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Another academic sock-puppet!

Posted by Christopher Shea  April 20, 2010 03:55 PM

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The wife of a noted British historian of Russia, Orlando Figes, was recently caught publishing anonymous, savage online reviews of the work of other Russian specialists and perceived rivals of her husband.

Rachel Polonsky, the author of a book on Russian culture called "Molotov's Magic Lantern," got suspicious when she noticed a remarkably hostile reader review on Amazon's U.K. website. The reader, "Historian," called Polonsky's book "dense ... pretentious ... the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published." Probing a bit, Polonsky noticed that "Historian" had also trashed books by Robert Service, an Oxford don who has written biographies of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky ("dull read ... disappointing ... rubbish ... an awful book"). Perhaps most tellingly, the reviewer took aim at "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective," by Kate Summerscale, which had beat out Figes's book "The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia" for a prestigious and lucrative nonfiction price in 2008." ("Oh dear, what on earth were the judges thinking?")

In contrast, the reviewer wrote of Figes's "The Whisperers": "beautiful and necessary ... I hope he writes forever."

Unfortunately for Figes, it emerged that "Historian" had a second user account, "Orlando-Birkbeck." (Figes teaches at Birkbeck College, London.)  Figes first aggressively denied any involvement in or knowledge of the reviews. Then, on Friday, his lawyer released a statement saying that Figes's wife, Stephanie Palmer, a senior law lecturer at Cambridge and a human-rights advocate, had written them, supposedly without his knowledge.

After Polonsky brought the reviews to Service's attention, it was he who ramped up the campaign to identify their author. The Oxford historian compared the anonymous attacks to campaigns of slander carried out in the old Soviet Union.

The obvious question: Will the New York Observer make a play for Palmer? (Sorry.)
 Orlando-Figes-001.jpg Orlando Figes, a historian with a too-loyal wife

Photograph: Eamonn McCabe
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