Crimes against history: the literary imaginations of Figes and Froude

A few days ago, there was an article in The Nation, by Peter Reddaway and Stephen F. Cohen on ‘Orlando Figes and Stalin’s Victims‘. It presents the evidence against Figes regarding claims of inaccuracy and invention in his 2007 book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, revealed largely as a result of checking against archived interviews by the publishers of a planned Russian edition.

Because these sources and/or their relatives are still living, the question of fidelity to the sources is particularly charged. In addition, the politics of Russia and opponents of the regime make much of the content a live issue. There is, therefore, an interesting question of whether anyone would have cared, or checked, had this in fact been a book about the longer-distant past.

That said, the question of Figes’s reputation for truth-telling has also been a matter for scrutiny, above all because of the revelation that he had written negative reviews of the works of rivals and a positive review of his own book on Amazon. Thus Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern was described as “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published”, and The Whisperers was declared “beautiful and necessary”, written by an author with “superb story-telling skills”.

There is something incredibly fascinating about such tales of ambition, pride, fraud and revelation. However, laying that aside (and suggesting you read the article linked above for more), I was particularly struck by an undertone in the claims of Figes and charges of his accusers that relates to views of what history can or should be, and struck a direct chord with the debates of the 19th century that I am in the middle of reading about in Ian Hesketh’s The Science of History in Victorian Britain (which I hope to finish and review here very shortly).

It is, above all, a question of the relationship between history and storytelling, or, to put it in 19th-century terms, whether it is scientific or literary. Figes’s own anonymous and hugely positive comments about “story-telling skills” and the ‘beauty’ of the book  contrast very clearly with the accusations of Reddaway and Cohen: “mistakes”, “invention”, “misrepresenting”, “for dramatic purpose”, “cannot be fully trusted”. These defects are contrasted with what they call the “meticulous transcription” of interviews that were done on Figes’s behalf by the Memorial Society – their equivalent of Leopold von Ranke‘s archives revealing “wie es eigentlich gewesen”, what really happened.

It is all thoroughly reminiscent of the accusations thrown at one 19th-century historian, James Anthony Froude, by another, Edward Freeman. As Ian Hesketh shows, Freeman was incensed by Froude’s literary approach to history, claiming that his imagination led him to interpret all the (very real) archival work he had done in light of his desired narrative. Freeman wrote of Froude’s “Constant inaccuracy of reference”, blaming the “vagaries of narrative and judgement” on of “an inborn and incurable twist, which makes it impossible for him to make an accurate statement about any matter”. He made history fiction, and his account of Thomas Becket “the life of an imaginary being in an imaginary age”.

It was a vice that became known as “Froude’s disease” and, although the term is no longer recalled, the accusation can still be recognised. Froude, of course, was the more popular writer, but the newly-professionalising, discipline-defining historians like Freeman made a virtue of studies that were of interest only to other trained specialists. While readers may have sensed a past world brought to life, encouraged by the presence of references and original sources, “what passes for history in the hands of Mr. Froude is a writing in which the things which really happened find no place”.

I suspect Freeman was a little unfair. However he, Reddaway and Cohen similarly accuse their targets of having been led astray from the true path of history by desire to capture readers with a clear story. It is the strong belief in the validity of their view of the past that has led them to reinterpret the evidence, very possibly with the positive aim of creating a truer, more believable picture, rather than wishing to falsify the past or simply trying to write a best-seller.

The two sides put ‘truth’ in a different place. For these reviewers it is within the unadorned, uninterpreted archives; for the writers it is within the picture conjured up by the combination of their archival research, historical imagination and literary skill. There is merit in both views. Certainly, the kind of objective, disinterested history that Freeman advocated today seems unrealistic, and probably undesirable, but we do most certainly expect things in quotation marks to be accurate, and that references should point adequately to real physical, written or oral evidence.

Beware, all ye writers of popular history and literary non-fiction, of “Froude’s disease”, although it may yet be preferable to “Figes’s disease”.

9 thoughts on “Crimes against history: the literary imaginations of Figes and Froude

  1. Very interesting, Becky! I suspect that it is not so much a difference between more academic or fact-based historical authors and more ‘literary’ or ‘popular’ historical authors, as between the former and the latter who either are not doing their job properly or should be rightfully labelling their works as semi-fictional or ‘inspired by real events’. For anyone claiming to have produced a non-fiction account of past events, there is rather a difference between writing in a significantly different style than that of academic publications and perhaps floating more unproved theories while highlighting them as such, etc. – and putting false words into people’s mouths, making basic factual errors, or recasting events in such a way that readers are led to dramatically misinterpret what actually occurred. I’d call it the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ popular history writing, no matter how engaging the examples of the latter category sometimes are. The issues you mention also remind me a little of the brouhaha last Winter over footage of zoo-dwelling polar bears having been intercut with footage of the wild animals in David Attenborough’s ‘Frozen Planet’ in order to give viewers the impression that they were even seeing the wild polar bears in their dens shortly after birth. However, hypocritically or not, that somehow doesn’t bother me personally, although perhaps they should briefly mention on screen when it is captive footage – whereas producing inaccurate or misleading written accounts of ‘non-fictional’ history in an effort to spice it up is anathema!

    • I think the point is that there are a whole range of degrees between transcription and outright fabrication, passing through commentary, interpretation, evocation and recreation. Those who wish to get across an impression of the past to their readers (whether they are few or many) will be more tolerant of vaguenesses, elisions, definite interpretations or whatever gets their point across. I feel sure that sometimes people are sorely tempted to change a quote, or miss a qualifying statement out, because they feel it’s what the person really meant, that they are, therefore, allowing a deeper truth to come out. This kind of process would have been much easier for Figes because he was working with interviews rather than texts, and through all the haziness of transcription and translation.

  2. It is absolutely essential, if History is to maintain its standing as an academic discipline, that an objective, non judgemental appraisal of the past is carried out. To change events so that they make sense to a modern audience – who think in a contemporary way and, therefore, will understand/contextualise/expect/judge in a contemporary way – is to modernise history and place it entirely out of context. History is not neat and historical writing needs to reflect that reality. (Not at all well put – but I hope you get my point).

    • I do agree, although our attempts must always fall short in the sense that we are inevitably confined by our own perspective. This is why it id so interesting to study past historical and biographical writings: they reveal much about the author and their times, despite they too having aimed at disinterestedness and emphasised the judicial role of the historian.

      There is, I think, a role for historians to study and write about things that are relevant to their times, even if there are no easy lessons to be learned – but they will, in my view, do is most successfully if they strive to avoid presentism.

  3. I don’t see the issue here from a historical perspective more an ethnographic one concerning the use of oral sources.

    “This kind of process would have been much easier for Figes because he was working with interviews rather than texts, and through all the haziness of transcription and translation.”

    Take the point on translation here but I think that when you are using oral sources it places you under if anything a higher degree of responsibility here.

    Collecting this type of material almost always depends on building trust with informants, the information you are looking for is often deeply personal aspect of peoples personal lives and identity. In most cases you will also be asking informants to sign away copy-write of material.

    This places you as research under a great deal of responsibility here I think.

    The most difficult aspect of this I found is that inevitably what you are going to say is almost certainly going to cause some degree of upset to informants. As an academic the questions you ask are are different and the conclusion you reach will also be different to you’re informants.

    Local identity politics I would say almost always come in to play.

    I took the choice to not to engage in field research but to work with the dead instead as it is more difficult to cause upset here. It was suggested early that I should publish aspects of fieldwork I had undertaken, this would certainly have been of benefit to me but I felt that my informants would have found what I produced to upsetting and did not take it further.

    The most balanced response to this issue I have seen is from Alena Kozlova the head of Memorial’s archive

    “We have no complaints about his interpretation; that’s his right as an author. What worries us mainly are accurate presentations of our characters. These are people we know, who are still alive.”

    I am assuming this is because she will have some awareness of the issues and difficulties that surround research.

    Anna Piotrovskaya the executive director of Dynastia which holds Russian copy-write went further and gave a somewhat different response, “would definitely provoke a scandal and result in numerous objections, either to the factual inaccuracies contained in the book or to the misrepresentation of the original transcripts of the interviews, especially taking into consideration the complexity and the sensitivity of the topic to the Russian society”.

    The last part, sensitivity and complexity of Russian society is I think the key and concerning part of that statement. I would also suggest it is somewhat at odds with Alena Kozlova’s response.

    Given the complexity and difficulty that is often met by researchers using oral sources, Peter Reddaway and Stephen F. Cohen article causes me some concern here.

    If the book is in error this should be dealt with on a more academic bases through paper and proper debate rather than through the press. Its a serious matter.

    Matter raises serious issues not least how historians use and understand the difficulties and issues surrounding the use of oral sources.

    • I completely agree that the oral history element gives this an added charge, and imperative to get it right. My point, though, about transcription what that Figes’s did not himself do the interviews, so was a) having to work via someone else’s interpretation/transcription and b) may have lacked the immediate sense of responsibility that having met someone personally may give. Obviously this does not excuse him if deliberate changes were made.

      It is interesting that you say it should be dealt withnin academic circles rather than through the press. The book has aimed at a broad market and has been reviewed widely by newspapers. If there is a problem with it, should these audiences not have a chance to see the issues aired?

      PS I’m going to attempt to edit your comment so that your text only appears once!

      • I do think it raises issues and needs an academic outing not say it can’t be discussed in press but when academics do the discussing would have been happier with a bit more balance until the evidence is fully in. But I have a jaded and low opinion of the way academics often behave in dispute situations so I may be wrong and slightly biased in my view.

        Yes I think distance from fieldwork may well be part of the issue; I feel sorry for the archivists here, valuable resource and a very messy issue.


        Sorry for the double post, got issues with gravatar log- in. Just worked out I need to be logged into wordpress to resolve issue.

        Dashboard, comments then edit.

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