Orlando Figes is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author, most recently, of Revolutionary Russia: 1891–1991: A History. (May 2016)

The Courage of the Composer

Dmitri Shostakovich; drawing by William Kentridge for his production of Shostakovich’s opera The Nose, 2009
In Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), his best-known novel, Julian Barnes recounts the scene in L’Éducation sentimentale where Frédéric, its hero, “wanders through an area of Paris wrecked by the 1848 uprising” and notices “amid the chaos” things that have survived by chance: He sees a clock, some prints—and a parrot’s perch.

The Tragic Wife of the Composer

Lina Prokofiev with her husband Serge, his mother Maria Grigorievna Prokofieva, and their son Svyatoslav, Paris, 1924
Among the wives of famous men who languished in the Gulag, few had a more tragic tale to tell than Lina Prokofiev, the wife of the composer, who in 1948 was sentenced to twenty years in the labor camps of the far north for “treason to the motherland.” Soviet Russia …

Hamming Up Bulgakov

Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm in A Young Doctor’s Notebook

It’s not hard to see why Mikhail Bulgakov’s books are so often dramatized. He was himself a dramatist, and adapted his own novel The White Guard (1925) for the stage. His prose is highly visual, full of humorous incidents, theatrical in atmosphere, and frequently surreal—all qualities that lend it to the stage and screen. But not all his books were written in that vein. A new television series starring Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe shows that Bulgakov is becoming better known, but not necessarily through his own words.

A Double Game with Stalin

Mikhail Bulgakov
Collaborators starts with the writer Mikhail Bulgakov (played by Alex Jennings) waking from a nightmare in which he is being chased around his small apartment by Stalin (Simon Russell Beale). Tripped and lying on the floor, Bulgakov is about to be killed by the scary dictator, looming over him with …

A Great Russian Writer in the Communist Cauldron

Andrey Platonov, Voronezh, 1922
For literature, perhaps the most precious dividend from the collapse of the Soviet system has been the discovery of previously censored or unknown manuscripts by the great writer Andrey Platonov. Joseph Brodsky put him on a par with Joyce, Musil, and Kafka. Yet in his own lifetime in Russia he …

Putin vs. the Truth

A pro-Communist demonstration in Moscow, with a portrait of Stalin in the background, May 1, 2005
In 1991, during the last days of the Soviet Union, I was working in the Military History Archive in Moscow. The archive complex was in a crumbling state. There were broken windows and stray cats on the staircase to the reading room. The desk lamps had no lightbulbs and there …

Tolstoy’s Real Hero

In his Lectures on Russian Literature Vladimir Nabokov maintains that “the third, and worst, degree of turpitude” in literary translation, after “obvious errors” and skipping over awkward passages, is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform …

Rise of a Gangster

“Stalin,” recalls the Menshevik politician Nikolai Sukhanov in his memoirs of the Russian Revolution of 1917, “gave me the impression…of a grey blur which flickered obscurely and left no trace. There is really nothing more to be said about him.”[^1] Thanks to the writings of his more intellectual enemies, who …

Prokofiev Makes His Moves

When Sergey Prokofiev fled Soviet Russia for the United States in 1918, among the other papers, manuscripts, and scores he left behind in Petrograd were the diaries he had kept for the past eleven years. The young composer was a seasoned diarist. As Anthony Phillips writes in an introduction to …

Islam: The Russian Solution

Muslim leaders today like to boast that Islam arrived in Russia before Christianity. Muslims brought their religion to Russia from the Arabian peninsula in the first centuries after Muhammad, long before the arrival of Christianity among the pagans on the Eurasian steppe. By the end of the first millennium, when …

Anna the Great

Of all the Russian poets of the twentieth century, none voiced the suffering of their people more directly than Anna Akhmatova. The drama of her life is an intimate reflection of her country’s tragic history, the passion of her poetry drawn from both. Born in 1889, Akhmatova was already at …

The Divine Terrorist

It is no easy task to write the life of Ivan IV (“the Terrible”), tsar of all the Russias from 1547 to 1584. The figure of the tsar towers over Russian history, and divides historians. For some he was the founder of the modern Russian state and even the empire; …

The Fiddler’s Children

At the turn of the twentieth century, 60 percent of Europe’s Jews (5.2 million out of 8.7 million) lived in the Russian Empire. Subject to a comprehensive range of legal disabilities and discrimination, the Tsar’s Jews were forbidden to own land, to enter the Civil Service, or to serve as …

What a Disaster!

“Oh please, Nurse, tell me again how the French came to Moscow.” Thus the writer Alexander Herzen starts My Past and Thoughts, one of the great works of nineteenth-century Russian literature. Born in 1812, Herzen had a special fondness for his nanny’s stories of that year. His family had been …

The Truth About Shostakovich

Dmitry Shostakovich is one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. But he is also one of its most complex and elusive artists. Shy and reserved by nature, Shostakovich became even more withdrawn following the two great Stalinist assaults against his work (in 1936 and 1948), which bred in …

Murder, Russian Style

On June 11, 1829, Alexander Pushkin was traveling through the Caucasus, on his way to join his brother on the Russo-Turkish front, when he came across a disturbing sight: Two oxen harnessed to a cart were descending the steep road. Some Georgians were accompanying the cart. “Where do you come …

Roughing It

In the opening pages of Dostoevsky’s story “White Nights” the narrator wanders around St. Petersburg trying to explain why the streets are so empty. For three whole days he walks about in a state of anguish—he does not see a single one of his nodding acquaintances—until at last he realizes …

In Search of Russia

In 1909, the Russian prime minister Pëtr Stolypin told a foreign journalist: “Give the State twenty years of internal and external peace and you will not recognize Russia.” At that time there were real hopes in Russia’s huge potential. With its natural wealth and vigorous new industries, Russia promised to …

Reconstructing Hell

It is almost thirty years since the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.[^1] The appearance of the first volume, in Paris in December 1973, was met by a venomous campaign of vilification in the Soviet press that led to Solzhenitsyn’s deportation from the Soviet Union. His exposure of the Soviet …

The Greatest Relief Mission of All

On July 31, 1921, The New York Times published an appeal by Maxim Gorky “To All Honest People.” Tragedy had come to “the country of Tolstoy”—millions of people were threatened by starvation in the worst famine crisis the world had ever seen. But Russia’s misfortune was an opportunity to restore …