If you’re feeling a little frustrated with the USA these days: the militarization of the police, the NSA spying on our communications, the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, etc., here is the book to put all that in perspective. The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia paints a picture of suffering of a people by their government on a scale so vast and extreme as to rarely, if ever, be equaled in any society.
The title comes from two Russian meanings for the word ‘whisperer’; “one who whispers out of fear of being overheard” and the other; “one who whispers behind people’s backs to the authorities.” During Stalin’s reign (1924 to 1953) approximately 28,000,000 ordinary Russian citizens were arrested and executed or sent to Gulag prison work camps for years on the slightest suspicion with or without show trials and usually without any evidence. Most of the victims sent to the work camps died by freezing, working or starving to death. Children were brainwashed at school to denounce their parents and have them arrested. Relatives, neighbors, and co-workers posed the same threat. Private farms were turned into large collectives which failed agriculturally causing famines and millions of more deaths. Housing was converted to communal apartments packing people into small spaces with communal kitchens and one toilet for maybe fifty people. Religion was declared illegal and clergy were shot or sent away. Jews, ethnic minorities, ‘Kulaks’ (slightly more successful peasants), and of course, homosexuals were disenfranchised and mostly shot or sent to the Gulag. Writers or artists of any kind, who strayed outside the lines of state approved messages were also disenfranchised and or arrested. World War II is remembered as ‘the good years’ when the regime was too preoccupied fighting to spy on their citizenry as efficiently as before. After Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev relaxed things a bit with a “thaw” by 1956. In the years since, it has gone back and forth between a more open, free society and a closed, tightly controlled one. The survivors of the Stalin period were mostly too traumatized to speak of their experiences. In a psychological paradox, many Russians today think Stalin was a good leader.
Orlando Figes presents 656 pages of engaging narrative interspersed with quotes from survivors and surviving relatives. Approximately 500 interviews were conducted as well as research of public and private archives to bring us the up-close-and-personal view into the nightmare that was the Soviet Union. I’m grateful to have read this book.