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The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia (original 2007; edition 2007)

by Orlando Figes

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6861413,895 (4.3)76
Member:penywern
Title:The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia
Authors:Orlando Figes
Info:Allen Lane (2007), Hardcover, 740 pages
Collections:Your library
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The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia by Orlando Figes (2007)

  1. 40
    Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore (mercure)
    mercure: Both books deal with daily life under Stalinism. Mr. Sebag Montefiore looks at Stalin's inner circle, The Whisperers looks at everybody outside that circle.
  2. 20
    Within the Whirlwind by Evgenia Ginzburg (meggyweg)
  3. 10
    Informer 001: The Myth of Pavlik Morozov by Yuri Druzhnikov (meggyweg)
  4. 00
    Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s by Sheila Fitzpatrick (meggyweg)
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Probably more frightening to read about than the Holocaust. I keep coming back to people with "spoiled biographies," and how all the terror and interrogation resulted in "information spreading and mutating like a virus" until no person could be sure about the truth.

I say the Bolsheviks got the humiliation they deserved when Svetlana Stalin defected to the U.S. on an anniversary of their glorious revolution. ( )
  KaterinaBead | Mar 31, 2016 |
During Stalin's reign of terror, 25 million people were either shot by execution squads, or were gulag prisoners, were kulaks sent to special settlements, or were slave laborers. These 'repressed' constituted about 1/8 of the total population, and the figure does not include those who died of famine or war-related causes. In addition to the 'repressed', there were further tens of millions, the relatives, whose lives were damaged with profound social consequences which are still felt today.

This amazing book concerns itself only minimally with statistics. Based on thousands of interviews, documents, letters, diaries and photographs, it is a book of people and their stories. We are immersed in the personal lives of several multi-generational families, from the earliest years of the 20th century to date. We also hear, in their own words, the stories of dozens of others and their experiences during Stalin's reign.

During this time period, no one was safe from condemnation, and no one knew who to trust. Said one man, 'After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party Slogans.'

Many people were convicted for crimes such as simply being 'the daughter of an enemy of the people.' Appealing a conviction was futile--as one former prisoner said, 'There is nothing more to be said about my case. There is no case, only a soap bubble in the shape of an elephant. I cannot refute what is not, was not, and could never have been.'

Wives of the convicted were sent to Akmolinsk Labor Camp for the Wives of Traitors to the Motherland. This camp was opened in 1938, and by 1941 had 10,000 inmates. It was considered a relatively 'good' camp, but rations were given in accordance with meeting work quotas, and failure to meet a work quota for 10 consecutive days meant transfer to the 'death barracks.'

I was particularly moved by the plight of the children during the Stalinist regime. Most labor camps that had female prisoners also had children's homes. The children's compound in Akmolinsk had 400 infants under the age of 4 in 1941, almost all conceived in the camp. One mother who endured the death of her 18 month old daughter in the compound described the treatment of the children thusly:

'I saw the nurses getting the children up in the mornings. They would force them out of their cold beds with shoves and kicks...Pushing the children with their fists and swearing at them roughly, they took off their night clothes and washed them in ice-cold water. The babies didn't even dare to cry. They made little sniffing noises like old men and let out low hoots. This awful hooting noise would come from the cots for days at a time. Children already old enough to be sitting up or crawling would lie on their backs, their knees pressed to their stomachs, making these strange noises, like the muffled cooing of pigeons.'

Describing one nurse responsible for feeding 17 infants, she said:

'The nurse brought a steaming bowl of porridge from the kitchen, and portioned it out into the separate dishes. She grabbed the nearest baby, forced its arms back, tied them in place with a towel, and began cramming spoonful after spoonful of hot porridge down its throat, not leaving it enough time to swallow, exactly as if she were feeding a turkey chick.'

The parents of older children often coached their children on ways and means to avoid being sent to an orphanage in the event that they, the parents, were arrested. These older children could try to fend for themselves with help from friends or teachers. Younger children were not so lucky, and even the older children were often turned over to the orphanges, since it was also a crime to harbor the child of an enemy of the people, and relatives and friends were reluctant to help them.

Very little communication was allowed between exiled parent and child. When and if released, the parent was often unable to locate the children they lost when they were seized. Those who found each other were often strangers, and found it difficult to establish familial relationships again. Not only were parents broken, but children were irreparably scarred.

The effects of Stalin's reign of terror are with the Soviet people today:

'It is not only Stalin that you cannot forgive, but you yourself. It is not that you did something bad--maybe you did nothing wrong, at least on the face of it--but that you became accustomed to evil.'

This book is one of my best reads of the year. I could not put it down. Many of the stories sound unbelievable, yet are confirmed time and again by others. In his afterword, Figes states that upon beginning this project, he feared that older people might be reluctant to share their experiences for fear that harsh authoritarian practices might return. He found that in the early 90's when there was an outpouring of memoirs about Stalinist repressions, people shared the facts of the repression--the details of their arrest and imprisonment. His goal was to illuminate the damage to their inner lives, 'the painful memories of personal betrayal and lost relationships that had shaped their history.' In this he succeeded admirably. ( )
  arubabookwoman | Sep 30, 2015 |
There's a quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that Steven Pinker uses in Better Angels of Our Nature: Macbeth's self-justifications were feeble--and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. And he's right. For it was solely by way of a demented, incoherent ideology that so many millions were starved and killed. (By the by, a new biography, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber, makes compelling, amply sourced arguments that Marx's thought was never a coherent whole but often a reaction to the politics of his day. Engels had to all but horsewhip him to get something publishable; still, it was not until after his death that the final volumes of Capital appeared.) The account given here of so-called "collectivization" and "dekulakization" takes the breath away. The absolute arbitrariness of the suppression visited on anyone, any family, who by dint of hard work had been able to pull together some semblance of a livable life, takes the breath away. Get thee to the Gulag, go! And these were the people who were most efficiently providing foodstuffs to the cities through a simple market mechanism that had been in place for millennia. When they were eliminated, the cities starved.

I wonder if there is a writer of dystopias anywhere who hasn't used totalitarianism as a crutch? Why? Because you simply cannot make this stuff up. Take another problem: housing in the cities. Collectivization brought millions flooding into the cities. They came to flee repression and famine in the countryside, and to assume personal histories more palatable to the State. That is to say, histories with a strong proletarian blood line. Why was there insufficient housing? Why were 17 people living to a single room, 113 people, in one instance, to a single toilet? Well, when you've defaulted on your international debt, scared investors off, and cratered your real estate sector what else could be expected? But, hey, you're Stalin and convinced that you're going to turn all this tragedy around. How will you do it? Simple: slave labor! Yes, that's how you're going to incentivize your people, that's how you'll spur them on the ever great achievements: throw them in jail and work them to death in the frozen tundra, or, if not in the tundra, in areas where you will not feed them enough to survive very long at all. The point I find astonishing is that such penal servitude was sold to the Party as a way of reeducating wayward elements, as a means of building the new Soviet citizen. "Reforging," was the term.

What a joke of a nation! Still, today, it is run with an iron fist. There's been very little development of durable institutions that will perpetuate democracy. Moreover, Russia is now a country without a heritage, because it was deracinated during the era of Stalin. Folkways, musical heritage, etc. etc., all was devastated by Stalin and his goons. Russia is today a shell of a nation, hollowed out, as it were, by more than seventy years of hideous repression and so-called class warfare. (Figes explains here why the concept "kulak" was completely rhetorical as used by the Soviets and did not reflect actual usage of the era.) Poor Russia, when will you become a real democracy? Not as long as Vladimir Putin's in charge, that's for sure. Which is why I close with my best wishes to the inestimable Pussy Riot and their kind. Here's to a true democratic revolution. ( )
1 vote William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
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For my mother, Eva Figes (nee Unger, Berlin 1932) and to the memory of the family we lost.
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Door Bart Funnekotter 9 november 2007 10:31 Laatst gewijzigd 12 november 2007 12:24
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Leestijd 00:44

The Whisperers (Allen Lane, € 35,–) van Orlando Figes is volgens Bart Funnekotter een aangrijpende studie over het dagelijks leven onder Stalin. ‘In het monumentale nieuwe werk The Whisperers onderzoekt de Engelse sovjethistoricus Orlando Figes wat het betekende voor gewone mensen om te leven in het Rusland van dictator Josef Stalin. Niet de politieke arena, maar de huiskamer staat centraal in dit ontluisterende boek. Hoewel de bekende, grote getallen voorbijkomen – aantal gevangenen in het goelagsysteem, aantal executies tijden de Grote Terreur, dodental van de Tweede Wereldoorlog – draait het in The Whisperers allemaal om de mensen áchter de statistieken.

Hoe voelt het als je ieder moment verklikt kan worden? Wat doet dat met je privéleven: liefdesrelaties, familiebanden, vriendschappen? Wat voor fluisteraar werd je: iemand die zachtjes sprak uit angst voor verraad, of iemand die met omfloerste stem de buren aangaf bij de geheime dienst NKVD? [...] Figes is in The Whisperers heel dicht op de huid van de Sovjetburger gekomen. Zo dicht, dat je soms denkt de angst daadwerkelijk te kunnen ruiken.’

Orlando Figes: The Whisperers (Allen Lane, € 35,–)

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312428030, Paperback)

A New York Times Notable Book of 2007

"A tremendous achievement."--The Sunday Times (London)

The Whisperers is a triumphant act of recovery. In this powerful work of history, Orlando Figes chronicles the private history of family life during the violent and repressive reign of Josef Stalin. Drawing on a vast collection of interviews and archives, The Whisperers re-creates the anguish of family members turned against one another--of the paranoia, alienation, and treachery that poisoned private life in Russia for generations. A panoramic portrait of a society in which everyone spoke in whispers, The Whisperers is "rigorously compassionate. . . . A humbling monument to the evil and endurance of Russia's Soviet past and, implicitly, a guide to its present" (The Economist).

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:53 -0400)

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A landmark account of what private life was like for Russians in the worst years of Soviet repression.--From publisher description.

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