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The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia

INTERVIEWER: Why is your book called 'The Whisperers'?
ORLANDO FIGES: There are two words in Russian for a whisperer: 'shepchushi' for someone who whispers not to be overheard; and 'sheptun', originally a Gulag term, used for those who whisper behind people's backs - informers to the Police. That is why I called the book 'The Whisperers' - because it's about a whole society made up of whisperers of one sort or another.

INTERVIEWER: How did the idea for the book develop?
ORLANDO FIGES: I had wanted to do this book since the 1980s, when I was a graduate student in Moscow and got to know some families there. I was always struck by the contrast between the cold and austere atmosphere of public life in the USSR and the warmth of private life in these families. The stories they told me about the Stalin period were very different from the official narratives, and from the histories written by Western historians, which were all about high politics, collective groups and ideologies. I wanted to give voice to ordinary people, to those whose experience of the Stalin period were not reflected in official documents or the memoirs of the intelligentsia - which for years were taken as a window onto what life 'was really like' under Stalin.

INTERVIEWER: The book is based on interviews and family archives. Was it hard to find these people? How did you get them to talk?
ORLANDO FIGES: I started by revisiting families I had known since the 1980s, and making contact with their friends, asking them for interviews and archives they might have. The only way to rescue these voices from oblivion was through oral history. We were entering a forbidden zone of memory - asking intimate questions about family relationships, emotions and beliefs that people would have been too frightened to answer only ten years ago. It was a narrow window of opportunity that we managed to exploit. More than half the 454 people interviewed for the book have since passed away.

INTERVIEWER: An essential aspect of your book is what the Russian historian Mikhail Gefter called 'the Stalinism that entered into all of us.' You write about the way the system changed people's thinking and values. But was that really possible in the lifetime of the Revolution? Wouldn't that take generations?
ORLANDO FIGES: Of course, the Bolsheviks realised that it would take generations to change attitudes, although in the 1920s that is what they saw as the Revolution's goal. But the Soviet system last 75 years. People were born into it, schooled in it, developed their careers in it, brought their children up in it - and in that time some basic values changed - though older values (such as Christianity or the humanist traditions of the intelligentsia) carried on as well in many families. That is why I study in my book the impact of the Soviet system over several generations.

INTERVIEWER: What are the risks and advantages of oral history?
ORLANDO FIGES: There are many problems. Memory is unreliable. People relate their own family legends, or borrow memories from things they have seen or read about. But through many interviews - and by checking oral testimony against other forms of evidence - it is possible to sort of direct memories from received ones. Overall, I think the quality of the interviews we did (there were over a thousand) was very good. And of course there are lots of areas of the past that only oral history can illuminate. That applies to virtually the whole history of repression in the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago was essentially a work of oral history. The Soviet archives tell us little about the experience of living in a system based on the threat of repression. And my topic - the interior life of the Soviet individual - could only be researched through oral history - though we also used letters and diaries, where these were available.

INTERVIEWER: You describe one of the characters in your book - the writer Simonov - as a 'good Stalinist'. Is such a thing possible? Isn't the idea of a 'good Stalinist' a contradiction in terms?
ORLANDO FIGES: I think I said that 'if' it was possible to be a "good Stalinist", then Simonov might qualify under that category. You are probably right. At one level there can be no such thing as a good Stalinist - just as there can be no such thing as a 'good Nazi' or a 'good Fascist.' But my interest in Simonov was to show what happens when a 'good man' (and there was much good in Simonov) gets sucked into the Stalinist system - when he is forced to make moral compromises and betray colleagues, friends, even members of his family. Simonov was remorseful about what he'd done. In many ways he tried to differentiate between his private and his public life - to be good as a man but do what he had to do to serve the system in his public life. Ultimately, I don't think that is possible. And I think I showed that in the case of Simonov. His Stalinism corrupted his personal relationships.

INTERVIEWER: How do you explain the nostalgia felt for Stalin in Russia today?
ORLANDO FIGES: Old people feel nostalgia for the Soviet past - they have lost a lot since 1991. Many feel nostalgia for Stalin as a man who 'kept order' and 'made the country great'. They feel that what happened after 1991 was a humiliation for Russia. What alarms me is how many young people defend and admire Stalin in Russia today. They have been influenced by the pro-Stalin views of the Putin regime disseminated through schools and the mass media.

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