Interview with Sheila Fitzpatrick, author of Pushkin Prize 2014 shortlisted book 'A Spy in the Archives'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

What made you interested in Russia?

These things are usually a bit accidental. I was a history student at Melbourne, and wanted to do something on the twentieth century. I think Germany under the Nazis would have been my top choice – I liked extreme situations. But I didn’t speak German. I didn’t really speak Russian either but I had studied it for two years. Then I won a scholarship to Oxford. That gave me a field. I used to argue with my father about the Soviet Union when I was a rebellious teenager, but I argued about many things with him. Russia was very remote. I do think our left wing background played a role. But I felt I didn’t know and nobody seemed to know much about the system. There was politics and ideology, but no actual knowledge.

What was it like studying in England?

My first impression was how terribly familiar it was. All the books in our cultural world were from there. The second was disappointment, because nobody at Oxford was doing the type of work I wanted to do. Soviet history wasn’t really a field. They considered that history ended in 1917. Oxford was familiar, but not my environment. It was male dominated. I was in the first intake of women in St Antony’s, my college. There were only six of us.

What are your views on the Soviet system?

I was working on the good side of it. My subject Luncharsky [the first Commissar of Enlightenment after the Revolution] wanted to bring enlightenment to the people. The overall question about malevolence, I’ve always found difficult to answer. People generally - however awful the results of what they do - rarely say to themselves ‘I am bad, I want to do terrible things’. It’s more that they set themselves the goal of doing a heroic thing. Most start off with a certain idealism, say what they are doing is good and when they realise they have done otherwise, almost do bad things because they want to and can get away with them.

How was it working in the Soviet archives?

It was a challenge. The authorities wouldn’t have let me in to study the secret police, military, probably not even heavy industry because of the defence connection, or agriculture, thinking I might want to show them up. Probably they thought education was one of their strengths, as it was. It was a comparatively safe area. I became obsessed with obtaining material. When I got documents, I was in awe of the paper in front of me. My immediate reaction was how do I understand what’s going on here? One of my problems was that I worked on bureaucratic archives of government departments. I didn’t know how departments worked. The view at the time was that government archives didn’t matter. I fairly quickly had this fascinating sense of seeing things that were simply not allowed for.

Were you ever approached to be a spy?

No. The Soviet Union did set a very high standard for complexity. I felt as if I was debriefed [in the west] but I was not recruited. Given St Antony’s was supposed to be such a centre for espionage, I’m not sure why. I probably wasn’t the right type. But in so far as any historian tries to find out secrets and writes reports on them, in some ways I was a spy. Who was my ‘controller’? I joke that it was my mother. Everybody then wrote to their mother once a week,  even an undutiful person like me. But she wasn’t interested in what I wrote. On the contrary, because I was interested she wasn’t going to be. She read my books about the Soviet Union and just said ‘Oh yes, we knew about that’.

Why did you write the book?

It is my second memoir. The first was about my father. He was a problem for me, and perhaps vice versa. He left a deep impression and died in 1965 when I was in my mid-twenties, just before I went to Russia. Writing it was an extremely interesting experience and sorted a few things out for me. I got great satisfaction from it. I found that by writing I could bring someone back to life. This second set was about my main protagonists, Igor and Irina. I went back to the Soviet Union many times afterwards, but the three first visits when I was still a graduate student had a special quality. It was extraordinarily exciting.

What are you working on now?

I’m finalising a book on Stalin and his team, a kind of ethnography of the politburo. I’ve done books on Soviet everyday life, about how people coped with very difficult challenges posed by this particular socio-political structure developed in 1930s: how you cope, survive, get ahead. I thought it would be interesting to apply it to the group around Stalin, which was surprisingly stable from the1920s till after his death. Stalin is the person behind all the bloodletting. The others are standing a bit with their mouths open, in awe. They would not be so bold but they admire him, and are also frightened. They don’t know they will get through alive. Stalin is really the dominant person but he always keeps his group around him. He maynot take their advice but he consults them all the time. They are a part of this situation in a way that is not appreciated.

Did you enjoy writing a memoir in a less academic style?

Yes. I like writing, and it was a pleasure to be not quite as constrained as one is normally by the data and having to check it. Now I’m back with Stalin, I’m having a bit of a struggle fact-checking and making sure the reader knows everything they can while offering a good story. I write the story, then check and correct it, putting in masses of detail. Then I take out most of the detail again.

What was it like digging into your own personal archives in your research?

It was quite strange. The events took place a long time ago. I can remember the person who wrote the letters, but I remember ‘her’ as much as ‘me’. I expected my letters to my mother would be different from my diary, but they were very similar. I don’t seem to have censored things that I should have done. I have no recollection of some of the things I wrote, but they were in the letters – a primary source.  After doing these memoirs, I had a brief moment of thinking: can I do my book on Stalin?  Even though I had a great archive on myself, the information on me was so flawed, ambiguous and difficult to interpret, how can I even dream of doing it with the Stalin archives? It was a rational thought, but of course I then dismissed it and just started writing.