THE WHISPERERS by Orlando Figes
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Private Life in Stalin’s Russia
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The people whisper while denunciations are shouted all around: an exemplary study in mentalités, asking how the norms of old were so thoroughly remade in the years of Soviet terror.

Eminent Russologist/Sovietologist Figes (History/Cambridge Univ.; Natasha’s Dance, 2002, etc.) observes that Russian society is closely organized around the family, and thus it was that “the family was the first arena in which the Bolsheviks engaged the struggle.” The early Soviets took it as a matter of doctrine that the bourgeois family was the primary source of socially harmful, conservative mores and other manifestations of reaction, but that, the dialectic being what it is, the bourgeois family would eventually disappear once socialism was on a sure footing and the state assumed cradle-to-grave responsibilities for feeding, housing and carrying for the denizens of the worker’s paradise. They tried to hurry matters along in the first years of the New Economic Policy by forcing the formerly rich to share their houses and apartments with the poor, thinking that the people would become “communistic in their basic thinking and behavior” as notions of personal property and privacy faded away. The Bolsheviks also liquidated and deported a few million irredeemably bourgeois types. The so-called new society that resulted was notable for the lack of affection parents showed children—which, as Figes notes, was the habit of the old aristocracy, now spread into the larger citizenry. Children repaid the favor by informing on their elders. By the 1930s, the vydvizhentsy, these unloved “sons (and very rarely, the daughters) of the peasantry and the proletariat,” most educated for only seven years, would take the place of the Old Bolsheviks and become the conformist, unflinching functionaries of the Stalinist regime, the ones who obediently policed, deported and executed their fellow citizens. Figes’s sociological approach explains much about these evils and how Russia fell under a complicit, fearful silence.

Lucid, thorough and essential to understanding Stalinist society.

Pub Date: Oct. 2nd, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-8050-7461-1
Page count: 576pp
Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2007


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