Anonymous Slander on Amazon, Soviet Style





Donal O'Sullivan is Assistant Professor of History at California State University, Northridge.

Days after pretending his wife had posted anonymous reviews to denigrate the books of colleagues, British historian Orlando Figes confessed he had penned the reviews himself.  Figes issued a statement:  "I take full responsibility for posting anonymous reviews on Amazon.  I have made some foolish errors and apologize wholeheartedly to all concerned."

The public apology ended speculation about the true identity behind several nasty online remarks rocking the otherwise genteel world of British historians.  Confronted with allegations that he had written the comments under the pseudonym "Historian" and also used the moniker "orlando-birkbeck," Figes, who teaches at Birkbeck College in London, had first responded with aggressive denials.  "Virtually anyone" could have written the reviews, he stated, adding that it would be disingenuous of him to use a nickname identifying his workplace.  To silence the allegations, Figes then had his lawyer threaten to sue anyone who claimed he had authored the reviews.  He then proceeded to claim his wife had written the comments without his knowledge.

Erupting a week ago, the scandal has severely damaged the reputation of 50-year-old Figes, an award-winning historian and media celebrity.  It began when Dr. Rachel Polonsky discovered hostile comments on her just published book Molotov's Magic Lantern on the British Amazon website.  Polonsky was taken aback by the tone of the negative review and attempted to identify the author.  She discovered that "Historian" also used the second nickname "orlando-birkbeck," suggesting some connection with Professor Orlando Figes.

Figes has written extensively on Soviet history and won several prizes for books such as Natasha's Dance and The Whisperers.  Polonsky remembered that after criticizing Figes' work as "pastiche writing" in a scholarly review over eight years ago, she had gotten into a spat with the author.  Could it be that he had ventured to write undercover negative reviews to sabotage her work now?  The practice would be a first in the usually somewhat more refined academic environment.  She then discovered that "Historian" had also denigrated the work of other fellow writers, among them Robert Service, the author of celebrated biographies of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.  "Historian" had remarked that Service's biography of Stalin was "curiously dull" and that readers should instead buy Orlando Figes' books, praising his "superb storytelling skills."

The anonymous reviewer also targeted Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Whicher recipient of the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize.  In this study of early Victorian detectives, Summerscale "smartly uses an energetic narrative voice and a suspenseful pace, among other novelistic devices, to make her factual material read with the urgency of a work of fiction," according to The New York Times Book Review.  However, the reviewer "Historian" apparently disagreed, pouring scorn on Summerscale and doubting the wisdom of the prize committee.  "Oh dear, what on earth were the judges thinking when they gave this book the Samuel Johnson Prize?"  Figes' book had been nominated for the prize.

The undercover "Historian" put down other books as "critically dull" and "dense and pretentious," giving them a one-star rating and advising readers to buy books by Orlando Figes instead.

But Figes' clumsy practice of using his college name in a second pseudonym soon led to his unmasking.  Polonsky alerted the other colleagues to the anonymous reviews potentially penned by a colleague and provoked swift responses.  Professor Service from St. Anthony's College in Oxford circulated a protest mail reminding fellow historians of long-forgotten Soviet practices.  Service called the reviews "unpleasant personal attacks in the old Soviet fashion" and stated that Gorbachev had rightly banned the use of anonymous denunciations, which could ‘"tear up someone's reputation."  He added:  "Now the grubby practice has sprouted up here."  Service and Figes are among the leading British experts on the USSR and are frequent guests of radio and television shows.  Suddenly, the reviews disappeared from Amazon's British website, although cached copies remained in the hands of the authors.

When confronted with the facts, Figes initially claimed to have nothing to do with the anonymous reviews, insisting that he could have been paid money to denounce Service's books in the press if he had any interest in doing so.  "If I had wanted to attack his book, I could have been paid to do so in the press."  When Rachel Polonsky decided to continue legal action against the author of the reviews, events took a dramatic turn.  In an email issued by his attorney late last week, Figes claimed that the poison reviews had been written by his own wife, the Cambridge law lecturer Stephanie Palmer.  Figes declared not to have known about his wife's anonymous campaign to malign his colleagues' scholarly work.

But the charade ended on Friday when Figes confessed that he was the author.  "I am ashamed of my behavior, and don't entirely understand why I acted as I did," he said.  "It was stupid — some of the reviews I now see were small-minded and ungenerous but they were not intended to harm.  This crisis has exposed some health problems, though I offer that more as explanation than excuse.  I need some time now to reflect on what I have done and the consequences of my actions with medical help."

Figes gave no explanation why he engaged his lawyer to issue false statements and induced his wife to pretend to have written the comments.  Ironically, his main body of work deals with the Stalinist Soviet Union, where anonymous denunciations were the norm. His field of expertise may have rubbed off on the British historian.

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John Connally - 4/23/2010

This shows that level of education should not be equated with intelligence.


Dave Stone - 4/20/2010

I would add that Rachel Polonsky's review of Figes' Natasha's Dance did more than accuse him of pastiche writing--it said he had lifted passages from other authors without attribution.

Palmer's actions sound like retribution.

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