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The Whisperers by Orlando Figes


This must be the most important book on the Soviet Union since The Gulag Archipelago, in 1973. It is based on hundreds of family archives and thousands of interviews with the survivors of the Stalin Terror which Figes and his team of researchers have spent years collecting from homes throughout Russia. The stories which they tell are amazing, heartbreaking. I defy anyone not to be moved.

Figes is a great writer - anyone who has read Natasha's Dance or the multi prize-winning A People's Tragedy will tell you that. But in The Whisperers he doesn't let his style get in the way of the people's stories which almost seem to come to us in their own voice. This transparency (and humility on Figes's part) only adds to the emotional and moral impact of the book.

Figes says that he hasn't set out to explain the origins of the Great Terror, or Stalin's cult or policies, but actually, as a student of these things, I learned much more from the stories of these people than from conventional histories. The story of Konstantin Simonov, which Figes places at the centre of The Whisperers, tells us far more about the nature of the Stalinist regime, about how it got people to collaborate with it, than any history book I've ever read.

The Whisperers is sub-titled Private Life in Stalin's Russia, but it is really about the Soviet system as a whole (its first chapter starts in 1917 and its last ends in the present) and about its legacies of seventy years of totalitarianism for Russia today. For anyone who wants to understand Russia (or the twentieth century) it is essential reading.

Leo Kuprin "Leo" (Southampton)

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