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

Orlando Figes
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

25 Nov 2008

Drawing on a huge range of sources - letters, memoirs, conversations - Orlando Figes tells the story of how Russians tried to endure life under Stalin, brilliantly conveying the reality of their terrible choices. Soviet history has generally been seen either as a story of a political system or the story of its victims. The Whisperers is about Russians from across the whole range of experience under Stalin. Those who shaped the political system became, very frequently, its victims. Those who were its victims were frequently quite blameless. The Whisperers recreates the sort of maze in which Russians found themselves, where an unwitting wrong turn could either destroy a family or, perversely, later save it; a society in which everyone spoke in whispers: whether to protect themselves, their families, neighbours or friends - or to inform on them.

This is Figes’s masterpiece. It is both a gripping and emotional account of lives lived in impossible times and a remarkable example of the power and value of writing history.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product details

  • Paperback: 739 pages
  • Publisher: Picador USA; Reprint edition (25 Nov 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312428030
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312428037
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.7 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,847,060 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Orlando Figes is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London. His books include The Whisperers, A People's Tragedy and Natasha's Dance. He lives in Cambridge.

Product Description


'A chilling new book...Figes has become Britain's foremost expert on Revolutionary Russia' -- Max Hastings, Daily Mail

'Be warned. This is a heartrending book...[it] should be made compulsory reading in Russia today.' -- Anthony Beevor, author of STALINGRAD

'Excellent ... riveting, at once solemn and lively. Figes has unwrapped the mystery inside the enigma of Stalinism'
-- The Washington Post

'[A] tremendous achievement...Masterfully controlled and composed...In its amazing testimonies to the strength of the Russian family in the Soviet Union, as well as the awful fissures the system imposed on those families, The Whisperers is like a rainbow over a graveyard.' -- Alexander Cockburn, Sunday Times

'[Figes is] the greatest storyteller of modern historians'
-- Simon Sebag Montefiore

`Brilliant ... he leaves one awed by the beauty and suffering'
-- Max Hastings

`Few historians have the courage to attack great subjects, fewer have the grasp to succeed ... will do more to help us understand the Russian revolution than any other book I know' -- Eric Hobsbawn

`One of the most unforgettable books I have ever read ... a celebration of family love in an epoch of hellish cruelty ... now in this book these righteous heroes have their rightful memorial' -- Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Young Stalin

`The author of A People's Tragedy and Natasha's Dance has outdone himself' -- Daily Telegraph

`This is a heart-rending book ... its importance cannot be overestimated' -- Antony Beevor, author of Stalingrad --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From the Publisher

Shortlisted for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize 2008
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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First Sentence
Elizaveta Drabkina did not recognize her father when she saw him at the Smolny Institute, the Bolshevik headquarters, in October 1917. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
83 of 87 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very moving and important book 7 Oct 2007
This must be the most important book on the Soviet Union since The Gulag Archipelago, in 1973. It is based on hundreds of family archives and thousands of interviews with the survivors of the Stalin Terror which Figes and his team of researchers have spent years collecting from homes throughout Russia. The stories which they tell are amazing, heartbreaking. I defy anyone not to be moved.

Figes is a great writer - anyone who has read Natasha's Dance or the multi prize-winning A People's Tragedy will tell you that. But in The Whisperers he doesn't let his style get in the way of the people's stories which almost seem to come to us in their own voice. This transparency (and humility on Figes's part) only adds to the emotional and moral impact of the book.

Figes says that he hasn't set out to explain the origins of the Great Terror, or Stalin's cult or policies, but actually, as a student of these things, I learned much more from the stories of these people than from conventional histories. The story of Konstantin Simonov, which Figes places at the centre of The Whisperers, tells us far more about the nature of the Stalinist regime, about how it got people to collaborate with it, than any history book I've ever read.

The Whisperers is sub-titled Private Life in Stalin's Russia, but it is really about the Soviet system as a whole (its first chapter starts in 1917 and its last ends in the present) and about its legacies of seventy years of totalitarianism for Russia today. For anyone who wants to understand Russia (or the twentieth century) it is essential reading.
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58 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A memorable book 27 Oct 2007
As a former citizen of the USSR, I want to thank Professor Figes for this memorable book. It is a monument to the millions of people who could not tell their stories out of fear. I know this history. It is the history of my family, which also suffered by Stalin, and afterwards. I think this book is really the first to tell in full what it was like to live in Stalin's time. There are so many details that ringed true to me, like, for example, what it was like to live in a communal apartment and be afraid of the neighbours. Also I know what it was like to live without talk about vanished members of the family. There are memoirs by famous writers like Ginzburg, but this book is the first to speak for the millions of ordinary Soviet citizens.
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75 of 81 people found the following review helpful
This is the most amazing book. Really - it is! I bought it after reading rave reviews in the Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph and read it almost in two days, totally engrossed and often moved to tears by the stories of ordinary families surviving the Stalin years.

The book is based on several hundred family archives and on interviews with more than a thousand people, the last survivors of the Stalin Terror, in towns across Russia (Figes has done something very important by collecting all these testimonies for posterity). But The Whisperers is not just a book of voices or an oral history in the usual sense. Figes draws on these materials and interweaves a few of the more important family histories to construct a broader narrative that speaks for a whole generation.

I particularly liked the story of the Laskins and the Simonovs which is interwoven through the book. Figes manages to make us understand how educated people like the writer Konstantin Simonov lost themselves in the Stalinist system, how they took part in its repressions and even betrayed friends, without making easy moral judgements about their behaviour.

This is obviously a very important book. It tells us more about the nature of the Soviet regime, about the deep and long-term damage of terror and dictatorship, than any book I know; but it also tells us a great deal about the resilience of human beings.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
The Whisperers is Orlando Figes's moving book recounting the private lives of Soviet citizens living under Stalin's tyranny. It is a fine book, impeccably and widely researched and stands up well both as an academic work and as a relatively accessible history. Figes's achievements in this wide ranging bok are many, but the most telling thing I learned from reading The Whisperers was the sense of shame that the families of those persecuted by Stalin suffered even decades later.

While this is a very good work, there are a couple of shortcomings that preclude The Whisperers from attaining greatness and becoming a landmark text on the USSR - as Figes's earlier work A People's Tragedy was.

The first is its subject range. The uniqueness of this book is purportedly that it's the first history to tell of the private lives of Soviet citizens. But the Stalin era, on which Figes focuses, is indivisible from three phenemona it bred - the Terror, the war, the gulag - and they are well documented elsewhere. Although there is no questioning the breadth of Figes' research, there is a recurrent sense that we are getting the same stories already told elsewhere (In Anne Applebaum's The Gulag, for example).

More interesting, I feel, would have been a narrative that stretched until 1989. So what if the era is less coloured with the horrors of war and repression? There are numerous questions about the USSR still waiting to be answered. How did people live under Brezhnev? What cat and mouse games did private citizens have to play with the secret police? What were perceptions of the west? Were there fears about nuclear war? How did people react to perestroika and glasnost? I could go on.

My second criticism is the lack of narrative drive.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
I have now bought this book 4 times as presents for people. Since reading it I cant settle on anything else, everything is boring. Read more
Published 20 months ago by cat
5.0 out of 5 stars The Whisperers
A beautifully written and horrifying book about ordinary human beings in Stalin's Soviet Union; about their sufferings, their risks, their silence - and very often their way of... Read more
Published on 6 Dec 2011 by Henrik Okkels
5.0 out of 5 stars An Indictment of Communism
Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union access to State archives increased knowledge of Stalinist Russia. Read more
Published on 27 April 2010 by Neutral
5.0 out of 5 stars An Insightful Historical Document
In this book, Figes has diluted and refined his mastery of the art of weaving historical sources together. Read more
Published on 26 Mar 2008 by T. R. Cowdret
5.0 out of 5 stars A necessary book
This is a really first-rate book. Like no other book before, it lets the reader feel what it was like to live through the Stalin years. Read more
Published on 5 Feb 2008 by Andrew Sullivan
4.0 out of 5 stars The Whisperers
"The Whisperers" performs the valuable historical task of collating and reporting what it was like to live in Soviet Russia under the constant threat of being sent to a labour camp... Read more
Published on 4 Feb 2008 by R. E. Manley
3.0 out of 5 stars WHISPERING IN PARADISE


POPULAR HISTORIES in English about Stalin's Russia are on a roll and easily-read titles seem to tumble from their... Read more
Published on 23 Jan 2008 by I. F. Grigor
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