Brought to book with Orlando Figes





Next month sees the publication of Orlando Figes's history of the Crimean war, Crimea: The Last Crusade. According to the blurb for his new book, Figes “re-imagines the extraordinary war, in which the stakes could not have been higher and which was fought with a terrible mixture of ferocity and incompetence”.

It is ferocity and incompetence that have characterised Figes's own extraordinary war with academics, and dominated the headlines earlier this year. The stakes could not have been higher....

The row scandalised the academic world and it was hard to believe he would ever make a comeback. Even John Sutherland, professor of English at University College, London, suggested that his sinecure at Birkbeck could be under threat. But much to everyone's surprise he has quietly made a return to the hallowed groves of academe.
This summer he popped up at the Universidad Gabriela Mistral in Chile giving two lectures (part of a family vacation taken with the approval of Birkbeck). Now Birkbeck College has agreed to take him back full-time. “After a period of sick leave, Professor Orlando Figes has been on a phased return to work,” a spokesman tells me in a statement. “Following college procedures, Birkbeck has investigated all aspects of his involvement in the recent events reported in the press. As with any other members of staff, this process is confidential. Professor Figes has apologised to the college, its staff and students for the events. The college supports his return to work full-time.”...

Some see the whole scandal as emblematic of a deeper malaise at the heart of British academic life. The petty back-biting and vicious feuding among dons is symptomatic of the low status of academics these days and explains why many historians prefer to pursue their careers in America. No historian I approached would speak on the record; many seemed beset by paranoia. Figes has in the past been falsely accused of plagiarism by American academic Richard Pipes (Figes successfully sued Pipes and the Sunday Times for defamation). “I do think the English sometimes have a problem with success,” Figes once said. “Schadenfreude is one of the things we are best at. And it's perhaps more virulent in the academic profession.”...


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