Thursday, August 25, 2016


What's The Real Reason My Book On Stalin Isn't Being Published In Russia?

Orlando Figes
Orlando Figes
By Orlando Figes
On March 2, the Moscow publishing house Atticus Group (Inostranka) canceled a contract to publish my latest book in Russia. The reason given by the publisher is the economic situation, which may be part of the story, though I suspect (as do my friends in Russia) that the real reason is political.

The history in my book is inconvenient to the current regime in Russia.

"The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia" draws on several hundred family archives and thousands of interviews with survivors of the Stalinist regime that I conducted with Memorial, a nationwide human rights and historical research center which for 20 years has pioneered the research of Stalinist repressions in the Soviet Union. Memorial has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times in the past three years.

On December 4, a group of masked men from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office forced their way with police truncheons into the St. Petersburg offices of Memorial.

After a search, the men confiscated hard drives containing the entire archive of Memorial in St. Petersburg: databases with biographical information on victims of repression, details about burial sites in the St. Petersburg area, family archives, sound recordings, and transcripts of interviews.

Among the confiscated items was the entire collection of materials in the Virtual Gulag Museum, a much-needed initiative to rescue precious artifacts, photographs, and documents from more than 100 small exhibitions under threat across Russia (a country where there is just one substantial museum of the gulag, Perm-36, in the Urals).

All the materials I collected with Memorial in St. Petersburg (about one-third of the sources used in "The Whisperers") were also confiscated by the police. Luckily, I have copies of all the documents on my website. But the rest of the confiscated items remain in the hands of the police.

Rehabilitation Of Stalin

The raid on Memorial is part of a broader ideological struggle over the control of history publications and teaching in Russia that may have influenced the decision of Atticus to cancel my contract.

The Kremlin has been actively working for the rehabilitation of Stalin. Its aim is not to deny Stalin's crimes, but to emphasize his achievements as the builder of the country's "glorious Soviet past." It wants Russians to take pride in their Soviet past and not to be burdened with a paralyzing sense of guilt about the repressions of the Stalin period.

At a conference in June 2007, then-President Vladimir Putin called on Russia's schoolteachers to portray the Stalin period in a more positive light. It was Stalin who made the Soviet Union great, who won the war against Hitler, and his "mistakes" were no worse than the crimes of Western states, he said.

Textbooks dwelling on the Great Terror and the gulag have been censored, historians attacked as "antipatriotic" for highlighting Stalin's crimes.

The presidential administration has promoted its own textbook, "The Modern History of Russia, 1945-2006: A Teacher's Handbook." According to one of its authors -- the Kremlin propagandist Pavel Danilin -- its aim is to present Russian history "not as a depressing sequence of misfortunes and mistakes, but as something to instill pride in one's country. This is precisely how teachers must teach history and not smear the Motherland with mud."

Danilin is a close associate of Gleb Pavlovsky, a presidential adviser and the editor of the "Russian Journal," which aims to create an intellectual base for Putin's pseudo-democracy.

A special December issue on the "Politics of Memory" was published to coincide with the raid on Memorial. It contained two articles viciously attacking the work of Memorial for playing into the hands foreign historians accused of setting out to blacken Soviet history by focusing on Stalin's crimes.

"The Whisperers" has been translated into 22 foreign languages, including all the European languages of the former Soviet Union -- except Russian, it now seems.

Orlando Figes is a professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
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Comment Sorting
Comments page of 2
by: Altay from: Baku
March 04, 2009 11:25
I think it is crazy. Even under Brejnev they kept silence about Stalin. Almost all the soviet films about WW 2 were without Stalin. Any attempt to revive Stalin as a hero shows how desperate these guys are. what about chechens, ingushs, karachays, balkars and other minorities of Russian federation. How history books are going to justify mass deportations? &quot;Sorry it was done for the sake of great motherland&quot;<br />I assume that these guys are desperate and despair makes them dangerous.

by: elmer
March 04, 2009 13:53
&quot;The Whisperers&quot; is an outstanding, excellent book.<br /><br />It is shameful that in Russia there are continued efforts to hide facts, to hide history.<br /><br />It is shameful that Russia cannot come to terms with its past, so that Stalinist terror is not repeated.<br /><br />Russia can then move on to a new, free and open era in the 21st century

by: Johann Gray from: Minneapolis
March 04, 2009 17:49
Why should Russians let some FOREIGN GUY trash their history and national pride as defenders of the world, along with our glorious country,America, against the brutal murderer Adolf Hitler.<br />Why would WE, The Americans let some Foreign Guy trash our history and the legacy of our founding fathers ?<br />How often have WE, in America had to bail out the rest of the world including,<br />The Brits, when other people have gotten<br />themselves into great trouble. <br />We had to bail the Brits out in the Suez war 1956. Why did the Brits not fight Germany harder in WW2.

by: Veikko Saksi from: Finland
March 04, 2009 18:45
Professor Figes, thank you for the matter-of-fact article. There is nothing new but its important constantly to repeat the crimes of Stalin's regime. Also we Finns are victims. Well, our politicians behave like we were very happy of that role.<br /><br />You have possibly seen the Soviet Story film by Edvins Snore ( Its the best documentary of the Soviet time.<br /><br />Mr. Putin and his regime should look at it every day and after that repeat if the time of Stalin was good for Russia or not. It was extremely bad for other countries but it was worst for Russia.

by: Ivo
March 04, 2009 19:51
&gt;(...) who won the war against Hitler (...)<br /><br />And who started the war in first place together with Hitler.

by: Veikko Saksi from: Finland
March 04, 2009 20:30
TO: Johann Gray from Minneapolis. You are asking why. Its better ask why should we lie all the time? When the pride is based on the lie as the total Soviet Union, there is nothing to be proud of.<br /><br />Hitler is second to Stalin. Both were very bad criminals, but Stalin's system killed about 100 million Russian people, only. <br /><br />What did America? It has done lots of good, but during the war time it sent war material to the Soviet Union. Today the value would be about 2 000 Billion dollars (as a burden for today's economy). America also sent newest technology and let tens of millions of people die.<br /><br />You can be proud of the States or Russia, but please do not be ingnorant of the real crimes.

by: Nick from: VA. USA
March 04, 2009 21:31
Look. Yes the (Once starving) Russian troops defeated the Germans, But Not without the help of Food, Steel, etc. from the USA and GB.<br />And what was the deal that Stalin had with Hitler before Hitler double-crossed Stalin??? Look up your WW2 war history.<br />EVEV Kruschev admitted the food was great help.<br />And to mr. Gray from minn. Your not even old enough to have fought the Blitz's devatasting Fires in England during WW2. Who do you think Bombed England? You've got some nerve ...

by: Michael Averko
March 05, 2009 05:27
The USSR's success during WW II was despite Stalin and not because of him. His purging of the officer corps in the 1930s and refusal to believe his own intell of an oncoming Nazi assault didn't benefit the Soviet war effort. The brutal aspects of his domestic policies had negative aspects as well.<br /><br />There's a saying about how the winners of a war get to write the history. As is true with some other formerly Communist countries, Russia is in the process of still &quot;finding itself&quot; (for lack of a better term).<br /><br />Meantime, there’s no Stalin holiday or an attempt (at least as far as I know) to initiate one. This contrasts from a newly created holiday in Ukraine: <br /><br /> <br />In English language mass media, there’s little if any criticism of this holiday. I wonder what kind of deals might’ve occurred to get this Ukrainian holiday passed in the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament)? Stepan Bandera appears to be a regional figure along the lines of Robert E. Lee. There’s reason to question Symon Petliura’s overall popularity in Ukraine as well. <br /><br />A good deal of commentary has been raised about Stalin's popularity in Russia. He received under 12% of the vote in a contest to determine who Russians regard as their most popular historical figure. Rather than highlight the under 12% figure, much was stressed about how he finished third behind Aleksandr Nevsky and Pyotr Stolypin. <br /><br />Some have questioned how accurate the result reflects Russian public opinion. In the beginning of the contest, it was thought that a coterie of pro-Stalin zealots were “stuffing the ballot box” (a terminology that has been used in instances like when the fans of some teams will repeatedly vote for their favorite players for all star game status over more qualified others). A good number of Diaspora Russians and those in Russia have expressed to me surprise with Stolypin finishing second. <br /><br />Here're two different views on the subject of historical figures revered by Russians: <br /><br /> <br /><br /> <br /><br />Some of the support for Stalin is measured in the form of acknowledging his shortcomings and not seeking a copy of his methods.<br /><br />As for censorship, the greater censorship is the one not being discussed as much. This point relates to the kind of views on Russia getting the nod in English language mass media.<br /><br /><br />

by: Gregory Hutchings from: Los Angeles, USA
March 05, 2009 07:21
The author wrote about a country, which he was not familiar with, and now he wants his book published there. Sheer stupidity. How else can one explain his naivety about Russia? There is an old saying &quot;When in Rome, do as the Romans do&quot;. If the author wants something from the Russians (his book published), perhaps he should play by the Russian rules. If he doesn't want to, well, to hell with his book. If anyone truly wants to read his &quot;awesome&quot; book he would surely find a way to do so in any of the other 22 languages.

by: Oscar Franklin from: London
March 05, 2009 11:52
Dear Mr Hutchings<br /><br />Orlando Figes is an internationally reknowned historian who has contributed much to our knowledge of Russian history. He is eminently familiar with the country and fluent in Russian. Hiw many works on Russian history have been awarded multiple prizes. His comment is not about his book being published or not, but about the rehabilitation of history's worst mass murderer. Obviously too subtle a distinction for you.
Comments page of 2