Academia, self-promotion and Orlando Figes

By Legal Eagle

Apologies that I haven’t been around lately. I have mostly recovered from my chest ailments (residual cough only), but my book manuscript is due to be sent to the publishers at the end of this week, so I have been frantically reading and re-reading the manuscript.

Via Kerryn Goldsworthy, I became aware of this great essay in Meanjin by Maria Tumarkin about English historian Orlando Figes. I’ve written a brief post on Figes before, a historian who researches Russian history:

It all began when Cambridge-based academic, Dr Rachel Polonsky was looking at the reviews on Amazon of her book on Russian culture, Molotov’s Magic Lantern. She noticed there was one review which stood out among the many favourable reviews. The reviewer, “Historian” described her book as “dense”, “pretentious” and “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published”.

Polonsky looked at all the other books “Historian” had reviewed, and noticed that “Historian” was scathing about most books, but had a soft spot for Figes’ work. “Historian” also had a secondary nickname “Orlando-Birkbeck”. In addition, there had been a history of tension between Polonsky and Figes because Polonsky had given an unfavourable review of Figes’ book Natasha’s Dance in 2002. Polonsky’s review said that the book excelled in a particular “genre of pastiche writing” and she found “problems of accuracy as well as scholarly practice” in it. Figes was apparently considering legal action in relation to the review.

Polonsky also noticed that “Historian” was scathing of books by two other authors. One was The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, which won the Samuel Johnson 2008 prize for non fiction. Figes had also been shortlisted for the prize. The review by “Historian” began: “Oh dear, what on earth were the judges thinking when they gave this book the Samuel Johnson Prize?”

The other author whom “Historian” criticised was Professor Robert Service, author of biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Hitler. “Historian” said that Service’s biography of Stalin was “curiously dull” and recommended readers instead buy Figes’ book, The Whisperers, which she said showed “superb storytelling skills”.

Polonsky alerted Service to the reviews, and Service sent a furious e-mail to other prominent authors and academics complaining about the reviews. Service also sent a copy of the email to Figes, and signed it, “Cheers from under the mud”. Figes replied to everyone in Service’s e-mail denying any role in the reviews, which he said could have been written by “virtually anybody”. Polonsky threatened to take legal action to discover who the author was. It was after this that Figes’ lawyer issued a statement:

“My client’s wife wrote the reviews. My client has only just found out about this, this evening. Both he and his wife are taking steps to make the position clear.”

However, it later became evident that Figes himself had written the reviews, and his wife was prepared to act as the “fall-guy”.

Tumarkin’s post is fabulous. It has a very revealing sketch of Figes and Robert Dessaix at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. One of my dearest friends is a refugee from Communist Russia, and I couldn’t help thinking of her and her family throughout this post (right down to the Russian familiar names – I do love those familiar names, but goodness, I would never call a Russian person I didn’t know by a familiar name!) At the end of the post, Tumarkin retells the story of the Golden Fish:

I know these things come and go, but at the moment, to my delight, my four-year-old son is particularly fond of the fairytale about the fisherman and the little golden fish. Not the way the Brothers Grimm tell it, mind you (the brothers are so very dry), but a magnificent version by Alexander Pushkin on which generations of Russian-speaking children have been raised. A poor fisherman catches, by chance, a little golden fish. In what is a first for the fisherman, the little fish speaks to him, in a human voice, promising him the fulfilment of any wish if he lets her go. True to his nature—unassuming say some, unenterprising say others—the fisherman asks for nothing. He simply throws the fish back in the water. His wife, on learning what happened, scolds him for such idiocy (they are dirt-poor after all and utterly desperate) and sends him back to the sea to ask for a new washtub to replace their broken one.

The old man goes hesitantly, embarrassed. The little golden fish greets him kindly. She tells him not to worry and to go home with a light heart. At home the new washtub is already waiting, just as the little fish promised. Next to it stands the old woman, sour and agitated, more ready than ever before for some speedy wish fulfilment.

That first modest wish gives way to more and more ostentatious demands, delivered without hint of an apology. The old man is no longer the woman’s husband, not in any real sense, but a lowly messenger between her and the little golden fish. With every new request, the little golden fish grows less and less patient. Finally the old woman, having wished for all she can think of, demands to be made Empress of Land and Sea and for the little golden fish to be at her service. A line is crossed, the sea grows stormy and dark, the old fisherman trembles, my son holds his breath … And it all comes crashing down. The little golden fish does not come out of the sea. The old man returns to the old, broken washtub and to his old, ugly wife, who without the accoutrements of wealth and status granted to her by the little golden fish looks even older, even uglier, more disfigured still. (Pushkin, bless him, leaves the story at that, but the Brothers Grimm insert some improbable ‘be grateful for what you have’ tirade from the old man. I bet he just goes and has a quiet drink, mightily relieved.)

‘Why could not she stop?’ begs my son. ‘Why did she have to ask for more? More, more, more.’ My son runs around the room, mocking the old woman. He demands that I tell him why. I look for words to explain greed, that sense of entitlement that some people grow into so quickly, the incontinence that can afflict a human soul. For some reason (and perhaps this is a developmental thing), of all the many lessons imparted by fairytales—do not eat fruit offered by strangers, check your grandmothers carefully for signs of wolf hair, carry breadcrumbs in your pocket at all times—the lesson of greed is the one my son understands most readily. He realises the utter inevitability of the little golden fish closing the shop on the old woman.

We raise children to see the invisible lines that should not be crossed and for hundreds, thousands of years we have been telling stories about these lines, handing down warnings from generation to generation about what happens when we lose our mind and push too hard, want too much, demand and expect without measure, until the little golden fish, once so patient, so eager to listen, wants nothing to do with us any more.

The story of the man who had everything but wanted more still and was implicitly encouraged by the world around him to think that his sense of entitlement was right and justified is about to be forgotten. It is already hollow and old. To tell it anew feels gossipy and gratuitous and like something in bad taste. Yet the man in the tale is not an aberration. He is a logical conclusion of certain forces in our world: of post-moral meritocracy at our academic institutions, of the disappearance of empathy and remorse from public intellectual life, of the way it has become possible to be a professional historian yet learn nothing from history. It is the kind of story we should find a way to pass on with care and seriousness, the story of how he fooled us all—and how we are fooled no more.

I can remember reacting like Tumarkin’s son to that story. Why did the old woman keep demanding? Why do some people want more and more and more? I don’t know, as I’m not built that way. Nor am I a good self-promoter. It is one of the reasons why I didn’t get articles straight out of university. I am always rather in awe of those academics who are good self-promoters; but what happens when, like Figes, your self-promotion involves putting down others? I take Tumarkin’s point that sometimes in academia, some people think that academic intelligence and achievement is a proxy for moral worth, when it is not. You can be very intelligent and not very morally worthy at all. Merely because you are clever does not mean you are good, and it does not mean that you can trash others. Go read Tumarkin’s post; I really enjoyed it.


  1. Posted September 26, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    It is a magnificent essay, thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    The massive sense of entitlement and total lack of empathy displayed by Figes is striking yet well within the realm of psycho-pathology. Maria Tumarkin is correct, what is really disturbing is the wider (lack of) response.

    Modern humanities academe often seems much keener to police belief than basic moral norms.

  2. Adrien
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    total lack of empathy displayed by Figes

    He’s such a weasel he gets his wife to take the blame.

    Why does the old woman want more and more? There’s a hole in her she thinks she can fill with stuff.

  3. kvd
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    LE I’m with Lorenzo in recording thanks for pointing out a great piece of writing. But buried in there, and noted by Lorenzo, there is an accusation that a widely acknowledged historian is being accused of a lack of empathy? And then there’s this – from the essay:

    “What are our options? To not read your books? To not watch your films? To unlearn your discoveries and remove your paintings from museums? We are impotent, as you know full well.”

    Not to defend Figes, but the line to be drawn between a creation of worth, and the creator’s posession of (really big, unforgivable) clay feet remains vague, whereas Ms Tumarkin suggests black and white, or at least ‘once bitten, twice shy’.

    Here’s some quotes from a Guardian interview at the time he was promoting ‘Whisperers’:

    “Whatever meanings people find in my narrative, I think it’s important that their engagement with my narrative is an emotional one, an engagement with the experiences represented. I’m not the sort of historian who says, bluntly, this is the meaning of these experiences”


    “If there is a recurrent criticism of Figes’s approach, it is not the emotional dimension of his narrative, but the absence of a political narrative or moral interpretation”

    But then he came to Melbourne – on the “arse end” of a promotional tour to sell his book, I suppose – and was faced with an intelligent gifted writer, and her friend who’d actually lived the subject.

    That’s my idea of a no-win situation.

  4. Adrien
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    For people like Figes, perhaps they don’t care about proving themselves to themselves, but about what other people think, and about power.

    Is his work any good? I have my doubts if he needs to do this kind of thing.

    The dirtiest academic stunt I’ve seen was when I was studying Chinese cinema in third year. One of the staff was a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy and very popular. The guy running the course, (crusty Marxist, early 70s) had him sacked before the end of semester.

    The subject was Chinese cinema, there was a total of one Australian at the time qualified to teach the course. They had to fly him in from Melbourne on Monday mornings to give the lecture.

    Later I served on a selection committee for a tenured gig and this dude was always drawing me aside with various veiled threats. I think they teach it as a foundation subject at Cambridge; courteous coercion 101. The ‘other’ side were just as dirty advocating their pet. All but two people who applied were wasting their time.

  5. Mel
    Posted September 27, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    LE says:

    “Why did the old woman keep demanding? Why do some people want more and more and more? I don’t know, as I’m not built that way.”

    But here you said:

    “I think I want everyone to have more, as opposed to reducing existing entitlements and choices. Yes, there is always a downside to such an approach (spoiled children, people who don’t appreciate what they’ve got, the potential of waste). But I’d rather that than the downsides of people not having enough. ”

    I think there is some tension there that you need to resolve, LE. The Golden Fish story could easily be read as an environmental tale with the old woman in cast in the role of an exemplar of “me,now” consumerism and the dark and forbidding sea is an allegory for Earth after we’ve finished shitting in our own nest.

    The end is Nigel, I tells yah!

  6. kvd
    Posted September 27, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    fraternité – you forgot that LE 😉

  7. kvd
    Posted September 27, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    You guys keep going on about equality and liberty, but as far as I can see, one seeks ‘equality of opportunity’ while the other, the freedom to succeed or to fail on one’s merit.

    I can’t see much difference there. Brother Mel, what say you?

  8. Adrien
    Posted September 28, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    The Golden Fish story could easily be read as an environmental tale with the old woman in cast in the role of an exemplar of “me,now” consumerism and the dark and forbidding sea is an allegory for Earth after we’ve finished shitting in our own nest.

    This is true but it doesn’t automatically then necessitate endorsement for a carbon tax.

  9. Adrien
    Posted September 28, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I can’t see much difference there. Brother Mel, what say you?

    Kinda complementary I’d say.

  10. Mel
    Posted September 28, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink


    “Getting back to the point of Figes: what did you think of the linked piece?”

    Many thoughts, LE. I can’t say I was comfortable with it as it was overly long, pious and a bit glib in spots. Figes will carry the shame with him forever since, contrary to what the article says, his bad behaviour will not be forgotten. When he hears people laughing and looking in his direction he will forever wonder if they’re laughing out him. That isn’t a pleasant fate. Given the nature of the crime, that is possibly punishment enough. Regarding the author of the article, the biblical line “let him who hath not sinned cast the first stone comes to mind”.

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