Friday book #5: The Whisperers

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.


10 thoughts on “Friday book #5: The Whisperers”

  1. Ha-ha:
    Meanwhile, Figes wrote on Amazon, also anonymously, a rave review of his own recent The Whisperers. It was, Figes said, a “beautiful and necessary” account of Soviet history written by an author with “superb story-telling skills…. I hope he writes forever.”

    Priceless, thanks for the laugh. Though I have no doubt this is all Stalin’s fault; the monster reached from the grave and maddened poor Mr Figes.


  2. I think this is rather “vanilla” kind of book written by a foreigner about Russian history. This is all business, after all. Writers (I’m not sure if I can really call them “historians”) write about what interests their, ahem, “ravenous readership”. Namely – its interested in yet another proof about “How Everything Was/Is Bad in Russia” ™.

    Russophobia sells. This is a timeless brand which needs no stinking “facts” or “data” – only the right mixture of tropes, memes and stereotypes to creat “right” emotional charge in the audience.


    1. “Russophobia sells”

      Yeah, it does, but in my mind it’s not that the public prefers russophobia. What ‘sells’ (is profitable) is what being rewarded, encouraged, publicized. What doesn’t sell is what being hushed, punished, ridiculed. By the establishment. “The political and media establishment”, as Cohen puts it, but I believe those are just different sides of the same thing.


  3. It is unfortunately indicative of the state of our discipline that Figes’s practices are somehow not incompatible with maintaining a scholarly reputation. One can make up stuff, deliberately mistranslate sources and inflate figures without suffering any professional sanctions, as long as the narrative seems correct. Figes is not alone in this of course. Getty criticised Conquest for his reliance on gossip and rumour as reliable sources (more reliable in fact than archives!) several years ago. Yet Conquest and Figes still figure prominently in the reading lists of Soviet History courses and are not uncommonly cited in current research. It would of course be unfair to hold history writing to the standards of science, but I can’t help but wonder if a historian of France could engage in the practices outlined in Cohen’s and Reddaway’s article and still claim scholarly authority.


    1. ” It would of course be unfair to hold history writing to the standards of science…”

      No. They must be held to these standards.


      1. What I meant, Lyttenburgh, is that it is much harder to determine when something is patently false in a discipline which lacks the formalised methods of the sciences (in the anglo-saxon sense of the word, as in opposed to the broader notion of ‘nauka’). I was arguing however that in cases such as this, things are in fact much simpler. Making things up is very clearly bullshit and therefore False.


      2. What, again this ages old “history is not a science” debate? Spare me this nonsense.

        What we have here is confirmation bias. People are told “well, that’s not a science – its a history” and naturally they apply the same measurements as to, say, literature, to works of history. But the truth is – no, you don’t write for the sake of “entertainement” or the “strong plot”. Those who don’t understand this are doing something else, not history. Propaganda, more like.

        And in cases like this while there are facts to be cheked and statements to be supported with proof – no one is doing because of confiramtion bias and general mental laziness stemming from already established stereotypes and the constant demand to consume a “brand” that supports that.


      3. I am not sure there’s any confirmation bias here. Figes has clearly written bad history, history that does not observe basic scholarly standards such as Not Making Stuff Up. No historian – and I believe educated member of the public – barring rabid postmodernists, would argue that this is ok, because history is not a science.

        My contention is that this can pass because – among other things – of the highly politicised nature of our field. In short, it’s ok to write bad history about Russia, because no one will call you out on it as long as you stick to the mainstream narrative. If one was to Make Stuff Up in order to present a positive picture of the Soviet Union, fellow academics and literary pundits would probably compare them to David Irving (in fact, Conquest did compare Getty to David Irving in an exchange of letters to the London Review of Books).

        This however has very little to do with whether history is or isn’t a science. Not Making Stuff Up and Not Misleading Your Readers are hardly scientific standards. They are mere standards of scholarly integrity.

        As it happens, I do think that some historical research can be scientific, but only to the extent that it concerns some very limited questions. It is impossible for example to scientifically determine whether or not the USSR was a workers’ state just as it is impossible to determine scientifically whether the constitutional parliamentary systems that are the norm in the West are real democracies. It is of course possible to argue either way in both cases, and it is possible to do so in a scholarly manner, which may very well include some research that is properly scientific (e.g. demographic). The conclusion of either argument in either case however would not in itself be scientific, at least not in the sense that term is used in English-language scholarship. It is of course possible to challenge this prevailing notion of what counts as science and what doesn’t, but you would then be making a philosophical argument.


      4. “Figes has clearly written bad history”

        Well, there’s a difference between writing history, as an analysis of socioeconomic processes – and a collection of personal stories related to some period/phenomenon, which is, it sounds like, what Figes’ book is.

        Of course any collection of stories is supposed to produce a generalization, but the fact that the author needed a bunch of personal stories to make his point is a clear warning sign (imo). One could probably find a lot of personal stories demonstrating horrors of the Mahatma Gandhi rule. So what.


      5. It is common to speak of a “spectrum” from the ultra-hard sciences (such as Mathematics, Physics, and Chemistry,which are about numbers and measuring forces and components of matter), then to slighter “softer” sciences such as Sociology and Economics (which are also about measuring things, but involve heavy political biases); and then Linguistics, which is about halfway between a hard science and a soft science; and then you get to a really “soft” science which is History. Which is still a science, because it involves facts and dates and numbers, and so on; but is also very “soft” because it involves interpretation and bias. Not to mention that History is completely class-based.

        And then, on the extreme “This is not science” part of the spectrum, you have Religion.

        With Philosophy being a bridge between Religion and Science.


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