Russian revelations

Guy Dammann talks to Orlando Figes, whose fifth book, The Whisperers: Private Life under Stalin's Russia, is a favourite for tomorrow's Samuel Johnson prize

In 1989, almost overnight, the world changed in ways that few had thought possible. The sprawling, mysterious, mistrusted adversary of the West suddenly began to melt away. With borders both mythical and concrete crumbling fast, the power of the party in Moscow that had held sway over even the minutiae of the lives of its citizens was simply swept aside.

A revolution of an entirely different magnitude took place in the UK, just one year earlier. This particular turning of the wheel of history was driven not so much by events as by their representation. For the summer of 1988 saw, in the schools of United Kingdom, the ushering in of a new age, that of the General Certificate in Secondary Education, bringing with it a new kind of history: kings, battles, dates, all fell before the mighty new banner of empathy and its armoury of imaginative, subjective engagement with the faces of history.

Orlando Figes was already well established at Cambridge University in 1988, his attitude to history beyond the influence of the GCSE syllabus. Nonetheless, his first book, Peasant Russia, published in 1989, looked beyond the colourful actors on the political and martial stage to the anonymous thousands who watched and suffered during the years of civil war following the Bolshevik revolution as their ancient and hitherto unchanging land ripped itself apart.

With his latest, fifth book, The Whisperers, a favourite for this week's Samuel Johnson prize, Figes takes this lens and adds a zoom, maintaining the close focus on invisible lives but taking in the whole sweep of Soviet history. The book concentrates on the fragile survival of private and family life under Stalin, and in it the historiography of empathy has in many ways reached its definitive form...

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