New book tells of silent suffering under Stalin

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LONDON, Oct 3 (Reuters) After countless biographies of Stalin, a new book gives voice to the millions of ordinary Russians who suffered the dictator's reign of terror in silence.

''The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia'', by award-winning historian Orlando Figes, is based on hundreds of interviews with survivors of the era of Josef Stalin, and their stories still have the power to shock.

A slain boy becomes the hero of a propaganda cult, lionised in the press for denouncing his father to the police, neighbours betray neighbours, bravery is punished, cowardice is rewarded and innocents are executed.

The human suffering during Stalin's rule is nothing new. The strength of ''Whisperers'' is in personal testimony, the stories behind staggering statistics of arrests, imprisonment and death.

Figes, a respected authority on Russia, said the book was unique in exploring the emotional impact of Stalin's leadership.

Ten years ago people were still unwilling to talk about it.

In another 10 years, many people who lived through the age of betrayal, paranoia and fear will be dead.

''There has never been a book like it and there will never be another one like it,'' Figes said in an interview.

''We grasped the opportunity of a narrow window of time to gather testimony in written and oral form about how people really lived, how families functioned under stress and how people lived with moral compromise.'' Figes spent more than four years working with teams from the Memorial Society, established in the Soviet Union to commemorate victims of repression, who interviewed families across the country and corroborated their accounts with documentation.

RUSSIA REDUCED TO SILENCE The title ''Whisperers'' conjures the state of suspicion cultivated by Stalin, and the book helps explain how the dictator came to wield the power that he did.

Parents were wary of voicing opinions for fear their children would repeat them, deliberately or not, to teachers at school. One wrong turn could lead to arrest, torture or worse, meaning Soviets were reduced to whispers in their own homes.

Because children of ''enemies of the people'' were often deemed guilty by association, they resented their parents. Wives came to believe the trumped up charges against husbands, while arrests and imprisonment tore families apart, often permanently.

One central personality, Antonina Golovina, reinvented her upbringing to hide her ''kulak'' (rich peasant) roots which had landed her in exile as a young girl.

She did not tell her daughter about her past until some 60 years later, and concealed the truth from two husbands.

In 1987, she was visited by an elderly aunt of her first husband, Georgii Znamensky, who let slip that he was the son of a tsarist who fought the Bolsheviks in the civil war. Like Golovina, he concealed his origins from his partner for decades.

Figes said writing ''Whisperers'' had made him less judgmental about people prepared to work within Stalin's system, recognising that the alternative was almost unthinkable.

''For people who suffered from repression, like the kulaks, the only way to overcome repression was to join the system,'' he said. ''Where else was there but the system? So they internalised the values of the system, and practised its ideology.'' And among grim tales of death by firing squad or from hunger in a gulag are stories of human strength and bravery.

''You come out thinking that this shows the resilience of families as much as their destruction.'' REUTERS RS KP2314

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