How I rumbled the lying professor: The story behind the discredited don who rubbished rivals on Amazon…then left his own wife to take the blame.
By Rachel Polonsky
Last week, The Mail on Sunday exposed an extraordinary row that has rocked the usually impeccably-mannered world of academia. And on Friday, Professor Orlando Figes, one of Britain’s most eminent historians, confessed to posting savage reviews of rivals’ books on the Amazon website. It was a humiliating climbdown – when he was first accused of writing the anonymous reviews, Professor Figes, an expert in Russian history, first enlisted lawyers to deny it, then blamed his barrister wife. The respected scholar now claims his actions – which sparked near-warfare among academics – were symptoms of the ‘very deep depression’ he has endured since working on a book about the victims of Stalin. One of Professor Figes’ victims was writer Rachel Polonsky, whose work he dismissed as ‘the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever written’. Here, she explains how some basic detective work uncovered Figes’ secret, the lengths he went to to keep it, and why she believes that mental illness is no excuse.
Our recent game of catch-me-if-you-can has taught me a lot about the mind of Orlando Figes, Professor of Russian History at Birkbeck College, London. But his latest move has taken my breath away.
A contact has rung to say that – through PR agent Jonathan Hawker of Financial Dynamics – Figes has not only apologised for his anonymous Amazon reviews and the aggressive lies he told to conceal his responsibility for them, but he is now pleading that his actions were symptoms of the ‘very deep depression’ he has been in since working on The Whisperers, his book about the victims of Stalin.
Figes sends Professor Robert Service, of Oxford University, the same spin. Bob, as I now call him, forwards me the email. (We’ve shared a lot recently.) The Whisperers is Figes’s most recent book. It is an important testament to real and terrible crimes. As Figes said himself, when reviewing it on Amazon in 2008 under the pseudonym ‘Historian’, it is ‘a book about the interior lives of ordinary Russians during the Stalinist period’.
Are we to understand then that Figes, who is now on sick leave from his job at Birkbeck College, was so traumatised by this research that he should be seen as another victim of Joseph Stalin, one of the cruellest tyrants in human history?
‘How could he have been so careless I wondered’
I first spotted Figes’s immortal puff for The Whisperers on Monday, April 12. Going online to check how my book Molotov’s Magic Lantern was faring, I noticed a new review. The reviewer, Historian, had given my book just one star. On Amazon, one star means ‘I hate it’.
‘This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever written, ’ Historian began. ‘Polonsky, it turns out, is not an academic, as claimed in the blurb, but the wife of a foreign lawyer.’
I called to my husband Marc, who is indeed a lawyer, and has joint British and American nationality, from the study. ‘Look, Figes has reviewed me anonymously on Amazon.’ I knew it was him immediately and, as the evidence piled up and finally overwhelmed him, I have never doubted it for a second. I have history with Figes.
In 2002, I gave his book Natasha’s Dance a bad review in the Times Literary Supplement. My review made Figes incandescent with rage, I am told, and he issued libel threats to newspapers that wanted to follow up the story. I clicked on the ‘See all my reviews’ link beside Historian’s name, and read all ten. As well as trashing my book, Historian had trashed three books by Bob Service, and the book by Kate Summerscale that beat Figes and The Whisperers to the lucrative Samuel Johnson Prize in 2008.
‘It is better to go to Figes’s The Whisperers, ’ Historian told Amazon readers in his hatchet-job on Service’s Stalin.
All it took was one click on Historian’s profile to link to the incriminating nickname ‘orlando-birkbeck’. How could he have been so careless, I marvelled. The nickname was generated when Figes set up his Amazon account to buy books. When he created Historian’s profile on the same account in 2008 and began to publish online reviews, he doubtless did not inspect the details of this profile – never pressed the link on his own name that led straight to the incriminating nickname.
I saved the Amazon pages on my hard disk, printed them, scanned them, and sent the link to Bob Service. Throughout this thrilling high-stakes chase, Bob has been a true comrade. He is a good man. He thinks the best of people. It took him till the next morning, April 13, to take it in. Orlando Figes, a fellow historian in a small field, had been attacking his books from behind a mask for years. ‘I don’t know what made Figes break’.
Bob was angry. He wanted to do something. Meanwhile, I had mentioned Historian’s review to a couple of friends, who went straight to the comments thread. ‘This review is clearly by Orlando Figes, ’ said one W. Cohen. Another, signing herself H. Crawley, wrote: ‘Figes has not forgiven Rachel Polonsky for her investigation into his questionable sources for Natasha’s Dance, so now, in a petulant act of spite, he tries anonymously to trash her brilliant new book.’ Thank you, W. Cohen and Harriet Crawley. Looking back on it, Bob thinks of what he did on April 13, as reckless impulse. He emailed 31 fellow historians, attaching a scan of Historian’s reviews. He did not say Historian was Orlando Figes, but pointed out the nickname ‘orlando-birkbeck’.
As it turned out, that impulsive email could have destroyed Bob. He did not know how dangerous Figes would become when his reputation was on the line. Meanwhile, Figes had returned to the scene, to check on his review of my book. Seeing the comments, he must have felt panic. He deleted the incriminating reviews and changed his profile name from Historian to Maksoludu. (Note to Figes: who is Maksoludu?). The next day, Bob received his first threat from Figes’s lawyer, David Price. ‘Your email [to the historians] clearly suggests that my client was responsible for the reviews to which you refer.
This is entirely untrue and defamatory as well as being inherently unlikely, ’ Price snarled. The tone was frightening, even for those more accustomed. Bob was terrified.
The same day, Figes wrote to the historians Bob had contacted, declaring that Historian could have been ‘virtually anybody’, and suggesting it was probably a malicious hoaxer. The stakes could not have been higher. Like Figes, Bob and I knew exactly who Historian was, but unless we could prove it, Bob and his wife Adele stood to lose everything if it progressed as far as a libel suit. ‘Adele and I are scared out of our wits, ’ he told me that night. ‘I can’t leave her without a home.’ Believe me, the past fortnight has been hell for Bob and Adele. Fire must be fought with fire.
I contacted Nigel Tait of libel lawyers Carter-Ruck, softly spoken but with a fearsome reputation. Meanwhile, from an anonymous source in the US, Bob had acquired a piece of killer evidence: an Amazon ‘wishlist’ of history books, dating back to 2001, which unambiguously linked Historian and Maksoludu with Figes and an address in Cambridge. Another oversight by Figes. I now decided to hold the wishlist back while, on Friday, April 16, through Carter-Ruck, I invited Figes to join me in requesting that Amazon state whether or not the profiles Historian or Mak-soludu were connected with any account of Figes.
Figes, meanwhile, had deleted both profiles, replacing them with a new profile called No Name, and the taunting nickname Jokerinthepack. He then called Amazon to ask whether the profiles Historian and Maksoludu were connected with his account. Amazon duly responded by email that there were no such profiles on the website. Fearing that the story was about to break in the Press, Figes instructed David Price to issue Bob Service with another threat, attaching his ‘proof’, the email from Amazon. I broke cover with my wishlist. I instructed Carter-Ruck to send him a threatening letter, attaching the wishlist that showed that Historian and Orlando Figes were one and the same.
Finally, Figes was on the receiving end of the kind of letter he has been sending out to publications great and small for more than a decade, to stop anyone criticising his books or saying there were problems of scholarly propriety with them. (He had the means for this legal barrage; he has made a lot of money from his books.) A letter of the kind which, last week, in a new moral low, he had sent to a colleague, Bob Service, who he knew to be telling the truth.
Silence from the enemy camp. Then, around midnight, came the announcement that Figes’s wife, the barrister and academic Stephanie Palmer, wrote the poisonous reviews. Who would believe it, I wondered. Some did. The story went round the world. A lie was becoming a public fact. By using his wife as a human shield, Figes made it hard for me to keep up my fight to get the truth out. I felt for her, and still do. Even hardened lawyers don’t like to attack a woman in distress. But the truth had to come out. Without informing Carter-Ruck, I wrote privately to Stephanie Palmer on April 21, telling her I meant her and her family no harm, urging her to come clean, and suggesting that Orlando Figes’s only real enemy was inside his own head.
The next day my flame-throwers at Carter-Ruck rained down more fire on Figes and Palmer. It was a tough week. Bob Service, now lighter of heart, helped me keep my nerve. It was not so much a battle of wits now, as a battle of wills. I don’t know what made Figes and Palmer break in the middle of Thursday night. She sent me an email, thanking me for my message, and the next day came the PR-managed announcement that Figes had confessed.
Other people’s interior lives are a mystery. I know more about Orlando Figes than I would like to know, but I can’t make sense of his conduct. I also know about the crimes of the Stalin period. Millions of innocent people had their mental health destroyed by Stalin. Take it from me. Whatever his PR man may say, Orlando Figes is not one of them.