Sunday, 3 October 2010

Some More Thoughts on the Orlando Figes Debate

The recent release of a new book by the historian Orlando Figes called Crimea has led to an unprovoked literary attack by a leading London newspaper which gloats that Figes has been “brought to book”.

Whether the pun was intended or not is of little consequence. The publication of such a piece continues the public hanging and flogging of the academic. Orlando Figes if you remember was forced to pay libel damages and costs to Robert Service and Rachel Polonsky for posting mild but poison reviews on Amazon which was originally blamed on the professor's wife. Figes wrote secret reviews of some of Britain's leading Russian history writers. Professor Figes somewhat clumsily used the pseudonyms "Historian" and "Orlando-Birkbeck".
Figes who is a professor at London's Birkbeck College was successfully sued by historians Dr Rachel Polonsky and Professor Robert Service. An apology by Figes has been issued as part of the damages settlement.

Rachel Polonsky, whose book Molotov's Magic Lantern was attacked as "the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published”. Robert Service‘s Comrades, was judged "an awful book”. Having said that having trawled through Service’s latest book on Leon Trotsky I must agree with Figes attack on Service.
The Standard article begins “It is ferocity and incompetence that have characterised Figes's own extraordinary war with academics, and dominated the headlines earlier this year. The stakes could not have been higher”.

The moral tone of the article is somewhat rich given the fact that the Standard is little above the Sun in journalistic level. But it is clear that the author of the article does not intend to shed too much light on what passes for intellectual debate amongst historians who currently monopolise the research on Soviet historiography.
The debate about Figes is dominated by reputation and book sales. The writer of the article goes on to gloat “His professional reputation was in shreds, his actions were, in the words of one colleague, tantamount to “career suicide” — and he then went on sick leave from Birkbeck College, where he has been professor of history since 1999. It was a spectacular fall from grace for one of the leading historians of his generation. Figes, 50, got a double-starred first from Cambridge and completed his PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge”.

For my part Figes is a historian worth reading but this does not mean I agree with his sneaky resort to snide reviews. But this debate should not be settled by the use of the British libel laws.
What I find strange is that a gifted historian who has written numerous books on the former Soviet Union is prize-winning author known for his works about Russia, including Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia and The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia should stoop so low as to write hack reviews on Amazon’s website defies understanding. No disrespect to anyone who has done so, myself included but there are proper ways of attacking a book or historian.

It is clear there has been a general drop in intellectual standards amongst historians. In the past historians would have settled differences through normal intellectual channels i.e. through a book or an essay. Just for the record I don’t see past spates through rose tinted glasses some historians were not immune to name calling but on the whole differences were aired to advance our knowledge of history. According to one writer “Academics, however, live not in a vacuum and are subject to the many ideological pressures that course through society. In newspapers and magazines, and public debate, in popular culture, a growing trend is easily recognisable: the intellectual decline that started under Thatcher and Reagan have achieved terrible forms today.
Figes could have taken advantage of Services criticism of his book the Whisperers to develop a deeper understanding of Stalin and the Purges. He could have consulted one of the foremost historians of this subject Vadim Rogovin whose book Stalin’s Terror of 1937 -38-Political Genocide in the USSR was released in 2009. Or he could made use of David North’s in defence of Leon Trotsky to expose Service’s crude anti Marxism 2010.

But in the only the most insightful comment made by the Standard is this “Some see the whole scandal as emblematic of a deeper malaise at the heart of British academic life. The petty back-biting and vicious feuding among dons is symptomatic of the low status of academics these days and explains why many historians prefer to pursue their careers in America. No historian I approached would speak on the record; many seemed beset by paranoia. Figes has in the past been falsely accused of plagiarism by American academic Richard Pipes (Figes successfully sued Pipes and the Sunday Times for defamation). “I do think the English sometimes have a problem with success,” Figes once said. “Schadenfreude is one of the things we are best at. And it's perhaps more virulent in the academic profession.”
I do not believe Schadenfreude is best to describe what happened. Most of the argument can be explained by the almost frenzied interest in books sales and careers. But on a deeper level there are differences however small between Figes and a number of Western Soviet historiographies like Service and Polonsky.

Figes exhibits a sort of anti-Stalinism that is not really from a left wing standpoint i.e. Marxist but of a more liberal viewpoint. He has openly criticised the crimes of Stalin and his purges but has never really dealt with the fact that there was a Left Opposition to Stalin from Leon Trotsky. Figes view of the Russian Revolution tends to downplay the role of the Bolshevik Party and the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky and tends to place a far greater emphasis on the role of the Peasantry in the successful revolution. Figes has also been critical of the former Putin regime in Russia
He writes “Russia is creeping towards dictatorship. The imminent parliamentary elections will be another step towards the re-establishment of a one-party system in Russia. No one doubts that the Kremlin-backed United Russia will dominate the next Duma - its propaganda dominates the media. To make sure, however, the Electoral Commission has raised the threshold for winning seats from 5 to 7 per cent of the vote and barred many of the weak and divided opposition parties from participating in the poll, using complicated registration laws. Opposition meetings are regularly broken up by the police”.

But he never really elaborates what he would put in its place, except for the defence of a group of archivist who have sought to uncover however limited the crimes of Stalinism.
As for Service even Figes liberalism is too much. Service is hostile to a Marxist analysis of the Russian Revolution. In fact Figes mild criticism of Services biography of Leon Trotsky does not even touch the surface of this anti-Marxist. As David North said “A comprehensive refutation of all of Service’s distortions and misrepresentations would easily assume the size of a substantial book. This reviewer will leave for another time the exposure of Service’s political falsifications as well as his persistent defence of Stalin against Trotsky. In this regard, another important issue that remains to be explored is the significance of the Trotsky biographies of Thatcher, Swain and Service as manifestations of the confluence of neo-Stalinist falsification and traditional Anglo-American anti-Communism. Indeed, a striking feature of the on-going campaign against Trotsky is the degree to which it draws upon the lies and frame-ups of the Stalinists”.


1. Brought To Book S. Shakespeare 27 September 2010 Evening Standard

2. The Whisperers, Robert Service 2007 Guardian.

3. David North’s in defence of Leon Trotsky, Mehring Books 2010-10-03

4. Vadim Rogovin whose book Stalin’s Terror of 1937 -38-Political Genocide in the USSR. Mehring Books 2009
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