Orlando Figes

"Figes" redirects here. For other people with the same surname, see Figes (surname).

Orlando Figes (/ˈfz/; born 20 November 1959) is a British historian and writer 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, notably, 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'.[1] 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. His books have been translated into over thirty languages [2]

Figes serves on the editorial board of the journal Russian History,[3] 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.[4]

Personal life and education

Figes is the son of the feminist writer Eva Figes who, in an interview in 2014 he said, fled Nazi Germany.[5] 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.[6] 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".[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] In 2008, the Times Literary Supplement listed A People's Tragedy as one of the "hundred most influential books since the war".[10] In 2013 David Bowie named A People's Tragedy one of his 'top 100 books'.[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]

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.[13] 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.'[14]

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.[15] Figes is credited as the historical consultant on the film[16]

Figes has also written essays on various Russian cultural figures, including Leo Tolstoy, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Andrei Platonov.[17] 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.[18]

Oral history and The Whisperers

Figes has made a significant contribution to the development of oral history in Russia. In partnership with the Memorial Society, a human rights non-profit, 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.[19] 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 online.[20]

Translated into more than twenty languages,[21] 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."[22] 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'.[23]

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".'[24]

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.[25]

A planned 2012 Russian translation of The Whisperers was abandoned after fact-checking by the Memorial Society, who alleged that it contained "a huge number of inaccuracies and factual errors" in Figes' presentation of their original Russian-language interviews.[19][26] The publisher Corpus said the book would have taken "up to a year" to correct.[27] It 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.[19] Figes rejected many of the alleged inaccuracies, pointing to questions of interpretation over who were considered to be trusties,[19] 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, and mistakes in Memorial's sources, whilst expressing his regret for "the handful of genuine errors" that remained. Figes also said he had "offered to amend anything deemed necessary for publication to take place in Russia" but his letter was unanswered by the publisher.[26]

Just Send Me Word

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.[28] The letters are the largest known collection of private correspondence from the Gulag, according to Memorial.[29]

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."[30]

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".[31] Several reviewers highlighted the book's literary qualities, pointing out that it 'reads like a novel'[32][33]

Just Send Me Word has been translated into 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."[34]

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.[35] 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.[36] 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.[37] After several court hearings, the materials were finally returned to Memorial in May 2009.

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".[38]

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.[39]

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.[40]

Figes is a participating member of the Valdai International Discussion Club held annually in Russia [41]

Film and Television Work

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.[42] 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.[18] 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.[20]

Figes was the historical consultant on the 2012 film Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright, starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard.[16]

He is also credited as the historical consultant on the 2016 BBC War & Peace television series directed by Tom Harper with a screenplay by Andrew Davies. Interviewed by the Sunday Telegraph, Figes defended the series against criticism that it was 'too Jane Austen' and 'too English'.[43]

Theatrical adaptations

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[44] followed by a season of performances at the Unicorn Theatre in London.[45]

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, whilst praising his own work. Initially denying responsibility for the reviews, he threatened legal action against those who suggested he was their author.[46][47][48] Figes' lawyer later issued a statement that Figes' wife had written the reviews,[46] but in a further statement Figes admitted "full responsibility" for the reviews himself,[46] agreeing to pay legal costs and damages to Polonsky and Service, who he had threatened to sue for libel.[46][49][50][51][52]






  1. Times Literary Supplement, 30 December 2008, p. 7.
  2. http://epaper.bjnews.com.cn/html/2015-03/14/content_566264.htm?div=0
  3. "Russian History". Brill Publishers. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
  4. "Current RSL Fellows". Royal Society of Literature. Retrieved 18 March 2014.
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADd4aUgrVyY
  6. Figes, Orlando, Peasant Russia, Civil War, p. xxi.
  7. Figes, Orlando, A People's Tragedy, 1996, p. xvii.
  8. Haynes, Michael, and Wolfreys, Jim, History and Revolution, London: Verso, 2007, p. 15.
  9. Keep, John, "Great October?" in The Times Literary Supplement, 23 August 1996, p. 5.
  10. Times Literary Supplement, 30 December 2008.
  11. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/01/david-bowie-books-kerouac-milligan
  12. Journal of Cold War Studies, Volume 2, Number 2, Spring 2000, pp. 122–25.
  13. "Pelican Books". Pelican Books. Retrieved 2015-07-24.
  14. "Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History: Orlando Figes: 9780805091311: Amazon.com: Books". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2015-07-24.
  15. Bamigboye, Baz (27 January 2012). "Stunning as always: Keira Knightley turns in a great performance as Anna Karenina". Daily Mail. London.
  16. 1 2 "Anna Karenina cast". IMDb.com. Retrieved 2015-07-24.
  17. "Orlando Figes | The New York Review of Books". Nybooks.com. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
  18. 1 2 "Four Documentaries – The Tsar's Last Picture Show". BBC. 22 November 2007. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
  19. 1 2 3 4 Robert Booth; Miriam Elder (23 May 2012). "Orlando Figes translation scrapped in Russia amid claims of inaccuracies". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 23 May 2012.
  20. 1 2 3 "Orlando Figes [Author and Professor of Russian History]". Orlandofiges.com. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
  21. 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.]
  22. Schaaf, Matthew. "Secrets of the state". New Statesman. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
  23. The Whisperers (London, 2007), p. 636.
  24. Figes, The Whisperers, p. xxxii.
  25. Times Literary Supplement, 8 February 2008.
  26. 1 2 "Orlando Figes and Stalin's Victims". The Nation. 23 May 2012. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
  27. Dennis Johnson. "Orlando Figes in trouble again for gross "inaccuracies" and "misrepresentations"". Melville House. Retrieved 2015-08-31.
  28. "Love Against All Odds by Michael Scammell | The New York Review of Books". Nybooks.com. Retrieved 2015-07-24.
  29. "A Note From Memorial" in Just Send Me Word, p. 297.
  30. Archived 4 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
  31. Simon Sebag Montefiore (2012-05-26). "Labour of love". FT.com. Retrieved 2015-07-24.
  32. Timothy Phillips (2012-05-25). "Staying alive with the language of love - Life Style Books - Life & Style - London Evening Standard". Standard.co.uk. Retrieved 2015-07-24.
  33. "A Page in the Life: Orlando Figes". Telegraph. Retrieved 2015-07-24.
  34. Angus Macqueen (10 October 2010). "Crimea: The Last Crusade by Orlando Figes – review". London: The Observer. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
  35. Schaaf, Matthew. "Vlad the Great". New Statesman. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
  36. 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.
  37. "Blog Archive – An open letter to President Medvedev". Index on Censorship. 8 December 2008. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
  38. Luke Harding. "Russian historian arrested in clampdown on Stalin era | World news". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-07-24.
  39. 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.
  40. Campbell, John (2013-12-16). "Is There One Ukraine?". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 2015-07-24.
  41. http://valdaiclub.com/publications/books/
  42. "Red Chapters: Turning Points in the History of Communism (TV Series 1999)". IMDb.com. Retrieved 2015-07-24.
  43. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/12087338/Those-who-complained-about-War-and-Peace-are-whingers-says-historical-advisor-Orlando-Figes.html
  44. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/67676/platforms/stalins-favourite.html. Retrieved 21 October 2011. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  45. Archived 2 May 2012 at the Wayback Machine.
  46. 1 2 3 4 Alexandra Topping, "Historian Orlando Figes agrees to pay damages for fake reviews",The Guardian, 16 July 2010.
  47. 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)
  48. 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.
  49. Amazon row don admits: 'It was me', The Daily Mail, 23 April 2010
  50. "Historian and Wife Will Pay Over Savage Online Reviews", The New York Times, Dave Itzkoff, 19 July 2010.
  51. It's a war of the historians (part two) Archived 11 October 2010 at the Wayback Machine.,London Evening Standard, Diary, 7 October 2010.
  52. Dispute between Polonsky, Service, Figes and Palmer settled, History Today, 21 July 2010.
  53. "2003 Shortlist". Thesamueljohnsonprize.co.uk. 28 June 2013. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
  54. "Home". The Duff Cooper Prize. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
  55. "2008 Shortlist". Thesamueljohnsonprize.co.uk. 28 June 2013. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
  56. 1 2 "Orlando Figes". Livres.fluctuat.net. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
  57. Archived 9 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  58. Claudio Gnessi. "PREMIO ROMA 2010. A GIANNI LETTA IL PREMIO INTERNAZIONALE ALLA CULTURA". Romanotizie.it. Retrieved 19 November 2013.


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