Sunday, 25 April 2010

In The Orlando Figes Debate History Barely Gets A Look In

Having recently written an article for my blog I had not intended to do a follow-up article. But recent articles by Robert Service and Rachel Polonsky have changed my mind. I will deal with Polonsky first.

Now that the dust has settled on the “scandal” just to recap for those who just arrived from Mars the mystery reviewer who secretly criticised the work of historian Orlando Figes's rivals has been revealed as Orlando Figes himself. The mildly poisonous reviews posted on Amazon were blamed on the professor's wife. Figes wrote secret reviews of some of Britain's leading Russian history writers.

Rachel Polonsky has just written an article that would not look out of place in the Sun Newspaper but instead it was in the Mail that bastion of progressive thought entitled “How I rumbled the lying professor: The story behind the discredited don who rubbished rivals on Amazon...then left his own wife to take the blame”.

Let's be clear Figes did a stupid thing and the resort to his lawyer is unforgivable, but the circling of vultures over his prospective dead historical body (maybe this a bit loud) is becoming a disgusting site. The Mail claimed it had “exposed an extraordinary row that has rocked the usually impeccably-mannered world of academia”. While the row is special, the Mail gets nowhere near the significance. At no stage has there been any discussion on how this debate improves the already small state of current Soviet historiography.

While Polonsky pats herself on the back for her detective work in outing Figes but she is hardly Sherlock Holmes. Figes did sign his review on Amazon Orlando-Birbeck where he is a professor. I don not agree with everything Figes had written when I did my Part time degree he gave a lecture on the Russian Revolution which gave too much emphasis on the role of the peasantry.

So far Polonsky has not issued a single line on her past differences with Figes. This is not just a debate over career semantics but must involve real political and historical differences. Let’s cut out the rubbish and get to the bottom of them.

But Polonsky like Service is much more worried about how her sales of her books on Amazon are going. “I first spotted Figes’s immortal puff for The Whisperers on Monday, April 12. Going online to check how my book Molotov’s Magic Lantern was faring, I noticed a new review. The reviewer, a Historian, had given my book just one star. On Amazon, one star means ‘I hate it’”. So what, as far as I know a review on Amazon is not the be all and end all of the historical debate.

Another thing is the next resort to lawyers to settle historical arguments is petty but then so is gloating over recounting of her spat with Figes. “I have a history with Figes. In 2002, I gave his book Natasha’s Dance a bad review in the Times Literary Supplement. My review made Figes incandescent with rage, I am told, and he issued libel threats to newspapers that wanted to follow up the story. I clicked on the ‘See all my reviews’ link beside Historian’s name and read all ten. As well as trashing my book, Historian had trashed three books by Bob Service, and the book by Kate Summerscale that beat Figes and The Whisperers to the lucrative Samuel Johnson Prize in 2008. ‘It is better to go to Figes’s The Whisperers,’ Historian told Amazon readers in his hatchet-job on Service’s Stalin”. Again what are her differences with Figes?

Her friendship with Robert Service is interesting. She gushes “Throughout this thrilling high-stakes chase, Bob has been a true comrade. He is a good man. He thinks the best of people. It took him until the next morning, April 13, to take it in. Orlando Figes, a fellow historian in a small field, had been attacking his books from behind a mask for years. Bob was angry. He wanted to do something. Meanwhile, I had mentioned Historian’s review to a couple of friends, who went straight to the comments thread. As it turned out, that automatic email could have destroyed Bob. He did not know how dangerous Figes would become when his reputation was on the line”.

I find her picture of Robert Service hard to swallow. This from the man who was reported in the London Evening Standard at a public launching of his new biography of Leon Trotsky said:” There’s life in the old boy Trotsky yet—but if the ice pick didn’t quite do its job killing him off, I hope I’ve managed it.”

Services recent book on Leon Trotsky has been described as a “Character Assassination, Trotsky: A Biography is a crude and offensive book, produced without respect for the most minimal standards of scholarship. Service’s “research,” if one wishes to call it that has been conducted in bad faith. His Trotsky is not history, but, rather, an exercise in character assassination. Service is not content to distort and falsify Trotsky’s political deeds and ideas. Frequently descending to the level of a grocery store tabloid, Service attempts to splatter filth on Trotsky’s personal life. Among his favourite devices is to refer to “rumours” about Trotsky’s intimate relations, without even bothering to identify the rumour’s source, let alone substantiate its credibility”.

So I find it hard to believe that his wife “Adele and I are scared out of our wits,’ I can’t leave her without a home.’ Trust me, the past fortnight has been hell for Bob and Adele”.

Polonsky and Service get some perverse delight in their attempts to break Figes and ruin him. Like a pact of wolves devouring their weakened prey she goes on “The next day, my flame-throwers at Carter-Ruck rained down more fire on Figes and Palmer. It was a tough week. Bob Service, now lighter of heart, helped me keep my nerve. It was not so much a battle of wits now, as a battle of wills. I don’t know what made Figes and Palmer break in the middle of Thursday night. She sent me an email, thanking me for my message, and the next day came to the PR-managed announcement that Figes had confessed”.

This type of behaviour belongs more in the in the pages of some tacky gossip magazine rather than in the realms of historical debate.Service makes one correct point and then proceeds to leave it at that “This is a matter that has broad implications for the public interest”. But along with Polonsky he refuses to discuss his historical differences with Figes or centre the debate within the confines of current Soviet historiography which would enlighten the public

“Fellow Sovietologists continued to send in messages of support”. Who were they and what did they say. Now we get to Service’s real nervousness is the impact this has on sales of his book. He states he “went on Amazon to see how events were affecting the sales of my latest book, Trotsky. Whoever said that there's no such thing as bad publicity got it wrong. The book is doing all right, but it hasn't experienced a dead cat bounce. Still, you have to laugh. This winter I've been picketed by Trotskyists at public talks. While they may be bitter, they do at least deliver their denunciations in the open. They confirm my belief that there's a genuine public need for Ol' Man Trotsky to be looked at with a clear eye”.

But Service is not looking at Trotsky with the clear eye. His book actually lowers the intellectual climate surrounding Soviet historiography. As David North said, it was a “shameful episode” “Despite the considerable length of this review, it has left much unsaid. A comprehensive refutation of all of Service’s distortions and misrepresentations would easily assume the size of a substantial book. This reviewer will leave for another time the exposure of Service’s political falsifications as well as his tenacious defence of Stalin against Trotsky. In this regard, another important issue that remains to be explored is the significance of the Trotsky biographies of Thatcher, Swain and Service as manifestations of the confluence of neo-Stalinist falsification and traditional Anglo-American anti-Communism. Indeed, a striking feature of the on-going campaign against Trotsky is the degree to which it draws upon the lies and frame-ups of the Stalinists”.
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