Historian promises he will donate to charity half his earnings from study of gulag internee's secret correspondence.
by: Michael MacLeod
Historian Orlando Figes has vowed to donate half of the takings from his next book to charity.
The professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, revealed his plans at the Edinburgh international book festival.
He said the book, yet to be named, was based on an archive of 1,500 letters smuggled between a Russian soldier and his wife while he was held in the Pechora gulag. Their correspondence spanned a decade from 1946. Figes described it as an "absolutely unique and uncensored account" from the labour camps.
The historian hit headlines in April last year when he admitted to being the author of anonymous Amazon reviews praising his own work and rubbishing that of his rivals. His comments angered fellow academics. Historian Robert Service described Figes as "contaminant slime" after his own work was branded "awful" in the Amazon posts. Happily for Figes, however, his festival audience chose not to raise the issue at his talk.
During his event, he explained his decision not to offer remuneration to the families who shared their stories for his previous book, The Whisperers, an oral history of Russia during the Stalin era.
"It's very difficult to work with that material and to feel responsible for all the families involved in it, some of whom I got to know," he said of his earlier work. "It's not something I would wish on any other historian, to work with that material ... I considered the question of proceeds very carefully. I felt that if there were any monetary remuneration offered to families volunteering their stories, that would pollute the process. I made some charitable donations after the book was finished but I didn't think it was appropriate to give money to families for telling their stories. Lots of people came forward wanting to sell their stories but they were rejected.
"With [this] story though, I've agreed to give half of the royalties to a charity nominated by the survivors of the family."