When the British historian Orlando Figes admitted writing flattering reviews of his own work – and scathing attacks on rivals – on Amazon two years ago, his peers were aghast. Particularly those whose work had been damned as “awful” and “dense and pretentious”. Damaging though the affair was, it did little to dent the scholar’s reputation as a brilliant narrator of Soviet history, a man whose writing brought vividly to life the wretched decades in which an entire people was atomised by a paranoid leader.
Now Figes has become embroiled in new controversy over his academic practices after Russian publishers said the reason they scrapped a translation of his history of the Stalin era, The Whisperers, was because the book contained inaccuracies and factual errors.
Figes had commissioned hundreds of interviews with the relatives of victims of gulag labour camps to produce a 700-page chronicle of “private life in Stalin’s Russia”, published in 2007. But the Moscow-based publisher, and a historian who conducted some of the interviews, claim some of the material was misrepresented. While none of the alleged errors would strike the lay reader as particularly egregious, the Russians argue Figes’ version of some of the most tragic events in Russian history would cause distress to relatives of gulag victims.
Varvara Gornostaeva, head of the Corpus publishing house, told the Guardian problems came to light after her firm sent the Russian translation of Figes’ book for a pre-publication check to Memorial, the human rights organisation that conducted the interviews with families of gulag victims.
“When they started to do a fact-check, there were a huge number of inaccuracies and factual errors,” said Gornostaeva. “These were factual errors, and if we didn’t fix them, it could bring about serious displeasure … some of the people themselves are still alive.”
She said that to “fix the text” would have taken up to a year, and would have resulted in a different book.
Figes has conceded that he made a number of errors, but said he had offered to amend anything deemed necessary for publication to take place in Russia.
He denied that many of the alleged factual inaccuracies and misrepresentations were mistakes. Some, he said, were the result of loose translation into Russian; others were a matter of opinion, which “should be subject to normal scholarly discussion on the basis of a published text (rather than pre-publication censorship)”.
The dispute between Figes and the Russians was first unearthed by two US academics, Peter Reddaway and Stephen Cohen, both historians of communist Russia, who since March 2011 have been investigating his use of source material. They have published their findings in the US news magazine The Nation.
Among the more serious mistakes Figes is accused of making are:
• Wrongly calling Dina Ielson-Grodzianskaia, a mother of two who was sent to a gulag labour camp in 1938, a collaborator when there was no evidence of this in the interviews, according to Irina Ostrovskaya, a Memorial archivist who conducted the interview with Ielson-Grodzianskaia’s daughter. Figes described the prisoner as one of the “trusties”, and said she had been allowed to send and receive frequent letters when others were not.
Ostrovskaya said the claim was “an insult to the memory of an imprisoned woman”. “This is literature,” she told the Guardian. “But for people, it’s their life. It is people talking about their tragedies. They knew their stories would be used for a historical book … but can’t imagine their life stories could be turned into such an operetta.” Figes said he regretted “any misrepresentations I may have made, but there was no intention to ‘insult the memory’ of anyone”. He has offered to correct the text.
• A quote attributed to Natalia Danilova, whose father was arrested, does not appear in the Memorial interview. In the quote, Danilova was supposed to have said that except for an aunt, “the rest of us could only whisper in dissent”. Figes said the error, which he regretted, was the result of an annotated file that was substituted for the master copy by an assistant.
Reddaway and Cohen believe they have identified other examples where Figes has erred. They cite the case of an arrested student, Mikhail Stroikov. Figes wrote that for helping Stroikov’s family a friend then in exile was “rearrested, imprisoned and later shot”. Reddaway and Cohen say this didn’t happen, and he lived to be over 90.
The Americans argue the historian has not been faithful to the memory of Stalin’s victims. and allege he maligns the memory of a Soviet poet and editor, Alexander Tvardovsky, by stating that he “betrayed” his own father to the police during the terror. “Figes’s allegation has been convincingly refuted in the Russian press,” the academics say.
Anna Piotrovskaya, executive director of Dynastia, which owned the Russian rights, said in a letter in April 2011 to Figes’ literary agent, Stephen Edwards, that publication of the translation “would definitely provoke a scandal and result in numerous objections, either to the factual inaccuracies contained in the book or to the misrepresentation of the original transcripts of the interviews, especially taking into consideration the complexity and the sensitivity of the topic to the Russian society”.
The letter alleged that the book combined “nonfiction materials and artistic interpretation”.
Figes responded: “It is not my intention to cause offence or misrepresent the painful history of any family included in The Whisperers … I regret any misrepresentations I may have made, but there was no intention to insult the memory of anyone.”
Another publisher, Atticus, dropped plans to release a Russian version of The Whisperers in 2009. “The first cancellation [Atticus] cited commercial reasons, though I speculated that politics was involved,” Figes said. “The second [Dynastia] 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.”
“He feels strongly the editorial matters should be discussed in private between an author and an editor,” said Stephen Edwards, Figes’s literary agent. “That would have been a fairer way of dealing with the matter.”The allegations come amid a politically charged battle in Russia over Stalin’s role in the nation’s history. Under Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has been accused of playing down the dictator’s crimes in history textbooks and seeking to portay Stalin as an effective leader who industrialised a backward Soviet Union and defeated the Nazis. The Whisperers, by contrast, sets out to give an intimate portrait of the atmosphere of fear and terror, particularly among children who grew up under Stalin and whose parents were arrested and shot as enemies of the people.
Memorial’s archive of interviews with survivors was confiscated by Russian police in late 2008. At the time, Figes told the Guardian it was “part of a broader ideological struggle for control of history publications and teaching in Russia”.
Figes said this week: “I am puzzled as to why this private matter has now come out in the press a year later, precisely when I have a new book out.”
Edwards said: “On receiving an electronic copy on 15 April of Dynastia’s letter, dated 6 April 2011, Orlando Figes wrote back to them on 18 April answering their specific concerns and offering to co-operate in addressing the ‘revisions’ they wanted. We wrote to Dynastia again on 3 August 2011 enclosing another copy of Orlando’s original letter, to which they have yet to respond.”
Alena Kozlova, head of Memorial’s archive, praised Figes’ writing, saying it was part of his “great talent” that “he really shows the atmosphere of the time from these interviews”. She said: “We have no complaints about his interpretation; that’s his right as an author. What worries us mainly are accurate presentations of our characters. These are people we know, who are still alive.”
Robert Booth and Miriam Elder, The Guardian