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About the Author

Image credit: Orlando Figes

Works by Orlando Figes

The Crimean War: A History (2010) 850 copies
The Story of Russia (2022) 267 copies

Associated Works

War and Peace (1869) — Afterword, some editions — 28,830 copies
The Master and Margarita (1966) — Introduction, some editions — 20,435 copies
Granta 64: Russia the Wild East (1998) — Contributor — 161 copies
The History of Pugachev (1983) — Introduction, some editions — 44 copies
Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 1914-1921 (1997) — Contributor — 28 copies


Common Knowledge

Canonical name
Figes, Orlando
Legal name
Figes, Orlando Guy
Germany (naturalized 2017)
London, England, UK
Places of residence
London, England, UK
University of Cambridge (Ph.D ∙ Trinity College ∙ History)
Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge (BA|1982)
William Ellis School, North London, England, UK
public intellectual
Figes, Kate (Sister)
Figes, Eva (mother)
Palmer, Stephanie (wife)
Birkbeck College, University of London
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University
European University, St. Petersburg
Awards and honors
Wolfson History Prize (1997)
Fellow, Royal Society of Literature (2003)
Przeglad Wschodni Award (2009)
Antonio Delgado Prize (2021)
Deborah Rogers (Rogers, Coleridge and White)
Short biography
He was born in 1959. His parents separated when he was three years old, and he was brought up by in north London by his mother, the well-known feminist, Eva Figes. It probably wasn't an ordinary childhood in the way those of us who didn't move in leftwing intellectual circles - Robert Graves and Günter Grass were family friends - might understand it, but it felt ordinary enough to Figes, who went to the local primary and comprehensive.

Taken from:
"Orlando Figes: Thanks for the memories"

Tuesday October 30, 2007
The Guardian



An accessible account of the history of Russia, albeit a brief one. The overall impression I get is of a rather sparse and uni-dimensional history, compared with, say, our own in the subcontinent, with its numerous dynasties, philosophies, religions, languages and literatures. Russian history, like its landscapes, seems so dreary and self-damagingly futile, an impression only reinforced by the current misadventure with Ukraine, the latter by all accounts the source and fount of Russian civilization. The general air of penury is all the more surprising, when one thinks of the great flowering of Russian literature in the 19th century, with great names like Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev, Chekov, etc. part of our everyday sensibility. However, the account does throw some light on the nature of Russia's engagement with Europe, and the extreme sensitivity to any intimations of independence in the regions the Russians seem to think belongs to the central Russian sphere, e.g. Belorus, Ukraine, Caucasus, etc.… (more)
Dilip-Kumar | 5 other reviews | Mar 24, 2024 |
This is a vital article published recently in The Nation about this controversial book and why it was not published in Russia after two attempts by different publishers. I hope that in its wake its readers' rankings would be less upbeat.

Orlando Figes and Stalin's Victims. Peter Reddaway and Stephen F. Cohen
May 23, 2012

Many Western observers believe that Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime has in effect banned a Russian edition of a widely acclaimed 2007 book by the British historian Orlando Figes, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. A professor at University of London’s Birkbeck College, Figes himself inspired this explanation. In an interview and in an article in 2009, he suggested that his first Russian publisher dropped the project due to “political pressure” because his large-scale study of Stalin-era terror “is inconvenient to the current regime.” Three years later, his explanation continues to circulate.

We doubted Figes’s explanation at the time—partly because excellent Russian historians were themselves publishing so many uncensored exposés of the horrors of Stalinism, and continue to do so—but only now are we able to disprove it. (Since neither of us knows Figes or has ever had any contact with him, there was no personal animus in our investigation.) Our examination of transcripts of original Russian-language interviews he used to write The Whisperers, and of documents provided by Russians close to the project, tells a different story. A second Russian publisher, Corpus, had no political qualms about soon contracting for its own edition of the book. In 2010, however, Corpus also canceled the project. The reasons had nothing to do with Putin’s regime but everything to do with Figes himself.

* * *

In 2004 specialists at the Memorial Society, a widely respected Russian historical and human rights organization founded in 1988 on behalf of victims and survivors of Stalin’s terror, were contracted by Figes to conduct hundreds of interviews that form the basis of The Whisperers, and are now archived at Memorial. In preparing for the Russian edition, Corpus commissioned Memorial to provide the original Russian-language versions of Figes’s quotations and to check his other English-language translations. What Memorial’s researchers found was a startling number of minor and major errors. Its publication “as is,” it was concluded, would cause a scandal in Russia.

This revelation, which we learned about several months ago, did not entirely surprise us, though our subsequent discoveries were shocking. Separately, we had been following Figes’s academic and related abuses for some time. They began in 1997, with his book A People’s Tragedy, in which the Harvard historian Richard Pipes found scholarly shortcomings. In 2002 Figes’s cultural history of Russia, Natasha’s Dance, was greeted with enthusiasm by many reviewers until it encountered a careful critic in the Times Literary Supplement, Rachel Polonsky of Cambridge University. Polonsky pointed out various defects in the book, including Figes’s careless borrowing of words and ideas of other writers without adequate acknowledgment. One of those writers, the American historian Priscilla Roosevelt, wrote to us, “Figes appropriated obscure memoirs I had used in my book Life on the Russian Country Estate (Yale University Press, 1995), but changed their content and messed up the references.” Another leading scholar, T.J. Binyon, published similar criticism of Natasha’s Dance: “Factual errors and mistaken assertions strew its pages more thickly than autumnal leaves in Vallombrosa.”

In 2010 a different dimension of Figes’s practices came to light. For some time he had been writing anonymous derogatory reviews on Amazon of books by his colleagues in Russian history, notably Polonsky and Robert Service of Oxford University. Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern, for example, was “pretentious” and “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published.” 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.”

When Service and Polonsky expressed their suspicion that Figes had written the reviews, his lawyer threatened Service with court action. Soon, however, Figes was compelled to admit that he had indeed written the anonymous reviews. Service summed up the affair: Figes had “lied through his teeth for a week and threatened to sue me for libel if I didn’t say black was white…. If there is one thing that should come out of this, it is the importance of giving people freedom to speak the truth without the menace of financial ruin.”

* * *

At about the same time, as we later learned, the true story of the Russian edition of Figes’s The Whisperers was unfolding behind the scenes in Moscow. In summer 2010, representatives of three Russian organizations involved—the publisher Corpus, Memorial and a foundation, Dynastia (which owned the Russian rights and paid for the translation)—met to consider what Memorial’s researchers had uncovered. According to a detailed account by one participant, the group tried to find a way to salvage the project, but the researchers had documented too many “anachronisms, incorrect interpretations, stupid mistakes and pure nonsense.” All of The Whisperers’ “facts, dates, names and terms, and the biographies of its central figures, need to be checked,” the participant added. It was too much. A decision was made against proceeding with the Russian edition. After re-examining the relevant materials, Dynastia informed Figes of the decision in an April 6, 2011, letter to his London literary agency.

Indeed, after looking at only a few chapters of The Whisperers, Memorial found so many misrepresentations of the life stories of Stalin’s victims that its chief researcher, a woman with extensive experience working on such materials, said, “I simply wept as I read it and tried to make corrections.” Here are just three examples, which we have also examined, whose gravity readers can decide for themselves:

§ To begin with an example that blends mistakes with invention, consider Figes’s treatment of Natalia Danilova (p. 253), whose father had been arrested. After misrepresenting her family history, Figes puts words in her mouth, evidently to help justify the title of his book: Except for an aunt, “the rest of us could only whisper in dissent.” The “quotation” does not appear in Memorial’s meticulous transcription of its recorded interview with Danilova.

§ Figes invents “facts” in other cases, apparently also for dramatic purpose. According to The Whisperers (pp. 215-17, 292-93), “it is inconceivable” that Mikhail Stroikov could have completed his dissertation while in prison “without the support of the political police. He had two uncles in the OGPU” (the political police). However, there is no evidence that Stroikov had any uncles, nor is there any reason to allege that he had the support of the secret police. Figes also claims that for helping Stroikov’s family, a friend then in exile was “rearrested, imprisoned and later shot.” In reality, this friend was not rearrested, imprisoned or executed, but lived almost to the age of 90.

§ Figes’s distortion of the fate of Dina Ielson-Grodzianskaia (pp. 361-62), who survived eight years in the Gulag, is grievous in a different respect. After placing her in the wrong concentration camp, he alleges that she was “one of the many ‘trusties’” whose collaboration earned them “those small advantages which…could make the difference between life and death.” There is no evidence in the interviews used by Figes that Ielson-Grodzianskaia was ever a “trusty” or received any special privileges. As a leading Memorial researcher commented, Figes’s account is “a direct insult to the memory of a prisoner.”

The Whisperers may be consistent with Figes’s other practices, but for us, longtime students (and friends) of victims of Stalinist and other Soviet-era repressions, the book’s defects are especially grave. For many Russians, particularly surviving family members, Stalin’s millions of victims are a “sacred memory.” Figes has not, to say the least, been faithful to that memory—nor to the truth-telling mission of the often politically embattled Memorial, which, despite the effort expended, honorably agreed with the decision against publishing the Russian edition. Still more, a great many Russians have suffered, even died, for, as Service put it, the “freedom to speak the truth.” Figes has not honored that martyrdom either.

* * *

Unfortunately, The Whisperers is still regarded by many Western readers, including scholars, as an exemplary study of Soviet history. These new revelations show, however, 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. Thus, in The Whisperers he also maligns the memory of the late Soviet poet and longtime editor of Novyi Mir, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, a bold forerunner of Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-Stalinist thinking, by stating that Tvardovsky “betrayed” his own father to the police during the terror (p. 134). Figes’s allegation has been convincingly refuted in the Russian press.

We hope that in his latest book, Just Send Me Word, published in May, Figes has treated his unique sources with more care. This book tells the saga of a deeply moving, secret, more than eight-year correspondence between an inmate in Stalin’s remote Gulag and a devoted woman in Moscow, who later became his wife. Regrettably, the book conveys the impression that Figes retains the full support of Memorial, through, for example, the insertion at the end of the volume of “A Note from Memorial” (an analysis of the correspondence by a Memorial researcher that was apparently designed for another purpose).

In truth, Memorial has come to a different decision regarding Figes. In a letter, one of its leading figures recently wrote about Figes, “Many of us have formed an impression of him as being…a very mediocre researcher and an incompetent handler of sources who is poorly oriented in his chosen topic, but an energetic and talented businessman.” As a result, the writer continued, “In the future, we do not want to link his name with that of Memorial.”

Response From Orlando Figes

I have seventy-five words to respond to an article I’ve not been allowed to read. The first cancellation (Atticus, 2009) cited commercial reasons, though I speculated that politics was involved. The second (Dynastia, 2011) cited about a dozen “factual inaccuracies” and “misrepresentations.” I responded: some were in Memorial’s sources, others debatable, or mistranslated by Dynastia—leaving a few genuine errors in a book based on thousands of interviews and archival documents. These I regret.

It is longstanding Nation policy not to share the full text of an article with the subject of that article before publication. Our Letters page remains open to Figes. —The Editors
… (more)
Den85 | 17 other reviews | Jan 3, 2024 |
Orlando Figes writes the best books about Russia and I liked this one very much.

History, like every academic discipline, is fraught with jealousy and backbiting. Don't get involved in it. The New York Times review of "The Story of Russia" damns with faint praise and somehow puts the book down because Figes is covering old ground. Phooey. This book sets out to explain to the general reader how Russia came to be as it is. Of course Figes has written about this before. He's an academic historian who has been writing books and articles about Russia for decades. Not everyone will agree with him. Don't worry about that. There are enough reputable people who like this book that we can be reassured that we are not poisoning our mind with junk.

"The Story of Russia" is a stand alone book that traces the national myth of the Russian people for the past 1000+ years up to Putin. It helped me sort out the relationship between the Kievan Rus and the Russians (not the same) and the basis of Putin's crackpot idea of Russian destiny. It's also a pleasure to read.

And if you haven't read any other books by Orlando Figes, try "Natasha's Dance".
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Dokfintong | 5 other reviews | Dec 8, 2023 |
Stravinskij proclamo’:
L’odore della terra russa e’ diverso, e queste sono cose che non si possono dimenticare… (502)

Cosa significava essere russi? Qual era il posto e la missione della Russia nel mondo? E dov’era l’autentica Russia? In Europa o in Asia? San Pietroburgo o Mosca? L’impero zarista o il fangoso villaggio con la sua unica strada dove viveva lo “zio” di Natasa? Erano queste le “domande ossessive” che nell’età d’oro della cultura russa, da Puskin a Pasternak, occupavano la mente di qualsiasi serio scrittore, critico e storico letterario, pittore o compositore, teologo o filosofo. Sono le domande che, nella prospettiva di questo libro, si celano sotto la superficie dell’arte. (xv)

Il mio obbiettivo è di esplorare la cultura russa nello stesso modo in cui Tolstoj e, come l’aria al cui ritmo balla Natasa, la maggior parte delle “canzoni popolari” era giunta dalle città. (xvi)

Quando Pietro dichiarò “qui sorgerà una città”, le sue parole sembrarono echeggiare il comando divino “sia la luce”. E, secondo la leggenda, allorché le pronunciò, un’aquila prese a volteggiare sopra la testa dello zar andando poi a posarsi sul culmine di un arco formato da due betulle allacciate. (4)

San Pietroburgo era più di una città. Era un grande progetto, in certo modo utopistico, di ingegneria culturale per rimodellare il russo come uomo europeo. Dostoevskij nelle Memorie del sottosuolo, la definì “la più astratta e artificiosa città di tutto il globo terrestre”. Ogni aspetto della cultura petrina era designato a negare la Moscovia “medievale” (XXVII secolo). Nell’intenzione dell’imperatore, diventare cittadino di Pietroburgo voleva dire lasciarsi alle spalle gli “oscuri” e “arretrati” costumi del passato russo per entrare, come russo europeo, nel moderno mondo occidentale del progresso e dei Lumi. (9)

Ma questo senso di far parte dell’Europa produceva anche anime divise. “Noi russi abbiamo due patrie: la Russia e l’Europa”, scriveva Dostoevskij. (48)

Nei panorami settecenteschi di San Pietroburgo il cielo aperto e lo spazio connettono la città con un più ampio universo. Linee dritte tendono verso orizzonti lontani, oltre cui, siamo sollecitati a immaginare, giace a portata di mano il resto dell’Europa. La proiezione della Russia sull’Europa era sempre stata la raison d’etre di San Pietroburgo. Essa non era soltanto la “finestra sull’Europa” di Pietro - come disse una volta Puskin della capitale - ma un passaggio aperto attraverso cui l’Europa entrava in Russia e i russi facevano il loro ingresso nel mondo. (54)

“Per conoscere il nostro popolo, - scriveva il poeta Aleksandr Bestuzev, - bisogna vivere con lui e parlare con lui nel suo linguaggio, si deve mangiare con lui e celebrare con lui i giorni di festa, cacciare nei boschi l’orso insieme con lui, o recarsi al mercato su un carro contadino”. La poesia di Puskin fu la prima a ottemperare a questa esigenza. Parlare al più ampio ventaglio di lettori, tanto al contadino alfabetizzato come al principe, nell’idioma russo comune. Creare una lingua nazionale con la sua poesia fu la suprema realizzazione di Puskin. (71)

Come ben sanno i lettori di Guerra e pace, la guerra del 1812 rappresentò uno spartiacque nella cultura dell’aristocrazia russa. Fu una guerra di liberazione nazionale dallo scettro intellettuale della Francia: un momento in cui nobili come I Rostov e i Bolkonskij cercarono di liberarsi dalle abitudini straniere della loro società e iniziarono una nuova vita fondata su principi russi. (88)

Aksakov sosteneva che il “tipo russo” era incarnato nel leggendario eroe popolare Il’ja Muromec che compare in narrazioni epiche come protettore della terra russa contro invasori e infedeli, briganti e mostri, con la sua “forza gentile e la sua mancanza di aggressività, ma anche con la sua prontezza a combattere per la causa del popolo in una giusta guerra difensiva”. (117)

Con le sue casette in legno e le stradine tortuose, con i suoi palazzi dotati di stalle e di cortili chiusi dove pascolavano liberamente mucche e pecore, Mosca possedeva una peculiare atmosfera campagnola. Era chiamata “il grande villaggio”, un soprannome che ha mantenuto fino ad oggi. (132)

Nelle parole di Pasternak:

Tutto si coprira’ di nebbia favolosa,
similmente ai rabeschi sui muri
della camera indorata dei boiari
e alla chiesa del Beato Vasilij.

Al sognatore e al nottambulo
Mosca e’ piu’ cara d’ogni cosa al mondo.
Egli si trova a casa, alla sorgente
di tutto cio’ di cui fiorira’ il secolo. (190)

Perche’, come illustrano i famosi versi del poeta Nekrasov:

La Russia e’ racchiusa nel profondo della sua campagna
la’ dove regna un eterno silenzio. (193)

Optina Pustyn’, l’ultimo grande ricetto della tradizione eremitica che riconnetteva la Russia a Bisanzio, andra’ delineandosi come il centro spirituale della coscienza nazionale. Tutti i piu’ grandi scrittori dell’Ottocento - Gogol’, Dostoevskij, Tolstoj tra gli altri - vi si recheranno nella loro ricerca dell’”anima russa”. (251)

Cio’ che il russo non puo’ comprendere restera’ per sempre sconosciuto agli uomini. (270)

Nella sua lettera a Gogol’, Belinskij aveva riconosciuto che il contadino russo si caratterizzava per il timore e la devota reverenza verso Dio. “Ma mentre pronuncia il nome di Dio, si gratta la schiena. E dell’icona dice: “Va bene per pregare, ma anche per coprirci le pignatte”. (274)

Nelle Mie universita’ (1922), Gor’kij descrive un contadino da lui incontrato in un villaggio vicino Kazan’, il quale
… immaginava (Dio) come un vecchio grande e nobile, come un padrone buono e intelligente, che non poteva vincere il male solo perche’: “Non fa in tempo, ci sono troppi uomini oggi. Ma non importa, ci riuscira’ vedrai! … Per quanto ne so, Dio non e’ morto… (275)

Si tratto’, sembra, del tentativo consapevole da parte della Chiesa russa di appropriarsi del culto pagano di Rozanica, dea della fertilita’, e dell’antico culto slavo dell’umida Madre terra, ovvero della dea conosciuta come Mokos, da cui derivo’ il mito della “madre Russia”. Nella sua forma contadina piu’ arcaica, la religione russa era una religione della terra. (276)

Nella mentalita’ russa, la frontiera religiosa e’ stata sempre piu’ importante di qualsiasi confine etnico, e i piu’ antichi termini per “straniero” (ad esempio, inoverec) veicolano la connotazione di una fede diversa. E’ ugualmente significativo che la parola russa per “contadino” (“krest’janin”), che in pressoche’ tutte le altre lingue europee si radica nella nozione di paese o di terra, sia connessa invece alla parola per “cristiano” (“christianin”). (322)

Marciando verso il cuore dell’Asia, i russi tornavano al loro antico focolare. …
Ispirato dal soggiogamento dell’Asia centrale, anche Dostoevskij arrivo’ a pensare che il destino della Russia non fosse in Europa, come aveva a lungo reputato, ma in Oriente. (355)

Tarkovskij ha rivissuto questo mito nazionale in antitesi al sistema di valori del regime sovietico, con le sue idee aliene di razionalismo materialistico. “L’odierna cultura di massa…, - scrive Tarkovskij, - mutila le anime, sbarrando all’uomo la strada che conduce ai problemi radicali della sua esistenza, alla presa di coscienza di se stesso come essere spirituale”. Tale coscienza spirituale, egli pensava, era il contributo della Russia poteva offrire all’Occidente. Un’idea, questa, simboleggiata nell’ultima immagine iconica di Nostalghia (1983): una casa contadina russa inserita tra le rovine di una cattedrale italiana. (445)

Nel 1933 Bunin ottenne il Nobel. Fu il primo scrittore russo a ricevere questo premio che, arrivato mentre Stalin stava mettendo in catene la cultura sovietica, fu percepito dagli emigrati come il riconoscimento che la Vera Russia (sul piano della cultura) si trovava all’estero. (462)

La musica di Rachmaninov esprime lo spirito di questo paesaggio. “I russi sentono con il suolo un legame piu’ forte di qualsiasi altro popolo, - spiego’ a una rivista americana (pensando, evidentemente, soprattutto a se stesso). - Esso deriva da una tendenza istintiva alla quiete, alla tranquillita’, all’ammirazione della natura, e forse da una ricerca di solitudine. Mi sembra che tutti i russi siano un po’ eremiti”. (465)
… (more)
NewLibrary78 | 15 other reviews | Jul 22, 2023 |



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