Historian death match!

The Guardian had provided blow by blow coverage of the recent hatefest between two British historians of Russia, Orlando Figes and Robert Service. Figes, once touted as the “angry young man” for historians, is more accurately the spoiled brat. A real McCarthyite ax-grinder, who augments his live hatred of dead dictatorships with a holier-than thou “narrative history” creed. This is the 1980s-90s movement of British writers who refused to get their PhDs and were able to write things non-specialists could read, extrapolating their abilities to some new academic movement, heavily laced with Thatcherist posing and making stuff up so the plot’s better. They’re oppressed, apparently.

To sum up, Figes is both a hack and an ass, but he appears on TV frequently, and his fellow academics hate him for that more than anything.

Skip to last month when more traditionalist (but no less conservative, uninspired, presidential-biography writing) historian of Russia Robert Service was “sickened” to discover rude reviews of his work on Amazon! Imagine. Through a series of clever deductions (one of the Amazon screen names was “Orlando_Birkbeck”, Birkbeck being the college where Figes teaches) it was discovered that the rival bad boy was writing said reviews, as well as abuse aimed at other “rivals”. Along with orgasmically positive reviews of his own work. As if that weren’t bad enough, Figes threatened to sic the notoriously harsh British libel laws of Service for complaining. Presented with more evidence, Figes admitted “my wife did it without my knowledge.” Having graciously thrown his life partner under a bus, Professor Figes was later forced to admit that he himself was the malicious “reviewer” (can you call people who write screeds on Amazon reviewers? Perhaps Orlando can pad his resume a bit more).

As entertaining as all this is, it’s the post-partum letters page in the Guardian that’s the real hoot. Amid calls for Figes to be fired, are gems of British wit, such as:

“I really felt for Robert Service (Comment, 24 April) after reading about the turmoil caused to him and his family by someone calling his book crap. News stories of poverty, war and starvation often overshadow the intense difficulties faced by academic historians. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding how he stoically continued to eat sea bass and go jogging while his wife went to yoga during that terrible fortnight to be truly inspirational.”

And Dr Glyn Powell sums up right-thinking opinion: “In all the furore no one appears to have noticed the elephant in the room; Robert Service’s work is, in fact, awful.”

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