Phoney reviewer Figes has history of litigious quarrels
Historians describe previous run-ins with the academic who made anonymous attacks on rivals
Sunday 25 April 2010
Orlando Figes, the award-winning historian who admitted to writing a series of anonymous attacks of his rivals' books, has a history of litigious academic spats.
The historian unmasked himself as the writer of several scathing reviews of books by contemporaries including Robert Service, Rachel Polonsky and the novelist Kate Summerscale on the shopping website Amazon. He originally denied authorship and then claimed that his wife had penned them.
The professor of Russian history at Birkbeck, University of London, who has previously been engaged in at least two legal disputes with other historians, has been accused and cleared of plagiarism, and received hate mail while an academic at Cambridge. One colleague who did not want to be named described the most recent episode as "the tip of the iceberg".
Opinion is divided over whether Figes will be able to remain in post after what one historian described as "career suicide" from which he could "never recover". But a one-time colleague of Figes said Birkbeck would be unlikely to want to lose one its most eminent names, and that "these days people recover from almost anything".
A number of historians recalled various incidents including the non-attribution of quotations and the inclusion of sentences in his books that seem to bear resemblance to their own work.
In 1997, the American historian Richard Pipes claimed that Figes had "quoted copiously but not always generously" from his own book, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, pointing out seven examples in Figes's book A People's Tragedy that, he claimed, bore resemblance to his own. The Sunday Times reported the allegations, but ultimately was obliged to print an apology to Figes. Figes then wrote a piece explaining the similarities, saying, "There are bound to be minor similarities of expression in two such large works on the same subject."
In 2002, the Cambridge historian Rachel Polonsky wrote a review of Figes's book in The Times Literary Supplement in which she accused him of inaccuracies, factual errors, misreadings, cavalier appropriation of sources and a general intellectual irresponsibility. Figes subsequently defended his record, but, according to Polonsky, misquoted his own book. When Polonsky wrote to point out that he had not quoted his own work in full, she was told the TLS would not be publishing her letter and the matter was dropped.
An American academic, Priscilla Roosevelt, said yesterday she had written to complain to Figes about his apparent use of sources from her book Life on the Russian Country Estate in his award-winning A People's Tragedy, some of which were so obscure she could not believe he had come across them himself. "You can't prove these things absolutely, but the experience left me shocked and demoralised," she said. "He sent me a one-line response."
Robert Service, who says he has endured "hell" over the past two weeks, said: "This is a much bigger matter than just this squalid little affair."
Service, whose biography of Leon Trotsky won this year's Duff Cooper Prize, has not ruled out taking legal action against Figes for malicious falsehood, but said: "I want debate in this country to be free from interference from lawyers. I intend to help with the campaign for a change in the libel law."
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