This week’s book is a somewhat tattered copy of The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia by controversial British historian Orlando Figes. Figes’s work has produced extreme reactions, both positive and negative, and The Whisperers is no exception. The back cover cites Oxford University’s Noel Malcom in The Sunday Times as calling the book ‘extraordinary … authoritative, vivid, precise and, in places, almost unbearably moving’. But in The Nation magazine two other prominent scholars, Peter Reddaway and Stephen Cohen, pointed to ‘ numerous errors and misrepresentations’ and claimed that ‘Figes’s work cannot be read without considerable caution. Historians are obliged to be especially meticulous in using generally inaccessible archive materials, but Figes cannot be fully trusted even with open sources.’
Personally, I was somewhat disappointed by The Whisperers. Its subtitle ‘Personal Life in Stalin’s Russia’ had led me to expect a broad sociological study of the lives of ordinary Russians, whereas in fact the book focuses overwhelmingly on one aspect of those lives – Stalinist repression. While repression was an important part of Stalin’s Russia, there was surely more to private life than that.