He is known for his works on Russian history, in particular A People's Tragedy (1996), Natasha's Dance (2002) and The Whisperers (2007). Figes borrows from a broad range of methodologies, including social, cultural and oral history, and his writing combines literary and academic qualities.
A People's Tragedy, translated into twenty languages, is a study of the Russian Revolution and combines social and political history with biographical details in a historical narrative. It was awarded the Wolfson History Prize, the WH Smith Literary Award, the NCR Book Award, the Longman-History Today Book Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Natasha's Dance and The Whisperers were both short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize, making Figes the only writer to have been short-listed twice for the Samuel Johnson Prize. The Whisperers was also short-listed for the Ondaatje Prize
Figes has made a significant contribution to the development of oral history in Russia. With the Memorial Society, he gathered several hundred private family archives from homes across Russia and interviewed thousands of survivors as well as perpetrators of the Stalinist repressions for his book The Whisperers. This represents one of the biggest collections of documents about private life in the Stalin era. Housed in the Memorial Society in Moscow, St Petersburg and Perm, many of these valuable research materials are available on line
Translated into over twenty languages, The Whisperers has been described by Andrei Kurkov as "one of the best literary monuments to the Soviet people, on a par with The Gulag Archipelago and the prose of Varlam Shalamov." In it Figes underlines the importance of oral testimonies for the recovery of the history of repression in the former Soviet Union. Whilst conceding that, 'like all memory, the testimony given in an interview is unreliable,' he has claimed that oral testimonies are, on the whole, 'more reliable than literary memoirs, which have usually been seen as a more authentic record of the past.' The reason he gives is that 'unlike a book, [oral testimony] can be cross-examined and tested against other evidence to disentangle true memories from received or imagined ones'.
Figes has included in The Whisperers a detailed study of the Soviet poet Konstantin Simonov, who became a leading figure in the Soviet Writers' Union and a propagandist in the 'anti-cosmopolitan' campaign during Stalin's final years. Drawing on the closed sections of Simonov's archive in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art and on the archives of the poet's wife and son, Figes has produced the most penetrating study yet of this major figure in the Soviet establishment.