Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia by Orlando Figes

Orlando Figes is a well known name in the historical community.  He's also a popular historian whose books sell.  To write a book as dense and factually rich as 'The Whisperers' requires decades, and as Figes himself explains, the original idea came about some three decades ago. Figes also gained support and help from numerous colleagues, friends, and volunteers who helped him interview victims of the purges and the GULag as well as obtained archival information to supplement those interviews and help understand the context of what happened to these victims from beginning to end.  Twice this book was supposed to have been published in Russian but was rejected both times.  The second rejection, the more pertinent to any review of this book, was a result of accusations against Figes due to the numerous issues that were brought up by the Memorial society (which helped Figes with research as well).  A few western scholars have also accused Figes of sloppy research and translation errors but he has consistently defended himself (feel free to google the issue(s)).  In some ways this is inevitable since trying to write a book for some three decades can result in sloppy research and, unfortunately for Figes, his previous actions (writing negative reviews of books by other historians on amazon under a pseudonym) combined with accusations of plagiarism (which he was found innocent of) should make all readers approach his texts with some caution.

When it comes to the subject matter of 'The Whisperers', even without mentioning all of the above, at best this book would earn only some four stars out of five.  This book is for those who want to understand what life was like for that percentage of the population that suffered at the hands of Stalin and his regime, and continued to suffer (whether purely in their mind after all that they had been through, or in reality as a result of their 'sordid' past in eyes of employers, friends, and family) in the post-Stalin period.  The immediate problem here is that this is not a full representation of 'Private Life in Stalin's Russia' because it only represents those who were arrested, tortured, and suffered in prisons or camps (including their close relatives and sometimes friends).  For all of those who suffered under such conditions there were many more who did not, and they are almost wholly left out of this monograph.  Imagine for a moment a history of the United States based purely around men and women who were falsely accused of crimes, beaten by police officers and jailers, and suffered years of abuse and humiliation in the prison system.  Upon realization that they were innocent, apparently someone in the system had lied or made a mistake, they are released to the outside world but instead of enjoying life they are immediately relegated to the dregs of society.  Throughout this entire process, not only did these innocent men and women suffer the humiliation of a trial and time in prison, after their release they consistently fail to find employment due to the stigma of their time in prison or receive fair compensation for the years they were forced to waste and suffer through.  Can this be a fair representation of everyday life in the United States?  For some, maybe even many, most definitely, but it certainly would not apply to the majority.  Keeping in mind that the Soviet Union operated on totally different parameters than the US, the above comparison is purely cosmetic and made to showcase the limited use of 'The Whisperers' in fully understanding what life was like in the Soviet Union.

From the point of view of history, 'The Whisperers' contains no new conclusions or analysis about the Soviet system.  While dense and filled with interesting factoids, this text does little in terms of contributing to a better understanding of Stalin's reign or the period immediately following when the GULag prison population slowly began to filter back into cities and towns.  These topics have been previously covered and in greater detail and depth.  At best 'The Whisperers' is a good, although flawed, introduction to aspects of what life was like in the Soviet Union and during Stalin's reign for those caught up in the infamous purge trials of the 1930s.


Keir said...

Given his Amazon antics (for which he initially blamed his wife!) I'm surprised he found credible historians to write favourable reviews for his latest book on the Crimean.

T. Kunikov said...

I had a chance to read and review it as well. I enjoyed it for what it was but that doesn't mean much as I'm far removed from that period of history. Can't help but feel sorry for the guy on some level. Yet with all the accusations against him he's still writing and publishing and selling.