Leading academics in bitter row over anonymous 'poison' book reviews

Historians in the News

Orlando Figes, professor of history at Birkbeck College, London, and author of a book on Stalin, has named his wife as the author of comments criticising books written by other renowned scholars as being "dark and pretentious" and "critically dull".

Mr Figes had initially denied any knowledge of the reviewer who used the pseudonym "Historian" and wrote glowing comments about his own books.

But following an angry exchange of emails and lawyers' letters with fellow historians, professor Robert Service, a fellow of St Anthony's College, Oxford, and Dr Rachel Polonsky, he yesterday issued a statement saying his wife, Dr Stephanie Palmer, a leading law lecturer at Cambridge University, had admitted responsibility.

The row has sent shock waves through the normally genteel world of academia as claim and counter-claim have been circulated by email to other top writers....

Dr Polonsky alerted Prof Service to her suspicions on Monday last week. By Tuesday morning the offending reviews by 'Historian' had been deleted from the site and a cached copy is all that remains.

However Prof Service still sent a furious email to more than a dozen other authors and academics including Antony Beevor, Norman Davies and Julian Jackson, professor of history at Queen Mary, University of London – saying the online reviews were "a way of tearing up someone's reputation".

He described them as "unpleasant personal attacks in the old Soviet fashion" and "a very rum business", adding: "Gorbachev banned anonimki from being used in the USSR as a way of tearing up someone's reputation. Now the grubby practice has sprouted up here....

The saga then took a dramatic twist on Frifay night when Prof Figes' lawyer, David Price, issued a statement: "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."

Mr Price said neither Prof Figes nor Dr Palmer, an Australian-born barrister at Blackstone chambers and a fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, would not be commenting further.

Award-winning novelist and cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht said the row was "unprecedented". He said: "This cuts to the heart of the shady pseudonymous culture of Amazon reviews. This is a real breakthrough, an unprecedented triumph for truth and transparency online."...

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