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Orlando Figes (pronounced /ˈfaɪdʒiːz/) (born 20 November 1959) is a multiple-award-winning British historian of Russia, and Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London.



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.

He is known for his works on Russian history, in particular A People's Tragedy (1996), Natasha's Dance (2002) and The Whisperers (2007). Figes borrows from a broad range of methodologies, including social, cultural and oral history, and his writing combines literary and academic qualities.

A People's Tragedy, translated into twenty languages, is a study of the Russian Revolution and combines social and political history with biographical details in a historical narrative. It was awarded the Wolfson History Prize, the WH Smith Literary Award, the NCR Book Award, the Longman-History Today Book Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Natasha's Dance won the Przeglad Wschodni Award for the best foreign book on East European History in Poland in 2009. [1]

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[2] and the Prix Medicis.[3]

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.[4]

Oral History and The Whisperers

Figes has made a significant contribution to the development of oral history in Russia. With the Memorial Society, he gathered several hundred private family archives from homes across Russia and interviewed thousands of survivors as well as perpetrators of the Stalinist repressions for his book The Whisperers. This represents one of the biggest collections of documents about private life in the Stalin era. Housed in the Memorial Society in Moscow, St Petersburg and Perm, many of these valuable research materials are available on line.[5]

Translated into over twenty languages, The Whisperers has been described by Andrei Kurkov as "one of the best literary monuments to the Soviet people, on a par with The Gulag Archipelago and the prose of Varlam Shalamov."[6] In it Figes underlines the importance of oral testimonies for the recovery of the history of repression in the former Soviet Union. Whilst conceding that, 'like all memory, the testimony given in an interview is unreliable,' he has claimed that oral testimonies are, on the whole, 'more reliable than literary memoirs, which have usually been seen as a more authentic record of the past.' The reason he gives is that 'unlike a book, [oral testimony] can be cross-examined and tested against other evidence to disentangle true memories from received or imagined ones'.[7]

Figes has included in The Whisperers a detailed study of the Soviet poet Konstantin Simonov, who became a leading figure in the Soviet Writers' Union and a propagandist in the 'anti-cosmopolitan' campaign during Stalin's final years. Drawing on the closed sections of Simonov's archive in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art and on the archives of the poet's wife and son, Figes produced a penetrating study of this major Soviet establishment figure.[8]

Public Activities in Russia

Figes has been critical of the Putin regime, in particular its campaign to rehabilitate Stalin and impose its own agenda on history-teaching in Russian schools and universities.[9] He is actively involved in an international summer school for history teachers in Russian universities organized by the European University of St Petersburg.

On 4 December 2008, the St Petersburg offices of the Memorial Society were raided by the police. The entire electronic archive of Memorial in St Petersburg, including the materials collected with Figes for The Whisperers, was confiscated by the authorities. Figes condemned the police raid, accusing the Russian authorities of trying to rehabilitate the Stalinist regime.[10] Figes organised an open protest letter to President Medvedev and other Russian leaders which was signed by several hundred leading academics from across the world.[11] After several court hearings, the materials were finally returned to Memorial in May 2009.

On 2 March 2009, the contract to publish The Whisperers in Russia was cancelled by Atticus publishing house, claiming financial reasons. Figes suspects that the decision was partly influenced by the politics surrounding the police raid against Memorial.[12] The book will be published by the charitable organization Dinastia, which financed the translation from the start.




  • 1997 – Wolfson History Prize A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924
  • 1997 – WH Smith Literary Award A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924
  • 1997 – NCR Book Award A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924
  • 1997 – Longman-History Today Book Prize A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924
  • 1997 – Los Angeles Times Book Prize A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924
  • 2009 - Przeglad Wschodni Award Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia


  • 2003 – Samuel Johnson Prize [13] Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
  • 2003 – Duff-Cooper Prize [14] Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
  • 2008 – Samuel Johnson Prize [15] The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia
  • 2008 – Ondaatje Prize [16] The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia
  • 2009 – Prix Médicis [17] Les Chuchoteurs: la vie et la mort sous Staline


  • Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution, 1917-21, 1989, ISBN 0-19-822169-X
  • A People's Tragedy: Russian Revolution 1891-1924, 1996, ISBN 0-7126-7327-X
  • With Boris Kolonitskii: Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917, 1999, ISBN 0-300-08106-5
  • Natasha's Dance: A cultural History of Russia, 2002, ISBN 0-14-029796-0
  • The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, 2007, ISBN 978-0-8050-7461-1, ISBN 0-8050-7461-9, ISBN 978-0-8050-7461-1, ISBN 0-8050-7461-9



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