and life in the Gulags made up the final third of the book - this is well-trod ground (and written with much more impact by Solzhenitsyn) and could have been about half as long, I think.

As a history, it is top-shelf work, painstakingly researched, the impact and effects (both socially and politically) of the Terror brilliantly analyzed. Yet I found a number of the narratives a bit melodramatic. The challenges some of those interviewed from the wealthier classes, for example, while poignant, were overplayed. This especially so when contrasted with the "new elite" - the technocrats and bureaucrats that got in "on the ground floor": the sons and daughters of peasants who used and manipulated the Soviet system to their own personal advantage (much as the pre-Revolutionary classes had used their social positions to advance their economic interests.)

Were I able to give half-stars, I would rate it 4 1/2. Alas, I cannot, so I will "round down" (as it were). For the layperson interested in this period of time, I would recommend Sheila Fitzpatrick's Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s before this book, as Figes is rather dense and demands some prior understanding of Soviet and Russian history. For those already familiar with the time period, or those looking for a fresh take on well-trod historical ground, I would strongly recommend this book.
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on May 14, 2018
I spot, not proudly but as a matter of fact, "Made in the USSR" brand and I know a good deal about the history of the country where I was born and raised (and not just the official history). Still this book was quite a revelation for me, a completely new and unexpected angle.
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on February 8, 2008
The Whisperers is an excellent read. It captures what it was like in the Soviet Union especially during Stalin's reign. It is filled with quotations, poems, interviews and letters. It must have proved difficult to get people to talk about these days and Figes sites examples of people still too frightened to say anything. He also brings up that it was a time for joy for many whose lives were not directly affected. He even brings out the the joy people felt when they were affected. It is hard to imagine the horror of people's lives for us in the west how an entire nation can be brought to its knees by the cult of one person. Figes was also captured the rationalization of those on both sides of the spectrum. For a country the size of the Soviet Union with its varied cultures to succumb to such a cult of personality says much about the human person. The winning of the Great Patriotic War defined the pride the people had in their country and why even today Russians are reluctant to emigrate. But Russians historically have always been subjected to a single leader with dictatorial powers and a secret police with people reporting on each other. The only thing I question was the easy way in reporting the death of Stalin. He dismisses the whole thing in one paragraph with fear in the Doctor's Plot. In my other readings this was only part as Khrushchev and others present were more likely to hesitate in the hopes of Stalin's death.
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on August 16, 2009
I've read books in past years that were filled with stories of human tragedy and misery that were very painful to read. "Whisperers" is now added to that list. A "living hell" best describes life under a totalitarian system as the Stalinist regime brainwashes its citizens and pits brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor in order to achieve its goals to stifle individualism and subordinate human kind to the Communist ideology.

Orlando Figes wrote stories about masses of people being arrested, on trumped up charges, without just cause, and made to work in slave labor camps, executed or exiled for speaking out against the state and labeled "an enemy of the people". Under Stalin's leadership, an entire culture and a way of life were drastically changed; churches burned, priests jailed,the intelligentsia vanquished, and families disrupted with millions of children placed in orphanages. The domino effect of bad decisions by the Politburo resulted in chaos with overcrowded cities, poorly educated peasants and a failed policy of "collectivism", all of which created an atmosphere of tyranny as fear gripped the nation.

Although these stories were unpleasant, I did read of the strong personal resilience and moral courage, demonstrated by some mothers and grandmothers during the "great terror", to find clandestine ways to protect their children. Others had no choice but to succumb to the carnage.

I hope that present day Russians read this book, or similar books of recorded historical stories during the Stalin era, to learn about Communism, its sordid legacy and the impact it had on the lives of past generations.
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on April 20, 2008
Over the years I've read many books about Russian and Soviet history, from Roy Medvedev's "Let History Judge"to Montefiore's "Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar," with significant stops along the way for Solzhenitsyn's magisterial polemic "The Gulag Archipelago." Orlando Fige's "The Whisperers" is one of the best single-volume studies of life in Soviet times I have read. It is a fairly long book, but very engaging: I found myself reading 30 to 50 pages at a stretch. There is a cast of characters as long as in one of Tolstoy's great novels, but these are all real people, describing or recollecting their experiences in Stalin's Russia. It is a tribute to Mr. Figes that he arranges the narratives in such a way that this reader was never confused following the threads of so many lives over the course of such turbulent decades. In addition, Figes provides short accounts of the ideological, political and economic shifts in the Kremlin which directly influenced the lives of the people in the chapters which follow. For conciseness, clarity and readability, his narrative is outstanding when he writes about the NEP, Stalin's anti-Kulak campaign and collectivization of the countryside, the rapid rise of the Gulag and slave labor as a mainstay of the Soviet economy, and the malign influence on family relations of the1930s propaganda cult surrounding Pavel Morozov. Figes includes information in this book which I've simply not seen in histories before. He shows floor plans of communal apartments which makes clear how little privacy many urban dwellers in Moscow and Leningrad had at home, and how Stalin's regime nurtured malicious watchers as well as whisperers. The diary and letter extracts in "The Whisperers" can be deeply moving. There is a photo in the book of Nikolai Kondratiev's letter to his daughter Elena, written from a labor camp. It shows a drawing he'd done illustrating a fairy-tale in verse he'd written for Elena entitled "The Unusual Adventures of Shammi." The drawing is simple, the verse is charming. It makes one think of how many millions of times in different times and places parents have entertained their children by spinning stories. But the circumstances here are grotesque: Kondratiev was one of millions of innocents imprisoned under Stalin. And the outcome is tragic: in 1938 he was shot by a firing squad. This is just one example of the dozens of different accounts of lives of ordinary people warped or crushed by this monstrous regime. The sum of such narratives creates a very rich mosaic of a society and its time which even those of us who have visited Russia in the recent past have difficulties understanding.

In the long essay which follows the fictional story of War and Peace, Tolstoy first developed the concept that armies are not just regiments of men following the will of their commander, but individuals who have individual consciences. History isn't just the deeds of Napoleon and Alexander, but of each aristocrat, tradesman, artisan or peasant who fought in the Napoleonic wars, and of their families back home. Each of their lives is as worthy of examination as that of any Tsar or Generalissimo. Because of this, I think Tolstoy is properly the godfather of oral history. Orlando Figes has done a great job gathering and editing the accounts of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people living during the cruelest years of Stalinism. He also conveys the sense of freedom and comradeship experienced by many during the worst days of the second World War (which the Soviets hallowed as the "Great Patriotic War"), a mistaken sense of freedom which landed Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag. For all these reasons, I think old Tolstoy might be pleased in literary heaven could he only read these accounts of real lives and real consciences played out in the pages of "The Whisperers."

One small caveat: Kirill Simonov was a very successful writer in the Stalin literary establishment who came of age during World War II. Because of his public life of letters and his colorful personal life he occupies many pages in "The Whisperers." As was the case with many successful people in the Arts world under Stalin, Simonov was morally compromised. (I'm paraphrasing Lev Kopelev, but that writer has a pithy quote that "Every society has bad people who do bad things. But under communism, good people were encouraged to do bad things." This describes Simonov.) For better or worse, and because he wrote so much and was so active for all the decades from the Thirties until the Seventies, Simonov emerges as the main "character" in this book. This has its merits, but it also throws into harsh relief the fact that many of the less-lettered accounts in this oral history don't always seem as real, or as present, as Simonov. Because this is a history and not a work of fiction I'm not sure this imbalance could ever have been effectively redressed, but the imbalance is there.

A final word of praise: I've travelled to Russia several times since the overdue demise of the Soviet Union, and seen life change radically not only because of the introduction of Russian-style market capitalism, but because a generation has grown up without memory of life under communism. Figes points out that young people in Russia have no great interest in what to them has also become the story of an alien life lived by grandparents and great-grandparents during the 5-year plans. The people who do remember are old, dying out, with failing memories. "The Whisperers," and the archives on which it is based, is commendable because it helps to save so many of these survivors' accounts to historical memory.
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on May 31, 2017
My friend was so excited when I gave her this book, so much history about Russia that she is devouring.
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on June 5, 2016
Good scholarship, but it gets very repetitious in it's case studies, and fails to adequately speak to serious trends in the period. Found it hard to read continuously without boredom, yet the stories documented are important, at least to scholars.
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on April 18, 2009
Dispassionate but very clear and well-written and readable, 'The Whisperers' gives a sobering perspective on how a country as vast as Russia entered into an unwritten contract with an exclusive Party and its bloody dictator to suppress any thought of citizen resentment or resistance to seventy years of the worst tyranny in history. So thorough was this intimidation that it was rare to find any discussion of it, even within the families who bore it, for about fifty years after Stalin's death. It was the citizens themselves who would check each other when such forbidden discussion might spontaneously arise. Orlando Figes has gathered and compiled hundreds of interviews with the elderly survivors of this regime, who only recently would consent to discuss the subject with family members, let alone foreigners bearing notebooks, and he has produced a superb reference to the times and the psychology of a terrible episode in human history and top-down government.
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