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. A People's Tragedy, Figes's best book - and the finest history of its era in my opinion -showed that populist history could be written with academic rigour. In it, Figes used personal histories - General Brusilov and Maxim Gorky, for example - to illuminate the wider story of the Russian revolution and civil war. He uses the same device in The Whisperers with the poet Konstantin Simonov, but it is less effective because there are a lack of other identifiable characters to accompany Simonov in driving the text forward. Figes recounts hundreds of individual case studies effectively, but in the end they are just names on a page. As a reader it is difficult to emphasise with them in the same way as an individual who reappears throughout the duration of the book.
One of the criticisms of A People's Tragedy was that it owed `more to Tolstoy than to E.H.Carr or Richard Pipes' and Figes was (unfairly) pillioried by some critics for writing with the verve of a novelist rather than the muted prose of an academic. I get the sense with The Whisperers and his last book Natasha's Dance that he is in some way holding back, at once trying to prove his populist and academic credentials when he doesn't really need to. In a way, Figes suffers criticism by comparison to his earlier masterpiece when the reality is that few other historians would be able to produce as powerful a work as the Whisperers, never mind A People's Tragedy. A People's Tragedy was a supreme example of how history can be written with the dramatic thrust of a novel, while retaining its credibility as a history. Figes would do well to return to these principles -- for if he does he could emerge as the finest historian of his generation.
on 27 May 2010
'The Whisperers' by Orlando Figes is truly wonderful. Figes has pieced together the tragic story of Stalin's forgotten victims in their millions, and given them a voice. Anna Akhamatova, the Russian poet who spent most of her life hounded by the secret police, said about Stalin's victims, 'I will remember them always and everywhere/I will never forget them no matter what comes/even if they gag my exhausted mouth/through which a hundred million scream.'
Orlando Figes has done a similar thing. He has given the 'whisperers' a loud and clear voice. This is important for me, personally. My mother Olga was the daughter of a Ukrainian kulak, and was hounded by Stalin's secret police because of it. Kulaks were peasants who owned some land, and were murdered, imprisoned or exiled if they did not give their hard earned grain to the Soviet state. From 1932 -3 millions of Ukrainian peasants starved to death as a result, including Olga's brother Trofim. When she was 17, my mother was taken prisoner by the Nazis and used as a slave during the War. One of the very few who survived, she tried to go back to Ukraine after the War, only to be jailed for being a Nazi survivor. She escaped and made her way to Australia as a refugee. Unfortunately she always believed Stalin would get her and spent the last 17 years of her life in a mental hospital, a paranoid schizophrenic. (I wrote my parents' story in my memoir 'Sasha & Olga'). It is people like my parents Sasha and Olga, whom Orlando Figes honours, because with the unearthing of many testimonies, he describes the ghastliness that ordinary Russians, Ukrainians and other nationalities suffered as a result of the Soviet experiment.
A rivetting book, well told and thoroughly researched. Brilliant! I love Orlando Figes because he was courageous enough to enter a very dark and dreadful world, to write it.
on 4 February 2008
"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 or summarily executed. In selecting what to report the author imposed the constraint of using only oral testimony which was supported by documentary testimony (family photographs, private letters, official records, etc.). To ensure accuracy the draft of the text in English was translated into Russian to get the observations of those who had been interviewed.
What the book reveals is the depth to which fear permeated the whole of Soviet society - not only during but long after the death of Stalin. Whilst the camps were very strongly supported by Stalin it was for economic as much as political considerations that they were dismantled after his death. The camps may have gone but the fear of being sent to a camp as a result of an injudicious remark remained.
The testimonies in the book are supported my own, admittedly very limited, experience. The father of a Ukrainian colleague died in 2005. While working he (the father) had attained a high position in the Ukrainian Socialist Republic. For last year or two before his death he insisted every night on packing a suitcase of essentials in case he was sent to the camps; similar actions are reported in the book.
Wide ranging though the book is there are still some gaps. The testimonies are centred around those living in St Petersburg, Moscow and Perm: what about those in rural areas, in other Soviet republics and in "fraternal socialist countries" such as Poland and Hungary? Most of the people appearing in the book had close experience of the terror; either having been in camps themselves or having a close relative sent there. Again the question arises: how did other people avoid being sent to the camps? Did people become politically apathetic? What part did luck play? It would be nice to know.
Throughout the book the camps themselves remain in the background. For a better understanding of the camps themselves I recommend "Gulag: A History" By Anne Applebaum".
on 26 September 2015
'I love it' , as the five stars say, is not exactly true. One cannot love a gut-wrenching account of the destruction of human personality, decency and humanity, but one can admire it. For a non-Russian it is impossible to get into the mind-set of people who would betray their own parents and children, would believe that everyone arrested must be guilty, that saboteurs and other ogres spawned from Communist paranoia and inability to admit to error, were everywhere, and that any sacrifice (of other peoples' and sometimes even their own blood) was justified by the earthly paradise to come. What is clear is that Communism murders not just the body but the soul. It is an acid dissolving or a cancer consuming human feelings and humane sentiments. Crazy North Korea is the nearest we have to Stalin's terrors.
This book, by telling their stories in their own words of those who survived, compromised, colluded in or even welcomed mass murder on an unparalleled scale, lays bare the Russian soul: agonised, guilt ridden, deferential, subjugated and despoiled. There seems to be no trust in Russia. Perhaps it is their savage history, their stoic resignation in the face of a succession of brutal autocracies, or something in the Russian psyche that explains this, but despite this book an enigma remains. One of the most glaring facts is that people who had devoted and distorted their lives in service of a communist ideal could never admit the terrible truth: that is was all for nothing but a mirage, and that an ideology had made them betray their humanity. But hope does resurge in sorts, like bluebells breaking through snow. During the Great Patriotic War fellow feeling and devotion to Mother Russia seemed to displace cringing fear, dissimulation and worship of the great Satan, Stalin. Even after the war and the further repression something of the human genie had escaped the bottle.
What is quite clear as we have been recognising more and more in the last 20 or 30 years, is that Communism is every much as evil as Nazism, and that Stalin was an greater murderer than Hitler. The tragedy of the Second World War is that the two vilest tyrannies the world has ever seen did not destroy each other. Instead the jackboot of Germany was displaced by the jackboot of the Soviet Union. It is a terrible but undeniable lesson of history that those ideologies that have sought to create de novo, that would eradicate the past to build the perfect future, have done incalculable damage. Just look at the French Revolution: Wordsworth's 'very heaven' soon became Burke's human hell. The Guillotine not the tricolour, is that revolution's lasting legacy. Both the French and Russians managed to replace a bad authoritarian regime with something much much worse. The only successful revolution was that of the Americans where although much was new it built on the old: the English common law, and freedoms wrested from a tyrant kings by Magna Carta, the English Civil War, and the Glorious Revolution. In other words what America did, steeped in the English tradition, was evolutionary far more than it was revolutionary. Nor did it feed on blood lust. It exalted, rather, the rights of the individual against the state. This was not true in Communist Russia or China or Korea. The state, or at lest the Party, can do and think and believe no wrong. However many wars religion may have fostered they were as nothing to the wars and carnage occasioned by atheistic ideologies.
What amazes and affrights me is the ease with which authoritarian norms have returned to Russia under Czar Putin. Stalin has always had his devotees but now his cult is resurging. If a German were to praise the virtues of Hitler he would be vilified and imprisoned, yet eminent ad ordinary Russians can still revere that quintessential monster, Stalin, with impunity. Oh he won the Great patriotic War, they say. No he did not, however much Russians may have done. He almost lost it, by massacring his generals, by his tactical incompetence, and by trust in his old friend, Hitler. How many Russians then or now are aware of the fact that, before the war, Hitler was Stalin's ally in that unholy pack for raping Poland.
I am aware of the controversy which had surrounded Figes's work but the voices that speak through this book sound authentic, and the picture they portray of having to live and lie in the communist paradise ring true. The author has done a major service in recording and securing this living legacy of one of the most soul-destroying periods and places in human history. it gives us the beginning of an understanding of the Russian psyche during the psychotic years of Communist tyranny. However hypocritical the West maybe at least in Britain and America and the countries influenced by the common law constitutional tradition, liberty, equality before the law, civil liberties and human rights have been enshrined, and the culture has flourished. it is hard to imagine the British or Americans succumbing to the chicanery and brutality of a sadistic dictator such as Stalin. It is equally hard to imagine our culture creating such a monster. If this is cultural imperialism I am glad to be a cultural imperialist and have the freedom to express such sentiments. Twitter abuse I can put up with, far preferable to the Gulags
on 5 February 2008
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. Based on interviews and family archives, which Figes has collected from homes across Russia, it is made up of small stories, which are beautifully woven into a tapestry of Soviet life. Some of the stories are harrowing, at times I found it hard to keep reading, but there are also tales of extraordinary courage and resilience that give the book a moral lift.
At the centre of the book is the fascinating figure of Konstantin Simonov, a writer deeply implicated in the Stalinist regime, who nonetheless is portrayed here as a sympathetic personality with many admirable qualities that were gradually lost through moral compromise. Was it possible, Figes seems to ask, be a "good Stalinist"? The Simonov sections make this book worth reading on their own.
The Whisperers is a real triumph. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, without the slightest moralizing, lecturing, or taking sides, at times it has the moral quality of Primo Levi in its recounting of human suffering and resilience. Read this book - it will make you re-examine what it means to be a human being.