Thursday, May 24, 2012

Another Orlando Figes row

One year on from 'review-gate' another row involving Orlando Figes is brewing and this time it's his Stalin-era book 'The Whisperers' which has come under fire. The Torygraph reports that:

..a Russian publisher has refused to publish a translation of Figes' history of the Stalin era, The Whisperers, which explores the suppression of the family in the USSR, because it apparently contained inaccuracies and factual errors.

Varvara Gornostaeva, head of the Corpus publishing house, said that during a pre-publication check they found a "huge number of inaccuracies and factual errors," and if they didn't fix them then it could bring about serious displeasure to some of the gulag victims and their families.

Allan Massie appears to think the book was pulled for sinister motives. He writes in a piece entitled 'How Orlando Figes is being silenced by the ghost of Stalin' that:

Anna Piotrovskaya, executive director of Dynastia, the publishing house which holds the Russian Rights, explains the cancellation as follows. Publication “would definitely provoke 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 considering the complexity and the sensitivity of the topic to Russian society”.

It is the last part of that sentence which is perhaps the most significant, especially since Figes has offered to correct any mistakes and amend what are judged to be misinterpretations, and since Alena Kozlova, head of Memorial’s archive, while expressing concern about some mistakes, praises the book and says that Figes “really shows the atmosphere of the time”.

If it is indeed thought to do this, then, given “the complexity and sensitivity of the topic to Russian society”, it is not surprising that publication has been cancelled. For “Russian society”, one may choose to read “the Kremlin”. The Putin regime has been engaged in a gradual rehabilitation of Stalin. It has no desire for Russians to be reminded once again of the Stalinist crimes. If you ask the questions “who benefits from stopping publication and who might be harmed by publication?” it is not difficult to come up with the answer.

Not so fast say Peter Reddaway and Stephen F. Cohen writing in 'The Nation' - 'The reasons had nothing to do with Putin’s regime but everything to do with Figes himself.'. They proceed to list the errors in 'The Whisperers' which include:

§ To begin with an example that blends mistakes with invention, consider Figes’s treatment of Natalia Danilova (p. 253), whose father had been arrested. After misrepresenting her family history, Figes puts words in her mouth, evidently to help justify the title of his book: Except for an aunt, “the rest of us could only whisper in dissent.” The “quotation” does not appear in Memorial’s meticulous transcription of its recorded interview with Danilova.

§ Figes invents “facts” in other cases, apparently also for dramatic purpose. According to The Whisperers (pp. 215-17, 292-93), “it is inconceivable” that Mikhail Stroikov could have completed his dissertation while in prison “without the support of the political police. He had two uncles in the OGPU” (the political police). However, there is no evidence that Stroikov had any uncles, nor is there any reason to allege that he had the support of the secret police. Figes also claims that for helping Stroikov’s family, a friend then in exile was “rearrested, imprisoned and later shot.” In reality, this friend was not rearrested, imprisoned or executed, but lived almost to the age of 90.

§ Figes’s distortion of the fate of Dina Ielson-Grodzianskaia (pp. 361-62), who survived eight years in the Gulag, is grievous in a different respect. After placing her in the wrong concentration camp, he alleges that she was “one of the many ‘trusties’” whose collaboration earned them “those small advantages which…could make the difference between life and death.” There is no evidence in the interviews used by Figes that Ielson-Grodzianskaia was ever a “trusty” or received any special privileges. As a leading Memorial researcher commented, Figes’s account is “a direct insult to the memory of a prisoner.”

Orlando Figes replies at the bottom of the article. I'm not sure if Putin's regime have a vendetta against Figes but his fellow academics certainly do!

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1 comment:

tolkein said...

I looked up Stephen F Cohen. According to Wikipedia, he's a close friend of Gorbachev. He's also written regretful articles about the fall of the Soviet Union.

He might be right about Mr Figes' flaws, but I'll believe it when I read about it from a less biased source.