Monday, February 4, 2008

Orlando Figes's "The Whisperers"

Orlando Figes’s 700-page The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia is a history book that reads as an encyclopedia of human suffering. Figes’s eloquent account of the Stalin era allows hundreds of pieces of oral history to demonstrate the effects of Joseph Stalin’s excesses. Figes connects these stories with historical background, using facts and simple language rather than hyperbolic commentary.

Figes’s low-key approach results in a well-constructed sociopolitical history of repression in the Soviet Union that exposes the long-lasting consequences of Stalinism. The Whisperers holds tremendous value for readers interested in 20thcentury Russian or Soviet history, literature, and culture.

Figes covers 1917-2006, examining the effects of arrests, trials, forced labor, and prison camps on lives and memory. He moves, chronologically, through Soviet history, looking at families of party activists, dekulakization, collectivization, World War 2, the Khrushchev-era thaw, and perestroika, often threading events from families’ lives through hundreds of pages. Some of his subjects, such as Elena Bonner and Konstantin Simonov, are public figures, but most are unknown.

The Whisperers should appeal to readers with many levels of knowledge about the Stalin era. The book examines that time methodically, making it a good introduction for people unfamiliar with the period. Figes’s depth of information makes the book equally valuable for readers like me who have gathered knowledge from diverse sources but have never made a rigorous study of the time. Most anyone should discover something new in the oral histories from families accused of being kulaks or politically disloyal.

I think readers of Soviet and post-Soviet fiction should find The Whisperers valuable as a companion volume. Beyond providing historical data useful to understanding novels like Anatolii Rybakov’s Дети Арбата (Children of the Arbat) or Vasilii Aksenov’s Московская сага (Moscow Saga, known in English as Generations of Winter) that focus on the Stalin years, Figes’s psychological insights explain behavior that might seem irrational.

Readers of Russian literature may also be interested in the story of Konstantin Simonov, a Soviet writer whom Figes features prominently in The Whisperers. Many aspects of Simonov’s story are quite common:

Simonov was an altogether more complex, perhaps even tragic character [compared with Boris Gorbatov]. He clearly had a conscience: he was troubled and even repulsed by some aspects of the “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign. But he lost himself in the Stalinist system. (pg. 503)

Figes’s Website includes PDFs of interviews and archival documents that he used in writing The Whisperers.

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia on Amazon


  1. I am about halfway through The Whisperers and if the subject would have been different I would have said I am absolutely loving the book. 'Loving' is absolutely not the right wording for a book so filled with human suffering.

    The Whisperers is incredibly readable and, like you said, there is something in it for people without any particular knowledge about the era, but also for people like you and me with more knowledge (I have an M.A. in Russian and East-European Studies). I knew all the 'big lines' before - the terror, the way the NKVD functioned, the Gulag-system etc. But this book goes so far beyond those 'big lines' with its personal histories that I am learning a lot on a lot of levels, not just connected to the Stalin-era itself.

    I have an unfinished post about my reading of The Whisperers so far which I intend to post later this week or over the weekend.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Myrthe,

    I agree that "The Whisperers" is very readable -- I seldom read book-length nonfiction, but 700 pages went by easily, which is a real tribute to the book's style and construction.


  3. I'm 500 pages into the book now and gobbling it up -- Figes is compulsively readable. And I'm becoming ever more indignant about Simonov; подлец is the word that comes to mind, in terms of both his treatment of his family and his enthusiastic if conflicted participation in the anti-Semitic campaign. He knew he was doing wrong, but couldn't give up the good life.

    1. Thank you for your comment on the book, Languagehat. Yes, "gobble up" is the word for The Whisperers -- I couldn't put it down, either. It's very good. The story of Simonov is particularly sad, all the more so on a personal level because I ran into his son, who's a human rights activist, two or three times through my work when I lived in Moscow. He's a wonderful man.

      I recently bought Figes's Just Send Me Word, which looks interesting, too, albeit in a very different way.

  4. I've had Just Send Me Word on my Kindle for several years now, but (sigh) haven't gotten around to it yet...