Saturday, 24 April 2010

Orlando Figes And The Dumbing Down of Historical Criticism

A mystery reviewer who secretly criticised the work of historian Orlando Figes's rivals has been revealed as Orlando Figes himself.. The mildly poison reviews posted on Amazon were blamed on the professor's wife. Figes wrote secret reviews of some of Britain's leading Russianists.

Rachel Polonsky, whose book Molotov's Magic Lantern was attacked as "the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published".

Robert Service‘s Comrades, was judged "an awful book”. Although having trawled through Service’s latest book on Leon Trotsky I must agree with Figes attack on Service. Please see David North’s Review. In The Service of Historical Falsification: A Review of Robert Service's Trotsky 11 November 2009.

What is strange is that a gifted historian who has written numerous books on the former Soviet Union is prize-winning author known for his works about Russia, including Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia and The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia. Should stoop so low as to write hack reviews on Amazons website defies belief. No disrespect to anyone who has done so, myself included but there are proper ways of attacking a book or historian.

It is this part that worries me whatever the immediate excuses Figes uses, "I have made some foolish errors and apologise wholeheartedly to all concerned. In particular, I am sorry for the distress I have caused to Rachel Polonsky and Robert Service” he appears to be contributing to an already horrible intellectual climate in Soviet historiography.

What appeared to be start of the disagreement between Figes and Rachel Polonsky was her review of his book in the TLS's. The review was called “savage”. It accused the noted Russian scholar of "inaccuracy, near plagiarism and intellectual irresponsibility". Friends of Figes have said the review was "perhaps unprecedented hostility and malice".

These are serious charges and the response by Figes should have been a strong rebuttal which would have added a new understanding of Soviet historiography. What we have got is a sordid mess. ”I have not read Figes book yet or the Polonsky review. So cannot comment on the charges. But this is not really the point. This should not be a debate in order to boost the sales books by each author but should be an intellectual debate which would enlighten the public.

Instead we are treated to a “grotesque carnival of gossip and spite”

Whatever Figes politics and it is important as E H Carr said to know what is buzzing in a historians head it seems clear that Figes has attacked a growing number of right wing historians and writers. Orlando Figes has written many articles one which attacked Martin Amis's book about Stalin, Koba the Dread.

Orlando Figes, has also in the past, been wrongly accused of plagiarism by the American academic Richard Pipes. Figes launched a successful libel suit against Pipes and the Sunday Times for defamation.

Polonsky has been reticent on the whole spat "I was asked by the TLS to do a substantial review of Orlando Figes's book, and the review speaks for itself. Any response that I may make to any response he may publish in the TLS will be in the TLS."

It appears that Figes has been attacked also for his attempt to widen the audience for his views on matters pertaining to the history of the Soviet Union.

According to one newspaper report “He is widely published as a journalist, which has led to his becoming a figure of distrust among fellow academics, especially those who, I think, would agree with Tolstoy when he wrote, in a letter of 1871, that "All newspaper and journalistic activity is an intellectual brothel from which there is no retreat."

Figes has issued a mild defence of his work in the past "some specialists were bound to be suspicious about a historian like myself venturing into their particular fields of expertise, making connections between these fields, and opening them up to a wider audience."

He also attempted to refute accusations of inaccuracy and near plagiarism. "Polonsky makes no attempt to discuss my book and its broad themes. Instead she concentrates on a few carefully selected sentences where she tries to demonstrate that I have made some 'error' or have been too 'cavalier' in my citation of other people's work."

He went on "Anyone who writes for a general audience is bound to be in debt to academic scholars who have studied their own subject in far greater detail than can be communicated to non-specialists. Perhaps they are suspicious of a scholar like myself who tries to tackle big ideas; perhaps they would not try to make the sort of connections that I make between different subject areas ... If I had written it as an 'academic' work it would have been 10 volumes long."

While much more will come out on this subject the recent debate does serve as a barometer of the crisis in academia. Whatever Figes mental state is at the moment he is subject to intense pressures inside and outside university.

“Academics, however, live not in a vacuum and are subject to the many ideological pressures that rage throughout society. In the mass media, in public discourse, in popular culture, an undeniable trend is easily discernible: the intellectual decay that set in under Thatcher and Reagan has assumed shocking forms under Blair and Bush” and for that matter Gordon Brown.

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