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Domestic life under Soviet terror.


By Orlando Figes

Metropolitan Books, 740 pages, $35


A dwindling number of Americans can remember the time, more than half a century ago, when Josef Stalin was a major world figure. Students starting college this year have no personal memories of the Soviet Union. The Bolshevik attempt to build a socialist state on the ruins of the Russian Empire ended in 1991 and receded into the history books. Still, many of us remain fascinated by the story of the Soviet Union, with its audacious aspirations, awful suffering, monstrous villains, inspiring heroes and world-changing episodes like the epic victory over the Nazis. Soviet history puzzles us, at least those of us who won't settle for a "We were the good guys; they were the bad guys" analysis.

British historian Orlando Figes has become a star academic interpreter of Soviet history by writing books that are both scholarly and attractive to a wide readership. The key to his success is a Tolstoyan style that integrates lucid analysis of epic events with intimate portraits of individuals swept up in those events. In his 1996 book about the Russian Revolution, Dr. Figes traced the lives of a handful of Russians from various walks of life, including a famous author, a tsarist general, a liberal politician, a Bolshevik worker, and a peasant activist. Readers learned how each experienced the revolution, and what it meant to them.


In his new book, Dr. Figes builds on this method to describe the impact of Soviet power, especially under Stalin, on the private lives of Russians. Beginning with the generation born immediately after the revolution in 1917, he paints detailed portraits of Russian families over several generations as they were buffeted by the traumatic events of Soviet history, from the revolution to the era of Gorbachev.

By deftly synthesizing the stories of hundreds of Russians, Dr. Figes vividly demonstrates how the conflicts of 20thcentury Russia created agonizing dilemmas for families. How did an aristocratic or merchant family navigate the early days of a socialist revolution? What was it like for a farm family to be deported to a forced labor camp during the "collectivization" of the peasants in the 1930s? How could the daughter of a kulak (the derogatory Russian word used to attack more prosperous peasants) overcome her class background, her "spoilt biography," and build a career in Soviet society? How did a son cope with the knowledge that his father kept a small suitcase packed in case they came for him in the middle of the night? How did a wife respond to the sudden arrest of her husband, a respected communist, as an "enemy of the people"? What became of toddlers orphaned when their parents were arrested during Stalin's terror?

Dr. Figes also wants to explain what people "really" thought and felt about their lives in the Soviet Union. He emphasizes the Communist Party's effort to constrain private life, especially in the Stalin era when a complaint or joke overheard by an informer could lead to arrest. The title of his book refers to the two words for "whisperer" in Russian, shepchushchii for a person who whispers out of fear of being overheard and sheptun for a person who whispers behind people's backs to the authorities, an informer. Although Dr. Figes recognizes that many Russians were committed to the Soviet project, he concludes that most developed "a dual life," a public self supportive of the regime, and a private self that clung to traditional values.

How can a contemporary historian know what people were thinking in the 1930s? Dr. Figes uses some memoirs and diaries written during the Stalinera, but he is convinced that oral history provides the best evidence. In 2003 he hired the Memorial Society, a Russian nonprofit dedicated to preserving the memories of Stalin's victims, to locate and interview hundreds of Russian families and to copy the private archives of these families, including letters, documents and photographs. Much of this material is available on his Web site (

Dr. Figes drew on these interviews to reconstruct the "inner world of ordinary Russian citizens" as families were disrupted, and sometimes reunited, by collectivization, the Great Terror, or World War II. Many names appear only once, but Dr. Figes follows the stories of about a dozen families from the beginning of the Soviet Union to the present. These continuing stories are poignant and compelling, but given the massive size of the book, often difficult to follow.

Reading about a particular family in the chapter about the postwar period, for example, I found it hard to remember what Dr. Figes had said about them several hundred pages earlier. Thankfully, there is a good index.

The Whisperers has earned mostly positive reviews. (A paperback edition will be published this fall.) However, some historians of Stalinism are not convinced that Dr. Figes adequately solved the puzzle of Soviet private life. Dr. Figes suggests that most Russians publicly adopted Soviet values because of fear and opportunism rather than belief and commitment. The interviews upon which he based his conclusion, however, were heavily weighted toward victims of the regime. Dr. Figes claims his interviewees represent a cross section of society, but few came from the working class, a section of the population that gained much from the revolution in terms of education and upward mobility. He is also perhaps not careful enough in his use of oral history. He does not ask, for example, if the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 might have led Russians interviewed in 2003 to remember the 1930s in a new way. Finally, his argument is weakened by the surprising number of Russians, some of whom appear in The Whisperers, whose commitment to the Communist Party was so deep that even their arrest and imprisonment did not dampen it.

Some historians argue that many Russians were not so much afraid of arrest as afraid of missing out on the historic project of building a socialist society. Dr. Figes is hardly alone in finding this anxiety hard to fathom, but it was a significant part of the Soviet experience. His interpretation may not be completely satisfying, but the book still has great value because of the rich storytelling it contains. The author succeeded in reconstructing with great sensitivity the stories of hundreds of people and in weaving them together into an evocative tapestry of private life.

[Greg Gaut is associate professor of Russian and European history at St. Mary's University of Minnesota in Winona.]
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Title Annotation:The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia
Author:Gaut, Greg
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 3, 2008
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