Orlando Figes caught in ‘poison pen reviews’ row

Apr 19, 2010
Jack Bremer

Anonymous online critic is unmasked after books on Russia receive savage reviews

It is well known that authors use pseudonyms to post glowing 'customer reviews' of their own books on Amazon, in an effort to push their works up the bestseller list. But the practice has been given a new twist by the emerging scandal involving the historian Orlando Figes and his wife, Stephanie Palmer, a barrister and lecturer at Cambridge University.

The scandal came to light after the writer Rachel Polonsky went online to see how her her latest book, Molotov's Magic Lantern, subtitled 'A Journey in Russian History', was doing. She had received favourable press reviews and an average four-and-a-half stars out of five from Amazon customers.

But she discovered that someone calling themselves 'Historian' had suddenly posted a bruising review. "This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published," it read. "Her writing is so dense and pretentious, itself so tangled in literary allusions, that it is hard to follow or enjoy."

Upset - and puzzled - Polonsky began looking for other reviews by 'Historian' and quickly realised she wasn't the only 'Russianist' to be receiving harsh treatment. Professor Bob Service, a fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, had been criticised by 'Historian' for his biographies of Trotsky and Stalin. The first was "unconvincing" and the second "curiously dull", said the anonymous critic.

When Polonsky discovered that the 'Historian' tag was being used by someone who had generated a profile under the name 'Orlando-Birkbeck', it became clear who the culprit must surely be - Professor Orlando Figes, who teaches history at Birkbeck College, London.

Just to confirm her suspicion, Polonsky looked to see whether 'Historian' had anything to say on Amazon about Figes's recent work, The Whisperers. Sure enough, 'Historian' could barely contain his or her enthusiasm for the book. Not only was it "beautiful and necessary" but it told us "more about the Soviet system than any other books I know - Figes visits their ordeals with enormous compassion, and he brings their history to life with his superb story-telling skills. I hope he writes forever."

Polonsky's apparent discovery of her tormentor's identity made perfect sense because in 2002 she had reviewed Figes's book about Russian culture, Natasha's Dance, for the Times Literary Supplement and had criticised it for "pastiche writing" and for inaccuracies. This had led to a row between the two writers which, as far as Polonsky could see, must have festered over the intervening eight years.

However, when Figes was confronted last week with Polonsky's evidence, he claimed the savage reviews had nothing to with him. His solicitor said they must have been written as part of a plot to discredit Figes. He threatened to sue anyone who suggested Figes was to blame.

Then, on Friday evening, the scandal unraveled. Figes's solicitor issued a statement admitting that the 'Historian' reviews had been written by Figes's wife, Stephanie Palmer. "My client's wife wrote the reviews. My client has only just found out about this, this evening. Both he and his wife are taking steps to make the position clear."

Rachel Polonsky remains upset and told the Mail on Sunday that she is considering her options, including a law suit. "It seems extraordinary," she said, "that a member of the Bar should confess to being a malicious hoaxer, as well as an expert in Russian history in her spare time."

Not only Russian history, it transpires. 'Historian' also had a go at The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, the story of a real-life country house murder in the 19th century which won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction.

'Historian' posted this comment on Amazon: "Oh dear, what on earth were the judges thinking?... The book is not nearly as good as its many plaudits in the press and book prize judges think."

Needless to say, Mrs Figes had a good reason for writing the damning review: her husband had been short-listed for the £30,000 award.

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