Another contribution from jamessal: the NYRB has a podcast page, featuring interviews with some of their authors. Now, I’m not a huge podcast fan—I prefer getting my information visually—but the first one on the page was with Orlando Figes, author of Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia and A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, and I was fascinated by his discussion of the process of gathering information for his latest book (NYRB review)—and appalled by the description of the government raid on Memorial, seizing the digital archive they had spent two decades collecting. But what really shocked me was the pronunciation of his name. I’m not even going to tell you how I’ve been pronouncing it all these years, because I don’t want to put the mistake in your head as well, but it turns out it’s [faɪdʒiz] (FYE-jeez).


  1. I talked to Terry Martin (a historian of Stalinism) about the Memorial issue. He smiled wryly and said, essentially, that they’d had it coming for a long time–they were openly engaging in political (electoral) activity that went beyond their neutral image as preservers of the past and using the latter to cover for the former. He also said that the data was not irreplaceable (apparently other organizations had it as well) and the raid was ultimately not as big of a deal as Memorial made it out to be. Martin is hardly a Putin apologist, so that seems to make sense. Treat the episode as yet another demonstration of how anti-government political speech is suppressed in Russia; don’t make it into a sign of resurgent Stalinism.

  2. That’s great. I like to hear how writers talk.
    Now tell us how you used to pronounce Figes. In my head it’s always Figgies, like piggies.

  3. You mean that it’s not as in Orlando-syrup-of-Figes? What a let down.

  4. S, this is not true, or not quite true.
    Memorial has many branch offices around the country. Some of them work only to preserve the past; some do other human and civil rights work. Their charters allow this. I’m not sure what Martin has in mind for “openly engaging in political (electoral) activity,” but I would be surprised if they were acting contrary to their legal mandate. I have never known them to do so.
    Many of these local branches, like the one in St. Pete, are kind of Mom and Pop shops that began way back when and never evolved technically or organizationally. Most of the data taken in the raid WAS unique, and there is no copy stored elsewhere.
    It’s not clear why the materials were taken. On the one hand, Memorial has pretty good relations with the gov’t and gets state grants. There are plenty of books, radio and tv documentaries about Stalinism and the repressions. On the other hand, there is a fairly consistent pattern of allowing freedom of speech where it has small reach (i.e., 1000 print run books, radio shows that reach half a million, tv shows at 2 am) while managing or controlling it where the reach is massive. In recent years school books were changed to present Stalin’s repressions as “measures necessary to industrialize the country.” Stalin is called an “effective manager.” And there was a tv series called – I kid you not — Сталин Live, in which Stalin was portrayed as a pretty good guy, only wounded from his hard childhood. It’s perfectly possible that the Memorial archive, which has documentary evidence contrary to the new Stalin Lite, annoyed someone. (This isn’t a resurgence of Stalinism, but rather a rewriting of the Stalinist era.) Or maybe this was just another intimidation raid to remind everyone to mind their ps and qs. Who knows? It’s all a black box, so one person’s conspiracy theory is as good as another’s.
    And now here’s my hot-button issue, like S&W for you. Martin’s assertion that “essentially, that they’d had it coming for a long time,” makes me nuts. It seems to say: If you abide by the law and fight legally for your constitutional rights and the observance of the law, knowing that this is going to annoy the authorities, and if then you get raided, knocked on the head, put in prison or worse – hey, you were asking for it.
    Okay, I’ll get down off my soap box now. You may resume previously scheduled programming.

  5. I don’t have any personal acquaintance with the situation, but mab’s take on it sounds a lot more plausible to me than slawk’s. And I emphatically agree about “they’d had it coming.” I suppose he’d have said the same thing about the defendants in the show trials—hey, you piss off Stalin, you get what’s coming to you. Bah.

  6. Oh, and I always said FIGG-iss.

  7. Hat, that’s just it. I once went ballistic on a site, frequented mostly by very liberal or left-wing folks, who responded to some beating of peaceful demonstrators with just that: Well, what did they expect? They had it coming to them. THey should have known who it would play out.
    (Although we are quick to assert that we do not think Mr S thinks this.)
    I also said Figg-is. It’s FYE like eye? Jeez like Jeez Louise? Who would have guessed?

  8. oops. Should be: “how it should play out.” I just get so agitated I can’t type:)

  9. I don’t know–I was just reporting what I heard. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that they had it coming, since it’s obviously possible to say that the raid was a bad thing even if it was completely expected. Any kind of liberal human rights work in Russia carries these risks. It’s just like a war. Looking at it as “legal” and “constitutional” is naive, and certainly Memorial should have been under no illusions that the “legality” and “constitutionality” of their work would have protected them. The victims of Stalinism are another matter–they were often selected more or less at random, so they couldn’t have avoided their fate even if they tried.

  10. Im a huge fan of podcasts. Likes listening to books being read like listening to a radio drama.
    And I always thought its Figgies also- as in piggies.

  11. Fireplace Designs says

    “And I always thought its Figgies also- as in piggies.”
    Mike, I thought that too! I’m a huge podcast fan. I used to like reading (still do) but find myself constantly squinting (perhaps I need glasses!) or losing my place and re-reading the same parts! I have some podcasts that I listen to over and over not only for the content but also because of the narration. If the podcast is read well, there’s nothing better than listening whilst on the sofa or in bed.

  12. S:
    The thing is: the raid wasn’t expected and Memorial still can’t figure out why it happened.
    And since this is a language blog (after all), to me, when you say “they had it coming,” you are implying that they are somehow responsible, as if they brought it on themselves. And then it follows that if they had just not gathered all those oral histories, this never would have happened. In the first place, you imply that they are somehow guilty. In the second place, you deflect attention from folks who are guilty.
    By “you” I mean “a person.”
    Feel free to ignore this; as I said, this is my personal S&W. work with these folks and keep wondering when I’ll get raided, or beat up, or…. worse (with Jaws music playing in the background as the elipsis appears….)

  13. There would be lots and lots of very bad publicity all over the world if anything happened to you. A ton. It would go on and on, too.

  14. Ah, dear AJPC, you see why this is a hot-button issue for me. I work with these guys. We are scrupulous about the law. We don’t want revolution. Our motto is Bureaucrats are R Friends. And if one day I get my face bashed in, it’s gonna make me crazy when my liberal brethen write, Well, I feel sorry for her, of course, but SHE HAD IT COMING TO HER.
    It’s going to really, truly, absolutely piss me off.

  15. I’m not saying they had it coming to them because of their work on victims of Stalinist repression. Obviously. I’m talking about the other stuff Memorial (not the St. Petersburg branch, admittedly) was doing–if you do human rights or any kind of liberal advocacy in Russia, then you accept the risk.

  16. (Not that it’s okay to raid them either way.)

  17. (Not that it’s okay to raid them either way.)
    But that’s what you imply when you say “they had it coming to them”; it’s not at all the same as “they accept the risk.” I think Russian поделом works the same way, no?

  18. Fair enough. Poor choice of words on my part.

  19. Many of these local branches, like the one in St. Pete, are kind of Mom and Pop shops that began way back when and never evolved technically or organizationally. Most of the data taken in the raid WAS unique, and there is no copy stored elsewhere.
    A lot of institutions are now putting their archives online. Maybe now that this has happened it will be a spur to becoming more technically savvy and getting what’s left out into the public domain.

  20. Yes, I think this will be a wake-up call. Once (if) they get the archives back, they need to copy them and store them abroad (things being what they are here). But then, do I back up religiously every week? I’m definitely a pot.

Speak Your Mind