Monday, April 26, 2010

The Case of the Poison-Pen Russianist

Speaking of "negative reviews" and threatened legal action: have you been following the case of Orlando Figes? Figes has now admitted that he wrote savagely negative reviews of other historians' books (coupled with praise for his own) on When one of his maligned colleagues began to work out what Figes was up to, Figes adopted one after another tactic to deflect responsibility for his sleazy secret campaign against his colleagues. Here's The Sunday Times's account:
According to Figes, a bestselling author and history professor at Birkbeck, London University, unspecified “health problems” were responsible for his venomous reviews of rivals’ books behind the cloak of anonymity on the Amazon website. Earlier he had suggested that enemies keen to discredit him had engineered the campaign. Denying that he had anything to do with it, he threatened newspapers and fellow scholars with legal action if they dared to suggest otherwise. Then he outed his wife as the culprit, before finally confessing all.

Bespectacled, serious and intensely intellectual, the 50-year-old Figes does not look the sort to leave such a trail of outrage in his wake. Some authors who experienced his critical drubbings and legal threats were almost incoherent with anger last week.

One newspaper has described Figes as “an academic colossus”. For such a high-profile figure — besides being an acclaimed scholar, he is the son of Eva Figes, the feminist writer, and the brother of Kate Figes, the author and literary editor — Figes remains something of a mystery, even to his admirers. “He’s a very impressive, serious academic but also a superb narrative historian,” said a fellow Russianist, who pleaded anonymity. “He’s a bit of an enigma but he’s not a sinister figure or a freak. He’s a bit of a lad — he’s chatty, supports Chelsea football club and enjoys a joke.”

His victims have been able to extract one wry sliver of humour from the debacle — Figes was exposed using the repressive techniques that he chronicled in his 2007 book The Whisperers, an account of the Russian people’s suffering under Joseph Stalin.

“There has been a lot of fear,” said one maligned author. “His lawyer was made to act a bit like the KGB. It’s pathological behaviour that has had an extremely distorting and damaging effect on the field of Russian history for many years. No one else in the world of scholarship brandishes and uses power in this way.”

Not all of his detractors are indignant authors. “It was absolutely diabolical working for him,” said one of Figes’s former researchers, who asked to remain nameless. “He was quite the most unpleasant person I’ve ever had to work with. The job was all about feeding him and his further glory. He used to sit there with his feet on the desk, lording it over us.”
The article then narrates how Polonsky's "sleuthing" and her discovery of that Figes was behind the poison pen reviews and how Figes then began "issuing libel threats to all and sundry" in an ineffectual attempt to stem the tide of professional scandal. Weirdest of all, I think, is Figes's tactic of blaming the reviews on his wife:
Last weekend the affair took a sensational turn when Figes announced through his lawyer that he had just learnt that his wife had penned the poison reviews.

That seemed unlikely. Stephanie Palmer is a senior law lecturer at Cambridge, a barrister and a member of Blackstone chambers, the human rights specialist. She is also the mother of Figes’s twin daughters, Lydia and Alice. Was it possible that she had stood by and allowed her husband to issue denials and legal threats?

Two days ago Figes’s nerve cracked. “I take full responsibility for posting anonymous reviews on Amazon,” he said. “I am ashamed of my behaviour and don’t entirely understand why I acted as I did.” He pleaded for time to reflect on his actions “with medical help”.
The article concludes by noting the difference between Figes's response to masked Russian police seizing an electronic archive of oral histories Figes had amassed and his treatment of his colleagues' responses to his smear campaign against them:
This principled behaviour was in stark contrast to the threats that Figes instructed his lawyer to make to Service, the Oxford professor of history and Russianist, whose offence was to object to “unpleasant personal attacks in the old Soviet fashion”. Service, who said he and his wife had been “through hell” for nearly two weeks, expressed relief “that this contaminant slime has been exposed to the light and begun to be scrubbed clean”. The affair, in his view, had shown “how dangerous our libel laws are to those who seek to expose malpractice”.

Figes appears to have taken the first steps in the Tiger Woods course of public rehabilitation: confession, remorse and sick leave. Using libel law to suppress academic debate is of a different order from serial infidelity, but then the golfer never grassed up his wife.
The Seattle Weekly blog, I see, has a post today about it, remarking that
Amazon's comments section is quickly becoming known as a place where grudges get settled. There are the angry Kindle users who downgrade books they haven't read simply because publishers don't make e-versions available at the same time as hardbacks. And there are more prominent figures, like British historian Orlando Figes, who recently admitted to anonymously savaging the work of some competitors.
I've always wondered whether Amazon customer reviews make any difference at all to a book's sales or reputation. The presumption seems to be that they do, though I've never seen any evidence to back it up. For myself, whenever I read any review, I find it necessary to make a judgment about the reviewer at the same time tjat I'm considering what to make of what the reviewer has to say. Is that so rare? Of course I understand that someone like Figes might be clever enough to be credible in his poison pen screeds. But it seems to me that hateful reviews on Amazon tend to get high disapproval ratings (from the people who actually "vote" on them, anyway).


Josh said...

Blaming one's wife is weird? And here I thought I was a pretty normal pillar of the patriarchy in that respect. Heck, I lost my temper with a colleague just an hour ago, and it's my wife's fault. (Somehow. I'm working on figuring out the actual chain of causality there . . . nope, turns out it's her cat's fault . . . close enough.)

Elsa said...

Wow! When I read this I had a sudden jolt of recognition and it seems that the idea of "family" is an interesting side issue here. A couple years back, I funded my studies working part-time at a Boots store in Cambridge. While I was working there Orlando Figes’ and Stephanie Palmer’s daughters were caught shoplifting. They admitted the theft and were banned from the store (all on record). The daughters were obviously troubled (it seemed to be a cry for help) and we all wondered about their home life and considered calling in child protection services: at this point I wish we had: goodness knows what home life was like. It is interesting that Figes has dragged his daughters names (Alice and Lydia) into those self-promoting "a week in the life" profiles. It is telling that he puts his wife and daughters to use when it serves his purpose. And him the son of Feminist Eva Figes! A very sad story.

Athena Andreadis said...

I think that Figes had an ego colossal enough to do this so blatantly that he got caught. He's not the only nor the first one. The bravado of such types wilts when cornered. No Roman, he. And his wife should divorce him ASAP, otherwise he'll treat her the way Gingrich treated his.