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“A Spy in the Archives”, Sheila Fitzpatrick, MUP, 2013

This book is an enjoyable read on a number of levels. The author, Sheila Fitzpatrick, achieved first class honours from Melbourne University in 1963 with the thesis, “Music and the People in the USSR”. She observes that the custom in those days was for Australians graduating with first class honours and wishing to undertake postgraduate studies was to head to Oxford or Cambridge. Within that custom was the requirement to have the financial means to support those studies. Fitzpatrick secured a Commonwealth Scholarship and was offered places at Oxford and LSE. She chose the former placing herself under Cold War Sovietologist, Max Hayward, who had translated Dr Zhivago.

She was one of a handful of women in 1964 to attend St Antony’s College, an institution alleged to have close ties to the British intelligence community. She claims that she went to Oxford in 1964 ready to be disappointed and she was; Oxford was not in the business of teaching its postgraduate students rather it was a matter of hanging around and absorbing the atmosphere.

Her respect for Max Hastings gradually evaporates with the realisation that he is an ideologue on the side of Russian intellectuals and émigrés who are essentially anti-Soviet. And this is where the book is really interesting. Fitzpatrick comes from the intellectual position of wanting to find out what makes the Soviet Union tick. She is neither pro nor anti Russian, seeking to establish the essential truth or truths within what she comes to discover is an intriguingly complex and Byzantine state, beginning with her quest to access the archives of the USSR.

I must confess some personal interest, having studied the Soviet Union in my honours degree at the University of Western Australia, 1968/71, under the absurd subject heading, ‘Communism, Fascism and Democracy’ and further within units of International Relations. UWA was divided ideologically between Cold War warriors who, despite or perhaps because of the war in Vietnam, went all the way with LBJ and romantic Russian loving soft lefties, who over many drinks referred to each other as comrade. At that time I looked in vain for the insights and analysis of the Soviet Union afforded us by Fitzpatrick in this book.

Fitzpatrick notes that St Antony’s seemed to think that Soviet history could be written on the basis of diplomatic and intelligence gossip without source work and in conjunction with political bias or more sympathetically, moral judgement.

At one level Fitzpatrick allows us to see a somewhat retiring and lonely young woman coping with the somewhat arch and homosexual world of Oxford, alienated both intellectually and physically from her fellows and her quite steely ambition and toughness of mind to not only get herself behind the Iron Curtin to Moscow but into the closed world of Soviet archives in order not only to achieve a higher degree but more importantly to satisfy a strong intellectual curiosity concerning the history and essence of the state.

It is here that the book is played out at another level, that of the personal relationships she develops to satisfy her academic and intellectual needs which because of her single mindedness are one and the same. Importantly she does what many young diplomats and some foreign correspondents fail to do, she sought out, cultivated and became friends with people who were important to her getting source material for her project, which in effect was her job.

Her doctorate topic was, ‘Lunacharsky as Philosopher and Administrator of the Arts’. Anatoly Lunacharsky was Peoples Commissar (Minister) for education and the arts from 1917 to 1929 at which point he had fallen foul of Stalin. Some research was possible in the UK but the most important aspect, Lunacharsky as an administrator, was possible only from the archives in Moscow.

The trials and tribulations of obtaining a ten month British Council scholarship and a visa for the Soviet Union are many but are overcome with innovation, grit and determination. Fitzpatrick departs in mid 1966 for what turns out to be a twelve month stay.

Her research prior to departure indicated that Lunacharsky’s younger brother in law, Igor Stats was alive and living in Moscow. He was an editor of the literary journal Novy mir, much beloved by Western liberals. Stats had written about Lunacharsky in terms that appealed to her; she also ascertained that Irina Lunacharsky, Anatoly’s daughter was also living in Moscow and was the keeper of her father’s reputation and principal salesperson of his memory. She made up her mind to meet them, she did, and they changed her approach to her thesis and her life.

Fitzpatrick draws on her diary, letters to her mother and other friends to provide not only the framework for the book but also the flavour for her memories. We see Moscow of 1966 through her initially tremulous eyes and as the year progresses and after she meets and makes friends with Igor and Irina her increasingly confident eyes.

The pitfalls of entrapment and blackmail engineered against foreign students by the KGB are considered and discussed with fellow students and friends and the hazards, thrill and kindness of love in the Soviet Union is discussed and analysed. Fitzpatrick does at one stage become a person of interest to the KGB and a Russian lover, Sasha, sees a promising career vanish likely as a result of their affair.

Her feckless Soviet supervisor and Lunacharsky specialist at Moscow University, Alexander Ovcharenko, does her the great favour of changing the title of her PhD to, “Lunacharsky as People’s Commissar, 1917 – 29”, which gains her access to state archives. However party archives remain closed to her. Ovcharenko becomes peripheral to her studies as Stats gradually moves to the centre of her life and studies.

Fitzpatrick learns to read reviews in Novy mir by cracking the code of Aesopian language under the tutelage of Stats. She explains that an Aesopian point is made not directly but by analogy, as in Aesop’s fables. She says this subterfuge had a long history in Russia going back to Alexander Herzen’s “Kolokol” in the 1860s. It is a ploy used in most police states by intellectuals and writers opposed to the regime.

Fitzpatrick is obliquely outed as a ‘spy’, or as she says quasi-spy, in “Sovetskaya Rossiya”, a conservative and vitriolic mouth piece for elements within the communist party. Through her very close association with Stats she is party to the pressure applied on Novy mir and the eventual breakdown in relations between the courageous chief editor, Alexander Tvardovsky, and the dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Although it is deemed prudent for her not to meet Tvardovsky she nonetheless provides perceptive insights into this tightrope walking intellectual. Tvardovsky and Stats were friends and drinking pals; they held the intellectual position of seeking to reform the Soviet system rather than engineer its collapse that so many dissidents and émigrés worked towards. Novy mir was banned in 1970.

Fitzpatrick describes further travels to the Soviet Union in 1968 and 1969/70, the latter after her doctorate was awarded. The Russian scholar, Leonard Schapiro, of the London School of Economics was an examiner at her viva. She felt he thought she had written her doctorate from a Soviet position. Eleven years later they had a falling out over a review of a later book she had written, where Schapiro was far more direct in his accusation of pro-Soviet bias.

It seems to me to accuse Fitzpatrick of that is to miss where she is coming with respect to the Soviet Union before its collapse. The monolithic view of the government of the Soviet Union was one favoured by the CIA, Maggie Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and John Howard.

This book provides an insight into Aesopian nuances, checks and balances, provided through inefficiencies and arbitrariness, and the wasteful diffusion and dissipation of power in the Soviet Union, saved only by the KGB and the threat of the Gulag. The book undulates seamlessly through the various layers Fitzpatrick has laid down to illustrate her emotional and intellectual journey into the many personal and historical archives she researches and explores.