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, 窃窃私语：斯大林俄罗斯的私生活. 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 窃窃私语, 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 窃窃私语, 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 人民的悲剧, 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 时代文学副刊, 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 俄罗斯乡村庄园的生活 (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 窃窃私语. 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.”
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At about the same time, as we later learned, the true story of the Russian edition of Figes’s 窃窃私语 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 窃窃私语’ “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 窃窃私语, 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 窃窃私语 (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.”
窃窃私语 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.
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不幸， 窃窃私语 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 窃窃私语 he also maligns the memory of the late Soviet poet and longtime editor of 诺维·米尔, 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, 只是给我发消息, 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 国 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 & 窃窃私语
From the July 2-9, 2012, issue
Re Peter Reddaway 和 Stephen F. Cohen 的 11 月 XNUMX 日“羞辱斯大林的受害者，”关于我 2007 年的书 窃窃私语: 在一本庞大而复杂的书中 窃窃私语 意外错误并不少见。 通常，它们由作家及其出版商处理，无需媒体或其他获得此类私人信件的学者的干预。
我拒绝暗示我使用政治烟幕来掩盖劣质奖学金。 我第一次听说 Dynastia 的担忧是在 15 年 2011 月 2009 日——两年后，我对 XNUMX 年 XNUMX 月取消与 Atticus 的第一份合同发表了关于政治的唯一评论。在他们的信中，Dynastia 提请我注意大约十几个“事实不准确”和“虚假陈述”。
窃窃私语 翻译成俄语总是很复杂的书。 由于预料到我们可能会遇到的问题，我为翻译准备了一份 115 页的备忘录，但从未收到他们的消息。 翻译没有咨询我。
我对任何错误感到遗憾。 我从来没有打算引起冒犯，“侮辱”任何人的记忆或歪曲书中包含的任何家庭的历史。 我也没有“发明”东西。
18 年 2011 月 XNUMX 日，我回复 Dynastia 解决了他们的担忧，指出了他们翻译中的一些混淆，并提出进行他们认为必要的任何“修改”。 我没有收到任何回复。
Natalia Danilova 的错误引用是由于我的注释文件意外替换了原始成绩单。 我一知道这个错误就纠正了。
Mikhail Stroikov 的女儿在接受采访时提到了在 OGPU 工作的“Boria 叔叔”。 正如纪念馆的研究人员所说，这是我错误的根源。 我拒绝指责我为“戏剧性目的”“捏造事实”。
根据纪念馆的消息来源，Dina Ioelson-Grodzianskaia 在被囚时被聘为“农艺师”和“专家”——用索尔仁尼琴的话来说，足以证明将她描述为“值得信赖的人”——尽管我同情地写道她是一名古拉格的受害者。 在给 Dynastia 的信中，我提出撤回任何可能引起冒犯的言论。
我感谢纪念，三年后 窃窃私语 出版，让我可以访问构成基础的宝贵档案 只是给我发消息. 认为我滥用了“纪念笔记”是错误的。 它包含在我的书中是纪念馆设定的条件，也是我渴望兑现的条件。
在对我们文章的回复中，奥兰多·菲格斯向读者展示了更多对真相的歪曲。 Figes 现在声称 Dynastia 在通知他取消出版俄文版的合同时 窃窃私语，仅引用了“大约一打'事实不准确'和'失实陈述'”。为了澄清此事，Dynastia 允许我们引用 Figes 所指的那封信。 这封日期为 6 年 2011 月 XNUMX 日的信函提请注意仅几个样本片段中的大量错误和失实陈述 窃窃私语 （不是整本书，就像 Figes 所说的那样 国 读者相信），并说“在修改了几章后，我们不得不停下来。”
费吉斯还通过暗示“所谓的错误”主要不是他的所作所为，而是纪念馆本身、他的译者或仅仅是“解释问题”来掩饰。 这也是不真实的，甚至是对那些敬业、高度专业的俄罗斯人的诽谤。 事实上，作为本书所依据的俄语采访的《纪念馆》首席研究员写信给《纪念馆》的负责人：“我在阅读时哭了起来，并试图更正……。 我只举了几个例子，但整个文本是这样的……。 甚至很难选择例子； 它们贯穿始终。”
考虑一下 Figes 试图解释我们文章中给出的两个例子的尝试。 只有菲格斯声称被监禁的斯特罗伊科夫得到了“政治警察的支持”，但根本没有证据表明这一点。 指责 Ioelson-Grodzianskaia 与古拉格当局“合作”的是 Figes，而不是 Solzhenitsyn，纪念研究人员将其描述为“对囚犯记忆的直接侮辱”。 这种将悲惨的历史变成情节剧的扭曲解释了为什么王朝在取消与菲格斯的合同的信中写道，如果在俄罗斯出版， 窃窃私语 “肯定会引发丑闻。”
至于“政治烟幕掩盖劣质学术”，这是菲格斯的影射，不是我们的。 他在 2009 年提出了完全不可信的“政治压力”指控，当时他的第一个俄罗斯出版商放弃了这本书，而且他从未撤回过这本书——当然不是在他给我们的回复中或在伦敦 监护人在我们文章的头版报道（24 月 2010 日）中，他重复了他的建议“涉及政治”，并令人惊讶地补充说，该书在 XNUMX 年的第二次取消是“出版前审查”。 这也损害了可敬的俄罗斯人——出版商、资助基金会和纪念馆——的正直和勇气。
最后，菲吉斯错误地暗示他仍然有纪念馆的支持。 正如其一位资深领导人在 XNUMX 月的一份声明中所写，“在未来，我们不想将他的名字与纪念馆的名字联系起来。”