Peter Reddaway and Stephen F. Cohen: Dishonoring Stalin's Victims and Russian History

Roundup: Talking About History

Peter Reddaway is professor emeritus of political science at George Washington University. Stephen F. Cohen is professor of Russian studies at New York University.

Many Western observers believe that President Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime has in effect banned a Russian edition of a widely acclaimed 2007 book by the British historian Orlando Figes, "The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia." A professor at London's Birkbeck College, Figes himself inspired this explanation. In a 2009 interview, he suggested that his first Russian publisher dropped the project due to "political pressure" because his study of Stalin-era terror "is inconvenient to the current regime." Three years later, his explanation continues to circulate.

We doubted Figes' explanation at the time — partly because excellent Russian historians are themselves publishing so many uncensored exposes of the horrors of Stalinism — but only now are we able to disprove it. (Since neither of us has ever had any contact with Figes, there was no personal animus in our investigation.) Our examination of transcripts of the Russian-language interviews that he used to write "The Whisperers," and of documents provided by Russians close to the project, tells a different story. A second Russian publisher, Corpus, had no political qualms about soon contracting the book. In 2010, however, Corpus also canceled the project. The reasons had nothing to do with Putin's regime but with Figes himself.

In 2004, specialists at Memorial, a widely respected human rights organization founded in 1988 on behalf of victims and survivors of Stalin's terror, were contracted by Figes to conduct hundreds of interviews for "The Whisperers," now archived at Memorial. In preparing for the Russian edition, Corpus commissioned Memorial to provide the original Russian-language versions of Figes' quotations and to check his other English-language translations. What Memorial's researchers found was a startling number of minor and major errors. It was concluded that publication "as is" would cause a scandal in Russia.

This revelation did not entirely surprise us, though what we learned was shocking...

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