The popular historian’s dazzling accounts of Russian life have become bestsellers and won awards. As his new book is published, he talks to DavidHerman
THE PHOTOGRAPH on the cover of The Whisperers, Orlando Figes’s new book on Stalin’s Russia, is of two little girls. Nelly is three, Angelina perhaps two. On a warm summer evening in 1938, their grandmother went out to pick raspberries in the garden, leaving Nelly in charge while her mother nursed her baby brother. “A few minutes later,” Figes reveals, “Nelly’s grandmother returned with the raspberries: the house was empty, her family had gone.” They had been taken by the secret police.
Nelly was sent to a Jewish orphanage, Angelina to a nearby children’s home. Their mother was charged with failing to denounce her husband and sentenced to eight years in a labour camp in Kazakhstan. When she arrived, her baby son was taken to an orphanage.
The Whisperers, chronicling the stories of ordinary families living under Stalin, is full of such heartbreaking events. “To communicate,” says Figes, “you have to make your readers feel it. You have to communicate the emotion of human experience.”
The Whisperers, he says, “was always the book I wanted to write”. It has almost 40 pages of footnotes. The sheer amount of reading that went into preparing it is astonishing. Martin Amis once wrote of reading “several yards of books” to research his book on Stalin, Koba the Dread, only to have it dismissed by Figes as “unoriginal” and “second-rate” and, perhaps most woundingly, based on “modest reading”.
Now 47, Figes had a brilliant start. Awarded a rare double-starred first in history at Cambridge, he soon landed his first teaching job. His first book, Peasant Russia, Civil War, established his reputation, but it was A People’s Tragedy, a superbly written history of the Russian revolution, which lifted him into the international historical stratosphere.
Sitting in his office in central London, he looks the part: bespectacled, serious, intensely intellectual. But far from one-dimensional. He is, for example, a longstanding season-ticket-holder at Chelsea FC, a topic into which he is happy to digress. So, how does the Russian historian feel about Mr Abramovich?
In a word: disappointed. “Our club’s been taken from us,” he says. “I am sure he wants the club to do well and play nice football, but he doesn’t understand that the club is about the supporters and the bond between the supporters and the players.”
It is hard to imagine this quietest of football fanatics in his professional life summoning up the savagery to rubbish Amis’s book — let alone the highprofile run-ins he has had with critics, some of which ended in court and newspaper apologies. Figes even successfully sued The Sunday Times for defamation.
His previous book, Natasha’s Dance, an ambitious, kaleidoscopic gathering together of a range of elements of the Russian cultural landscape, was praised to the skies almost universally. The one exception was a spectacular one. In the Times Literary Supplement, Rachel Polonsky, a British academic based in Moscow and a former colleague of Figes’s, penned a two-page review which has been described as displaying “perhaps unprecedented hostility and malice”.
Letters were exchanged in the TLS and, for a while, the cultural pages of the broadsheets and the chattering classes’ fashionable watering-holes were aglow with the issue. Covering the row in The Guardian, Jason Cowley mused provocatively on the art of book reviewing: “There are genuinely independent critics… but, on the whole, most book reviewers are compromised by personal prejudice, fellow feeling and career considerations. There is always a writer deemed worthy… of a ‘trashing’.” Although Cowley did not suggest Polonsky had been so moved in her review, The Guardian nonetheless issued an apology… to Figes. This was because Cowley’s piece wrongly “suggested that [Polonsky’s review] intimated that [Figes] was associated with plagiarism”.
Figes originally had no intention of plunging into these stormy Russian waters. His first interest was German-Jewish intellectual history. Which was close to home: his mother, the novelist Eva Figes, was a Jewish child refugee from Berlin in 1939.
But Norman Stone, his supervisor at Cambridge, told him: “If you’ve got a hangover, you don’t want to battle with Hegel every day. Do something where you can count numbers, like Russian peasants.” So Figes went off, learnt Russian and wrote a PhD about Russian peasants and the revolution. But he was never just a number-cruncher: “I was always interested in people. People — not classes or ideologies — were always my concern.”
The Whisperers is certainly consummate testimony to this. It has taken years for this most cherished project to come to fruition. “It was impossible before,” Figes explains. “Impossible in the Soviet period, full stop. Impossible in the first 10 years after 1991.” People were ready to come forward and talk about “external facts”, but they just were not “ready to look inside themselves and talk about their internal lives”. The countless interviewees “are the heroes of Whisperers”, he says. “For us, these are stories, for them, it is their lives…
“The silences, the reaction to trauma is similar to what I’ve encountered in my own family. As a 12- or 13year-old, I would ask my grandparents about the war and how they got out of Germany. They had a version they would give you. But there were all sorts of blank spaces that they would not fill.
“Fear comes down several generations… It affects the children and grandchildren… Having seen their parents suffer, they have every reason to hate Stalinism”, but, at the same time, “they have to join the system. There’s nowhere else to go.”
For Figes, this is the crucial difference between Stalinism and Nazism. “Nazism lasted 12 years, six of them at war. The Soviet system lasted 74 years.” In Nazi Germany, at least before the war, you could get out. Like his mother and his grandparents.
“In Russia you can’t get out… There aren’t clear moral choices… So many people lived a dual life. There’s no clear barbed wire separating one side of the gulag from the other. Victims became perpetrators and vice versa.
“Post-Soviet Russia is still in the shadow of Stalinism. Putin plays on much of the same rhetoric. Russians hear a speech from Putin and they know the code, they pick up the signals.”
Is antisemitism one of the signals? “A lot of the oligarchs are Jewish, and just beneath the surface of Putin’s Russian nationalism, it’s there,” says Figes.
He speaks of the situation now as “creeping dictatorship — Soviet power without the Communists. The space for public dissent is becoming more limited, nationalism is on the rise, the political system is criminalised… If you want to understand Russian politics today, you should watch The Godfather.”
The Whisperers is published by Allen Lane (£25)