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'Whisperers' of Stalin's Russia Find Their Voice

Dec 22, 2007 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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When Nina Kaminska was a teenager in Stalin's Moscow, she came home late after a party and discovered that she had forgotten her key. She rang her family's apartment doorbell and waited ... and waited.

Her father finally answered the door in a full suit and tie. He had always expected his doorbell to ring in the middle of the night, and he had dressed to be taken away by the secret police. When he saw that it was only his daughter, he slapped her face.

In The Whisperers, Orlando Figes' new book about the impact of communism on ordinary citizens during Stalin's rule, Figes methodically documents the vast number of victims like Kaminska and her family who silently internalized the communist system's ideology.

Figes, a professor at Birkbeck College of the University of London, relied heavily on oral history to gather intimate stories of moral degradation and humiliation suffered during Stalin's purges. In the 1930s, millions of Russians were deemed to be opponents of Stalin's regime and dispatched to labor camps, exiled to remote settlements or executed.

Figes also enlisted teams of researchers who conducted thousands of interviews with gulag survivors and their families, and collected letters, memoirs and other documents. With help from Memorial Society in Russia, Figes and the researchers compiled their work in an extensive archive.

Private life in communist Russia, he says, reduced people to a breed of whisperers — people scared to give full voice to doubts or dissidence, and whispering dark secrets behind the backs of neighbors, friends and even family. Stalin's regime relied heavily on "mutual surveillance," urging families to report on each other in communal living spaces and report "disloyalty." Many people did what they could to survive, but they dealt with shame and guilt long after Stalin's reign.

Scott Simon spoke with Figes about how Russians survived in the 1930s under Stalin's severe repression.

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