Figes, Orlando (Guy) 1959-
FIGES, Orlando (Guy) 1959-
PERSONAL: Born November 20, 1959, in London, England; son of John Figes and Eva (Unger) Figes; married Stephanie Palmer, 1990; children: two daughters. Education: Gonville and Caius Colleges, Cambridge, B.A. (history), 1982; Trinity College, Cambridge, Ph.D., 1987. Hobbies and other interests: Soccer, gardening, music, wine.
ADDRESSES: Offıce—School of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck College, Malet St., London WC1E 7HX, England. Agent—Cape, Ltd., 32 Bedford Sq., London WC18 3EL, England. E-mail—orlando. [email protected]
CAREER: Trinity College, Cambridge, Cambridge, England, fellow, 1984-99; university lecturer in history, 1987-99, director of studies in history, 1988-98; Birkbeck College, London, England, professor of history, 1999—.
AWARDS, HONORS: NCR Book Award, W. H. Smith Literary Award, Los Angeles Times Book Award for History, Wolfson history prize, and Longman/History Today Book of the Year Award, all 1997, all for A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924.
(Translator, contributor to introduction) V. P. Danilov, Rural Russia under the New Regime, Hutchinson (London, England), 1988.
Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution, 1917-1921, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1989.
A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, Cape (London, England), 1996.
Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, Metropolitan Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor of chapters to books, including Land Commune and Peasant Community in Russia: Communal Forms in Imperial and Early Soviet Society, edited by R. Bartlett, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1990; Peasant Economy, Culture and Politics of European Russia, 1800-1921, edited by E. Kingston-Mann and T. Mixter, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1991; A Critical Dictionary of the Russian Revolution, 1917-1921, edited by E. Acton and W. Rosenberg, Edward Arnold (London, England), 1997.
Figes's works have been translated into other languages, including German, Italian, Portuguese, Czech, and Russian. Contributor of articles to journals, including Peasant Studies, Soviet Studies, Past and Present, Russian Review, and History Today, and numerous reviews to periodicals, including Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian (London, England), Times (London, England), Sunday Telegraph (London, England), Independent (London, England), Times Higher Education Supplement (London, England), Literary Review, Russian Review, Historical Journal, and Slavonic and East European Review.
SIDELIGHTS: Historian, university lecturer, and translator Orlando Figes is the author of several critically acclaimed books on Russian history and culture. Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution, 1917-1921, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, and Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia were written after Figes was given access to Soviet archives. This hitherto unexplored cache of information provided the author with a wealth of statistics and little-known facts from which to reconstruct an enlightened account of Russia and its various groups during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. In addition, Figes teamed up with Boris Kolonitskii to write Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917, a ground-breaking analysis of media used during Russian Revolution that have currency relevant to the dissolution of the Soviet empire at the end of the twentieth century.
The first of his works on the Russia Revolution, Peasant Russia, Civil War, centers on the attempts of the Bolsheviks to establish government control over peasants in the Volga villages. Although they sought to win peasant support, the Bolsheviks' anti-capitalist philosophy actually countered the welfare of the peasants, resulting in several peasant civil wars. According to Slavic Review contributor Graeme Gill, Figes's research in the Soviet archives contributed "immensely to our knowledge of the situation at the lowest levels of rural society. . . .The rich picture he draws of village conditions and of peasant responses to external developments greatly expands our knowledge of Bolshevik state-building at the lowest level of society." Gill went on to predict that Figes's book "is unlikely to be surpassed as a study of revolution in the villages."
Reviewing Peasant Russia, Civil War for the Times Literary Supplement, Richard Pipes also praised Figes's work, and said, "[Figes's] study treads on politically sensitive territory and he is to be congratulated both on his courage in tackling it and on his skillful treatment. No Western work comes close to providing this kind of an insight into rural conditions during the Russian Civil War." Similarly, in an American Historical Review assessment of Figes's first book, Donald J. Raleigh noted that the Russian Civil War is "one of the most neglected and least studied periods in the Soviet experience. For this reason alone, historians should welcome Orlando Figes's detailed, extensively researched book."
Figes's second book, A People's Tragedy, expounds on his first and broadens the author's portrait of the Russian Revolution. Several reviewers of A People's Tragedy praised Figes's effort and judged the more than nine-hundred-page book an unsurpassed tome on the revolution. New Statesman reviewer Robert Service, for example, wrote, "Figes is anti-Bolshevik. . . . Few historians before the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991 aimed to write about the Revolution without identifying more with one side than with others. Yet this is also a book of passion from someone who can really write. This used to be a qualification for writing about Russia: E. H. Carr, Leonard Schapiro and Isaac Deutscher were among the most incisive political writers of their day. Figes's book has their stylistic brilliance." Reviewer Katharine Whittemore also praised A People's Tragedy in her Salon.com article, calling it "luminously, astonishingly good," and a "brilliant, compassionate book."
Figes teamed up with Russian historian Boris Kolonitskii to write Interpreting the Russian Revolution, a study of the symbols people used during the Russian Revolution to define identities and create new political meanings. In this work, the first of its kind and based on previously unstudied archival material, the authors attempt to generate more nuanced thought about the revolution. Using techniques that have been developed in studying the French Revolution, they propose that the Russian upheaval can be seen as more than a battle between democratic and totalitarian forces. To this end, Figes and Kolonitskii focus on several themes: the desacralization of the monarchy, the types of symbols of the "victorious revolution," the new members of the cult of leaders, language of class citizenship, revolutionary ideas in the rural areas, and the creation of "enemies of the people." They discuss such symbols as movies, letters, newspapers, postcards, jokes, flag-waving, rumors, and singing.
Interpreting the Russian Revolution received critical acclaim. "Unquestionably, this is an innovative work, which, side by side with a few other new research works on the Russian Revolution, helps us to see the events of 1917 in a realistic manner, free from the glare of the floodlights of revolutionary mythology," wrote Vladimir Buldakov in his Journal of Modern History review. In addition, he pointed out that "by studying the Russian troubles at the beginning of the twentieth century in the manner proposed by the authors, we may be able to understand more fully life in present-day Russia." In Historian, Dimitry Shlapentokh shared this view, remarking that the authors "provide important insight into 1917, and implicitly into recent events circa 1989-2000." Library Journal reviewer Robert H. Johnston predicted the study will "greatly interest the specialists and historians" of this tumultuous time.
In 2002 Figes published Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, a "magnificent book" to quote Guardian critic Robert Service, about the "tangled roots of nationhood and culture." As Figes himself wrote in the Guardian, "Russia invites the cultural historian to probe below the surface of artistic appearance. For the past 200 years, the arts in Russia have served as the arena for political, philosophical and religious debate in the absence of a parliament or a free press." Thus by examining the art of Russia, Figes tries to peek in the window of a nation's inner life and in the process define what it means to be Russian, an identity that has long been influenced by its geographical position between Europe and Asia. According to Figes, "There is a Russian temperament, a set of native customs and beliefs, something visceral, emotional, instinctive, a sensibility that shapes the personality and binds that person to a people and a place. This elusive temperament has proved more lasting and more meaningful than any Russian state." In Natasha's Dance, the title of which makes reference to a scene in Tolstoy's novel War and Peace, Figes discusses how the major themes of Russian literature, art, and music come to bear on daily life. Among the creators he examines are Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Chagall, Stanislavsky, Eisenstein, Stravinsky, Chekov, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Rimsky Korsakov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Nabokov, and Pasternak. Reviewers praised the study for its insights and accessibility. As Anne Applebaum noted in Sunday Telegraph, "Natasha's Dance is not, as it so easily could have been, a dry catalogue of artistic movements and famous poets." Instead, she continued, "Figes has written about them [themes of Russian literature, art, and music] in fresh and unusual ways." Describing Figes as "at his exciting best on the nineteenth and early twentieth century," Service pointed out several areas deserving of special praise. These included Figes's description of an Orthodox church service, which Service called a "joy to read," and his "knack too for writing accessibly about music." "An immensely learned, ambitious effort" is how a Kirkus Reviews critic summed up Natasha's Dance.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Historical Review, June, 1991, Donald J. Raleigh, review of Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution, 1917-1921, pp. 920-921; April, 1999, John M. Thompson, review of A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, pp. 681-682; June, 2000, Glennys Young, review of Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917, pp. 971-972.
Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, January, 2002, review of Interpreting the Russian Revolution, p. 280.
Booklist, March 15, 1998, review of A People's Tragedy, p. 1209.
Bookwatch, September 2, 1990, p. 13.
Commentary, March, 2003, Steven Merritt Miner, review of Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, p. 86.
Contemporary Review, June, 2000, review of Interpreting the Russian Revolution, p. 333; January, 2003, William Fitzherbert, review of Natasha's Dance, p. 50.
Economist (U.S.), October 19, 2002, review of Natasha's Dance.
English Historical Review, June, 2003, R. R. Milner-Gulland, review of Natasha's Dance, p. 725.
Guardian (London, England), September 14, 2002, Orlando Figes, "Birth of a Nation," letter to the editor about Natasha's Dance, p. 34; September 21, 2002, Robert Service, review of Natasha's Dance, p. 9.
Guardian Weekly (London, England), February 4, 1990, p. 29; November 18, 1990, p. 20.
Historian, fall, 1991, p. 119; winter, 2001, Dimitry Shlapentokh, review of Interpreting the Russian Revolution, p. 448.
History Today, November, 1999, review of Interpreting the Russian Revolution, p. 60.
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, summer, 1991, p. 131; autumn, 1999, review of The People's Tragedy, p. 273.
Journal of Modern History, March, 1992, p. 187; March, 1999, review of The People's Tragedy, p. 263; March, 2002, Vladimir Buldakov, review of Interpreting the Russian Revolution, pp. 210-212.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1999, review of Interpreting the Russian Revolution, p. 1276; July 15, 2002, review of Natasha's Dance, pp. 1006-1008.
Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide, May, 1998, review of A People's Tragedy, p. 32.
Library Journal, February 1, 1997; September 1, 1999, Robert H. Johnston, review of Interpreting the Russian Revolution, p. 209; October 1, 2002, Harry Willems, review of Natasha's Dance, p. 113.
New Statesman, August 30, 1996, p. 47; December 4, 1998, review of A People's Tragedy, p. 50; October 28, 2002, Edward Skidelsky, review of Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, p. 52.
New York Times Book Review, March 29, 1998, review of A People's Tragedy, p. 28.
Publishers Weekly, August 23, 1999, review of Interpreting the Russian Revolution, p. 31; July 29, 2002, review of Natasha's Dance, p. 62.
Reference and User Services Quarterly, spring, 1998, review of A People's Tragedy, p. 274.
Russian Review, January, 1992, p. 128; January, 1998, Peter Kenez, review of A People's Tragedy, pp. 107-109.
Slavic Review, spring, 1994, Graeme Gill, review of Peasant Russia, Civil War, pp. 243-244; summer, 1998, Reginald E. Zelnik, review of A People's Tragedy, pp. 453-455; fall, 2000, Donald Raleigh, review of Interpreting the Russian Revolution, pp. 678-679.
Slavonic and East European Review, October, 2000, Christopher Read, review of Interpreting the Russian Revolution, pp. 778-780.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), September 22, 2002, Anne Applebaum, review of Natasha's Dance, p. 14.
Times Higher Education Supplement, September 15, 2000, S. A. Smith, review of Interpreting the Russian Revolution, p. 28.
Times Literary Supplement, March 23-29, 1990, Richard Pipes, review of Peasant Russia, Civil War, p. 305; March 24, 2000, George Walden, review of Interpreting the Russian Revolution, pp. 6-8.
Virginia Quarterly Review, fall, 1990, p. 117.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1998, review of A People's Tragedy, p. 255.
Washington Post Book World, September 2, 1990, p. 13.
H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online, http://www.h-net.org/ (February, 1998) review of A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924.