Saturday, 24 April 2010

Jealousy and loathing in the world of Russian history.

It is worth pointing out that when Three Thousand Versts reviewed ‘Whisperers’ in enthusiastic fashion, and called ’Natasha’s Dance’ ‘magisterial’, Orlando Figes had not contributed guest posts. And when I described ’A People’s Tragedy’ as ’the most complete account of the Russian Revolution and Civil War’ I had read, ’Historian’ had not given me a nudge.

It’s hard to understand why such a gifted writer would feel compelled to rubbish rivals’ books anonymously on Amazon, but that, apparently, was Figes’ habit. The academic, who is professor of history at Birbeck, University of London, also submitted gushing reviews of his own books, which were certainly good enough to attract unsolicited and heartfelt praise, had he left the job to genuine readers.

He used the crafty sobriquet ’Historian’ and, even more cunning, ‘Orlando - Birbeck’ as pseudonyms on Amazon. Then, to cap it all, he attempted to blame the wife when it became apparent that the reviews had issued from the Figes’ household!

Resisting the temptation to dub him the ’nutty professor’ we can only speculate that professional jealousy was at the root of these attacks. One victim, Rachel Polonsky, whose book ’Molotov’s Magic Lantern’ Figes’ lacerated, had previously criticised ’Natasha’s Dance’. I’d been sceptical about her work because of that, but I think I’ll read it now.

Another, Robert Service, has written excellent biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. And on the jacket of my copy of ’A History of Modern Russia’ Figes actually describes Service as ’always well informed and balanced in his judgments, clear and concise in his analysis‘! A rather more generous verdict than his Amazon review of ’Comrades’, which called it ’an awful book … very badly written’.

Maybe the lack of praise for on the sleeves of Figes’ work from Service or Polonsky is the crux of the problem!


Anonymous said...

Blaming the wife is the sort of low trick one would associate with Peter Robinson, though at least Mrs Figes isn't mentally ill and hospitalised.

Academic vendettas can get vicious at times, yes, but all this is a bit infra dig. He couldn't have wangled a review article in some journal, or did he just need the instant gratification Amazon offers?

Anonymous said...

What Professor Figes did was obviously wrong, but with the pressure of competition in academia this doesn't surprise me in the slightest. All academics need to develop a thick skin as their work will be criticised by peers, but this crosses the boundary somewhat as it became personal. That said, Robert Service clearly needs to be criticised more by those in the Russian history field, as his response to this criticism was also less than professional.

Keir said...

I found this post googling Figes's review as I'm reading Service's 'History of Modern Russia' now. To be honest, I can't help but notice the same reviewers popping up in ever book I read, making me dutifully look for said reviewer respectfully cited inside. I'm also reading Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics sans any review from Kershaw, Evans et al.; sure enough, Kershaw is criticised for falling for the work of a fraud already in the introduction and Evans not at all despite the revelations inside.