A top historian has revealed who rubbished rivals’ works in online postings
An extraordinary literary “whodunnit” over the identity of a mystery reviewer who savaged works by some of Britain’s leading academics on the Amazon website has culminated in a top historian admitting that the culprit was, in fact, his wife.
Prof Orlando Figes, 50, an expert on Russia and professor of history at Birkbeck College, London, made the startling revelation in a statement through lawyers following a week of intrigue, suspicion, legal threats and angry email exchanges over postings on the website’s UK book review pages.
The spat began last week when the Cambridge-based academic, Dr Rachel Polonsky, noticed among the many favourable reviews of her book on Russian culture, Molotov’s Magic Lantern, one condemning her efforts as “dense”, “pretentious” and “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published”.
It ended on late on Friday evening with the surprise unveiling of Figes’s wife, Dr Stephanie Palmer, a senior law lecturer at Cambridge University, barrister, and member of the top human rights specialists, Blackstone Chambers, as the reviewer calling herself “Historian”, and responsible for several anonymous online attacks on the works of her husband’s rivals.
Indeed, “Historian”, who it transpired also generated a profile on the Amazon website under the username “Orlando-Birkbeck”, had not only rubbished Polonsky’s book, but also other works going back years and including books by Oxford University’s Robert Service, biographer of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. The book on Trotsky was a “dull read”, that on Stalin “disappointing” and his history of communism derided as “rubbish” and “an awful book”.
By contrast, Figes’s 2008 work, The Whisperer, was, according to Historian, a “beautiful and necessary” account of the Soviet system, penned by a man possessed of “superb story-telling skills” with this eulogy ending with the fervent wish: “I hope he writes for ever.”
Nor were Russian experts the only ones targeted.
In 2008 Figes, the Cambridge double-starred first and award-winning son of the feminist writer Eva Figes, lost out on the prestigious and lucrative £30,000 Samuel Johnson prize to Kate Summerscale’s book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.
“Oh dear, what on earth were the judges thinking,” wrote Historian. “The book is not nearly as good as its many plaudits in the press and book prize judges think.”
Tracing back “Historian’s” entries, Polonsky’s suspicions were raised.
Memories of an earlier spat with Figes, following her own highly critical review in the Times Literary Supplement of his 2002 book Natasha’s Dance, came to mind.
She drew the anonymous “Historian” reviews to the attention of Service, who in turn alerted more than 30 leading historians in Britain and abroad in a furious email.
In it, Service condemned the online reviews as “unpleasant personal attacks in the old Soviet fashion”, adding: “Gorbachev banned anonimki from being used in the USSR as a way of tearing up someone’s reputation. Now the grubby practice has sprouted up here.”
Though, having been alerted to the problem, Amazon had by now removed the offending reviews, Service continued: “How to expunge the practice and expose the practitioners of malign electronic denunication in countries of free expression is, I think, a matter for debate.” He attached scanned pages from the Amazon site.
Though not named, Service’s email was also sent to Figes, who went on the offensive on Thursday, responding to all the email’s recipients to protest he was not responsible for the unflattering reviews, which could have been written “by virtually anyone”.
On Friday, he forwarded further emails from Amazon which appeared to show he had no connection with the Orlando-Birkbeck profile.
“Clearly,” he wrote, “that would have been the very last nickname I would have chosen.”
Meanwhile, his lawyer, David Price, was stressing the mystery reviewer could, in fact, be a way of discrediting Figes himself.
But Polonsky, still not satisfied, was by now talking to her own lawyers at the firm Carter Ruck. Then, suddenly, on Friday evening, everything changed.
“My client’s wife wrote the reviews,” said Price in a statement issued on behalf of Figes. “My client has only just found out about this, this evening. Both he and his wife are taking steps to make the position clear.”
Last night, there was no further comment from Figes, and calls to the other figures involved in this unprecedented and remarkable row were not returned.