Orlando Figes (//; born 20 November 1959) is a prominent British historian and writer best known for his works on Russian history. He is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London.
Figes is known for his works on Russian history, in particular A People's Tragedy (1996), Natasha's Dance (2002), The Whisperers (2007), Crimea (2010) and Just Send Me Word (2012). A People's Tragedy is a study of the Russian Revolution, and combines social and political history with biographical details in a historical narrative. In 2008 the Times Literary Supplement named A People's Tragedy as one of the 'hundred most influential books since the war'. It was awarded the Wolfson History Prize, the WH Smith Literary Award, the NCR Book Award, the Longman-History Today Book Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Natasha's Dance and The Whisperers were both short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize, making Figes the only writer to have been short-listed twice for this prize. The Whisperers was also short-listed for the Ondaatje Prize, the Prix Médicis, and the Premio Roma.
Figes serves on the editorial board of the journal Russian History, writes for the international press, broadcasts on television and radio, reviews for the New York Review of Books, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
- 1 Personal life and education
- 2 Writing
- 3 Public activities in Russia
- 4 Broadcasts
- 5 Theatrical adaptations
- 6 Controversy over Amazon reviews
- 7 Prizes
- 8 Works
- 9 References
- 10 Sources
- 11 External links
Personal life and education
Figes is the son of the feminist writer Eva Figes. He attended William Ellis School in north London (1971–78) and studied History at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, graduating with a rare double-starred First in 1982. He completed his PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a Fellow from 1984 to 1999.
He was a Lecturer in History and Fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge from 1987 to 1999, when he succeeded Richard J. Evans as Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London.
Figes is married to the human-rights lawyer Stephanie Palmer, a Senior Lecturer in Law at Cambridge University and Barrister at Blackstone Chambers London. They have two daughters, Lydia and Alice. He lives in London and is a supporter of Chelsea Football Club. His sister is the author and editor Kate Figes.
Works on the Russian Revolution
Figes's first three books were on the Russian Revolution and the Civil War. Peasant Russia, Civil War (1989) was a detailed study of the peasantry in the Volga region during the Revolution and the Civil War (1917–21). Using village Soviet archives, Figes emphasised the autonomous nature of the agrarian revolution during 1917–18, showing how it developed according to traditional peasant notions of social justice independently of the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks or other urban-based parties. He also demonstrated how the function of the rural Soviets was transformed in the course of the Civil War as they were taken over by younger and more literate peasants and migrant townsmen, many of them veterans of the First World War or Red Army soldiers, who became the rural bureaucrats of the emerging Bolshevik regime.
A People's Tragedy (1996) is a panoramic history of the Revolution from 1891 to the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924. It combines social and political history and interweaves through the public narrative the personal stories of several representative figures, including Grigory Rasputin, the writer Maxim Gorky, Prince Georgy Lvov and General Alexei Brusilov, as well as unknown peasants and workers. Figes wrote that he had "tried to present the revolution not as a march of abstract social forces and ideologies but as a human event of complicated individual tragedies". Left-wing critics have represented Figes as a conservative because of his negative assessment of Lenin and his focus on the individual and "the random succession of chance events" rather than on the collective actions of the masses. Others have situated Figes among the so-called 'revisionist' historians of the Revolution who attempted to explain its political development in terms of social history. In 2008, the Times Literary Supplement listed A People's Tragedy as one of the "hundred most influential books since the war".
Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917 (1999), co-written with Boris Kolonitskii, analyses the political language, revolutionary songs, visual symbols and historical ideas that animated the revolutionary crowds of 1917.
Revolutionary Russia: 1891–1991, is a short introduction to the subject published as part of the relaunch of Pelican Books in the United Kingdom in 2014. In it Figes argues for the need to see the Russian Revolution in a longer time-frame than most historians have allowed. He states that his aim is 'to chart one hundred years of history as a single revolutionary cycle. In this telling the Revolution starts in the nineteenth century (and more specifically in 1891, when the public’s reaction to the famine crisis set it for the first time on a collision course with the autocracy) and ends with the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991.'
Natasha's Dance and Russian cultural history
Published in 2002, Natasha's Dance is a broad cultural history of Russia from the building of St. Petersburg during the reign of Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century. Taking its title from a scene in Tolstoy's War and Peace, where the young countess Natasha Rostova intuitively dances a peasant dance, it explores the tensions between the European and folk elements of Russian culture, and examines how the myth of the "Russian soul" and the idea of "Russianness" itself have been expressed by Russian writers, artists, composers and philosophers.
The film director Joe Wright revealed that Natasha's Dance was the inspiration for his 2012 film Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard. Figes is credited as the historical consultant on the film
Figes has also written essays on various Russian cultural figures, including Leo Tolstoy, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Andrei Platonov. In 2003 he wrote and presented a TV feature documentary for the BBC, The Tsar's Last Picture Show, about the pioneering colour photographer in Tsarist Russia Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky.
Oral history and The Whisperers
Figes contracted the Memorial Society, a human rights non-profit, to gather several hundred private family archives from homes across Russia. Through the Memorial Society he carried out more than a thousand interviews with survivors as well as perpetrators of the Stalinist repressions for his book The Whisperers. This represents one of the biggest collections of documents about private life in the Stalin era. Housed in the Memorial Society in Moscow, St Petersburg and Perm, many of these valuable research materials are available on line.
Translated into more than twenty languages, The Whisperers was described by Andrey Kurkov as "one of the best literary monuments to the Soviet people, on a par with The Gulag Archipelago and the prose of Varlam Shalamov." In it Figes underlined the importance of oral testimonies for the recovery of the history of repression in the former Soviet Union. While conceding that, "like all memory, the testimony given in an interview is unreliable", he has claimed that oral testimonies are, on the whole, "more reliable than literary memoirs, which have usually been seen as a more authentic record of the past". The reason he gives is that 'unlike a book, [oral testimony] can be cross-examined and tested against other evidence to disentangle true memories from received or imagined ones'.
In contrast to other books that have focused on the external facts of Soviet repression, The Whisperers deals mainly with the impact of repression on internal life. It examines the influence of the Soviet regime and its campaigns of Terror on family relationships, emotions and beliefs, moral choices, issues of personal and social identity, and collective memory. Describing the subject-matter of his book, Figes claims that 'the real power and lasting legacy of the Stalinist system were neither in structures of the state, nor in the cult of the leader, but, as the Russian historian Mikhail Gefter once remarked, "in the Stalinism that entered into all of us".'
Figes has included in The Whisperers a detailed study of the Soviet poet Konstantin Simonov, who became a leading figure in the Soviet Writers' Union and a propagandist in the "anti-cosmopolitan" campaign during Stalin's final years. Figes drew on the closed sections of Simonov's archive in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art and on the archives of the poet's wife and son to produce his study of this major Soviet establishment figure.
A planned 2012 Russian translation of The Whisperers was abandoned after fact-checking by the Memorial Society, who alleged that it contained inaccuracies in Figes' presentation of their original Russian-language interviews. Publisher Corpus considered the errors numerous and problematic enough to cancel publication altogether, providing examples of a Gulag inmate being wrongfully described as one of the "trusties" (prisoners who collaborated with the gulag administration), and the inclusion of a quote which did not appear in Memorial's original interview with the subject it was attributed to. Figes rejected many of the alleged inaccuracies, pointing to questions of interpretation over who were considered to be trusties, matters of opinion which "should be subject to normal scholarly discussion on the basis of a published text (rather than pre-publication censorship)", errors of translation by Dynastia, and mistakes in Memorial's sources, whilst expressing his regret for "the handful of genuine errors" that remained.
Just Send Me Word
In 2011 Figes revealed that his next book would be a love story set in the Gulag, based on uncensored letters smuggled out of a labour camp. Published in 2012, Just Send Me Word is a true story based on 1,246 letters smuggled in and out of the Pechora labour camp between 1946 and 1955 between Lev Mishchenko (a prisoner) and Svetlana Ivanova (his girlfriend in Moscow). There are 647 letters from Lev to Svetlana, and 599 from her to him. They form part of a family archive discovered by the Memorial Society and delivered in three trunks to their Moscow offices in 2007 . The letters are the largest known collection of private correspondence from the Gulag, according to Memorial.
Figes was given exclusive access to the letters and other parts of the archive, which is also based on interviews with the couple when they were in their nineties, and the archives of the labour camp itself. Figes raised the finance for the transcription of the letters, which are housed in the Memorial Society in Moscow and will become available to researchers in 2013. According to Figes, "Lev's letters are the only major real-time record of daily life in the Gulag that has ever come to light." .
The book tells the story of Lev and Svetlana who met as students in the Physics Faculty of Moscow University in 1935. Separated by the Second World War in 1941, when Lev was enrolled in the Red Army, they made contact in 1946, when he wrote from Pechora. Figes uses the letters to explore conditions in the labour camp and to tell the love story, ending in 1955 with Lev's release and marriage to Svetlana. The book documents five illegal trips made by Svetlana to visit Lev by smuggling herself into the labour camp.
The title of the book is taken from the poem "In Dream" by Anna Akhmatova, translated by D.M. Thomas: "Black and enduring separation/I share equally with you/Why weep? Give me your hand/Promise to appear in a dream again./You and I are like two mountains/And in this world we cannot meet./Just send me word/At midnight sometime through the stars."
Writing in the Financial Times, Simon Sebag Montefiore called Just Send Me Word "a unique contribution to Gulag scholarship as well as a study of the universal power of love".  Several reviewers highlighted the book's literary qualities, pointing out that it 'reads like a novel' .
Just Send Me Word is scheduled for publication in German, French, Italian, Dutch, Polish, Swedish, Portuguese, Norwegian, Finnish and Danish.
Crimea: The Last Crusade is a panoramic history of the Crimean War of 1853–56. Drawing extensively from Russian, French and Ottoman as well as British archives, it combines military, diplomatic, political and cultural history, examining how the war left a lasting mark on the national consciousness of Britain, France, Russia and Turkey. Figes sets the war in the context of the Eastern Question, the diplomatic and political problems caused by the decay of the Ottoman Empire. In particular, he emphasises the importance of the religious struggle between Russia as the defender of the Orthodox and France as the protector of the Catholics in the Ottoman Empire. He frames the war within a longer history of religious conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Balkans, southern Russia and the Caucasus that continues to this day. Figes stresses the religious motive of the Tsar Nicholas I in his bold decision to go to war, arguing that Nicholas was swayed by the ideas of the Pan-Slavs to invade Moldavia and Wallachia and encourage Slav revolts against the Ottomans, despite his earlier adherence to the Legitimist principles of the Holy Alliance. He also shows how France and Britain were drawn into the war by popular ideas of Russophobia that swept across Europe in the wake of the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848. As one reviewer wrote, Figes shows "how the cold war of the Soviet era froze over fundamental fault lines that had opened up in the 19th century."
Public activities in Russia
Figes has been critical of the Vladimir Putin government, in particular allegations that Putin has attempted to rehabilitate Joseph Stalin and impose his own agenda on history-teaching in Russian schools and universities. He is involved in an international summer school for history teachers in Russian universities organised by the European University of St Petersburg.
On 4 December 2008, the St Petersburg offices of the Memorial Society were raided by the police. The entire electronic archive of Memorial in St Petersburg, including the materials collected with Figes for The Whisperers, was confiscated by the authorities. Figes condemned the police raid, accusing the Russian authorities of trying to rehabilitate the Stalinist regime. Figes organised an open protest letter to President Dmitry Medvedev and other Russian leaders, which was signed by several hundred leading academics from across the world. After several court hearings, the materials were finally returned to Memorial in May 2009.
On 2 March 2009, the contract to publish The Whisperers in Russia was cancelled by the publishing house Atticus, claiming financial reasons. Figes suspects that the decision was partly influenced by the politics surrounding the police raid against Memorial. The book will be published by the charitable organisation Dinastia, which financed the translation from the start.
In December 2013 Figes wrote a long piece in the US journal Foreign Affairs on the Euromaidan demonstrations in Kiev suggesting that a referendum on Ukraine's foreign policy and the country's possible partition might be a preferable alternative to the possibility of civil war and military intervention by Russia.
Figes has contributed frequently to radio and television broadcasts in the United Kingdom and around the world. In 1999 he wrote a six-part educational TV series on the history of Communism under the title Red Chapters. Produced by Opus Television and broadcast in the UK, the 25-minute films featured turning-points in the history of Soviet Russia, China, and Cuba. In 2003 he wrote and presented a TV feature documentary for the BBC, The Tsar's Last Picture Show, about the pioneering colour photographer in Russia Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky. In 2007 he wrote and presented two 60-minute Archive Hour programmes on radio entitled Stalin's Silent People which used recordings from his oral history project with Memorial that formed the basis of his book The Whisperers. The programmes are available on Figes's website.
Figes' The Whisperers was adapted and performed by Rupert Wickham as Stalin's Favourite. Based on Figes' portrayal of the writer Konstantin Simonov, the play was performed in the National Theatre in London followed by a season of performances at the Unicorn Theatre in London.
Controversy over Amazon reviews
In 2010, Figes posted several pseudonymous reviews on the UK site of the online bookseller Amazon where he criticised books by two other British historians of Russia, Robert Service and Rachel Polonsky, while praising his own book. Initially denying responsibility for the reviews, he threatened legal action against those who suggested he was the author. He later apologised and agreed to pay legal costs and damages to Polonsky and Service, who had threatened to sue him for libel.
- 1997 – Wolfson History Prize A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924
- 1997 – WH Smith Literary Award A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924
- 1997 – NCR Book Award A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924
- 1997 – Longman-History Today Book Prize A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924
- 1997 – Los Angeles Times Book Prize A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924
- 2009 – Przeglad Wschodni Award Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia.
- 2003 – Samuel Johnson Prize Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia.
- 2003 – Duff-Cooper Prize Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
- 2008 – Samuel Johnson Prize The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia.
- 2008 – Ondaatje Prize The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia
- 2009 – Prix Médicis Les Chuchoteurs: la vie et la mort sous Staline
- 2010 – Premio Roma "Sospetto e Silenzio".
- Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution, 1917–21, 1989, ISBN 0-19-822169-X
- A People's Tragedy: Russian Revolution 1891–1924, London: Jonathan Cape, 1996, ISBN 0-7126-7327-X
- With Boris Kolonitskii: Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917, 1999, ISBN 0-300-08106-5
- Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, 2002, ISBN 0-14-029796-0
- The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, 2007, ISBN 978-0-8050-7461-1, ISBN 0-8050-7461-9, ISBN 978-0-8050-7461-1, ISBN 0-8050-7461-9
- Crimea: The Last Crusade, Allen Lane, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7139-9704-0
- Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag, Metropolitan Books, 2012. ISBN 978-0-8050-9522-7
- Revolutionary Russia, 1891–1991, Metropolitan Books, 2014, ISBN 9780805091311
- Revolutionary Russia, 1891–1991, Pelican Books, 2014, ISBN 978-0141043678
- Times Literary Supplement, 30 December 2008, p. 7.
- "Russian History". Brill Publishers. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
- "Current RSL Fellows". Royal Society of Literature. Retrieved 18 March 2014.
- Figes, Orlando, Peasant Russia, Civil War, p. xxi.
- Figes, Orlando, A People's Tragedy, 1996, p. xvii.
- Haynes, Michael, and Wolfreys, Jim, History and Revolution, London: Verso, 2007, p. 15.
- Keep, John, "Great October?" in The Times Literary Supplement, 23 August 1996, p. 5.
- Times Literary Supplement, 30 December 2008.
- Journal of Cold War Studies, Volume 2, Number 2, Spring 2000, pp. 122–25.
- Bamigboye, Baz (27 January 2012). "Stunning as always: Keira Knightley turns in a great performance as Anna Karenina". Daily Mail (London).
- Anna Karenina at IMDb.
- "Orlando Figes | The New York Review of Books". Nybooks.com. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
- "Four Documentaries – The Tsar's Last Picture Show". BBC. 22 November 2007. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
- Robert Booth; Miriam Elder (23 May 2012). "Orlando Figes translation scrapped in Russia amid claims of inaccuracies". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 23 May 2012.
- "Orlando Figes [Author and Professor of Russian History]". Orlandofiges.com. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
- His books have been translated into French, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Russian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Estonian, Latvian, Slovenian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Greek, Turkish, Hebrew, Georgian, Korean, Japanese and Chinese.["Orlando Figes [Author and Professor of Russian History]". Orlandofiges.com. Retrieved 19 November 2013.]
- Schaaf, Matthew. "Secrets of the state". New Statesman. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
- The Whisperers (London, 2007), p. 636.
- Figes, The Whisperers, p. xxxii.
- Times Literary Supplement, 8 February 2008.
- "Orlando Figes and Stalin's Victims". The Nation. 23 May 2012. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
- "A Note From Memorial" in Just Send Me Word, p. 297.
- Angus Macqueen (10 October 2010). "Crimea: The Last Crusade by Orlando Figes – review". London: The Observer. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
- Schaaf, Matthew. "Vlad the Great". New Statesman. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
- Luke Harding in Moscow (7 December 2008). "Luke Harding, "British scholar rails at police seizure of anti-Stalin archive", ''The Observer'', 7 December 2008". London: Guardian. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
- "Blog Archive – An open letter to President Medvedev". Index on Censorship. 8 December 2008. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
- Figes, Orlando. "What's The Real Reason My Book on Stalin Isn't Being Published in Russia?". Rferl.org. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
- "Russian historian arrested in clampdown on Stalin era", The Guardian, 15 October 2009.
- Michael MacLeod (16 August 2011). "Michael MacLeod, "Orlando Figes to give away royalties from next book", ''The Guardian'', 16 August 2011". London: Guardian. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
- Red Chapters: Turning Points in the History of Communism (TV Series 1999) – IMDb
- Stalin's Favourite – Platforms – National Theatre[dead link]
- Unicorn Theatre[dead link]
- Alexandra Topping, "Historian Orlando Figes agrees to pay damages for fake reviews",The Guardian, 16 July 2010.
- David Rose I blame my wife: Top historian accused of rubbishing rivals in Amazon reviews... then his wife says SHE did it", Daily Mail, 17 April 2010 (retrieved 5 January 2013)
- Richard Lea and Matthew Taylor (23 April 2010). ""Historian Orlando Figes admits posting Amazon reviews that trashed rivals", ''Guardian''". London: Guardian. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
- Amazon row don admits: 'It was me', The Daily Mail, 23 April 2010
- "Historian and Wife Will Pay Over Savage Online Reviews", New York Times, Dave Itzkoff, 19 July 2010.
- It's a war of the historians (part two),London Evening Standard, Diary, 7 October 2010.
- Dispute between Polonsky, Service, Figes and Palmer settled, History Today, 21 July 2010.
- "2003 Shortlist". Thesamueljohnsonprize.co.uk. 28 June 2013. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
- "Home". The Duff Cooper Prize. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
- "2008 Shortlist". Thesamueljohnsonprize.co.uk. 28 June 2013. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
- "Orlando Figes". Livres.fluctuat.net. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
- Ondaatje Prize[dead link]
- Comunicato stampa – editor: Claudio Gnessi. "romanotizie.it/premio-roma-2010". Romanotizie.it. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
- "Orlando Figes [Home]". Orlandofiges.com. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
- Guy Dammann (14 July 2008). "Interview: Guy Dammann talks to Orlando Figes". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
- Luke Harding in Moscow (7 December 2008). "Russian police raid human rights group's archive |". London: The Observer. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
- Figes's free educational website on the Russian Revolution and Soviet history, May 2014
- Figes's website with oral history materials, September 2007
- new Figes website, September 2011
- Orlando Figes at the Internet Movie Database
- BBC Four presenter interview, May 2003
- PBS filmed interviews with Figes
- Video presentation by Figes of Just Send Me Word, 2012
- Figes on 20 years since the fall of Communism, 2011
- Stalin's children, The Economist, October 2007
- Sunday Book Review, New York Times, November 2007
- NPR Interview, December 2007
- The Destruction of Memory, Washington Post, February 2008
- Podcast of Figes speaking at the Samuel Johnson short-listed author event about "Whisperers", London (2008) BookBuffet.com
- Podcast of Figes 'On the Politics of Russian History', April 2009
- Figes author page and article archive from The New York Review of Books