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This review is from: The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia (Hardcover)
"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".