Monday, May 27, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke


Whisky Writing as Social Work

As this is a blog that likes to talk about whisky whilst talking about other things, today’s post will be about Orlando Figes.

Now Figes is an historian whose books about the Russian revolution have have received the most glowing of reviews and won many literary prizes. His has built up the reputation of a historical/literary heavyweight – a man of stature and repute. But beneath this exterior things are obviously not so serene and there must be some deep insecurity. Why else would  he in 2010, some 14 years after he first made his reputation, try to anonymously post damning Amazon reviews of works by rival scholars Robert Service and Rachel Polonsky, whilst at the same time praising his own works in a most gushing way. (About his book The Whisperers he said it was a “beautiful and necessary” account of Soviet history written by an author with “superb story-telling skills…. I hope he writes forever.”). When he was first accused of this he denied it and threatened legal action, then with the classic dog ate my homework defence said his wife had written the reviews without his knowledge, then finally he admitted his responsibility and ended up paying damages.

As an outsider there is something entertaining about a good academic spat and the sight of a mighty fellow being brought down a peg or two. But in my in my more  generous moments I think it a shame that whenever I think of Orlando Figes my first thoughts are not about the body of work and his gifts as a narrative historian, but of him being not only a pompous arse but more importantly being dishonest. That matters hugely because fundamentally academic disputes are more than quibbles about the way evidence is interpreted, they are about what is true.

The interesting thing though is that once the armour of reputation is pierced people examine the work more skeptically and this has certainly happened with Figes. A Russian edition of his book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia was cancelled because researchers at the Memorial Society (a Russian historical and human rights organisation founded on behalf of victims and survivors of Stalin’s terror) found too many errors and distortions. You can read the sorry story here and I would recommend it, not only because truth matters but also because when you have publicly been caught out in shady dealings it is really hard to regain the moral high ground.

So what, you may be asking, is the connection between this story and whisky? The answer is Amazon reviews. The current issue of Private Eye (No 1448, 14-27 July 2017) in its Books & Bookmen column (p32) has a story about Rachel McCormack’s new book Chasing the Dram: Finding the Spirit of Whisky and its first review on Amazon – a damning 2 stars given by someone called ‘Socialworker’. Somehow they have discovered that ‘Socialworker’ is none other than Ian Buxton, who coincidentally has his own whisky travelogue book coming out in September.

Figes’ use of Amazon was more vicious than Buxton’s but they are both part of the same continuum. I wonder how many other clandestine literary battles are fought in this way? Whatever the answer none of these tricks are edifying and it disappointing that an established whisky writer will try to block the path of someone newer to the field in an underhand way.

P.S. The picture of Lenin was taken from the web at


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