The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia
by Orlando Figes
Metropolitan/Picador, 740 pp., $35.00; $20.00 (paper)
Orlando Figes has a well-deserved reputation for bringing new light to bear on wide-ranging subjects concerning Russian history and culture. His book on the Russian Revolution saw this cataclysmic event as “A People’s Tragedy,” and in Natasha’s Dance he surveyed the remarkable efflorescence of Russian culture in all its forms since its entrance into the modern world under Peter the Great. In his latest book, The Whisperers, he takes on the extremely difficult task of penetrating the lives of several generations of ordinary Russians who lived in the society created by the Bolshevik Revolution and struggled to come to terms with its conditions. What he focuses on is not the appalling Gulag world already well known from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago or Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. He describes the reactions of those who, sometimes for the slightest of reasons, or for no reason at all, were caught in the iron grip of a system that, to achieve its ends, simply had no use for the most elementary human rights. How did such people feel and think?
To answer such questions is by no means an easy task, and Figes turns to diaries, memoirs, and personal papers in his search for insight into hidden thoughts and feelings. A considerable number of such documents, a good many initially collected by Figes himself, have been accumulated in Moscow and St. Petersburg by the Memorial Society, established in 1980 to commemorate the victims of Soviet repression. (The St. Petersburg offices have recently been attacked by police, as Figes comments in a letter published in the January 15 issue of The New York Review.) Figes draws extensively on such sources and also sought out some 450 still-living witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the period. The past thus comes to light not only through the recreation of the historian, but also through the memories of those still able to recall its dominating features.
It is difficult to give a general characterization of The Whisperers as a whole because the material it contains is so copious and so varied. On one level, it is a study of what might be called the history of the growth of Stalinism and of the widespread ravages of an increasingly repressive system that knew no limits to its power and spared no one from its clutches. On another level, it is the intimate history of a population that lived through these events, and tried to fathom them as best it could. For every shift in politics during the years covered by the book (1917–2006), Figes attempts to describe not only its usually disastrous consequences for people’s lives, but also the manner in which it was assimilated and understood. This latter effort leads to personal histories often so detailed that they amount to a series of independent narratives, each one a mini-history that includes letters, diary entries, and often moving photographs as well as verbal …