I wrote scathing reviews, not my wife, says Figes

The historian Orlando Figes has admitted lying about not writing anonymous reviews on Amazon savaging his rivals' books, after threatening to sue people who had claimed he was behind the slurs.

Yesterday he came clean about the comments written under the pen name of "orlando-birkbeck", despite his wife Stephanie Palmer coming forward a week ago to say that she was behind the venomous reviews. When Figes was suggested as the anonymous commentator, he denied it and threatened libel action before Ms Palmer announced it was her, as revealed exclusively in The Independent.

In a statement, Figes suggested that "health issues" were the root cause of his lies, and apologised to those whose books he had belittled, including Russia experts, Robert Service and Rachel Polonsky. "I have made some foolish errors and apologise wholeheartedly to all concerned," he said. "In particular, I am sorry for the distress I have caused to Rachel Polonsky and Robert Service. I also apologise to my lawyer to whom I gave incorrect information.

"I am ashamed of my behaviour, and don't entirely understand why I acted as I did. It was stupid – some of the reviews I now see were small-minded and ungenerous but they were not intended to harm.

"This crisis has exposed some health problems, though I offer that more as explanation than excuse. I need some time now to reflect on what I have done and the consequences of my actions with medical help."

A spokesman at Birkbeck College, in London, where Professor Figes teaches, confirmed he had begun sick leave yesterday for an unspecified time, and added that he was unaware of any disciplinary action against the academic.

Reports circulated on his increasingly depressed state of health, believed to have been triggered by a trip to Russia to interview victims of the gulag for his 2007 book The Whisperers.

Some in the academic community expressed distress at the consequences of Professor Figes' lies, and the notices of imminent legal action by his lawyer. Professor Service, who brought the anonymous reviews to the attention of his fellow academics, said he had been "through hell" over the past 10 days after receiving threats from Professor Figes' lawyer.

"The story has shown how dangerous our libel laws are to those who seek to expose malpractice," he said. "My wife Adele and I have been through hell for nearly a couple of weeks, and I thank Adele for her constant support.

"I have been made acutely aware that a solitary malpractitioner, if he has an abundance of money and malice ... I hope everyone can see the urgent need to do something about the laws of libel and to decontaminate the ground of public debate."

Polonsky is now writing a piece on the subject for a Sunday newspaper.

Peter Stothard, editor of The Times Literary Supplement, which ran the story of the anonymous reviews, said, in reference to legal notices received from Figes' lawyer last week, that while Figes had issued a general apology in his statement, he had "not apologised for demanding that we publish what he knew to be untrue and that we pay his legal costs for doing so. Maybe he will."

On Amazon, Professor Figes had rubbished three of Professor Service's most recent books, and written a laudatory review of his own, The Whisperers, which read: "I hope he writes forever." Another post attacked Kate Summerscale's book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which won the Samuel Johnson prize in 2008, which The Whisperers was shortlisted for. the review read: "Oh dear, what on earth were the judges thinking when they gave this book the Samuel Johnson Prize?"

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