Mysterious case of historian's 'online reviews'

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

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.

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