It began when Dr. Rachel Polonsky's latest book, Molotov's Magic Lantern, was released on March 11th. Dr. Polonsky, now Cambridge-based, had lived in Russia for several years during the 1990s and wrote movingly of the country's history and culture. The Amazon UK website described her book here as a "luminous, original and unforgettable exploration of a country and its literature, viewed through the eyes of Vyacheslav Molotov, one of Stalin's fiercest henchmen."
The Daily Mail said here the book had "received extremely favourable reviews" until April 10th when a "brutal notice" was posted on Amazon by a reviewer nicknamed "Historian":
This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published ... Her writing is so dense and pretentious, itself so tangled in literary allusions, that it is hard to follow or enjoy.Dr. Polonsky, understandably disturbed by the savage review, began looking for other reviews by Historian. According to The Guardian here, she found that Historian "had not only rubbished Polonsky's book, but also other works going back years and including books by Oxford University's Robert Service, biographer of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin."
When Polonsky discovered an Amazon profile by Historian with the username "Orlando-Birkbeck", her suspicions were aroused. Back in 2002, she herself had written what The Telegraph called "a savage review ... in the Times Literary Supplement" of Professor Orlando Figes' book, Natasha's Dance. Figes is a professor of history at Birkbeck College, London, giving her a clue as to the identity of Historian.
The Telegraph went on to report here:
She noticed the user [Historian] had also laid into "The Suspicions of Mr Whicher," by Ms [Kate] Summerscale, which won the Samuel Johnson 2008 prize for non fiction – a prize for which Prof Figes was also shortlisted. The two-star review began: "Oh dear, what on earth were the judges thinking ...?"By contrast, Historian had raved about Professor Figes' book, The Whisperers, giving it five stars on Amazon and saying, he brings "history to life with his superb story-telling skills. I hope he writes for ever."
Dr. Polonsky decided to share her suspicions as to the identity of Historian with colleagues, including Professor Service of Oxford.
The Daily Mail reported:
Mr Service ... sent an email to 31 leading historians in Britain and abroad. But as he pointed out, by the time he sent it last Tuesday, the Amazon site had already been changed: both the nastiest critical reviews and the rave for The Whisperers had been removed, while ‘Historian’ was now using the name ‘maksolodu’ instead.Professor Service attributed the changes on Amazon to Dr. Polonsky's communications to her colleagues.
Professor Figes responded to all the recipients of Professor Service's angry email, denying that he had any connection to Historian. His attorney, David Price, got into the act, threatening to sue anyone who defamed Figes.
The Telegraph reported that "Dr. Polonsky was not satisfied and employed law firm Carter Ruck who said it might seek a court order to establish the true identity of the [Amazon] poster using computer records."
On Friday of last week, the mystery was solved. The Guardian quoted a statement by Figes' attorney, Price: "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."
Figes' wife, Stephanie Palmer, is a senior law lecturer at Cambridge as well as a barrister. She is also a member of Blackstone Chambers, specialists in human rights.
Philip Hensher wrote an opinion piece for The Independent here, saying:
[w]hat Miss Palmer did was an absolute scandal ... When Rachel Polonsky wrote a savagely critical review of a book of Orlando Figes's in 2002, she did so honourably, under her own name in The Times Literary Supplement. Miss Palmer, through her anonymous reviews, has by contrast destroyed all her own credibility ... but there is another, larger scandal ... Amazon won't permit you to post a review unless you have ordered books from them. They know your real name. Why do they allow their reviewers to post under pseudonyms anyway?