Battle of wits with the apparatchiks

Historian Sheila Fitzpatrick discusses life and scholarly work at the heart of the Soviet system

January 2, 2014

A leading expert on Soviet history has set out to explore the complex personal factors that often drive research.

Sheila Fitzpatrick recently returned to her native Australia after a gap of nearly 50 years. She is now honorary professor of history at the University of Sydney, working on scholarly books about “Stalin and his team” and the fate of displaced persons after the Second World War. She has also just published A Spy in the Archives: A Memoir of Cold War Russia.

The book offers a vivid account of the daily trials of living and working in Moscow on a student exchange in 1966, where maps and telephone directories were unavailable and a sign in the university buffet read “No milk. And won’t be.” Helpful or flirtatious young men were best avoided, since they had probably been sent by the KGB. And the ruthlessness required on buses left such a mark that, back in Oxford, Fitzpatrick found herself “shamelessly elbowing aside little old ladies in Sainsbury’s”.

Notably hard on her younger self, she recalls an appeal to the director of some archives she wanted to consult, who “looked [her] over – a small 25-year-old whom all Russians instinctively classified as a mere girl, ill at ease with the language, lacking either feminine charm or masculine authority”. When he turned her down, she burst into tears, which unexpectedly proved “exactly the right thing to do”. Grandly declaring “grown-ups don’t cry”, he granted her the access she was seeking.

Paper chase

Once loose in the archives, Fitzpatrick writes that she became “addicted to the thrill of the chase, the excitement of the game of matching my wits against that of Soviet officialdom”. She started researching Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet people’s commissar of enlightenment (or minister of education and culture), and realised that “the second level of Soviet politics was driven by conflicts based on bureaucratic interest”. This was backed up by conversations with Lunacharsky’s adopted daughter, Irina Anatolevna Lunacharskaya, and his brother-in-law and assistant, Igor Alexandrovich Sats.

Sats in particular became a hugely important, quasi-paternal figure to Fitzpatrick: he introduced her to some people, warned her off others and, she freely admits, has deeply influenced her scholarly work ever since.

“My first book owes an enormous amount to Igor,” she explains now, “simply because I was writing about the particular ministry where he had been the assistant to the minister. Sometimes I found something opaque or pointing in a certain direction and there was actually a backstory Igor knew about, which made it quite different.”

As their friendship developed, however, Igor began to “talk a great deal about the Stalin period, about what life was like, the strategies of survival, what happened to different kinds of people. When I came to write Everyday Stalinism [1999], an attempt to get the texture of urban Russia in the 1930s, Igor’s footprint was all over it.”

Revisionist vanguard

Her sense of the “conflicts based on bureaucratic interest” within Soviet policymaking helped to push Fitzpatrick into becoming one of the founders of the “revisionist” school of Sovietology. This used detailed archival research to get beyond the official story and thereby challenged the “totalitarian” model then dominant among Cold War political scientists.

When she moved to the US in 1972, Fitzpatrick soon found herself subject to ferocious attack and even smear campaigns.

“The critics said that the revisionists were ‘soft on communism’,” she recalls, “and minimised repression, monolithic Stalinist control and so on. There was a tendency to say that anyone whose main topic was not repression was missing the big issue about the Soviet Union.”

Rumours even made the rounds that she “had a communist father, back in Australia, and that he had arranged for me to get into the archives” (he was actually a non-communist leftist with no Soviet connections).

As a young researcher, Fitzpatrick reflects, she was very “strong on the notion of objectivity” and believed that her intensive work in the archives was bringing her “closer to the truth than other people. Looking back you see very strongly the various personal factors that are there and mould your reaction to everything you come across.” Her new book is dedicated to untangling these perplexing questions.

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