Orlando Figes: Daniel Snowman Meets the Historian of the Russian Revolution and of Russian Culture. (Today's History)

By Snowman, Daniel | History Today, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Orlando Figes: Daniel Snowman Meets the Historian of the Russian Revolution and of Russian Culture. (Today's History)


Snowman, Daniel, History Today


ORLANDO FIGES is unafraid of thinking big. A People's Tragedy, his (nearly) 900-page study of the Russian Revolution from the 1890s to the mid-1920s, is, he says, `the first attempt at a comprehensive history of the entire revolutionary period in a single volume'. His recent book, Natasha's Dance, is a richly textured cultural history of Russia from the time of Peter the Great to that of Brezhnev. Like Tolstoy, Figes seeks to integrate the public and the private, the panoramic and the personal, and he writes with great flair (for which he acknowledges the influence of his mother the novelist Eva Figes) whether about princes, priests, poets and peasants, or about Tsarism, Revolution and Civil War. It is bold for an academic historian to opt for such broad horizons. It is also risky (as Figes discovered last autumn when the victim of a notoriously mean review of Natasha's Dance in the TLS). So is the Professor of History at Birkbeck College, London, planning to retreat into a more conventional academic shell? That is not the Figes style.

Orlando and his sister, the writer Kate Figes, were brought up by their mother in a bookish home in northwest London. Orlando, born in 1959, was always an omnivorous reader (`I jumped straight from Topsy and Tim to Tolstoy!'). From William Ellis school he went to Cambridge where, the son of a German Jewish refugee, he gravitated towards Central and East European history, taking supervisions from Peter Burke and Norman Stone. Under Stone's tutelage, Figes wrote an undergraduate dissertation on a left-leaning German Jewish contemporary of Marx and Heine (for which Stone sent him off to talk to Isaiah Berlin). Later, when Figes set out to do his PhD, Stone nudged him away from the arcanae of German-Jewish philosophy. `You need something you can get on with even when distracted by love or a hangover,' said Stone in his down-to-earth way, `something practical, like counting Russian peasants.' Thus was born what became Figes' first book, Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution, 1917-1921.

Figes' research was undertaken in Moscow during what was still the Soviet era. Much of the Volga region itself was `closed'; the nearest he got to the areas he was studying was when he slipped onto an overnight train and enjoyed an illegal away-day in Samara (then known as Kuibyshev). Back in Moscow, he had excellent contacts, among them two outstanding scholars of Russian agrarian history. But the bureaucracy made things difficult. As a foreign student, Figes was housed apart from his Russian confreres, made to study in a separate reading room in the library and denied access to the official catalogue. Archives were revealed sparingly and the librarian was presumed to be a KGB plant. Figes needed subterfuge to identify and prise out the documentation he needed. When fobbed off with a handful of useless archives, he would spend half a day pretending to work his way through them in order to demonstrate that he was not planning to give up. Banned as a foreigner from the canteen, he found that one place he could talk to Russians was in the toilet area--a facility they shared--where he and they, nipping off for a smoke, would chat about what they were working on. On a good day, he'd emerge from these visits armed with information on new archive sources which he would promptly order.

The focus of Figes' study was the relationship between the peasants and the Bolsheviks during the Revolution and Civil War. The Bolsheviks could not have attained power if they had not first gained the allegiance of the peasantry. How did the peasants of the Volga region and the local Bolsheviks regard each other? It was a crucial question. The big breakthrough came when Figes managed to obtain the papers of the Volost-level Soviets, enabling him at last to get to grips with the dynamics of village politics as Bolsheviks gradually took control and steered peasant revolt towards revolution. …

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