A prominent British historian has found a new way to get in trouble: Orlando Figes, a historian of Stalin’s Russia at Birkbeck College, London, and a contributor to the New York Review, has admitted that his wife has been publishing hostile comments about rival historians at Amazon.co.uk under a pseudonym.
UPDATE: on Aprl 23, Figes admitted he himself wrote the posts, not his wife.
The practice of using a pseudonym to post denunciations of rivals or critics on the internet is called “using a sock puppet.”
According to The Guardian, Figes’s attorney conceded that Figes’s wife, Stephanie Palmer, a lawyer and lecturer at Cambridge University, had posted reviews at Amazon describing Rachel Polonsky’s book “Molotov’s Magic Lantern” as “dense,” “pretentious” and “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published.” Robert Service’s book about Trotsky was called a “dull read,” and his history of communism was dismissed as “rubbish” and “an awful book.”
Figes’s book “The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia,” on the other hand, was described by the same reviewer – posting under the psuedonym “Historian” — as a “beautiful and necessary” account of Soviet history, the work of a writer with “superb storytelling skills.” The reviewer concluded, “I hope he writes forever.”
Many historians are no doubt wishing their own spouses had gone after rivals with this kind of zeal – but without getting caught. And others are asking whether Figes himself might have written the posts, or perhaps co-authored them with his wife.
The story came to light as the result of work by The Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books, along with Rachel Polonsky. Amazon.co.uk has now removed the posts by“Historian” from its Customer Reviews.
Figes appears in the current (April 29) issue of the New York Review, writing about literature under Stalin. His book “The Whisperers” was a New York Times Notable Book of 2007; according to Amazon.com, the Sunday Times of London called it "A tremendous achievement."
Using a sock puppet has led to several scandals. In 2007, John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, was caught using a sock puppet to predict a dark future for Wild Oats Markets. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Michael Hiltzik lost his column in the Los Angeles Times in 2006 when the publisher concluded he had replied to online critics using a pseudonym. The Times said that was a violation of its policy requiring that editors and reporters “identify themselves when dealing with the public."