Orlando Figes is unafraid of thinking big. A People's Tragedy, his (nearly) 900-page study of the Russian Revolution from the 1890s to the mid-1920s, is, he says, 'the first attempt at a comprehensive history of the entire revolutionary period in a single volume'. His recent book, Natasha's Dance, is a richly textured cultural history of Russia from the time of Peter the Great to that of Brezhnev. Like Tolstoy, Figes seeks to integrate the public and the private, the panoramic and the personal, and he writes with great flair (for which he acknowledges the influence of his mother the novelist Eva Figes) whether about princes, priests, poets and peasants, or about Tsarism, Revolution and Civil War. It is bold for an academic historian to opt for such broad horizons. It is also risky (as Figes discovered last autumn when the victim of a notoriously mean review of Natasha's Dance in the TLS). So is the Professor of History at Birkbeck College, London, planning to retreat into a more conventional academic shell? That is not the Figes style.
Orlando and his sister, the writer Kate Figes, were brought up by their mother in a bookish home in northwest London. Orlando, born in 1959, was always an omnivorous reader ('I jumped straight from Topsy and Tim to Tolstoy!'). From William Ellis school he went to Cambridge where, the son of a German Jewish refugee, he gravitated towards Central and East European history, taking supervisions from Peter Burke and Norman Stone. Under Stone's tutelage, Figes wrote an undergraduate dissertation on a left-leaning German Jewish contemporary of Marx and Heine (for which Stone sent him off to talk to Isaiah Berlin). Later, when Figes set out to do his PhD, Stone nudged him away from the arcanae of German-Jewish philosophy. 'You need something you can get on with even when distracted by love or a hangover,' said Stone in his down-to-earth way, 'something practical, like counting Russian peasants.' Thus was born what became Figes' first book, Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution, 1917-1921.
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