the guardian Fri 03 October 2008
Russians have two words for a "whisperer": the first suggests someone who fears being overheard, the second someone who informs on others. The distinction, says Orlando Figes in this truly impressive history, has its origins in the Stalin years, when Russia became "a nation taught to whisper". Under Stalin, he explains, no distinction was made between public and private life. Everyone was expected to put Party before family, and a central theme of this book is the deliberate undermining of the family by the soviet authorities. The family is often disparaged by the left as a model of social conservatism, but in this book its true value becomes apparent as a last refuge against totalitarianism. Drawing on hundreds of family archives, Figes follows the private lives of an entire generation as they succumb to a cramped, claustrophobic world of public surveillance and constant fear. Worst of all, children were encouraged to denounce their parents, and in an era of excessive communication it is chastening to read of a time when careless talk cost lives.
the observer Sat 06 September 2008
The Russian language has two words to describe people when they whisper. One - shepchushchii - refers to the person who fears being overheard, the other - sheptun - to the person feared: the informer who whispers in the ear of the authorities. It's a 20th-century distinction, the kind that only a tortured language needs.
Under Stalin, Orlando Figes argues, 'the whole of Soviet society was made up of whisperers of one sort or another'. The hideous statistics confirm it. One in every eight Russians was crushed in the pursuit of communism. Starved. Deported. Shot. For the rest, life was conducted in hushed tones. Squeezed into communal apartment blocks where private life was impossible, families and spouses were bullied or cajoled into spying on one another. Schools and youth organisations undermined the authority of parents, encouraging children to challenge and denounce their recidivist elders. Everyone was a potential criminal, everyone a government agent.
Like Figes's previous Russian histories, The Whisperers is animated by the conflict between individual minds and the inhuman demands of totalitarianism, but its scope is remarkable. A huge number of ordinary people speak here in their own words. The oral testimonies recorded by Figes and his team crowd in; each one impossibly traumatic, each one borne silently for decades out of fear that the persecutions would return. 'I have felt it all my adult life,' admitted one survivor in 2004. 'I feel it now, and I will feel it on the day I die.' (In a monitory aside on the way the habit of reticence returned during the Putin years, Figes implies that such fears may not have been unfounded.)
The abiding impression is one of weight. The book is of monumental heft and length, and its first-hand accounts tell of the almost geological pressure exerted on the minds and bodies of ordinary people pressed together, ground down, held back. In the end, Stalin was posthumously denounced, his body preserved and put on show with predictable ghoulishness as the myth began to crumble. In the words of Igor Chernoutsan, a literary censor under Khrushchev, 'the truth caved in on us'.