Excerpts from Polonsky’s original harsh review of Figes, the thing that may have started this whole dust-up, have been posted here. Up to this point, as far as I know, the review hasn’t been available online.
Archive for April, 2010
The Times Online is reporting that:
Secret documents detailing the Soviet leadership’s decision to murder 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn were released to the Russian public today on orders from President Medvedev.
In an unprecedented step, the Russian State Archive published documents showing how Soviet leader Joseph Stalin approved the World War Two massacre proposed by his secret police henchman Lavrenty Beria. Other prominent members of the ruling Soviet Politburo also signed off on the slaughter.
For the full story, go here.
On the heels of this week’s revelations regarding Orlando Figes’ sock-puppet denunciations of “rival” historians via Amazon.com comes breaking news of yet another scandal involving a “best-selling popular historian.” In this case, the shenanigans in question involve the late Stephen Ambrose (1936-2002) author of nearly two dozen books (including widely-heralded accounts of the Lewis & Clark expedition, the D-Day landings, and the American Trans-Continental Railroad) and adviser to Stephen Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning epic Saving Private Ryan (1998).
As Richard Rayner notes in an April 26, 2010 piece for The New Yorker titled “Channeling Ike,”
Ambrose spoke often, on C-SPAN or “Charlie Rose” or in print interviews, about how his life had been transformed by getting to know the former President and spending “hundreds and hundreds of hours” interviewing him over a five-year period before Eisenhower died, in 1969.
The only problem? The claims aren’t true. A recent investigation of President Eisenhower’s papers by Tim Rives, Deputy Director at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum (Abileen, KS) has uncovered an alternate reality, namely “that Eisenhower saw Ambrose only three times, for a total of less than five hours. The two men were never alone together.”
The issue might be brushed off as an unfortunate (if gross) embellishment of the record by an otherwise well-regarded historian save for two things.
First, Ambrose’s early career was built upon his prodigious writing as the “official” historian of the Eisenhower presidency. The discovery that he did not, in fact, have sustained and personal contact with Ike as he long claimed will doubtless call into question the voluminous notes and references in his books that cite these non-existent interviews.
Second, this is hardly the first time that Ambrose has been found to have acted in a manner that might be charitably be described as “less than scrupulous.” In 2002, he was infamously forced to admit to having copped numerous passages of his book The Wild Blue from other authors without attribution. [History News Networked exhaustively chronicled that earlier controversy here.]
On the whole, a rather dismal week for the historical discipline.
It has been a tough week for Orlando Figes. In recent developments,
Oliver Kamm on the London Times blog looks at 2007 edits to Figes’ wikipedia entry:
In 2007, a Wikipedia user called “Orlandofiges” created two sock-puppet accounts, called “DavidPricesolicitors” and “Penguinchristie”. David Price is Figes’s solicitor. Sarah Christie was publicity manager at Penguin Books, Figes’s publisher. “Orlandofiges” edited the entry on Orlando Figes using all of these accounts betweeen 22 and 24 October 2007. The edits have a predictable pattern to them: “Figes’s mastery of the big narrative and his literary style have won many prizes and critical acclaim”, and so on. The description “a historian of Russia” is amended to “one of the world’s leading historians of Russia”. The sock puppet “DavidPricesolicitors” weighs in to remove a statement that is “false and defamatory” about the subject.
And another academic has spoken with the Independent about a sourcing dispute with Figes:
An American academic, Priscilla Roosevelt, said yesterday she had written to complain to Figes about his apparent use of sources from her book Life on the Russian Country Estate in his award-winning A People’s Tragedy, some of which were so obscure she could not believe he had come across them himself. “You can’t prove these things absolutely, but the experience left me shocked and demoralised,” she said. “He sent me a one-line response.”
According to the Telegraph, Polonsky has raised the possibility of legal action against Figes:
Dr Polonsky said she was intending to recover costs from Prof Figes. She said: “There have been some large legal costs built up in the last week which I hope to retrieve from the Figes family.” She added: “I understand that he is claiming that he has been traumatised by the research he did with victims of the Russian gulags which caused him to behave like this. I think it is horrific to use one of the greatest acts of criminality in history to excuse his bad behaviour. In any case he has been behaving like this for years beforehand.”
Meanwhile, Robert Service says the whole thing calls for reform of libel law in the UK:
The public interest in this squalid little story is that if someone is wealthy and malicious enough it is possible to tread on the throat of free and open discussion in this country almost with impunity. I was close to caving in at times simply because I lacked Figes’s financial resources. We have a set of libel laws seemingly designed to produce another Robert Maxwell. At the same time we have electronic media that enable the ink to flow from poison pens. In my case, these two features of our culture were wrapped around each other like a vicious weed. Legislative reform is urgently required.