His­tory’s mas­ter

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 Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES -

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)


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