Mysterious case of historian's 'online reviews'

Birkbeck scholar unaware that wife wrote reviews on Amazon of his rival's work

The dangers of online identity theft are a fact of life for the Facebook generation but rarely can they have seemed closer to home as for Orlando Figes, professor of history at Birkbeck College, London.

Last night his wife, Stephanie, admitted that she was the "Orlando-Birkbeck" who had left a series of unfavourable reviews of books by fellow academics on the Amazon website.

A statement on behalf of Professor Figes' lawyer, David Price, said: "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."

Ms Figes added: "I can confirm that statement."

Among the reviews was one reading: "This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published." Another taunted: "This is an awful book. It is very poorly written and dull to read. It's obvious that the author ... knows very little about Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, or anywhere else with a Communist movement."

The commentator also wrote a review of Professor Figes' book The Whisperers: Private Lives of Stalin's Russia, full of overblown praise, ending with the words: "I hope he [Figes] writes forever."

The review reads: "A fascinating book about the interior lives of ordinary Russians during the Stalinist period. Based on hundreds of family archives and several thousand interviews with survivors, it tells us more about the Soviet system than any other book I know. Beautifully written, it is a rich and deeply moving history, universal in its themes, which leaves the reader awed, humbled, yet uplifted by the book's humanity.

"Figes takes us into the 'whispered' lives, going again and again to specific people with names and families, to reveal the human suffering, the personal betrayals and moral compromises, the acts of love and kindness and the sheer resilience that defined private lives in the Stalin period. The opportunity to hear these Russians speak of these things as individuals, in their own voices, is overwhelming, and a gift to all of us. Orlando Figes visits their ordeals with enormous compassion, and he brings their history to life with his superb story-telling skills."

At least one review of a book by one of Professor Figes' fellow academics was, however, flattering. It was Oliver Bullough's Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus, and stated: "I loved this book. I was looking for a way into the Caucasus, whose history daunted me ... Helps to understand what is going on in Chechnia [sic] today."

Professor Figes, who comes from an eminent family of thinkers – he is the son of Eva Figes, a feminist, and the brother of the author and editor Kate Figes – sent out an email, before he became aware of his wife's involvement, to fellow academics expressing his frustration at the ease with which a fake identity could be created.

He said: "I am not the author of the Amazon reviews penned by 'orlando-birkbeck' ... Virtually anybody could have written the amazon reviews. The system is open to abuse, as is so much of the internet, where I have been the victim of malicious campaigns and anonymous attacks on numerous occasions over recent years. Perhaps we shouldn't take anonymous reviews on amazon so seriously."

Amazon did not respond to The Independent's request for a comment. The reviews have now been removed.

Professor Figes read history at Cambridge, graduating with a rare double-starred First in 1982. He is known for his works on Russian history, in particular A People's Tragedy, Natasha's Dance and The Whisperers.

A People's Tragedy, translated into 20 languages, is a study of the Russian Revolution and combines social and political history with biographical details. It was awarded the Wolfson History Prize, the WH Smith Literary Award, the NCR Book Award, the Longman-History Today Book Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Professor Figes has been critical of the Putin regime, and its campaign to rehabilitate Stalin and impose its own agenda on history teaching in Russian schools and universities.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project