“Dirty work at the cross-roads”, used to be what schoolboys in England said about the tricks they played on one another. Well, there’s been some dirty work among English historians, comic in its way but also a glimpse into the special nastiness of the academy. A wonderful extra dimension is that those involved in the dirty work are Soviet-era specialists.
Amazon carries anonymous book reviews. Dr Rachel Polonsky is the author of Molotov’s Magic Lantern, an imaginative character sketch of the frightful Molotov – Stone Arse, in Stalin’s jovial nickname for him – from the books in his library. Under the signature “Historian” someone savaged it: “This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published…Polonsky is not an academic…her writing is so dense and pretentious…” Etc etc, and with a swipe at her chauffeur-driven car as well.
It turns out that Dr Polonsky some years back reviewed Natasha’s Dance, a book about Russian culture by Professor Orlando Figes of Birkbeck College, a younger historian whose books have been usually, and rightly, praised. I have reviewed one or two of them myself. Polonsky’s review had evidently got under Figes’ skin and in the guise of “Historian” he was taking revenge. Polonsky worked out what Figes had done. More than that, she spotted that Figes/Historian had several times rubbished the books of Professor Robert Service, a very eminent writer on Soviet matters, author of biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, winning a prize for the latter. She also worked out that Figes/Historian had praised one of his own books,” a rich and deeply moving history…which leaves the reader awed, humbled, yet uplifted…” Etc etc.
Polonsky informed Professor Service about her detective success, and he promptly sent informative emails to 31 leading historians. Figes brought in his lawyer, to say that all this was deliberate misinformation, and anyone who said otherwise would be sued. A Mexican stand-off. But then a short time later this lawyer suddenly states that the anonymous reviews were written by Figes’ wife, but without his knowledge. Mrs Figes is a high-powered lawyer but not qualified to write about Soviet matters as far as is known.
Is it not all highly enjoyable? The last time I recall anyone reviewing himself favourably was when Anthony Burgess, that wayward genius, used a pseudonym to puff one of his own novels. The moral of the Historian saga is also clear: nothing very much is at stake in academic rows, which is precisely why the dirty work at the cross-roads is so unscrupulous and self-promoting.