Interviews Sheila Fitzpatrick A leading lady in Soviet studies

Though once very controversial in the context of the Cold War, Fitzpatrick’s view of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union as something complex, full of contradictions and of different kinds of agency, has now become a commonplace in Russian studies.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1 2012 pages 4-10
Published on on April 10, 2012

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Since the very beginning, Sheila Fitzpatrick’s main focus has been social history based on archival sources, which made her a pioneer in the renewal of Soviet studies in the 1970s and ’80s. Though once very controversial in the context of the Cold War, Fitzpatrick’s view of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union as something complex, full of contradictions and of different kinds of agency, has now become a commonplace in Russian studies.

Sheila Fitzpatrick is a member of the American Academy of Sciences and of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. She is also a violinist and plays with several orchestras and chamber groups.

This interview was conducted in Fitzpatrick’s office at the University of Chicago on January 5, 2012.

What did Australia represent, politically and ideologically, around 1960? What did the Cold War and the Soviet Union look like from there?

FP: I was born in 1941 and I grew up in Melbourne in the ’40s and ’50s. It was a very provincial, relatively small town with an even smaller group of intellectuals who were self-conscious about that status. My parents belonged to that group and they were on the left. My father was an activist and a sort of self-taught lawyer. He headed a civil liberties organization, and what he mainly did was challenge the government on civil liberties cases. And since it was the Cold War, they were often cases involving left-wing people.

It was the Cold War, and the Soviet Union was a source of spies. We didn’t quite have McCarthyism, but we had the Petrov affair1 — with accusations about Soviet contact with all sorts of leftists, including the leader of the Labor Party, Dr. Evatt.

So the Soviet Union was mainly a bogeyman. My father was a skeptical man; he would certainly not take it on trust that it was a bad place. He didn’t know much about it. He used to get those free propaganda materials from the Eastern Bloc countries. Yes, I grew up in a vaguely pro-Soviet atmosphere. As a teenager, I started to quarrel with my father about all sorts of things. Because he didn’t have any job, he didn’t make any money and he drank too much. He was a problem father. He had staked out a sort of dissident position in a society where dissidents were not a recognized form of being. Some people on the left looked at him in a somewhat heroic light, whereas others, not on the left, had a less charitable explanation.

And I started to criticize him for that, and I also started to needle him on the question of the Soviet Union. Not that I was against the Soviet Union, but rather because I thought that he was hopeful rather than informed.

I did Russian at the University of Melbourne. I did it partly because of the Cold War: The Russian department had come under criticism in the Parliament for alleged sympathies for communism, so the left-wing intelligentsia put their children there. But the teachers were not pro-Soviet, they were émigrés, many with nostalgia for old Russia. . . .

At the fourth year of history we had to write an essay based on primary sources and I did that on Russian material. I found it absolutely fascinating, and that put me on the path. And then I got a scholarship to Oxford and there I said that I wanted to do modern Russian history.

In Oxford I found that this was not a place to do Soviet history. Nobody knew anything about it there. What I should have done was probably to go to the United States, perhaps to Columbia.

Oxford represents something to an Australian.

Yes, tremendously. And it also meant something to my socialist father. He was snobbish also. In Melbourne, he sent me to a private school, to my fury.

But in Oxford there was an environment, with E. H. Carr….

Carr was in Cambridge. I hated Oxford!

And Isaiah Berlin….

I met Berlin. . . . Berlin at one point seemed to be interested in being my adviser, but Berlin’s notion of advising would be that he just talked. . . . A stream of consciousness about people he knew, and in my case it seemed Prokofiev was big on the list. I found it very interesting but I didn’t find it to be very much to the point as far as my work was concerned.

Anyway, I got Max Hayward, the great translator, which was miserable for Max, and for me. . . . Because he had no idea about history . . . and he didn’t really want to be landed with a new student. He was a literary scholar and he didn’t know what I was interested in. I went on talking to him about access to primary sources, and he really didn’t know what I meant. He too would tell me stories. He too — like Berlin — had been in the Moscow embassy after the War. And he had a wonderful Russian by the way, and lots of lovely stories. And he didn’t completely understand that I didn’t want to write history based on anecdotes. It was miserable for him, and when I met him later in America he said how much he hated those meetings.

The two people who knew something about what I wanted to do were E. H. Carr in Cambridge and Leonard Schapiro at the London School of Economics. I spoke to those two people and both of them were very encouraging to me. But they didn’t like each other and they didn’t like me seeing the other, and would frequently point this out to me. I admired Carr. I found him to be a fascinating figure. Everybody at Oxford warned me against him. They told me that he was unreliable and . . .

But wasn’t he? So many turns in life, so many careers. . . .

Well, perhaps. But it was the wives they kept harping on, but I wasn’t planning to marry him. I thought of him as a person of great stature. I was quite fascinated by his way of working which was completely different from mine. He had a wonderful collection of sources at the library in Cambridge. So there he went to work on a section of them during the day and then in the evening he would go home and write it up. Another page. I do not work like that. I thought that was quite odd, but we got quite friendly, I think.

Carr was remote. He didn’t know many young people. He just knew me and John Barber. And he tried to find out about the younger generation, on the basis of these two examples. And he would talk about Isaac Deutscher and Tamara. Isaac was dead then, but Tamara was a close friend of his. He would often talk about her.

Which primary sources were accessible in Britain at that time?

For the ’20s: lots of periodicals, a lot of stenographic reports from party meetings and government bodies. Statistics. So Carr, writing on politics and economics in the ’20s, he had the sources. But me . . . I had to get to the Soviet Union! But that was hard, because Australia didn’t have an exchange. The British had one, and I applied for it. The first year I didn’t get it because of my nationality, but the next year I married an Australian boyfriend of mine who happened to be British also, and then I had a British passport. So I went to Moscow two years after I had arrived in Oxford, the fall of 1966.

The time in Oxford hadn’t been totally wasted. I tried to learn some contemporary Russian, but that was impossible. They only taught Church Slavonic. So what I decided was that since nobody seems to know any Soviet history — it was a non-subject, a non-field — what I would do was to simply read journals and newspapers. Just day after day, week after week! I started with Pechat i revoliutsiia [The press and the revolution]. It was a broad journal of and for the intelligentsia, of the communists, but not by the communists. It was the journal of that environment that interested me. And then Krasnaia Nov’ [Red virgin soil], and International Literature. That was a multilanguage publication, originally called Literature and Revolution and put out by the revolutionary people in RAPP — the proletarian writers’ union — and then it continued during the ’30s. The Russian-language edition was important in the ’40s, but then the editor was held to be too pro-British and got fired and arrested. An interesting journal! It kept me going. And one of the things I found in Oxford that were truly useful for a person like me was J. P. Simmons, a language person and a specialist in early Russian 20th century reference works. He gave a course where he would examine changes in editorial policies in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, the Literary Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of the Revolutionary Movement. And he knew exactly which letter they got up to, and when they changed editors so that they stopped including a certain kind of material. So that gave me a really good course in understanding the problems of Soviet reference works.

All this affected my formation as a historian: I became addicted to the thrill of the chase, the excitement of the game of matching your wits and will against that of Soviet officialdom. […] I thought of myself as different from the general run of British and American scholars, with their Cold War agenda (as I saw it) of discrediting the Soviet Union rather than understanding it. But that didn’t stop me getting my own kicks as a scholar from finding out what the Soviets didn’t want me to know. Best of all was to find out something the Soviets didn’t want me to know and Western Cold Warriors didn’t want to hear because it complicated the simple anti-Soviet story.2

In Moscow it was practically impossible to get into the archives. But I got more materials than expected, more or less by chance. I was also looking for the Lunacharsky family, as Lunacharsky was a part of my research. My Soviet adviser was very eager to get hold of Lunacharsky’s diaries, which were owned by his daughter Irina, and he thought I could help him with that, so he put me in contact with Irina. And Irina sent me off to Igor Sats, her uncle, in order to make him check whether, basically, I was a spy. So Igor looked me over. He was a very kind man and he also liked young women. He thought I was just fine and invited me practically every day. He would talk about Lunacharsky and other aspects of the past that were of interest to him.

Igor Sats was on the editorial board of the most important literary journal of that time, the Novy Mir, and I got to know Vladimir Lakshin. He was the head of the literary criticism department of Novy Mir. And I met Tvardovsky, but he was wary of me: there was, in the editorial board, a certain unease about Igor having become so friendly with a foreign woman.

And times were hard for Novy Mir in 1966/67.

Yes, and later on they were forced out. There was a lot of applause for them in the West, and they felt this as daggers. . . . They hated it. . . . That’s why Tvardovsky was not so keen on my being around.

But as you wrote in your article in the London Review of Books, Igor Sats was more of a risk taker.

Within reason. I think actually he did look me over and decide that I was not working for intelligence. At the same time, he could dig his heels in when people were trying to tell him what to do. When they called him in, the “Central Committee”, but actually the KGB, asked him if this British stazherka3 who comes around is really reliable, he said, “Yes, she’s fine.” So he was in that sense stubborn. But he was not a total risk taker. He would not, for example, have put the Solzhenitsyn manuscripts into my hands. That could have been a risk to me. He wouldn’t have used me for smuggling. He also tried to make sure that I didn’t move with undesirable types. Around Victor Louis for example, there were all sorts of somnitelnye4 people — Soviet people and people from the West. I was invited to meet him, but I very consciously didn’t pursue that acquaintance. I have forgotten whether or not I asked Igor about this but I was very clear about what he would have said, which was: “Stay out of it!” On the other hand he preferred me to stay out of most milieus that were not his own. And that’s a very Soviet thing to do. Not Russian: They do not see it as promiscuity any more if you make friends with people that they do not know.

It is curious actually . . . because they would take you to their heart so much, so firmly, with really so little to go on, except their own intuition, but then they would be so jumpy about the possibility that you had some other friends. . . .

What kind of resistance did the archival material exercise on your attention and intention? You dug up a mass of material. What was the difficulty of the material for you? What was the scientific problem?

First, all of us had the big problem that they wouldn’t let us see the opisi, the inventories. So we didn’t know what they had. So you had to ask, or guess, or take what they had. The first problem I realized was that in order to work in archives you need to really know bureaucratic structure. I didn’t know bureaucratic structure at all. I didn’t understand bureaucracy in any context, let alone Soviet. I had had no contacts with any bureaucracy in my life. The first time was when I had to deal with the British about going on the Soviet exchange.

So that my first reaction was: I must find out how bureaucracies are structured and what they do. What are the departments, what are the forms of reporting, what kind of materials get kept under what headings? And here I really was fantastically lucky in a way. Because I got into the Narkompros5 archives very much at the same time as I got to know Igor Sats. Igor had not worked in Narkompros, but he had worked with Lunacharsky at that time, so he remembered some of the issues. But also there were some old secretaries of Lunacharsky who had worked in Narkompros. A couple of women. He introduced me to them and thus I got clues about who was really fighting whom. And from Irina Lunacharskaya, Lunacharsky’s daughter, but she was much more cautious. She work for Novosti6 as a science journalist, and was a different kind of person from Igor. But she was very interested. She was passionately attached to her father, and she knew quite a lot about him. Not so much from memory, but from research. She was the priemnaia doch7, as people who didn’t like her were constantly telling me, because her real father had died during the civil war and had no meaning for her, and she had been young when her mother married Lunacharsky. Irina’s main activity was sponsoring publications of Lunacharsky’s works, editing his work and controlling Lunacharsky scholars to see that what they published was according to the right Lunacharsky line.

You defended your PhD thesis in 1969 and it became a book — The Commissariat of the Enlightenment (1970). Both publications included a fresh flow of new sources.

Yes, it is a very dissertation-like book. But also, in my defense I must say that there was no framework for writing on this subject. One had to create one.

That is why I asked you about the resistance of the material itself. And not so much about how you were digging it out.

I was very close to the texts. The book was structured around direct quotations that I typed out as a kind of pre-draft. Luckily (since nobody had taught me anything about using archives), I had not translated or transliterated, but wrote, by hand, in Russian all the quotations with quotation marks. In that first book, that was my technique of writing.

This book was groundbreaking for its time.

 Yes, I think so. It opened up a whole field that people didn’t know about before. The cultural policy field.

So you came back to Britain with your book, and what were the reactions in Oxford?

Oh yes, very good! The Times Literary Supplement ran a positive review by Michael Glenny on the Commissariat of the Enlightenment as the lead review, the whole of the first two pages. People liked the book. Everyone in Oxford was very interested, because it contained new stuff. In England, it wasn’t read as having any political implications, but simply as bringing new insight and data on cultural politics.

In that book there is almost no criticism of other scholars. You do not try to argue with other interpretations. You just explore a new field.

Most of the time, once I got in contact with primary materials, I didn’t read other people’s work very much at that point. Then I came to America. And the first article I wrote I sent off to Slavic Review. And they said, “Very fine, but you must locate yourself in the literature.” You have got to engage other scholarly works. I don’t remember how I replied, but what I thought was that there was really nothing to engage. I really had the feeling of a new field. There were few people writing Soviet history then — E.H. Carr, Bill Daniels, Leonard Schapiro.

You moved to the US in 1972. How did the Soviet studies field in the US look at that time?

At that time I thought that it was more polarized than it perhaps was. I saw it as dominated by Cold War prejudices, which were almost as bad as the Soviet ones, and the totalitarian model, which I saw as having an in-built political bias. This was probably exaggerated: after all, there were people who were interested in modernization; there was the Harvard project8. The movement that later came to be known as revisionism was just beginning; I came across that through Stephen Cohen. Cohen knew about me because he had read the Commissariat of the Enlightenment, and he and other people like Loren Graham too, they read the book, and it sounded somewhat different because “she is not saying in this book that everything is run through the Central Committee, and she is giving a picture of quite a lot of agency elsewhere, and perhaps she is doing this intentionally or perhaps not, but in any case, it is worth talking to her.” So they made contact with me. That was interesting and encouraging for me, although as far as Cohen was concerned we pretty soon had problems: I thought he had a political axe to grind, and he thought I had one. Since I was very strongly in favor of objectivity and interpretations driven by data, I deeply resented the suggestion that, for whatever reason, family background or whatever, I was pushing a pro-Soviet line. I really hated that. I was actually fairly apolitical, despite the family background, and I didn’t see why people kept ascribing political positions to me. Now, I can see more clearly why they misunderstood me: in a way, we were talking a different language. Also, many people in the 1970s did have political positions or wanted to make political points: Cohen, for example, wanted to show that not everything about the revolution was bad. That it had a democratic potential. The USSR could have gone the Bukharin way, the NEP way, but it went the Stalin way. He organized a panel on the viability of NEP for the AAASS9 and he invited me to take part. I was new to conference life then; I thought that if they invite you to write a paper on something, you need to go off and do new research. So off I went. . . . I worked on the Smolensk Archives and I decided that the evidence pointed all the other way — against the viability of NEP. Lunacharsky was pushing a “soft” line in culture, Lenin also had a soft line, but it was very hard for these to prevail. In the party, the instinctive choice was always the hard (radical, intolerant, non-pluralistic) line. Therefore I decided that NEP in culture was pretty non-viable, which was the opposite of what Stephen wanted me to conclude. He was quite annoyed about that at the time, but now we are on good terms. He says he wants to reopen the debate about the viability of NEP, but I’m not sure that it’s really an interesting issue anymore.

For people like me who come from the literary field more than from the historical field, the ’20s are so immensely rich. So much of what became important in the 20th century in literature, theater, cinema, comparative literature . . . was created there and then. Why couldn’t this immense richness have won?

Well, you are right. But your approach is focused on the intelligentsia, the avant-garde. In the broader society, if you like, things often look different. You know, there is this wonderful stuff, in literature and in the arts. But people really disliked it. Not only in the Communist Party, but quite broadly. The same sort of problem exists with issues about family and women: there were wonderful progressive policies, but people didn’t like them. For ordinary people, there was a feeling that “liberation” just meant there was too much license about, women were being exploited in a new way via postcard divorces and so on. It’s the same kind of thing that happened with the arts.

Did Lunacharsky himself reflect upon this tragic situation in the Soviet culture of the 1920s? I don’t remember that from your book. But of course he must have seen the problem you are pointing to.

Yes, right. But he was a very optimistic man. I don’t think he saw the situation in this tragic light. I think he felt it was his mission to mediate between the two worlds: the Bolshevik Party and the intelligentsia. He was one of the few who could understand both the communists and Left art. So he would try to explain them to each other. But he was of course often discouraged. He was marginalized by the late ’20s, though perhaps not as discouraged as it might look from the outside, because — according to his daughter Irina, who had his diaries, though she didn’t let me read them — he thought Stalin was probably better than the alternatives. He thought that things might get better as the country got rid of the period of factional fighting which caused nothing but harm. Evidently he thought that once Stalin settled down, things might be not so bad, which is a big surprise. But I only know this from Irina, not from my own research.

The ’70s, in the US, were marked by a new tendency in Soviet studies: revisionism. You became a part of that field with your book Education and Social Mobility in the Soviet Union. And with the conference, which became a book: Cultural Revolution in Russia. . . .

Well, I think I was actually pursuing my own research rather than trying to launch a new tendency. One thing my research turned up was that in the late 1920s there was a “cultural revolution” in the USSR in which all sorts of stuff seemed to be bubbling up from below. There were “signals” coming from above too (that was already known in the scholarship), but what struck me particularly was what was coming from below — not just radical, militant initiatives from the young, but also all kinds of crazy people, with their panaceas, who suddenly got a hearing at that time. That’s what I call “bubbling up”. This was the theme I was pursuing at the time I arrived in America, but much of the archival work had been done during my two research years in Moscow. I had originally intended my dissertation to go up to 1929, but I had so much material that I stopped at 1921. Education and Social Mobility in the Soviet Union 1921—34 was originally going to be The Commissariat of the Enlightenment Part II, so I already knew the later part of the ’20s. Anyhow, my ideas about cultural revolution “from below” (as well as from above) really fitted in with a nascent revisionist agenda, which was basically challenging the notion of total control.

There was something about Narkompros at the end of the 1920s that for years I couldn’t understand. It was what was meant by proletarian preference, vydvizhenie,10 in higher education, and who those “proletarians” were. It really puzzled me. I didn’t know what they were talking about. And then came the revelation that this was a kind of affirmative action program on behalf of workers and working-class communists that came in in a big way with “cultural revolution”. Lunacharsky tried to moderate it, and this was one of the things that brought him down. He wanted affirmative action for workers, but not too much. I mean, he wanted to promote workers in the higher education system, but not to discriminate against others, which is a difficult position logically. So, that upward social mobility which the educational system was supposed to promote became my central theme for the new book. In the Commissariat of the Enlightenment, I was mostly interested in the administration of culture, even though the Commissariat had charge of education as well. But then, out of the education aspect came a really important social theme. So it was tremendously rich. Education and Social Mobility focuses on a new theme that emerged from my empirical research but made me come closer to the social sciences.

So, this is your ’70s. Plus the conference. And the preparations of the important work for the book The Russian Revolution.

The Russian Revolution, yes, but that was never a major project. I wrote it quickly. Actually it was my first visit back to Australia and I had no materials. In order to make a good story, in order to make it read well, it was good to do it without materials. So I did that, and checked the facts and added the footnotes after I got home. I think it worked quite well as a story. And I suppose that it also helped crystallize my own interpretations of what the revolution was about.

One of the main themes in The Russian Revolution is that the revolution might have been an extended process, starting in a sort of political radicalism and populism supported by the peasant class and the working class, transforming into the civil war, the NEP, the Cultural Revolution, the collectivization and then dissolving in a sort of Soviet high culture, in a stabilization process from the mid-1930s where the Purges were to be the last phase of Soviet revolutionism. Stalin kills the revolution, and his killing of the revolution will by itself appear a revolutionary action.

Yes, On the one hand you have Stalin sponsoring stabilization (the “Great Retreat”), which would mean the end of the revolution. And on the other hand you have destabilization  — in the shape of the Great Purges — also initiated by Stalin. I think you have to think of the Purges as a last act of revolution. If there were no revolutionary impulse left, the idea that you can purify the society by killing off a whole lot of people just wouldn’t arise.

Stalin’s idea from 1933 of an aggravation of class struggle under socialism when you approach communism — isn’t that what this is about?

You can’t explain the Purges in Marxist terms, it doesn’t make any sense, but you can partially understand them in terms of how revolutions work. Think of the Terror in the French Revolution: revolutionaries feel that they have to purify their ranks, that they are in danger of sinking into a swamp.

In Everyday Stalinism you write of the Soviet Union after 1935, approaching World War II, as a prison, or a conscript army, or a boarding school – authoritarian, but allowing education and mobility – and a soup kitchen or a relief agency. Isn’t that also a rather good description of what modernity might have been? Or the modern state? And maybe this sort of cleansing, following a thinker like Zygmunt Bauman in Modernity and the Holocaust, is not the exclusive property of the Stalinist state? You create a modern state, and you exclude the undesirable.

In Everyday Stalinism, I wasn’t so interested in the modernity approach, though this is a theme that other people have taken up very enthusiastically recently. . . . In Everyday Stalinism I was really on another track; it wasn’t the “modernity” of the Soviet Union that interested me. Of those three metaphors — the prison, the soup kitchen, and the school — the one that really appealed to me was the school. It brings out that whole didactic element of Stalinism. Perhaps other people have different experience of schools, but they definitely have their Orwellian aspects. (In fact, some people think Orwell based 1984 as much on his experience at public school as on the Soviet Union, where he had never been.) In my own school I was very struck by the hypocrisy of the teachers when I was a child. You know, they tell you (the pupils) all these rules and you pretend to agree with them and accept their norms, but really you don’t; the pupils — the subaltern population — has its own norms and values. You have a private (subaltern) persona and a public one that is different. You say one thing when you have to stand up in class and you say another thing to your friends. I really liked that analogy of Stalinism and school, but I never fully developed it.

The totalitarian model scholarship that the revisionists were challenging assumed that all agency came from the top. Then the revisionists came along, and they were interested in showing that people within the society had agency of various kinds. In Everyday Stalinism, I assume that: if you start writing a book on the everyday you take that for granted, and you are looking at the kinds of agency that people have in their everyday life. I think the reason I wanted to do work on the everyday goes back to my first experiences in the years of the late ’60s as a student in the Soviet Union, when this kind of “ordinary life”, byt, just struck me as absolutely bizarre. I mean, how could it be that life is arranged in a way that is maximally uncomfortable? Inconvenient, and just so terribly annoying. Those are the things you notice when you go as a stranger to a place. And Everyday Stalinism is an investigation into how it came to be that way. Of course, terror is important in Everyday Stalinism. But it is not the only important thing. Equally important is the fact that it was so hard to get things. Get goods, to get by. . . . To survive in the sense of coping with everyday life was so difficult. I tried to interweave those themes.

It is a special kind of book. Really filled with all those different kinds of agency. It says something about what a society is in a more general sense.

But it is also a very atheoretical book. There is all this theory on the everyday, and I pay little attention to it. Some people think I should have written a different book. I was very surprised once by a Russian, an acquaintance of mine, who himself is quite a theoretical scholar. He told me he liked this book, and I said that I was surprised by that, because in general he was very theoretically oriented. “Yes of course,” he said, “one could talk about it in theoretical terms, but you are just telling it like it was.”

It is a funny thing to think that this “atheoretical” work is not in any way making Russia exotic. It is everyday life.

I think that to a large extent it is because of Igor Sats. I sat at his feet for so many hours. And he talked about everything that came into his head. I think that may be why the book has this funny not-quite-outsider, and not-quite-insider perspective. It didn’t seem exotic to me, because it was his life. And I felt him as a relative. As family. Therefore, even though I didn’t live that life, it didn’t feel strange to me. But in Tear off the Masks — there theory is a bit more important. I find theory a funny concept, because it’s based on a canon that seems almost randomly chosen. Theory with a capital T. Of the works regarded as Theory that have actually interested me, Bourdieu is one, but I read him too late to have him as an inspiration. Erving Goffman, whom I encountered early, by chance, back in the early ’70s, perhaps was a real influence. When I read The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, I didn’t think about it as theory; I was almost surprised that he would bother to write about something so obvious that everyone must know. But it lodged in my mind as a sort of external confirmation of the way I had of looking at the world.

So it all started with the style of work in the Commissariat of the Enlightenment, between the Cold Warriors and the Soviets, and your whole work has been growing out of that, and out of that dialogue with Igor Sats. But when 1991 came, the sources, the archives were opened, that had previously been closed, and where you had been digging successfully in your way before that, and then they started to close again in the second half of the 1990s.

Yes, a lot, but never everything, because one never had free access to KGB materials. But that was wonderful. It was astonishing. That the Soviet Union should collapse. And it was interesting to be around when something so astonishing happened. It made me realize that, even though I knew that there are ruptures in history, I knew this only theoretically, and my practical experience of life was that things always happen incrementally — and that, suddenly, they don’t. That was really fascinating, and on top of it came the opening of the archives, which was basically a prazdnik, a feast, for ten years. Perhaps if I were a political historian I would have reacted differently. But for social historians, there wasn’t the same worry about having your interpretations disproved — in fact, on questions that I’d written on like social mobility, there was just an additional mass of data from the party side supporting what I had found out back in the ’70s and ’80s from state archives. So it didn’t have a downside for me, it was just an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime gift.

Could you have written Everyday Stalinism without the opening of the archives?

Yes, I think so. It is an archival book, but it doesn’t have the same kind of archival backbone as most of my other books. It has got a whole lifetime of sources in it. Yes, I think that I could have written it. But Stalin’s Peasants, which actually comes before Everyday Stalinism, I couldn’t have written without the peasants’ letters that were in the archives. When I was working just with published material, I was absolutely baffled about what happened to peasants after collectivization. It was absolutely gibberish to me. . . . I couldn’t make any sense of it. The only thing that allowed me to make sense of it was the peasants’ letters to Krestianskaia gazeta [Peasants’ journal], so that’s a kind of backbone source for that book.

Further Reading:

Brian Fitzpatrick

Brian Fitzpatrick, Sheila Fitzpatrick’s father (1905–1965), was an author, historian, journalist and one of the founders of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties. In 1937, he won the University of Melbourne’s Harbison–Higinbotham Scholarship with his manuscript British Imperialism and Australia 1783–1833. His book The British Empire in Australia : An Economic History, 1834–1939, was published in 1941. Fitzpatrick returned to journalism in the 1940s. From 1958 until his death in 1965, he published Brian Fitzpatrick’s Labor Newsletter: What is Going On in Australian Politics. Sheila Fitzpatrick made a colorful and ambivalent portrait of him as a father, journalist, politician and historian in My Father’s Daughter: Memories of an Australian Childhood (Melbourne 2010): “I didn’t want to think about Brian and his world in my first years away form home. And perhaps in a sense he didn’t want me to think about it either. Almost the only advice he gave me on going to university was to stay out of politics, so as not to get black marks against my name that would injure my future career”(p. 141).

E.H. Carr

E. H. Carr (1892–1982) was one of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s mentors during her stay in England. A former British diplomat, Carr left the service in the late 1930s to write and do research applying a perspective close to Marxism. Carr, who worked in Cambridge, is best known for his 14-volume history of the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1929 and for his book What is History?

Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997) was one of the most influential antitotalitarian thinkers of the 20th century. He was also a diplomat, historian of ideas, philosopher, political thinker and a fine connoisseur of Russian literature. He translated Turgenev into English.

Max Hayward

Max Hayward (1924–1979) graduated in Russian from Oxford in 1945. In 1946–1947 he studied at Charles University in Prague and was then appointed to the British Embassy in Moscow, where he stayed for two years and met Pasternak, Akhmatova and others. When forced to interpret for the ambassador on a visit to Stalin, Hayward was too dumb-struck to speak. Back at Oxford, he supervised a number of students who went on to prominent careers. He is famous for his translations of Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, and Akhmatova.

Anatoly Lunacharsky

Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875–1933) was a prolific literary critic and Russian intellectual, a Marxist revolutionary who became the first Commissar of the Enlightenment (1917–1929). Lunacharsky studied in Russia and in Switzerland, where he made friends with Russian exiled social democrats and became a party member, and with European socialists like Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches.

During the party split in 1903, Lunacharsky sided with Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Lunacharsky’s intellectual and cultural curiosity resulted in a wide range of artistic and intellectual acquaintances (Mach, Avenarius, Proust, Bernard Shaw, later Bakhtin) and to the creation of the Circle of Proletarian Culture, later the “Proletkult”. Lunacharsky was also the head of Soviet censorship. As described by Fitzpatrick, he tried to adopt a middle way and be a mediator in the political fights of the late 1920s, which cost him his power and finally his position in 1930. In 1933 he was appointed ambassador to Spain. He died in Menton in France on his way to the new post. During the terror Lunacharsky’s name was erased from the Communist Party history. A revival came with the thaw of the 1950s and ’60s. During that era, Lunacharsky was considered by Soviet intellectuals as an educated, refined, and tolerant Soviet politician, which probably helped Sheila Fitzpatrick get access to the archives.

Igor Sats

Igor Sats (1903–1980), legendary literary critic, literary historian, and literary secretary of Anatoly Lunacharsky, who was also his brother-in-law. One of the rare, consistent supporters of Andrey Platonov’s work in the 1930s, when Sats worked as one of the publishers of the controversial Literaturnyi Kritik (closed in 1940). Vladimir Lakhsin reveals in his memoirs Golosa i litsa what conclusions Sats drew from the history of his life: it had consisted in partitions, like the history of Poland, or “dissolutions” – of his “anarchistic” regiment during the civil war, of the Commissariat of the Enlightenment in 1929, of the Communist Academy in the ’30s, of the journal The Literary Critic in 1940, and twice of the journal Novy Mir, in 1954 and in 1970.

Stephen Cohen and American Revisionism

Stephen Cohen (born 1938) became an important intellectual reference point and a partial ally for Fitzpatrick when she arrived in the US, though they initially disagreed on central issues of the politics of the 1920s (see the interview). Cohen is one of the fathers of American revisionism (arguing against “traditionalism” – a form of research they criticize for deducing history and social life from the very totalitarian nature of the Soviet State) and the study of everyday culture in the Soviet Union, where he began archival research, after Fitzpatrick, in the 1970s. In Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History Since 1917 (1985) Cohen outlines the dramatic history of Soviet studies in the US, its oscillations between an ideological commitment to “Western values” and prosocialist or pro-Soviet values, its dependency on US government funding and pre-established, non-empirically grounded constructions of the totalitarian state, as well as its efforts to ground itself in theoretical reflection on empirical material, to connect to history, to political science, cultural history, etc. Cohen concludes that “[r]evisionism […] put an end to orthodoxy in Soviet studies”.

Tear Off the Masks!

Sheila Fitzpatrick Tear Off the Masks!: Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia

Tear Off the Masks! deals with masking and unmasking, with the reinvention and reconfiguration of social, political and ethnic identities after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. It brings an important comparative perspective to bear on identity changes and identity play in the post-Soviet 1990s. The book starts by defining how the young Soviet state shaped the new system of identities, privileges and exclusion mechanisms that was to become dominant during the 1920s and ’30s, i.e. its ways of defining class and social heritage, professional identities and the old soslovie (estate) identities. As the working class constituted a minority of the population, and was the main beneficiary of social policy, the new situation initiated a complicated process of adaptation for the majority of the people to the new identities, which implied various forms of silencing one’s past and rewriting one’s personal narrative in order to fit into the new forms of social and professional life. This process of invention and recreation of identities and identifications in turn generated opposing forms of action: revealing and disclosing the “true” identities of the “impostors” – peasants as “kulaks”, Bolshevik party members as Trotskyites, engineers as saboteurs, high level managers as parasites, etc.

The book is based on archival research conducted in the ’80s and ’90s, and on more recent studies, many of which are made by Fitzpatrick’s former students, especially life stories of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s. This book also has broad literary and cultural aspects. It traces the processes of masking and unmasking in Russian history and connects them to Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival. The 5th chapter, “Impostures”, deals with the con men of the ’20s and ’30s, comparing them with literary and journalistic models (Ostap Bender and his colleagues) as well as with positions taken in early Soviet investigative journalism. In Tear Off the Masks! Fitzpatrick also, for the first time, takes an overtly theoretical standpoint in today’s historiographical discussion. Fitzpatrick argues that “this is neither an attack on the Foucauldian ‘Soviet subjectivity’ school [in the current of Oleg Kharkhordin, Jochen Hellbeck and others] nor a contribution to it, but something different […]. Their focus is in the self and subjecthood; mine on identity and identification. For me, however, differences in historical approach are what makes scholarship interesting. The new cohort’s arrival on the scene was a major part of the revitalization of Soviet history in the 1990s. If I were to isolate two aspects of this revitalization that I particularly appreciate, one would be the shift of attention toward experience, and the other the definitive end of the Cold War in Soviet history […]. It is a great step forward to have the Stalinist subject emerge as ‘an ideological agent in its own right’” (pp. 8–11). ≈

Stalin’s Peasants

Sheila Fitzpatrick: Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization

 As Fitzpatrick mentions in the interview, the archival material underpinning Stalin’s Peasants gave some answers to the questions raised by the scrutiny of the official Soviet press – especially the Krestianskaia Gazeta [Peasants’ journal] – already undertaken by researchers like Fitzpatrick in the 1980s about the different forms of agency shaping the specific forms taken by collectivization. In Stalin’s Peasants it is the whole social world of religion, struggle, forms of resistance, and careerism that is presented to the reader, a world so absurd and horrifying that it could never have been deduced from the media. Here the opening of the archives has been crucial, even to an experienced archive hunter like Fitzpatrick.

As with several other of Fitzpatrick’s works, the perspective of this book could also be traced back to her conversations in the 1960s with Igor Sats. And, paradoxically, the material in all its horrible absurdity coincides with Andrey Platonov’s prose on collectivization, and especially The Foundation Pit (written around 1930 and then reworked several times). Platonov had himself taken part in the collectivization as an engineer and a land reclamation expert. Igor Sats published stories by Platonov in the 1930s and seems to have shared Platonov’s views.

With the opening of the archives in early 1990s, the same kind of polyphony of ghostly voices flew into Fitzpatrick’s historical writing that had once populated Platonov’s prose, the same macabre ambivalence of horror, abasement, resistance, and mortification; rationality, humor, and bizarre optimism against all events. Stalin’s Peasants could – and should – also be read as a social history companion and a gloss on Platonov’s complete works. ≈


  1. The Petrov affair was one of many dramatic espionage affairs during the Cold War. Petrov, who was a colonel in the Soviet secret police, and had important networks in Australian society, and his wife, who was also an agent, were attached to the Soviet embassy in Canberra. Fearing that he would be sent back and punished after Beria’s death in 1953, Petrov, and later his wife, defected in a spectacular way with the help of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), which was, in exchange, able to get hold of an important amount of sensitive Soviet diplomatic documents. The story was reported around the world.
  2. Sheila Fitzpatrick, “A Spy in the Archives”, in London Review of Books, Vol. 32 No. 23 (December 2, 2010).
  3. Foreign student with a scholarship.
  4. Dubious.
  5. “The Peoples Commissariat for the Enlightenment” (Culture and education).
  6. One of the official Soviet news agencies.
  7. Adopted daughter.
  9. American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies; today: Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, ASEEES.
  10. Vydvizhenie, an important political concept and a controversial political issue in the 1920s and ’30s for the party and Stalin personally, for the educational system and the Soviet industry, refers to the promotion or advancement of working class people.