Although Professor Orlando Figes used anonymity to publish caustic reviews of his peers online, anonymity and the right to sue for libel must be protected, writes Katie Engelhart.
In April 2010, a mysterious commenter, writing under the nom de plume “Historian”, began publishing caustic reviews of newly released books about Soviet history on the Amazon.co.uk website. “Historian” deemed Professor Rachel Polonsky’s work to be “dense” and “pretentious” and Professor Robert Service’s latest tome to be “rubbish”, “an awful book”. At the same time, the commenter hailed the “beautiful and necessary” work of Birbeck College Professor Orlando Figes. In private emails, circulated amongst prominent specialists in the field (including Figes), a suspicion was aired: that “Historian” was none other than Figes himself. In one of those emails, Service dubbed the reviews “unpleasant personal attacks in the old Soviet fashion”.
And so began the academy-rattling saga. Figes categorically denied the implied allegations against him and accused his rivals of libel. Soon, he instructed his lawyer to threaten legal action against Polonsky, Service and several publications that had published the historians’ conjectures. But no sooner were the legal threats unveiled than Figes’s wife, the barrister Stephanie Palmer, admitted to publishing the reviews herself. An apparently aghast Figes issued a statement indicating that he had “only just found out about this”.
But this explanation too proved short-lived. On 23 April 2010, Figes released a new statement assuming “full responsibility” for the posts and apologising to those he had accused. He later agreed to pay damages to, and cover the legal costs incurred by, Polonsky and Service.