Orlando Figes was born in London on November 20, 1959. Orlando Figes is one of three writers in the Figes family. His mother Eva Figes and his sister Kate Figes are both writers too.
Eva Figes is the author of thirteen novels and several works of non-fiction, including Patriarchal Attitudes, a seminal feminist work of the early 1970s. Orlando Figes was brought up in Hampstead, north London, in a feminist environment. It was a single-parent family, his father, John Figes, having left the family when Orlando was just three.
Orlando Figes went to William Ellis School in north London. It was a grammar school when he started there, though it became a comprehensive when he was in the sixth form. At William Ellis Orlando Figes was in the year below the notable historians Mark Mazower and Toby Abse.
In 1979, Orlando Figes went up to Cambridge to study history at Gonville and Caius College. Under the direction of Neil McKendrick and Vic Gatrell, Gonville and Caius was the leading history college in Cambridge at that time. Among the European historians at Cambridge, Figes studied with Peter Burke and Norman Stone. His undergraduate dissertation on 'Ludwig Börne and the Formation of a Radical Critique of Judaism' was published in the Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook in 1984. In 1982, Orlando Figes graduated with a double-starred First from Cambridge and began a Ph.D. on Russian history under the direction of Norman Stone.
Figes's dissertation was on the peasantry of the Volga region during the Russian Revolution and the Civil War. It became his first book, Peasant Russian, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution (1917-1921), which was published in 1989.
A major influence on the early work of Orlando Figes was Teodor Shanin, then the Professor of Sociology at Manchester University, who developed the ideas of Alexander Chayanov as an alternative to Marxist notions of capitalist development in the Russian countryside. Through Shanin, Orlando Figes worked in Moscow with Viktor Danilov, the leading historian of the Soviet peasantry, who helped Figes gain unprecedented access to the Soviet archives for his first book. One of Danilov's books (Rural Russia Under the New Regime) was translated into English by Orlando Figes.
In Peasant Russia Orlando Figes emphasized the autonomous nature of the agrarian revolution during 1917-18, showing how it developed according to traditional peasant notions of social justice independently of the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks or other urban-based parties. Using village Soviet records, Figes also demonstrated how the function of the rural Soviets was transformed in the course of the Civil War as they were taken over by younger and more literate peasants and migrant townsmen, many of them veterans of the First World War or Red Army soldiers, who became the rural bureaucrats of the emerging Bolshevik regime. Figes' Peasant Russia was described by Peter Kenez as 'one of the most important books ever written on the Russian Revolution'.
While he was researching his first book in Moscow, Orlando Figes was elected a Research Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1987, Figes was appoined a University Lecturer in the History Faculty, a post he held until 1999, when Orlando Figes took up the Chair of History at Birkbeck, London University. At Cambridge Figes taught the historians Andrew Roberts and Tristram Hunt, the writer Bee Wilson, James Harding, the editor of The Times, and the film producer, Tanya Seghatchian.
In 1996, Orlando Figes published A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. Translated into over twenty languages, A People's Tragedy is a panoramic history of the Revolution from the famine of 1891 to the death of Lenin in 1924. It combines social and political history and interweaves through the public narrative the personal stories of several representative figures, including the writer Maxim Gorky, as well as unknown peasants and workers. Figes wrote that he had 'tried to present the revolution not as a march of abstract social forces and ideologies but as a human event of complicated individual tragedies'. For A People's Tragedy Orlando Figes won the Wolfson History Prize, the W.H. Smith Literary Award, the NCR Book Award, The Longman/History Today Book of the Year Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Orlando Figes dedicated A People's Tragedy to his wife Stephanie Palmer, an Australian-born, Harvard educated human rights lawyer. Figes wrote his 923-page book when their twin daughters, Lydia and Alice, born in 1993, were still very small.
Orlando Figes published a third book on the Russian Revolution in 1999. Co-written by Orlando Figes with the Russian historian Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution analyses the political language, revolutionary songs, visual symbols and historical ideas that animated the revolutionary crowds of 1917.
From the Russian Revolution, Orlando Figes turned to Russian culture in Natasha's Dance (2002), his best-selling book, which has been translated into more than a dozen languages. "I wanted to write something positive, something beautiful and enjoyable that would express my passion for Russia," Orlando Figes said in an interview.
Short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize, Natasha's Dance is a broad cultural history of Russia from the building of St Petersburg during the reign of Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century. Taking his title from a scene in Tolstoy's War and Peace, where the young countess Natasha Rostova intuitively dances a peasant dance, Figes explores the tensions between the European and folk elements of Russian culture, and examines how the myth of the 'Russian soul' and the idea of 'Russianness' itself have been expressed by Russian writers, artists, composers and philosophers.
Orlando Figes has written on a broad range of Russian literary and cultural subjects in a series of essays for the New York Review. In 2003, Orlando Figes wrote and presented a film for the BBC on the pioneer of colour photography in pre-revolutionary Russia, Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky.
Next, Orlando Figes turned to oral history with The Whisperers (2007), his study of private life in Stalin's Russia. Working in part with the human rights organization Memorial, and in part on his own, Figes interviewed more than 400 people who had lived through the Stalin years. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Leverhulme Trust, the interviewing process was accompanied by the collection of family archives from private homes across Russia. The work took four years. During this time Orlando Figes was travelling frequently between the UK and Russia.
In The Whisperers Orlando Figes deals mainly with the impact of repression on internal life. It examines the influence of the Soviet regime and its campaigns of Terror on family relationships, emotions and beliefs, moral choices, issues of personal and social identity, and collective memory. Orlando Figes says that 'the real power and lasting legacy of the Stalinist system were neither in structures of the state, nor in the cult of the leader, but, as the Russian historian Mikhail Gefter once remarked, "in the Stalinism that entered into all of us".'
Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Ondaatje Prize and the Médicis Prize in France, The Whisperers has been translated into more than twenty languages. It has been described by Andrey 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."
Orlando Figes's next book, Crimea: The Last Crusade, was a new departure, taking Figes outside Russian history. Drawing extensively from Russian, French and Ottoman as well as British archives, Orlando Figes combines military, diplomatic, political and cultural history in his book, examining how the Crimean War left a lasting mark on the national consciousness of Britain, France, Russia and Turkey.
Orlando Figes sets the war in the context of the Eastern Question, and emphasizes the role of religion in the conflict. Figes frames the war within a longer history of religious conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Balkans, southern Russia and the Caucasus that continues to this day. Figes stresses the religious motive of the Tsar Nicholas I in his bold decision to go to war. Figes also demonstrates how France and Britain were drawn into the war by popular ideas of Russophobia that swept across Europe in the wake of the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848. According to one reviewer, Orlando Figes shows "how the cold war of the Soviet era froze over fundamental fault lines that had opened up in the 19th century."
Orlando Figes's latest book is Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag. It is based on a remarkable cache of 1,246 letters smuggled in and out of the Pechora labour camp between 1946 and 1955. The letters were exchanged between Lev Mishchenko, a prisoner in Pechora, and Svetlana Ivanova, his girlfriend in Moscow.
Orlando Figes's next book, a concise history of the Russian Revolution, will appear in 2013.