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Friday, November 16, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"The Whisperers" | Resilience in the face of repression

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Whisperers:

Private Life in Stalin's Russia"

by Orlando Figes

Metropolitan Books, 784 pp., $35

Over the course of the 20th century, Russia experienced three revolutions, five wars, numerous famines and several waves of brutal political terror that took the lives of tens of millions of people. Yet through these cataclysmic upheavals, life went on. Couples fell in love and married, children were born and raised, families gathered to celebrate holidays, grandparents were buried.

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.

The birth of the Soviet Union was supposed to herald a new phase in world history that would coincide with the appearance of a new human type. Free of the petty bourgeois individualism of the capitalist West, the Soviet citizen would live for the collective social order and commit himself wholly to the construction of the Communist future.

Figes, a British academic and award-winning historian of modern Russia, shows that however utopian these beliefs were, they exerted a powerful hold over most Russians, and not only in the early years of the Soviet Union, but for decades, even after the massive repression of the Stalin era.

Building the society of tomorrow required the destruction of the old order. This included not just the Tsarist monarchy and private property, but even private life and the family. The bonds of blood and marriage were to be cast aside; life, including the most personal of relations, would be based on communal lines. Marriage would be open; children would belong to the community, not their parents.

The Bolsheviks erected a system of surveillance to ensure adherence to their grandiose plans. Citizens were instructed to denounce anyone for the slightest deviation from the new norms of behavior and belief. Fear pervaded society, and Russians retreated into themselves. The Soviet Union became a country of "whisperers," those whispering to avoid attention and those whispering behind their neighbors' backs to the secret police. Parents shushed their children — "the walls have ears," they were told.

The great fear reached its height in the 1930s, when millions were arrested and sent off to labor camps. "The Whisperers" details how Stalin used, indeed cultivated, this fear as a tool of political control and offers an examination of the psychology of mass terror, revealing the moral ambiguities of Soviet life, the dissimulation, accommodation and self-deception that were required to survive.

The Soviet mentality came to represent a "split identity." "Like an actor with an eye to his performance," Figes writes, "most citizens remained acutely conscious of the difference between their private and public selves and they had many ways to keep their two identities apart."

"The Whisperers" ranges widely, touching upon Soviet notions of time, on consumerism, gender relations, urban planning, education, collectivization, literature and World War II and can be read as a history of Stalin's Russia as seen through the eyes of common people.

Ultimately, the Soviet leaders did create a new society and human type, although not the ones they had envisioned in 1917. What they failed to do, Figes concludes, was to destroy the family. Imbued with an unbreakable resilience, it remained, in the end, the only refuge from the harsh glare of official ideology and the corrupting demands of the larger society.

Douglas Smith's "The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great's Russia" will be published next spring by Yale University Press.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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