The Whisperers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 September, 2008, 12:00am

The Whisperers

by Orlando Figes

Penguin, HK$187

Alexander Solzhenitsyn and others may have revealed much about gulags but relatively little has been published about the private lives of ordinary citizens during Stalin's tyrannical reign. However, Orlando Figes has put together a book that turns up the volume on a nation of 'whisperers', hence its title. These were the shepchushchii (people who feared being overheard) and sheptun (quiet informers). As Figes, a Russian historian, explains, the secrecy was exacerbated by communal apartments in which most urban dwellers lived. With families allotted one room each, every neighbour was a potential traitor because disposing of occupants potentially meant extra space. The stories collected for Figes' oral-history project (some of which can be read at show how terror was employed to create a police state with millions of people as bystanders or collaborators. And though the book is not about Stalin, readers will sense his presence throughout. Letters, diaries, private papers, memoirs, photographs and artefacts stashed during his reign helped create this 700-page book. It could probably have been many times longer.