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Editor's Note: This article has been updated with an exchange (see end) between Orlando Figes and Stephen Cohen and Peter Reddaway on June 13, 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.
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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.”