Betraying the readers

Two academics, Stephen F. Cohen a professor emeritus of politics and Russian studies at Princeton and NYU, and Peter Reddaway, a professor emeritus of political science at George Washington University, report on problems with the work of Orlando Figes. Remember him? The historian who posted sockpuppet bad reviews of rivals’ work and flattering review of his own at Amazon, and then denied it, and threatened libel, and then let his wife take the blame, and only when that ploy failed too finally admitted he’d done it? And yet is still at Birkbeck?

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.

You know there’s a “but” on the way.

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.

He got the Memorial Society, a widely respected Russian historical and human rights organization, to do a bunch of interviews for the book, and then when Corpus was going to do the Russian translation of the book, it looked at the original interviews and found mistakes in Figes’s (English language) book – so many mistakes it decided not to publish a translation after all.

Cohen and Reddaway describe some of the mistakes, and then sum up:

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.

That’s no good.


  1. 'Tis Himself says

    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.”

    It appears the only person who admires Figes is Figes himself.

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