Orlando Figes

Orlando Figes

Orlando Figes (pronounced /ˈfaɪdʒiːz/; born 20 November 1959) is a British historian of Russia, and Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London.



Figes is the son of the feminist writer Eva Figes. His sister is the author and editor Kate Figes. He attended William Ellis School in north London from 1971-78. He read History at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, graduating with a rare double-starred First in 1982, and completed his PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a Fellow from 1984 to 1999. He was a Lecturer in History at the University of Cambridge from 1987 to 1999, before taking the Chair of History at Birkbeck College, University of London.

He is known for his works on Russian history, in particular A People's Tragedy (1996), Natasha's Dance (2002) and The Whisperers (2007). Figes uses a broad range of methodologies, including social, cultural and oral history, and his writing combines literary and academic qualities.

A People's Tragedy, which has been translated into twenty languages, is a study of the Russian Revolution, and combines social and political history with biographical details in a historical narrative. 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 won the Przeglad Wschodni Award for the best foreign book on East European History in Poland in 2009.[1]

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 the Samuel Johnson Prize. The Whisperers was also short-listed for the Ondaatje Prize,[2] the Prix Médicis,[3] and the Premio Roma.[4] Crimea: The Last Crusade, on the Crimean War of 1853-56, was published in 2010.

Figes serves on the editorial board of the journal Russian History.[5]

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.[6]

Figes also writes for the international press, broadcasts on television and radio, and reviews books for the New York Review of Books. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.[7]

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 (1917–1921). Using village Soviet archives, Figes emphasized 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.[8] 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 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".[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

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.[12]

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. Figes has also written essays on various Russian cultural figures, including Leo Tolstoy, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev .[13] 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.[14]

Oral history and The Whisperers

Figes has made a significant contribution to the development of oral history in Russia. With the Memorial Society, he gathered several hundred private family archives from homes across Russia and 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.[15]

Translated into more than twenty languages, The Whisperers has been 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."[16] In it Figes underlines the importance of oral testimonies for the recovery of the history of repression in the former Soviet Union. Whilst 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'.[17]

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".'[18]

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.[19]


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 emphasizes 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. According to one reviewer, Figes shows "how the cold war of the Soviet era froze over fundamental fault lines that had opened up in the 19th century." [20]

Gulag Love Story

In 2011 Figes revealed that his next book will be a love story set in the Gulag based on 1,500 uncensored letters smuggled in and out of the Pechora labour camp from 1946, interviews with the couple, Lev and Sveta Mishchenko, who had met in the 1930s as students at the Physics Faculty of Moscow University, and the archives of the labour camp itself. 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."[21]

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.[22] He is actively 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.[23] 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.[24] 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.[25] The book will be published by the charitable organisation Dinastia, which financed the translation from the start.

Figes has also condemned the arrest by the FSB of historian Mikhail Suprun as part of a "Putinite campaign against freedom of historical research and expression".[26]

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2011 Figes revealed that he had made some charitable donations in Russia from the proceeds of his book "The Whisperers".[27]


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.[28] 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.[14] 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.[29]

Theatrical Adaptations of Figes' Books

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[30] followed by a season of performances at the Unicorn Theatre in London.[31]

Personal Life

Figes is the son of the feminist writer Eva Figes. His sister is the author and editor Kate Figes. He 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 Cambridge and London and is a supporter of Chelsea Football Club.[32]

Controversy over Amazon reviews

In 2010, Figes posted several pseudonymous reviews on the UK site of the online bookseller Amazon, including some where he criticized books by two other British historians of Russia, Robert Service and Rachel Polonsky, whilst praising his own book. Initially denying responsibility for the reviews, and threatening legal action against those who suggested he was the author,[33] Figes later issued an apology and agreed to pay legal costs and damages to Polonsky and Service, who had threatened to sue him for libel.[33][34][35][36][37] In an interview with the Sunday Times on 3 October 2010, Figes said that the two historians had threatened to sue him for libel and to report him to the police.[38] In response, Polonsky stated that Figes had engaged in a distortion of facts in his interview with the paper in his account of legal negotiations over the controversy.[36] In December 2010 Figes told the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant that Polonsky and Service had used the threat of libel proceedings and made threats against his wife through Carter Ruck (although Polonsky had previously written her an email telling her how much her 'heart went out to her') in an attempt to force him to admit to new legal claims that were untrue. In August 2011 De Volkskrant published Polonsky's letter of response.[39] This stated that nothing in the draft apology proposed by her and Service during the legal correspondence was untrue. The letter further stated that Figes's wife had been included in the correspondence because legal costs had been incurred in the week during which she falsely claimed to be the author of the Amazon reviews.



  • 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 [40] Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
  • 2003 – Duff-Cooper Prize [41] Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
  • 2008 – Samuel Johnson Prize [42] The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia
  • 2008 – Ondaatje Prize [43] The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia
  • 2009 – Prix Médicis [3] Les Chuchoteurs: la vie et la mort sous Staline
  • 2010 – Premio Roma [4] "Sospetto e Silenzio"




  1. ^ http://www.rhttp:orlandofiges.com/news.php
  2. ^ [1][dead link]
  3. ^ a b "Orlando Figes". Livres.fluctuat.net. http://livres.fluctuat.net/orlando-figes.html. Retrieved 2011-08-31. 
  4. ^ a b romanotizie.it/premio-roma-2010
  5. ^ "Russian History | BRILL". Brill.nl. http://www.brill.nl/ruhi. Retrieved 2011-08-31. 
  6. ^ "Orlando Figes [Author and Professor of Russian History]". Orlandofiges.com. http://www.orlandofiges.com/orlando.php. Retrieved 2011-08-31. 
  7. ^ RSL website[dead link]
  8. ^ Figes, Orlando, Peasant Russia, Civil War, etc….p. xxi.
  9. ^ Figes, Orlando, A People's Tragedy, Jonathan Cape, London, 1996, p. xvii.
  10. ^ Haynes, Michael, and Wolfreys, Jim, History and Revolution, London, Verso, 2007, p. 15.
  11. ^ Keep, John, 'Great October?' in Times Literary Supplement, August 23, 1996, p. 5.
  12. ^ Journal of Cold War Studies - Volume 2, Number 2, Spring 2000, pp. 122-125.
  13. ^ "Orlando Figes | The New York Review of Books". Nybooks.com. http://www.nybooks.com/contributors/orlando-figes/. Retrieved 2011-08-31. 
  14. ^ a b "Four Documentaries - The Tsar's Last Picture Show". BBC. 2007-11-22. http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/features/tsars-show.shtml. Retrieved 2011-08-31. 
  15. ^ "Orlando Figes [Home]". Orlandofiges.com. http://www.orlandofiges.com. Retrieved 2011-08-31. 
  16. ^ Schaaf, Matthew. "Secrets of the state". New Statesman. http://www.newstatesman.com/books/2007/12/stalin-russia-figes-soviet. Retrieved 2011-08-31. 
  17. ^ The Whisperers (London 2007)p636
  18. ^ Figes, The Whisperers, p. xxxii.
  19. ^ Times Literary Supplement, 8 February 2008
  20. ^ Angus Macqueen. "Crimea: The Last Crusade by Orlando Figes – review | Books | The Observer". Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/oct/10/crimea-last-crusade-figes-review. Retrieved 2011-08-31. 
  21. ^ [2].
  22. ^ Schaaf, Matthew. "Vlad the Great". New Statesman. http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2007/11/russia-putin-soviet-power. Retrieved 2011-08-31. 
  23. ^ [3][dead link]
  24. ^ "Blog Archive » An open letter to President Medvedev". Index on Censorship. 2008-12-08. http://www.indexoncensorship.org/2008/12/08/an-open-letter-to-president-medvedev. Retrieved 2011-08-31. 
  25. ^ Figes, Orlando. "What's The Real Reason My Book On Stalin Isn't Being Published In Russia?". Rferl.org. http://www.rferl.org/content/Trying_To_Bury_An_Inconvenient_History/1503708.html. Retrieved 2011-08-31. 
  26. ^ Russian historian arrested in clampdown on Stalin era, The Guardian, October 15, 2009.
  27. ^ http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/.
  28. ^ Red Chapters: Turning Points in the History of Communism (TV Series 1999) - IMDb
  29. ^ [4].
  30. ^ Stalin's Favourite - Platforms - National Theatre
  31. ^ | Unicorn Theatre
  32. ^ www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article5864399.ece
  33. ^ a b Historian Orlando Figes agrees to pay damages for fake reviews,The Guardian, Alexandra Topping. 16 July 2010
  34. ^ Amazon row don admits: 'It was me', The Daily Mail, 23 April 2010
  35. ^ Historian and Wife Will Pay Over Savage Online Reviews, New York Times, Dave Itzkoff, July 19, 2010
  36. ^ a b It's a war of the historians (part two),London Evening Standard, Diary, 7 October 2010
  37. ^ Dispute between Polonsky, Service, Figes and Palmer settled, History Today, 21 July 2010.
  38. ^ Bryan Appleyard, "O the wild charges he made!", The Sunday Times, October 3, 2010, Features section, pp. 50-53, 55, 57, in which Figes is quoted, "I will try to be as objective as possible. On the 23rd of April, I issued a public statement of apology and shortly after that I offered, through Carter-Ruck, damages, legal costs and the undertakings I was asked for. But that wasn't enough. I was threatened with libel proceedings, even with being reported to the police… The threats continued for three months."
  39. ^ "'De angst is genetisch, die zit in het Russische dna' - Archief - VK" (in (Dutch)). Volkskrant.nl. http://www.volkskrant.nl/vk/nl/2844/Archief/article/detail/1082402/2010/12/23/De-angst-is-genetisch-die-zit-in-het-Russische-dna.dhtml. Retrieved 2011-08-31. 
  40. ^ 2003 Shortlist[dead link]
  41. ^ "Home". The Duff Cooper Prize. http://www.theduffcooperprize.org/test/. Retrieved 2011-08-31. 
  42. ^ 2008 Shortlist[dead link]
  43. ^ Ondaatje Prize[dead link]

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