An extraordinary literary “whodunnit” over the identity of a mystery reviewer who savaged works by some of Britain’s leading academics on the Amazon website has culminated in a top historian admitting that the culprit was, in fact, his wife.
Prof Orlando Figes, 50, an expert on Russia and professor of history at Birkbeck College, London, made the startling revelation in a statement through lawyers following a week of intrigue, suspicion, legal threats and angry email exchanges over postings on the website’s UK book review pages.
The spat began last week when the Cambridge-based academic, Dr Rachel Polonsky, noticed among the many favourable reviews of her book on Russian culture, Molotov’s Magic Lantern, one condemning her efforts as “dense”, “pretentious” and “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published”.
It ended on late on Friday evening with the surprise unveiling of Figes’s wife, Dr Stephanie Palmer, a senior law lecturer at Cambridge University, barrister, and member of the top human rights specialists, Blackstone Chambers, as the reviewer calling herself “Historian”, and responsible for several anonymous online attacks on the works of her husband’s rivals.
Indeed, “Historian”, who it transpired also generated a profile on the Amazon website under the username “Orlando-Birkbeck”, had not only rubbished Polonsky’s book, but also other works going back years and including books by Oxford University’s Robert Service, biographer of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. The book on Trotsky was a “dull read”, that on Stalin “disappointing” and his history of communism derided as “rubbish” and “an awful book”.
By contrast, Figes’s 2008 work, The Whisperer, was, according to Historian, a “beautiful and necessary” account of the Soviet system, penned by a man possessed of “superb story-telling skills” with this eulogy ending with the fervent wish: “I hope he writes for ever.”
Nor were Russian experts the only ones targeted.
In 2008 Figes, the Cambridge double-starred first and award-winning son of the feminist writer Eva Figes, lost out on the prestigious and lucrative
The professor, his wife, and the secret, savage book reviews on Amazon