The Whisperers coverI am not a historian (as should be evident from these web pages), but I am fond of reading books on historical topics.  A few years ago, I read Orlando Figes’ book on the Russian Revolution, A Peoples’ Tragedy, whiach ably describes the events leading up to the revolution and its immediate aftermath.  The Whisperers, published in 2007, concerns Soviet citizens’ private lives during the Stalin years.  The work results from a wide ranging research project (more details from the author’s website) utilising Russian and Soviet public and private archives. Eight chapters cover the years from  the revolution to the death of Stalin, with a ninth covering the years 1953-2006.

In the first chapter, I felt as though I was setting up to read a book of lists: listsof people, lists of their privations, lists of instances of misused power.  However, as I mad my way through the book, I found the stories of families and individual being told progressed very clearly and accessibly.  The book doesn’t deal with Stalin’s personality and motives, but does occasionally deal with individuals with quite close association with Stalin.  What struck me as I read the book was firstly the privations that those not Party members had to endure, both in terms of their accommodation conditions but economically, and how they could cope with this in the belief that the Party was a force for good.  Intriguingly, people often chose to believe theit nearest and dearest must have been guilty when they fell victim to the apparently randomly applied purges.  

Overall, the book presents an important story, in an interesting and acccessible format.  This material is relevant in an era where our own personal freedoms are continually limited and eroded in the supposed war on terror.  Our government aims to be able to lock our citizens up on suspicion, and without charge for up to 42 days, riding roughshod over hard won civil rights and liberties.In the modern IT era, we see increased data collection by central government, and even private companies have the ability to pry into our web-sufing habits (see my articles on this site on BT and Phorm).  Yesterday,the Swedish Parliament voted for routine tapping of cross-border interception of communication.  One wonders how the Soviet system managed to so effectively monitor and thereby repress the population in a pre-electronic era, and quite how the impact of IT on surveillance will ultimately impact on our western democratic societies.

Orlando Figes has a nice website with more information.