May 24, 2012

Orlando Figes in trouble again for gross “inaccuracies” and “misrepresentations”


Historian Orlando Figes is in trouble again. Figes, who was last in the spotlight when he admitted writing flattering reviews of his own books on Amazon and bad reviews of books by rivals (after first saying it was his wife’s doing — see the earlier MobyLives story), now finds himself “embroiled in a fresh controversy over academic practices after Russian publishers scrapped a translation of his history of the Stalin era, The Whisperers, saying the book contained numerous inaccuracies and factual errors,” a report in the Guardian reveals.

The newest trouble began while Figes was embroiled in the Amazon controversy — he threatened to sue historians including Robert Service and  Rachel Polonsky for accusing him of writing negative reviews of their work on Amazon, until it was proven that Figes had indeed written the reviews and he was sued in turn by Service and Polonsky. Meanwhile, out of the public eye, Figes’ Russian publisher was in the process of double-checking and subsequently cancelling the translation of The Whisperers. According to the Guardian‘s Robert Booth and Miriam Elder,

Figes had commissioned hundreds of interviews with the relatives of victims of the gulag labour camps to produce a 700-page chronicle of “private life in Stalin’s Russia”, published in 2007. But the Moscow-based publishers, and a historian who conducted some of the interviews, claim some of the material was misrepresented.

Varvara Gornostaeva, head of the Corpus publishing house, told the Guardian the problems came to light after her company sent the Russian translation of Figes’s book for a pre-publication check to Memorial, the human rights organisation Figes had contracted to carry out the interviews with the family members of gulag prisoners.

“When they started to do the 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 because many of the relatives of these people are alive; 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.

What’s more, the owner of the Russian rights to the book, Anna Piotrovskaya of Dynastia, sent a letter to Figes’s literary agent, Stephen Edwards, saying the Russian publication “would definitely provoke a scandal and result in numerous objections, either to the factual inaccuracies contained in the book or to the misrepresentatation of the original transcripts of the interviews, especially taking into consideration the complexity and the sensitivity of the topic to the Russian society.”

The Guardian report goes on to list several instances of the book’s more egregious alleged “inaccuracies” and “misrepresentations,” but it’s nothing compared to the accusations against Figes made by Russian historians Peter Reddaway and Stephen F. Cohen in a blistering report for The Nation. The most recent episode, they say, is part of a pattern of “inaccuracies” and “misrepresentations” running through most of Figes work:

They began in 1997, with his book A People’s Tragedy, 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 Times Literary Supplement, 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 Life on the Russian Country Estate (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.”

They also note that, when rumors first began circulating about the problems with The Whisperers in Russia, Figes blamed Vladimir Putin. Figes, they say, “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.'”

For his part, Figes has “conceded that he made a number of errors, but said he had already offered to amend anything deemed necessary for publication to take place in Russia,” says the Guardian report. “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)’.”


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.