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Author Podcast: Orlando Figes

abstract:Orlando Figes is one of the most distinguished historians of Russia today. He is Professor of History at University of London, having the distinction of graduating with a rare double-starred First in 1982, and completing his PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a Fellow from 1984 to 1999. He was a Lecturer in History at the University of Cambridge from 1987 to 1999, before taking up the Chair of History at Birkbeck College, University of London.

All of his books on Russia are bestsellers and all are eminently readable. Figes borrows from a broad range of methodologies, including social, cultural and oral history, and his writing combines literary and academic qualities. His latest book is titled, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia. At 784 pages you may want the hardcover version (published in the UK by Allen Lane 2008) and softcover is published in US by Picador. It is a treatise on the lives of people in Russia during Stalin's reign of terror. "One in eight people in the Soviet Union were victims of Stalin's terror—virtually no family was untouched by purges, the gulag, forced collectivization and resettlement", says Figes.

BookBuffet caught up with Orlando at the Southbank Centre in London when he was speaking, along with the 5 other shortlisted authors, on behalf of organizers for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction in 2008. Listen to him in this podcast rebroadcast, then click to the links for the other authors' talks, and to discover the winner. This is the cream of nonfiction titles around the globe for 2008.


May 05, 2009
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[N.B.: Minor technical deficiencies intrinsic to the in-house sound system occurred during the event. We have made adjustments to correct this in the taped broadcast.]
For the remaining 5 Samuel Johnson Prize author podcasts click here

Moderator: Orlando Figes is one of the most distinguished historians of today. He is Professor of History at UFA and one of the great masters of Russian history. I won't list all his prizes, it would be embarrassing. This is the story of Stalin's Great Terror told by survivors. It was a monstrous period. A period in which somehow all of us seem to exclude from our imaginations than perhaps we ought to. It's the story of what has happened to the families, and the Memorial Society, which he has gathered together evidence from people largely born between 1950 and 1955. Perhaps we can describe the character of Sumoff... who Orlando describes as losing himself in the system to a deadly idea. And the key point I'd like to start with, is something I've come across which always shocks me and is shocking, which is the nostalgic stuff. He's not been removed from respectable discourse like Hitler. There are people who long for the days of Stalin in Russia and elsewhere. I sometimes think half of British Left does. Orlando, tell me about that.

Orlando Figes: Yes, the nostalgia is certainly there. I mean, um this was part of a—if I can just fill in a little of the context—this started 20 years ago with me going round to family's homes and collecting stories. I returned to that project after finishing... in 2002 and collected testimonies and stories which led to the _____ story who is, while different from the rest of the people in the book, because _____ was a very well know writer... The core of the book is made up of eventually, nearly 500 families who gave us not just interviews but family archives. And that started from a base of over 1,000 people who we did telephone interviews with. And this is a sort of collective biography, as Brian says, of people who were born in the early years of the Revolution and lived their lives throughout the Soviet period. The book covers Soviet history through their stories and so if you like, it's a moral counterbalance to the official story of the Soviet Union told not just in Soviet circles, but in Western circles... to which are all collective entities, all in the form of sort of memoirs by M______ or others who have come through; the particular perspective of the literary intelligencia which survived with strong feelings of individuality, in human spirit and... perhaps.

The people we were taking interviews from and collecting archives from, and this is really something related to the nostalgic aspect, were people who were born into the system and lived their entire lives in the system. Yes they remembered the Stalin years as romatic years, but they also remember the war, and they also remember the Soviet period from which they cannot separate the Stalin years as years of security. So you end up with this extraordinary parallel, which we found in so many cases. Even victims of oppression feeling nostalgia for the Soviet period, and in fact trying to explain what their families had been through, which in the vast majority of cases was terror and oppression, separation and loss, relationships damaged. Mothers coming back from labor camps unable to communicate.

Despite all of that trauma you still found, yes one could call it to some extent nostalgia because the greatest fear that people would have, was perhaps not just the fear of oppression, it was the fear of exclusion, the fear of social exclusion. But also nostalgia perhaps for a system that gave some sort of meaning to their lives. I can think of one man, Demitri Stoletski who came from a Gulag family that had been, so called rich peasants... ten million families were broken up into Gulags. He had basically grown up in a special settlement, he'd suffered discrimination at every corner and didn't have a proper job until he was 50. Um, he lost half of his family through the repression, and he tried to make sense of these waves of repression that he suffered from, not just in the 1930's but later on in the 1940's and he ends up saying, "Well it may seem daft, but in a way it made it easier for me to go on. If I'd felt there was some rationality, if I felt there really were some reason..."

Moderator: That's a form of Stockholm Syndrome, isn't it?

Orlando Figes: Well, it's slightly more complicated. It's the fact, that, look people have invested a lot. Even those who have been out in the Gulag. We did a big project with people who built ______, which is an... big industrial city producing a quarter of the world's platinum. It was originally built by Gulag slave labor, and virtually everyone who lives there is a descendent of these slave laborers. But even among the oldest of these inhabitants who were slaves still feel some sense that they made a contribution.

Moderator: Would this be a common human attribute, do you think, or is there something Russian about it?

Orlando Figes: I'm not sure Russian, afterall the Soviet Union has many nationalities. That population rose from the Ukrain. I would be wary of using... I think that maybe there's some elelment of a Soviet mentality, of stoicism where you just go on... One must bear in mind the strength of the system of belief. The people who inhabited the system. In many ways it's the loss of belief with people who, I hesitate to say, were indoctrinated or educated, who perhaps had ideals. It's the loss of belief which is perhaps the hardest thing to cope with.

Moderator:So they had lost beliefs but they are sort of on another side being nostalgic.

Orlando Figes: They live in the marshes between. I mean, so many of the people we interviewed were children whose say father had been arrested in '37. The most common reaction is that they don't believe their father was an enemy of the people. They live in myth, perhaps, because maybe their fathers were Bolsheviks. Their father was "a good papa; a good man, and he was arrested by mistake..." But at the same time they still believe that...

Moderator: So what you're saying is they were saying to themselves then, and may still be saying to themselves, "We were building a better future."

Orlando Figes: The tenacious belief that the system itself was not bad, there was some corruption of the system, Stalin was good for the some of the old generation perhaps. One has to understand that these waves of oppression would subside and then the institutions of the system, the culture of the system becomes... and there is no exorcism of it under Kruschev. So in a sense that sort of enables elements of a belief that reconstitute themselves and become part of everyday practice.

Moderator:> And to what extent has what has happened since the fall of Communism been part of the... that in the sense that it is more chaotic? Orlando Figes: Sure. That comes back to your question of nostalgia. We were there in the late 70's early 80's and these people have lost a lot of security, have a falling standard of living and I think this is why they were willing to talk to us, perhaps because they felt their stories were becoming marginalized. No one would be interested to learn what had happened to them, as they had been in the early 1990's. And so these feelings of isolation, that there has been a sort of collapse of their world may be, a little bit nostalgic...

Moderator: Ladies and gentlemen, Orlando Figes. [applause]

Other Titles by this Orlando Figes

Figes is the son of the feminist writer Eva Figes. His sister is the author and editor Kate Figes. He read History at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, graduating with a rare double-starred First in 1982, and completed his PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a Fellow from 1984 to 1999. He was a Lecturer in History at the University of Cambridge from 1987 to 1999, before taking up the Chair of History at Birkbeck College, University of London... Natasha's Dance and The Whisperers were both short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize, making Figes the only writer to have been short-listed twice for the Samuel Johnson Prize. The Whisperers was also short-listed for the Ondaatje Prize. Figes also writes for the international press, broadcasts on TV and the radio, and reviews books for the New York Review of Books. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.—Wikipedia

  • Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
  • A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924
  • Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917
  • Peasant Russia Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution 1917-21
  • War and Peace (Penguin Classics, Deluxe Edition) with foreword by Orlando Figes
  • Listen to the other 4 shortlisted authors here

  • Tim Butcher, Blood River
  • Patrick French, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul
  • Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise (coming)
  • Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Or The Murder at Road Hill House (coming)
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