Review: "The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia"
Throughout this rendition of the Stalinist years, historian Orlando Figes’ book, The Whisperer’s: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, explores both the effects and repercussions of Stalin’s Great Purges of the 1930s on Soviet society. Rather than focusing his attention on elite figures (such as politicians, the wealthy and powerful) that suffered under the repressive atmosphere of the purges, Figes’ book analyzes the early years of Stalin from a “bottom-up” perspective that elucidates the horrors experienced by common, ordinary people living in the Soviet Union during this time. While Figes’ account stretches from 1917 until the death of Stalin in 1953, the author’s primary concern lies with the Thirties and the murderous climate that engulfed the Soviet Union under Stalin’s ever-watchful eyes.
Figes' Main Points
As Figes demonstrates throughout his book, the ability of Soviet citizens to survive the purges revolved around one characteristic alone: the ability to resist. But what constitutes resistance? More specifically, how did individuals resist the far-sweeping changes occurring all around them during this time? According to Figes, resistance did not involve open rebellion against the Soviet regime. Rather, it involved individuals resorting to an apathetic mindset; a frame of mind in which individuals expressed no sympathy or feeling for those around them. In order to survive the purges, Figes proclaims that Soviet citizens had to learn to become informants for the secret police and government – acting quickly to condemn their fellow neighbors for treason before the same could be done to them. Thus, as Figes demonstrates, one of the direct results of the purges was a complete alteration in the mindset of the Soviet populace. As such, Figes shows that the results of the purges were not only physically destructive, but psychologically damaging as well.
Figes’ work is both informative and scholarly in its overall presentation. The author incorporates a wide array of primary documents to support his overall theory, and focuses almost entirely on oral-history documents collected from thousands of interviews with former citizens of the Soviet Union. In this respect, Figes’ work fits nicely within existing historiography since it offers a perspective of the purges that is often ignored by modern historians – the experiences and difficulties of ordinary people living in a time of extraordinary change.
All in all, I give Figes’ work 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in a history of the early Soviet Union.
Questions to Facilitate Group Discussion
1.) What was Figes' thesis? What are some of the main arguments that the author makes in this work? Is his argument persuasive? Why or why not?
2.) What type of primary source material does Figes rely on in this book? Does this help or hinder his overall argument?
3.) Does Figes organize his work in a logical and convincing manner? Why or why not?
4.) What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of this book? How could the author have improved the contents of this work?
5.) Who was the intended audience for this piece? Can scholars and the general public, alike, enjoy the contents of this book?
6.) What did you like most about this book? Would you recommend this book to a friend?
7.) What sort of scholarship is the author building on (or challenging) with this work? Does this book add substantially to existing research and trends within the historical community? Why or why not?
8.) Did you learn anything after reading this book? Were you surprised by any of the facts and figures presented by the author?
Is it important for historians to focus their attention on the experience of common and ordinary individuals in their analyses?
About the Author
Orlando Figes is a British historian who is considered an expert in the field of Russian history. He is currently a Professor of History at Birkbeck College (University of London), and received his PhD from Trinity College at Cambridge in 1984. In the past two decades, Figes has published eight award-winning books. His work, A People's Tragedy, garnered Figes numerous awards, including: the "Wolfson History Prize," the "WH Smith Literary Award," the "NCR Book Award," the "Longman/History Today Book Prize," as well as the "Los Angeles Times Book Prize." The Times Literary Supplement has also listed A People's Tragedy as "one of the hundred most influential books since the war."
Suggestions for Further Reading
Figes, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014.
Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Lieven, Dominic. The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I & Revolutions. New York: Viking, 2015.
Pipes, Richard. Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1993.
Figes, Orlando. The Whisperer’s: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008).
© 2017 Larry Slawson