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Tuesday, April 27, 2010


There have been some strange goings-on in the academic book world. Professor Orlando Figes, a historian at Birkbeck College (London) has been caught putting derogatory and dismissive reviews of other historians' books on the Amazon web-site.  As a whole range of British papers have breathlessly revealed,  he rubbished books by Dr Rachel Polonsky, Kate Summerscale and Robert Service under the nickname "Historian."

Dr Polonsky, a Cambridge-based academic, noticed a review of her acclaimed study Molotov's Magic Lantern, condemning it as "dense," "pretentious," and "the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published."  Suspicions loomed, based on the fact that she had written a highly critical review of Figes's book Natasha's Dance, back in 2002.  Was the other academic the grudge-bearing type?  Was he wreaking revenge?

A check of customer reviews of Figes's 2008 book, The Whisperer, confirmed this -- "Historian" called it both "beautiful" and "necessary."   So she contacted Prof. Service, whose book on the history of communism was described as "awful" by "Historian."  Coming to the same dire conclusion, Prof. Service fired off a bunch of emails to eminent academics, with the result that the Truth Came Out.  And amazon removed all the Soviet-style reviews.

Figes tried to say that his wife (a Cambridge academic and lawyer) had posted the bad reviews. Now he has finally admitted that it was not his wife  but he that Dunnit. In the old murder mystery days, the vice-chancellor would summon the offender, leave a rope or bottle of hemlock or loaded revolver on his desk and depart after saying: "Do the decent thing, old chap."  Being much less pragmatic and dramatic, the poor misguided fellow has gone on sick leave, after apologizing to everyone in sight. 

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