Review of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s A Spy in the Archives

This is just a quick post to note that my review of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s A Spy in the Archives (Melbourne University Press, 2013) has been published in the latest issue of Agora, the journal of the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria. As the journal is not really available online, I have posted a pre-print version of the review below.


Sheila Fitzpatrick’s second memoir, A Spy in the Archives, begins with a story of being denounced as something akin to a spy by a Soviet magazine when she was in Moscow during the late 1960s on a research trip. This denunciation had to possibility of being quite harmful for Fitzpatrick’s research and her liberty but, as she explains, no one in her circle seemed aware of it and it was only when she returned to her university in Oxford that people brought it to her attention. Fitzpatrick’s book leads with this anecdote, but the rest of the memoir doesn’t discuss this episode in any further detail. While this might be construed as a disappointment by some readers, Fitzpatrick’s stories about being an Australian/British PhD research student in Moscow during the early Brezhnev era are fascinating in themselves and do not need the opening account to make them compelling reading.

For those interested in Soviet history and in academia, Fitzpatrick’s memoir opens up two engrossing worlds of a bygone era. She first visited the Soviet Union in 1966 and was a frequent traveller to the city as a doctoral student through to 1969. She arrived in the Soviet Union during the ‘thaw’ in Soviet cultural society that had begun under Khrushchev and continued somewhat under Brezhnev. An increasing number of foreign visitors (including students) were travelling to the Soviet Union in the 1960s, but as Fitzpatrick describes were viewed by the Soviet authorities as potential threats to national security and by ordinary Soviet citizens as captivating oddities.

Fitzpatrick’s topic of research was the work of the first People’s Commissar for the Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky. Partially through the figure of Lunacharsky and the position he occupied in post-Stalinist Russia, Fitzpatrick is able to describe Soviet culture in the mid-to-late 1960s as it came to a crossroads. Lunacharsky had been removed from the public record during the purges of the late 1930s and was ‘rehabilitated’ in the Khrushchev era, but his collected works had yet to be compiled and his biography remained to be written. By studying the works and political output of Lunacharsky in the 1920s, Fitzpatrick was delving into how the philosophical idealism of the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ translated into practical actions in the post-revolutionary period.

However, at the same time, she was also delving into contemporary political debates about the relationship between Soviet-styled socialism and humanist principles. A large section is dedicated to her relationship with the ‘defenders’ of Lunacharsky, his daughter Irina and his secretary and brother-in-law, Igor Sats. Through Sats, Fitzpatrick encountered the world of Soviet intellectuals and the debates that raged around literary journal, Novy Mir. Most famous in the West for publishing the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Novy Mir pushed the envelope about what could be publicly criticised in Soviet society and Fitzpatrick colourfully illustrates this era of relative intellectual freedom – giving a sense of how the ‘socialism with a human face’ thesis spread in places such as Czechoslovakia before the Brezhnev regime cracked down on this kind of thinking.

The authoritarian nature of the Soviet regime, which would quickly put down the Czech attempts at this socialist humanism, bubbled shallowly below the surface and Fitzpatrick highlights this very nicely. Throughout the book, there are references to the ever present threat of Russian spies trying to lure foreigners into compromising positions (thus potentially turned in to a Russian asset), with Fitzpatrick recalling several efforts to entrap her using friendly Russian (or Eastern European) men. She ponders at different points within the memoir whether her room and belongings were secretly searched by KGB agents and describes how foreigners never really felt at ease in the Soviet Union – not until their plane took to the air from Domodedovo airport.

But while Fitzpatrick does not shy away from showing the sinister side of the Soviet Union in the 1960s, she also clearly had fallen in love with the place (and repeatedly mentions that she prefers Moscow to Oxford). The book is very humorous in places, when she describes some of the oddities of Soviet society, such as the absence of telephone books, street maps, restaurants and hardware stores. She does well to describe the liminal space that foreign students occupied in the Soviet Union – they were not ordinary Soviet citizens, nor were they short-term tourists where everything was catered for and organised, so foreign students had to become masters at getting by on their own and learning how to ‘fit in’ with the wider population.

For those in the world of academia, A Spy in the Archives also reveals some things about academic life that have changed dramatically since the 1960s and some things that seem to have been ever present. Fitzpatrick enters the Oxbridge world of nepotism just as some of the more egregious practices were being phased out, but some of her descriptions of the ‘old boys club’ that she encountered at Oxford remind the modern reader of how elite universities used to run. But then again some things that she describes give the impression that academia has not changed at all, such as the fractious relationships between students and supervisors, the ‘onemanupship’ of tenured professors and the petty bureaucratic nature of some archival staff.

Overall, A Spy in the Archives is a very enjoyable book that weaves personal memoir with social and cultural history. Although possibly aimed at historians and academics, Fitzpatrick’s writing style will make this a wonderful read for anyone interested in modern Russian history and the historian’s craft.

Evan Smith

Flinders University

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