Historian: Orlando Figes

orlando figesName: Orlando Figes

Lived: 1957-

Nationality: English of German-Jewish parentage.

Profession: Writer and academic (professor of history at Birkbeck College, London).

Books: A People’s Tragedy: the Russian Revolution 1891-1924, Natasha’s Dance: a Cultural History of Russia, Interpreting the Russian Revolution: the Language and Symbols of 1917, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia

Perspectives: Liberal / post-revisionist.


Like Simon Schama, Orlando Figes is a historian whose popularity has extended beyond academia and into general readership. Perhaps because of this – or possibly for other reasons – Figes has come in for criticism from his fellow academics. He has been described by some as a ‘historical journalist’ and accused by others of taking creative liberties with evidence. One of Figes’ approaches is to focus on the cultural aspects of revolution: words, language, symbols, propaganda, mood and other psychological devices. A revolution may start with political events and ambitions – but Figes’ work is also concerned with understanding how revolutionary ideas reach, affect and motivate ordinary people. His writing style employs a sweeping narrative, striking a balance between describing important events of great significance and examining their impact on individuals. Figes gives less time and attention to political ideology than other historians: his main concern is with ordinary Russians and their motivations and conditions. Because of this, Figes does not rely on the writings and ramblings of Marx and Lenin as a point of reference.


“The Provisional Government was a government of persuasion. Not having been elected by the people, it depended largely on the power of the word to establish its authority. [The members of the Provisional Government] … believed that the primary duty of the February Revolution was to educate the people in their civic rights and duties.”

“The terminology of the Revolution was a foreign language to most of the peasants (as indeed it was to a large proportion of the uneducated workers) in most parts of Russia. Equally, the new institutions of the state appeared strange and alien to many of the peasants.”

“Lenin did weight training to build up his muscles. It was all part of the macho culture (the black leather jackets, the militant rhetoric, the belief in action and the cult of violence) that was the essence of Bolshevism.”

“Nowhere [more than Russia] has the artist been more burdened with the task of moral leadership and national prophecy, nor more feared and persecuted by the state.”