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The Whisperers: Private Life in…
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The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia (original 2007; edição 2008)

por Orlando Figes

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9931821,110 (4.26)92
A landmark account of what private life was like for Russians in the worst years of Soviet repression. We know 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. Now, drawing on a huge collection of newly discovered documents, this book reveals the inner world of ordinary Soviet citizens amidst the mistrust, fear, compromises, and betrayals that pervaded their existence. Cultural historian Figes re-creates the moral maze in which Russians found themselves, where one wrong turn could destroy a family. 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 arrests; and he casts a humanizing light on informers, demonstrating how, in a repressive system, anyone could easily become a collaborator.--From publisher description.… (mais)
Membro:avanhilten
Título:The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia
Autores:Orlando Figes
Informação:Picador (2008), Edition: First Edition, Paperback, 784 pages
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The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia por Orlando Figes (2007)

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This is a vital article published recently in The Nation about this controversial book and why it was not published in Russia after two attempts by different publishers. I hope that in its wake its readers' rankings would be less upbeat.

Orlando Figes and Stalin's Victims. Peter Reddaway and Stephen F. Cohen
May 23, 2012

Many Western observers believe that Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime has in effect banned a Russian edition of a widely acclaimed 2007 book by the British historian Orlando Figes, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. A professor at University of London’s Birkbeck College, Figes himself inspired this explanation. In an interview and in an article in 2009, he suggested that his first Russian publisher dropped the project due to “political pressure” because his large-scale study of Stalin-era terror “is inconvenient to the current regime.” Three years later, his explanation continues to circulate.

We doubted Figes’s explanation at the time—partly because excellent Russian historians were themselves publishing so many uncensored exposés of the horrors of Stalinism, and continue to do so—but only now are we able to disprove it. (Since neither of us knows Figes or has ever had any contact with him, there was no personal animus in our investigation.) Our examination of transcripts of original Russian-language interviews he used to write The Whisperers, and of documents provided by Russians close to the project, tells a different story. A second Russian publisher, Corpus, had no political qualms about soon contracting for its own edition of the book. In 2010, however, Corpus also canceled the project. The reasons had nothing to do with Putin’s regime but everything to do with Figes himself.

* * *

In 2004 specialists at the Memorial Society, a widely respected Russian historical and human rights organization founded in 1988 on behalf of victims and survivors of Stalin’s terror, were contracted by Figes to conduct hundreds of interviews that form the basis of The Whisperers, and are now archived at Memorial. In preparing for the Russian edition, Corpus commissioned Memorial to provide the original Russian-language versions of Figes’s quotations and to check his other English-language translations. What Memorial’s researchers found was a startling number of minor and major errors. Its publication “as is,” it was concluded, would cause a scandal in Russia.

This revelation, which we learned about several months ago, did not entirely surprise us, though our subsequent discoveries were shocking. Separately, we had been following Figes’s academic and related abuses for some time. They began in 1997, with his book A People’s Tragedy, in which the Harvard historian Richard Pipes found scholarly shortcomings. In 2002 Figes’s cultural history of Russia, Natasha’s Dance, was greeted with enthusiasm by many reviewers until it encountered a careful critic in the Times Literary Supplement, Rachel Polonsky of Cambridge University. Polonsky pointed out various defects in the book, including Figes’s careless borrowing of words and ideas of other writers without adequate acknowledgment. One of those writers, the American historian Priscilla Roosevelt, wrote to us, “Figes appropriated obscure memoirs I had used in my book Life on the Russian Country Estate (Yale University Press, 1995), but changed their content and messed up the references.” Another leading scholar, T.J. Binyon, published similar criticism of Natasha’s Dance: “Factual errors and mistaken assertions strew its pages more thickly than autumnal leaves in Vallombrosa.”

In 2010 a different dimension of Figes’s practices came to light. For some time he had been writing anonymous derogatory reviews on Amazon of books by his colleagues in Russian history, notably Polonsky and Robert Service of Oxford University. Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern, for example, was “pretentious” and “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published.” Meanwhile, Figes wrote on Amazon, also anonymously, a rave review of his own recent The Whisperers. It was, Figes said, a “beautiful and necessary” account of Soviet history written by an author with “superb story-telling skills…. I hope he writes forever.”

When Service and Polonsky expressed their suspicion that Figes had written the reviews, his lawyer threatened Service with court action. Soon, however, Figes was compelled to admit that he had indeed written the anonymous reviews. Service summed up the affair: Figes had “lied through his teeth for a week and threatened to sue me for libel if I didn’t say black was white…. If there is one thing that should come out of this, it is the importance of giving people freedom to speak the truth without the menace of financial ruin.”

* * *

At about the same time, as we later learned, the true story of the Russian edition of Figes’s The Whisperers was unfolding behind the scenes in Moscow. In summer 2010, representatives of three Russian organizations involved—the publisher Corpus, Memorial and a foundation, Dynastia (which owned the Russian rights and paid for the translation)—met to consider what Memorial’s researchers had uncovered. According to a detailed account by one participant, the group tried to find a way to salvage the project, but the researchers had documented too many “anachronisms, incorrect interpretations, stupid mistakes and pure nonsense.” All of The Whisperers’ “facts, dates, names and terms, and the biographies of its central figures, need to be checked,” the participant added. It was too much. A decision was made against proceeding with the Russian edition. After re-examining the relevant materials, Dynastia informed Figes of the decision in an April 6, 2011, letter to his London literary agency.

Indeed, after looking at only a few chapters of The Whisperers, Memorial found so many misrepresentations of the life stories of Stalin’s victims that its chief researcher, a woman with extensive experience working on such materials, said, “I simply wept as I read it and tried to make corrections.” Here are just three examples, which we have also examined, whose gravity readers can decide for themselves:

§ To begin with an example that blends mistakes with invention, consider Figes’s treatment of Natalia Danilova (p. 253), whose father had been arrested. After misrepresenting her family history, Figes puts words in her mouth, evidently to help justify the title of his book: Except for an aunt, “the rest of us could only whisper in dissent.” The “quotation” does not appear in Memorial’s meticulous transcription of its recorded interview with Danilova.

§ Figes invents “facts” in other cases, apparently also for dramatic purpose. According to The Whisperers (pp. 215-17, 292-93), “it is inconceivable” that Mikhail Stroikov could have completed his dissertation while in prison “without the support of the political police. He had two uncles in the OGPU” (the political police). However, there is no evidence that Stroikov had any uncles, nor is there any reason to allege that he had the support of the secret police. Figes also claims that for helping Stroikov’s family, a friend then in exile was “rearrested, imprisoned and later shot.” In reality, this friend was not rearrested, imprisoned or executed, but lived almost to the age of 90.

§ Figes’s distortion of the fate of Dina Ielson-Grodzianskaia (pp. 361-62), who survived eight years in the Gulag, is grievous in a different respect. After placing her in the wrong concentration camp, he alleges that she was “one of the many ‘trusties’” whose collaboration earned them “those small advantages which…could make the difference between life and death.” There is no evidence in the interviews used by Figes that Ielson-Grodzianskaia was ever a “trusty” or received any special privileges. As a leading Memorial researcher commented, Figes’s account is “a direct insult to the memory of a prisoner.”

The Whisperers may be consistent with Figes’s other practices, but for us, longtime students (and friends) of victims of Stalinist and other Soviet-era repressions, the book’s defects are especially grave. For many Russians, particularly surviving family members, Stalin’s millions of victims are a “sacred memory.” Figes has not, to say the least, been faithful to that memory—nor to the truth-telling mission of the often politically embattled Memorial, which, despite the effort expended, honorably agreed with the decision against publishing the Russian edition. Still more, a great many Russians have suffered, even died, for, as Service put it, the “freedom to speak the truth.” Figes has not honored that martyrdom either.

* * *

Unfortunately, The Whisperers is still regarded by many Western readers, including scholars, as an exemplary study of Soviet history. These new revelations show, however, that Figes’s work cannot be read without considerable caution. Historians are obliged to be especially meticulous in using generally inaccessible archive materials, but Figes cannot be fully trusted even with open sources. Thus, in The Whisperers he also maligns the memory of the late Soviet poet and longtime editor of Novyi Mir, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, a bold forerunner of Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-Stalinist thinking, by stating that Tvardovsky “betrayed” his own father to the police during the terror (p. 134). Figes’s allegation has been convincingly refuted in the Russian press.

We hope that in his latest book, Just Send Me Word, published in May, Figes has treated his unique sources with more care. This book tells the saga of a deeply moving, secret, more than eight-year correspondence between an inmate in Stalin’s remote Gulag and a devoted woman in Moscow, who later became his wife. Regrettably, the book conveys the impression that Figes retains the full support of Memorial, through, for example, the insertion at the end of the volume of “A Note from Memorial” (an analysis of the correspondence by a Memorial researcher that was apparently designed for another purpose).

In truth, Memorial has come to a different decision regarding Figes. In a letter, one of its leading figures recently wrote about Figes, “Many of us have formed an impression of him as being…a very mediocre researcher and an incompetent handler of sources who is poorly oriented in his chosen topic, but an energetic and talented businessman.” As a result, the writer continued, “In the future, we do not want to link his name with that of Memorial.”

Response From Orlando Figes

I have seventy-five words to respond to an article I’ve not been allowed to read. The first cancellation (Atticus, 2009) cited commercial reasons, though I speculated that politics was involved. The second (Dynastia, 2011) cited about a dozen “factual inaccuracies” and “misrepresentations.” I responded: some were in Memorial’s sources, others debatable, or mistranslated by Dynastia—leaving a few genuine errors in a book based on thousands of interviews and archival documents. These I regret.

It is longstanding Nation policy not to share the full text of an article with the subject of that article before publication. Our Letters page remains open to Figes. —The Editors
  Den85 | Jan 3, 2024 |
very thorough and well documented. An unparalleled level of useful detail.
I got bored, though, eventually, because I did not get along well with how it is structured. I would have preferred chapters with general presentation (it was like this in this period, or it was like this in this thing) and then entire life stories per each person/family. As it actually is (a mix of history and bits of life stories continued elsewhere) it turns confusing and thick. ( )
  milosdumbraci | May 5, 2023 |
Orlando Figes is a professor of History and award-inning distinguished author garnering numerous prizes for his documentation of Russian history, culture, and politics. "The Whisperers" begins in 1917 and the Revolution, taking the reader, along with the multitude of Russian citizens through World War I, World War II, and into the Cold War under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. It is an incredible compilation of mesmerizing personal stories, bringing these ordinary people to life with all their emotions; fear, anger, love, pride, hope, terror, shame, and loneliness.

"The Whisperers" is based on two groups of Russian society – the first being the silent conformists who feared punishment for speaking out against the Soviet regime. This included Russia’s entire population.

The other group of whisperers were the informers. They whispered behind one’s back to police of anyone they suspected of not being 100% supportive of Stalin and his dictatorship. This created an atmosphere of terror because there were no trials, no explanations requested, and no proof required of guilt. Police just showed up at a home, usually in the middle of the night, and took away the family; to labor camps, orphanages, the Gulag, deportation to Siberia, or simply to execution – never to be seen or heard from again.

Ayn Rand lived through the Russian Revolution and wrote the fictional story "We the Living"" based on her own experiences. But her story is just the tip of the iceberg because she escaped in the early years of Red Terror before millions of good law-abiding citizens were purged.

The Revolution that started out as a quest for utopian equity quickly became overrun with gready power-hungry bullies. First, the new Soviet government took away religion. Then they destroyed family values and family unity. Then they took control of the media. And lastly, they confiscated the countries resources and wealth and destroyed Capitalism.

It is incredible the ‘Stalin’s Reign of Terror’ also referred to as ‘Red Terror’ lasted over 35 years. Image living in a country where every word spoken could be turned against you- friends turned on friends, neighbors turned on neighbors, children turned on parents. No one could be trusted.

The facts of this book were accumulated through many sources (45 pages cited). It was common for individuals to keep diaries and bury them with-In floors and walls because they could not verbally express their emotions, fears, and their opinions to anyone – not even family members. The diaries served as a mental release of pent up anxiety. After the Red Terror ended many such diaries were discovered and archived. In addition, Russian citizens who survived to see the collapse of Stalin’s Socialist regime volunteered to be interviewed after they were no longer feared repercussions for speaking out.

Even if you have already read volumes on Russian history, "The Whisperers" is a real eye opener. It was just as bad as the Nazi Holocaust. The only difference is the Nazis targeted a select group of people. Stalin’s Reign of Terror targeted anyone… and everyone. ( )
  LadyLo | Dec 3, 2019 |
Rarely have I read a book more in need of a strong editor. A classic on the experience of children in Stalinist Russia is diluted by the inclusion of such parallel stories as Siminov's biography. This life gives us a glimpse into the issues of censorship, but surely this would have sat better in a book on that topic?

The main thrust, this wave of indoctrination and misery is a must read and makes one look differently at the indoctrination imposed on the children of the west, thankfully provided with much less misery. New social structures expose our worst nature and, in a few rare cases, rare acts of incredible kindness and bravery. ( )
  wildfry | Feb 20, 2019 |
Probably more frightening to read about than the Holocaust. I keep coming back to people with "spoiled biographies," and how all the terror and interrogation resulted in "information spreading and mutating like a virus" until no person could be sure about the truth.

I say the Bolsheviks got the humiliation they deserved when Svetlana Stalin defected to the U.S. on an anniversary of their glorious revolution. ( )
  KaterinaBead | Mar 31, 2016 |
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For my mother, Eva Figes (nee Unger, Berlin 1932) and to the memory of the family we lost.
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A landmark account of what private life was like for Russians in the worst years of Soviet repression. We know 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. Now, drawing on a huge collection of newly discovered documents, this book reveals the inner world of ordinary Soviet citizens amidst the mistrust, fear, compromises, and betrayals that pervaded their existence. Cultural historian Figes re-creates the moral maze in which Russians found themselves, where one wrong turn could destroy a family. 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 arrests; and he casts a humanizing light on informers, demonstrating how, in a repressive system, anyone could easily become a collaborator.--From publisher description.

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