Orlando furioso

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Anyone who’s opened a book by Orlando Figes will immediately have felt his ambition stream off the pages like halitosis.

Here’s how The Guardian reviewed A People’s Tragedy:

The primary weakness of this book is simply arrogance. Figes’s accomplishment is enormous, but his apparent delight in that accomplishment outstrips it. He is officious and patronising and often self-aggrandising, and he presents the book’s banalities with the air of magnificence that only its real insights deserve. He writes as though his book were definitive.

For all that, A People’s Tragedy was wildly acclaimed. Its portrait of Russians ‘trapped by the tyranny of their own history’ and the ‘legacies of their own cultural backwardness’, steamrolled by the cynical ‘philistine’ Lenin, made good reading in 1996.

As Yeltsin’s Russia produced millions of excess deaths, Figes helpfully explained that ‘Russian democracy can be rather like the Russians themselves: chaotic and disorganised.’

In short, Figes added neatly to the lineage of anti-Soviet historians for whom Lenin was arch-villain. These were people not famed for their honesty: scholarly reviews openly call Richard Pipes a liar; Robert Conquest’s estimates of excess mortality in the 1930s seem out by an order of magnitude; Dmitri Volkogonov had been head of a Soviet psychological-warfare branch before seeing the light after 1991, and becoming Yeltsin’s archival assistant.

To this existing scene of mendacity and falsification, Figes (along with Simon Sebag-Montefiore) brought a pseudo-literary style and the unhelpful innovation of “fleshing out” historical figures with imagined motivations, thoughts and episodes.

So this isn’t too surprising:

Figes’s wife confessed to writing several reviews for Amazon.com, praising her husband’s work and trashing that of his rivals…

“My client’s wife wrote the reviews,” said Figes’s lawyer’s statement. “My client has only just found out about this, this evening. Both he and his wife are taking steps to make the position clear.” Ms Figes added: “I can confirm that statement.” It was an extraordinary turn of events, and continues to beg several questions. How had Mr Figes known nothing until the day before? How had Ms Palmer kept quiet about being the author of several reviews that praised Figes’s books and damned his rivals?

Update: No kidding.

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2 Responses to “Orlando furioso”

  1. christinachurl Says:

    I don’t know if I’m remembering correctly, but I think our year 12 history of revolutions teacher recommended we read Figes. I never bothered, but I’m wondering what your thoughts are about his work and its compatibility with high school history curricula?

  2. Nick Says:

    Sovietology is beset with agendas: to find someone not pushing a barrow is very hard. Figes is not one of the better types. A People’s Tragedy includes a lot of detail but you can’t take seriously anyone who pushes the Bolsheviks-were-cynical-monsters-while-the-peasants-were-servile-yet-bloodthirsty-mystics line.

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