The Whisperers Private Life in Stalin's Russia

Orlando Figes




Trade Paperback

784 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction
A Choice Outstanding Academic Title

There have been many accounts of the public aspects of Stalin’s dictatorship: the arrests and trials, the enslavement and killing in the gulags. No previous book, however, has explored the regime’s effect on people’s personal lives, what one historian called “the Stalinism that entered into all of us.” Now, drawing on a collection of newly discovered documents, The Whisperers reveals for the first time the inner world of ordinary Soviet citizens as they struggled to survive amidst the mistrust, fear, compromises, and betrayals that pervaded their existence. Moving from the Revolution of 1917 to the death of Stalin and beyond, Orlando Figes re-creates the moral maze in which Russians found themselves, where one wrong turn could destroy a family or, perversely, end up saving it. He brings us inside cramped communal apartments, where minor squabbles could lead to fatal denunciations; he examines the Communist faithful, who often rationalized even their own arrest as a case of mistaken identity; and he casts a humanizing light on informers, demonstrating how, in a repressive system, anyone could easily become a collaborator.


Praise for The Whisperers

"As Figes, a leading historian of the Soviet period, concludes in The Whisperers, his extraordinary book about the impact of the gulag on 'the inner world of ordinary citizens,' a great many victims 'silently accepted and internalized the system’s basic values' and 'conformed to its public rules.' Behind highly documented episodes of persecution, famine and war lie quieter, desperate stories of individuals and families who did what they could to survive, to find one another and to come to terms with the burden of being physically and psychologically broken. But it was not only repression that tore families apart. The regime’s reliance on 'mutual surveillance' complicated their moral burden, instilling feelings of shame and guilt that endured long after years of imprisonment and exile . . . Figes provides disheartening public letters of denunciation, 'formulaic notices printed in their thousands in the Soviet press.' One read: 'I, Nikolai Ivanov, renounce my father, an ex-priest, because for many years he deceived the people by telling them that God exists, and that is the reason I am severing all my relations with him.' Young people felt the need to break with their past, often claiming that their parents were dead or had run away as a way of avoiding 'the stigma of their origins.' There were parents who implored their children to submit such letters in order to ensure access to higher education or professional advancement . . . The Whisperers comes at an opportune moment, when the generation of survivors—people born between 1917 and 1925—is dying out and a post-Soviet government is trying to burnish the history of Stalinism. It is the stories of these ordinary people that constitute the ultimate rebuke to Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reimpose moral amnesia on Russia. With the assistance of the Memorial Society, one of the few liberal institutions that emerged during the period of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and continues to exist today, Figes enlisted teams of researchers, who conducted thousands of interviews with gulag survivors and their families and collected letters, memoirs and other documents. Victims do not always make good witnesses. But thanks to Figes, these survivors overcame their silence and have lifted their voices above a whisper."—Joshua Rubenstein, The New York Times Book Review

"In this extraordinary study of a generation, Figes details the consequences of Stalin's ideological campaign to reorganize the self as rigidly as he reorganized the streets of Moscow. Using intimate oral histories gathered from hundreds of ex-Soviets, Figes explores the ways that Stalinism conflated individualism with deviance and campaigned against imagination, faith, and family ties. Mother and father became abstract, almost mythic notions, as parents were displaced by the state as the cynosure of the young. Ultimately, though, such primal relationships proved indissoluble. Figes provides lucid but minimal analysis of the testimonies, allowing them to reveal all the more vividly a people whose entire existence was defined by the taboo against private life, as well as the resilience, and resistance, of the human soul in the face of forcible reorientation."—The New Yorker

"Orlando Figes is known for exploring Russian history in eminently readable books. He has unwrapped the mystery inside the enigma of Stalinism with the help of Memorial, a Russian non-governmental organization dedicated to preserving the memory of victims of Soviet repression. Figes and Memorial's researchers interviewed more than 1,000 members of the 'generation born in the first years of the Revolution, whose lives thus followed the trajectory of the Soviet system.' The result is a riveting pastiche, at once solemn and lively, of the stories of barely literate peasants and sophisticated urbanites, executioners and collaborators, prisoners and children."—Vladislav Zubok, The Washington Post Book World

"Orlando Figes, perhaps the preeminent Russian historian in the English language, has made it his life's work to preserve and understand the nightmarish Soviet century, and in doing so has been forced to acknowledge the historian's conundrum regarding that era: In a time when the state sought to control every aspect of its citizens' lives, from birth to death, what remained of private life? Most previous histories of the era have concentrated on Stalin himself, or the machinations of government functionaries, with the abundance of documentation allowing for the smooth unfolding of those narratives. The experience of average Soviets under Stalin, being mostly bereft of written material, remains far murkier, but Figes has done his utmost to capture the essence of what it was like to be alive in that dark time, and The Whisperers is the remarkable, deeply moving result . . . Figes is wise enough to allow his subjects room to tell their own stories, and perhaps the most affecting aspect of this compendium of sadness and horror, drizzled with tears and blood on nearly every page, is the remarkable plainspokenness of its survivors. Taking a cue from them, Figes carefully strips his narrative of false sentimentality, leaving only the harsh contours of truth . . . The book is crammed full of humanity, like a Dostoevsky novel brought to terrible life. It seems impossible for a book of this size to contain as much human suffering as this does. While it is a scholarly work of history, reading it was one of the most emotionally draining literary experiences I can remember. 'There are no petty things in politics,' a dedicated Stalinist said in her defense after denouncing her mentor to the authorities over a minor offense. Figes understands that there is nothing at all petty about private life, and The Whisperers is his heroic attempt to save what remains of the lives of the forgotten."—Saul Austerlitz, The Boston Globe

"A profound service . . . Figes redeems the gloom by demonstrating compassion for flawed human beings and revealing compelling examples of moral courage and kindness."—The Christian Science Monitor

"The everyday lives of Russians between the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the death of Josef Stalin in 1953 is the subject of Orlando Figes' illuminating and profoundly moving new book. Filled with the stories of hundreds of survivors, many of which make for desperately painful reading, The Whisperers offers the most thorough account so far of what it meant to live under Soviet totalitarianism."—Douglas Smith, The Seattle Times

“Figes—author of the dazzling books A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 and Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia—presents a tapestry of the Stalinist era woven from the personal experience and words of Soviet citizens, both betrayers and betrayed. As in his earlier works, the research is extensive and subtle, much of it here drawn from the outpouring of oral history in the 1990s, which he uses to elucidate the texture of daily life and the ways humanity was perverted by a regime of fear.”—The Atlantic Monthly

"Reading The Whisperers, Orlando Figes’s massive, ambitious account of private life under Stalin’s rule, one comes away with a powerful sense that stigmatization and self-reinvention were central, indeed defining, attributes of the Soviet experience for many Russians of rural as well as urban backgrounds. Building on a documentary trove that includes newly opened family archives and interviews with scores of survivors, Figes presents the collective biography of a generation of ordinary Russians who were born around 1917 and were thus more exposed to Soviet power than any generation that preceded or followed them. As the letters, diaries, memoirs, interviews and photographs assembled by Figes suggest in dramatic ways, this generation experiences an enormous pull into the utopian promises of the regime—especially during the 1930s, the period of its coming of age . . . The source of material marshaled by Figes is extraordinary. It includes several hundred family archives that survived through the years of Stalin’s Terror in private homes across Russia. Figes embraces oral history as the least compromised window onto past experience; he is generally wary of written sources produced during Stalin’s reign, since they could have been vehicles of conformist striving. The testimony he has gathered is indeed deeply insightful. Rich in color and detail, the interviews conducted with survivors from the Stalin era evoke the unspeakable horrors of earlier times."—Jochen Hellbeck, The Nation

"Western visitors to the Soviet Union at the height of Stalin's terror often saw what they wanted to see in the masses: a happy, bustling people confident they were the wave of the future. George Bernard Shaw wrote of the 'glowing admiration the people have for Stalin.' Henry Wallace, after a wartime tour of a kulak village, saw 'human brotherhood that was accomplishing what Christ wanted.' Had these authors chosen to gaze closer, they may have noticed the smiles had a twitchy quality to them. A society that turns its citizenry into whisperers, both in the form of those who fear being overheard (shepchushchii) and 'the person who informs or whispers behind people's backs to the authorities' (sheptun) is not an inwardly happy one. It is this society—not the worker's paradise imagined by ideologically sympathetic foreigners but the real-life fear society—that historian Orlando Figes examines in his highly readable new book, The Whisperers. Unlike many historians writing about the Stalin years, Figes does not allow the outsize figure of the dictator to overshadow the masses on whose behalf the revolution was supposedly waged . . . The Whisperers draws readers into a world of those who felt, in Stalin's memorable phrase, 'the weight of the state.' Figes shows us the pervasive fear that still lurks in people who lived through that terrible time of purges and arbitrary arrests and who fear that they are still not safe, that Stalinism could one day reappear in Russia. This, finally, is the true horror of Stalinism: even its survivors must whisper about the past."—Ron Capshaw, Front Page   

"In The Whisperers, Orlando Figes sets out to reconstruct nothing less than the interior life of ordinary Soviet citizens during the half century of Stalin's rise, rule and aftermath. A prize-winning historian, Figes is both a prodigious researcher and a gifted writer . . . The stories are poignant, heartbreaking, even terrifying in their depiction of human cruelty, the waste of talent, the abuse of trust and faith . . . The effect of one personal account piled on another is a layered portrait of successive generations—the fervent communists arrested, exiled or shot; their orphaned children, desperate, despairing and eager to be reunited with the Soviet collective; and the grandchildren who find it impossible to understand either . . . Figes is a historian of keen and fair judgment. His views on major issues are sober and backed by clear argument and evidence . . . Figes has written an extraordinary work of synthesis and insight, carefully contextualizing the varied witnesses to suffering and survival. Professional historians might complain that there are no theoretical breakthroughs or radical interpretations, but they can hardly fail to learn from Figes' deeply textured narratives."—Ronald Grigor Suny, The Moscow Times 

"An extraordinary work of synthesis and insight . . . Figes is both a prodigious researcher and a gifted writer."—St. Petersburg Times

“This book is the result of a large-scale research project and its importance cannot be overestimated . . . Orlando Figes describes how those victim’s families were shattered by the Terror. He and his team have unearthed diaries and accounts from archives and interviewed hundreds of survivors . . . This book should be made compulsory reading in Russia today—yet the refusal to face the truth is understandable. It is hard for them to admit, with so many millions of ruined lives over several generations, that this reign of terror was nothing but a horrific crime against humanity.”—Antony Beevor, The Times (London)

“Masterfully composed and controlled as a narrative by Figes, this is a collective testimony in which you can hear voices through a doorway open at last, recounting the hopes, fears and numberless awful tragedies of the Soviet era . . . The strength of The Whisperers is the range of the individual testimonies. The family sagas in this vast canvas are of scarcely believable tenacity and endurance. No novelist would dare invent such feats and such coincidences . . . Terror is vivid on page after page, particularly in the dreadful year of 1937 . . . From every walk of life, from high party people such as the Stalinist writer Konstantin Simonov, to peasants such as the Golovins, the Soviet tragedy offers itself up, unforgettable in its heroism, villainy, endurances and cowardices large and small . . . In its amazing testimonies to the strength of the Russian family in the Soviet Union, as well as the awful fissures the system imposed on those families, The Whisperers is like a rainbow over a graveyard.”—Alexander Cockburn, The Sunday Times (London)

"Figes's very welcome presentation of the rather neglected personal, human effects of the Stalin terror is particularly good in its coverage of the most articulate of the family victims—strata whose fate robbed the country of so much of its talent, intelligence and sensibility."—Robert Conquest, author of The Great Terror: A Reassessment

"One in eight people in the Soviet Union were victims of Stalin's terror—virtually no family was untouched by purges, the gulag, forced collectivization and resettlement, says Figes in this nuanced, highly textured look at personal life under Soviet rule. Relying heavily on oral history, Figes, winner of an L.A. Times Book Prize for A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924, highlights how individuals attempted to maintain a sense of self even in the worst years of the Stalinist purges. More often than not, they learned to stay silent and conform, even after Khrushchev's thaw lifted the veil on some of Stalin's crimes. Figes shows how, beginning with the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet experience radically changed personal and family life. People denied their experiences, roots and their condemned relatives in order to survive and, in some cases, thrive. At the same time, Soviet residents achieved great things, including the defeat of the Nazis in WWII, that Russians remember with pride. By seamlessly integrating the political, cultural and social with the stories of particular people and families, Figes retells all of Soviet history and enlarges our understanding of it."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Orlando Figes is the author of Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia and A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924, which received the Wolfson Prize, the NCR Book Award, the W. H. Smith Literary Award, the Longman/History Today Book Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He is a professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Read the full excerpt


  • Orlando Figes

  • Orlando Figes is the author of Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia and A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924, which received the Wolfson Prize for History and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A frequent contributor to The New York Times and The New York Review of Books, among other publications, Figes is a professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London.

  • Orlando Figes
    Orlando Figes