Orlando Figes and Stalin’s Victims

Orlando Figes and Stalin’s Victims

A book by the famous British historian was not published in Russia because the Moscow publisher discovered too many errors and misrepresentations—not, as Figes suggested, for political reasons.


Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R80329 / CC-BY-SA

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.

* * *

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 Ioelson-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 Ioelson-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


Exchange: Orlando Figes & The Whisperers

From the July 2-9, 2012, issue


Re Peter Reddaway and Stephen F. Cohen’s June 11 “Dishonoring Stalin’s Victims,” about my 2007 book The Whisperers: in a book as large and complex as The Whisperers unintended errors are not unusual. Normally they are dealt with by a writer and his publisher without the intervention of the press or other academics given access to such private correspondence.

I reject the insinuation that I used a political smokescreen to conceal shoddy scholarship. The first I heard of Dynastia’s concerns was on April 15, 2011—two years after my one and only comment about politics on the cancellation of the first contract with Atticus in March 2009. In their letter Dynastia drew my attention to about a dozen “factual inaccuracies” and “misrepresentations.”

On close examination the alleged faults turned out to be errors of translation, matters of interpretation or derived from Memorial’s own sources—leaving a handful of genuine errors in a book based on thousands of interviews and archival documents.

The Whisperers was always going to be a complicated book to translate into Russian. In anticipation of the problems we might encounter, I prepared a 115-page memorandum for the translators but never heard from them. I was not consulted on the translation.

I regret any mistakes. It was never my intention to cause offense, to “insult the memory” of anyone or to misrepresent the history of any family included in the book. Nor have I “invented” things.

On April 18, 2011, I replied to Dynastia addressing their concerns, pointing out some of the confusions in their translations and offering to make any “revisions” they considered necessary. I received no reply.

The misquotation of Natalia Danilova resulted from the accidental substitution of my annotated file for the original transcript. I corrected the error as soon as I was made aware of it.

Mikhail Stroikov’s daughter referred in an interview to an “Uncle Boria,” who worked in OGPU. This was the source of my mistake, as Memorial’s researchers suggested. I reject the accusation that I “invented facts” for “dramatic purposes.”

According to Memorial’s sources, Dina Ioelson-Grodzianskaia was employed as an “agronomist” and a “specialist” when she was a prisoner—in Solzhenitsyn’s terms, enough to justify describing her as a “trusty”—although I wrote sympathetically about her as a victim of the Gulag. In my letter to Dynastia I offered to withdraw any words that might have caused offense.

I am grateful to Memorial, who, three years after The Whisperers was published, gave me access to the valuable archive that forms the basis of Just Send Me Word. It is wrong to suggest that I have misused the “Note From Memorial.” Its inclusion in my book was a condition set by Memorial and one I was anxious to honor.



Reddaway and Cohen Reply

Washington, D.C.; New York City

In his reply to our article, Orlando Figes presents readers with still more misrepresentations of the truth. Figes now claims that Dynastia, in informing him that it was canceling the contract to publish a Russian edition of The Whisperers, cited only “about a dozen ‘factual inaccuracies’ and ‘misrepresentations.’” To clarify the matter, Dynastia has allowed us to quote the letter to which Figes refers. This letter, dated April 6, 2011, draws attention to numerous errors and misrepresentations in just a few sample fragments of The Whisperers (not the entire book, as Figes would have Nation readers believe), and says that “after revising several chapters we had to stop.”

Figes is also dissembling by implying that the “alleged faults” were mostly not his doing but those of Memorial itself, his translators or merely “matters of interpretation.” This too is untrue and, even more, a slur on those dedicated, highly professional Russians. In truth, the chief researcher of Memorial, which had conducted the Russian-language interviews on which the book was based, wrote to the head of Memorial: “I wept as I read it and tried to make corrections…. I gave only a few examples, but the entire text is like this…. It’s even difficult to choose
examples; they appear throughout.”

Consider Figes’s attempt to explain away two of the examples given in our article. It was Figes alone who alleged that the imprisoned Stroikov had “the support of the political police,” for which there is no evidence at all. And it was Figes, not Solzhenitsyn, who accused Ioelson-Grodzianskaia of “collaboration” with Gulag authorities, which the
Memorial researcher characterized as “a direct insult to the memory of a prisoner.” These kinds of distortions, which turn tragic history into melodrama, explain why
Dynastia wrote in the letter canceling the contract with Figes that if published in Russia, The Whisperers “would definitely provoke a scandal.”

As for a “political smokescreen to conceal shoddy scholarship,” this is Figes’s insinuation, not ours. He made the wholly implausible allegation of “political pressure” in 2009, when his first Russian publisher dropped the book, and he has never withdrawn it—certainly not in his reply to us or in the London Guardian’s front-page report (May 24) on our article, in which he repeated his suggestion “that politics was involved” and astonishingly added that the second cancellation of the book, in 2010, was “pre-publication censorship.” This too impugns the integrity and courage of honorable Russians—the publisher, funding foundation and Memorial alike.

Finally, Figes falsely implies that he still has Memorial’s support. As one of its veteran leaders wrote in a statement in April, “In the future, we do not want to link his name with that of Memorial.”


Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy