A Spy in the Archive by Sheila Fitzpatrick

I’m not entirely sure what’s driving my reading at the moment; obviously the amount of comfort reading of classic crime is because of world circumstances; but I’ve also felt drawn towards non-fiction, maybe as a way of travel (which is not an option right now). Certainly, my love of Russia and its history hasn’t diminished at all, and so Sheila Fitzpatrick’s wonderful memoir of her time in Soviet Moscow in the 1960s turned out to be ideal for my mood.

I’ve been aware of Fitzpatrick’s work as a pioneering Sovietologist for some time; and she regularly appears as a contributor in the pages of the London Review of Books. Born in Australia, she came to study at Oxford in the 1960s as an exchange student; the college she was attached to, St Antony’s, was reputed to be a breeding grounds for anti-Soviet spies and she mixed with an array of well-known names. Her strong desire was to get to Russia and study its archives, a visit which was facilitated by the British Council; and the book relates her experiences in Moscow as well as the close friendships she made and the complexities of functioning under Soviet bureaucracy. It all makes for a scintillating read!

Fitzpatrick herself is a fascinating woman, coming from a left-wing family; her father Brian was a noted author, historian and journalist, as well as one of founders of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties. From what Sheila says in her book, they had a stormy relationship, one which she eventually covered in her book “My Father’s Daughter: Memories of an Australian Childhood”. “Spy…” draws on Fitzpatrick’s memories of the time, the diaries she kept and the letters she wrote to her mother (her father had passed away in 1965).

Red Square in the 1960s – SAS Scandinavian Airlines / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

At the time, the study of Soviet history was not taken seriously and Sheila set out to change this. The Cold War was still in full swing, and even getting into the Soviet Union was complex enough. Add into that the constant fear of spies, threats of expulsion from East and West, plus the fact that any visitor to Moscow was going to be observed closely and possibly the subject of some kind of entrapment, and you end up with a situation guaranteed to make anyone feel anxious, especially a shy girl from Australia (which is how she describes herself). At one point, she was even ‘outed; in a Russian press article as a spy (which she wasn’t), but because of the confusion with names (she was using a married name as well as her maiden name) the effects were fortunately minimal.

Fitzpatrick’s focus at the time was on studying Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky, an early Bolshevik who was (according to Wikipedia) “a Russian Marxist revolutionary and the first Bolshevik Soviet People’s Commissar (Narkompros) responsible for Ministry and Education as well as active playwright, critic, essayist and journalist throughout his career.” We have, of course, recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution; but when Fitzpatrick visited Moscow in the 1960s the Revolution was still within living memory, and she was able to gain access to members of Lunacharsky’s family. His home life had been a complex one, with a second marriage and in effect two families. However, Fitzpatrick made contact with his brother-in-law Igor Sats, and his daughter Irina, and they became fast friends; in fact, it seems, just as close as actual family members.

“Spy” is an engaging mix, therefore, of memoir, thoughts on her discipline, pen portaits of the people she encounters, musing on the politics of the era and a wonderful glimpse into what it was like in that place at that time; and I must admit I would love to have a TARDIS to go back and experience what Sheila did, despite the difficulties. In some ways, she recognises, she was very naive, and narrowly escaped entrapment a couple of times. But the relationships she built up with Igor and Irina were powerful ones, particularly with the former. At times, it almost verges on an unconsummated love affair, but Fitzpatrick acknowledges her need for a father figure in her life, especially after the complex relationship with her real father. She’s not afraid to look back at her younger self with a wry yet affectionate eye, recognising how hard it must have been for her mother to receive the letters Sheila sent home, and their relatationship was obviously also not easy…

I absolutely loved reading this book, as you might have guessed; I became thoroughly absorbed in it, transported back to the Oxford and Moscow of the time and it was a real window into the past. The sexual politics of era were quite an eye-opener too, both at home and abroad; and despite the burgeoning women’s movement there were still assumptions about how women should behave, particularly in a partnership. I admired how Fitzpatrick made her own way, and I’m keen to read the book she wrote about her later husband, Mischka Danos.

Sheila Fitzpatrick in 2016 – from Wikipedia Commons – Department of Communications and the Arts Australia / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

As well as being a fascinating and extremely engaging read, there was much in the book which resonated in me on a personal level. I’m of a different generation to Fitzpatrick, so came to the idea and history of the Soviet Union a decade later and much younger. However, a good part of the book is concerned with matters which came into my line of sight at the time (and since). Fitzpatrick’s supervisor at Oxford was Max Hayward, who I know as a translator, in particular being co-responsible for the first English version of “Dr. Zhivago” (and there’s a whole other story there about the CIA’s involvement in getting that book out of Soviet Russia to the west). He was a prolific translator, dying quite young, and it was intriguing to see him from Sheila’s point of view. She’s very honest looking back, finding her behaviour towards him perhaps not as she would now wish it to be and commenting:

I’m depressed in retrospect by the callousness of my report. All I can say in extenuation is that when you’re young, you don’t always believe that your seniors are human.

Of particular interest, however, was the fact that Igor Sats was heavily involved with the Russian literary journal Novy Mir (New World). First published in 1925, it was originally a publication which very much toed the Communist Party line. However, by the 1960s, under its editor Alexander Tvardovsky, it was leaning towards dissident territory and was responsible for a number of firsts, including its groundbreaking publication of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (probably the first Russian book I read). Solzhenitsyn is an author dear to my heart – I followed his progress avidly during the 1970s, including his expulsion from the Soviet Union and his appearances on the BBC – and he makes regular appearances in “Spy” (as does another favourite Russian author, Andrey Platonov). Reading about the struggles the journal had, and the complexities of negotiating Soviet censorship to be able to publish what you want was absorbing, and transported me right back to my teens. Looking at the list of contributors in the battered old collection of Novy Mir pieces reminded me what an esteemed journal it really was, and was quite moving.

There were other resonances. Fitzpatrick relates encounters with Ivy Litvinov, an Englishwoman married to the Soviet diplomat Maxim Litvinov , whose books I’ve read and who I wrote about here. And she discusses the tendency I’ve noticed in Soviet writing, particularly in my exploration of Science Fiction works from that era, of hiding the real meaning of the story in a subtext – what she calls Aesopian writing.

So “A Spy in the Archives” turned out to be just the thing I needed to read right now. Sheila Fitzpatrick roams far and wide over all manner of complex issues, but the book is never dull and her memories are entertaining and fascinating. She provides a wonderful insight into the difficulties of research, particularly when access to material is tightly controlled, and her viewpoint that the past can be studied as social history, rather than just political state history, is one with which I really agree. I expected to like this book, but I hadn’t anticipated it would be such a wonderful read which ended up touching me personally. Highly recommended if you’re interested in history, the Soviet Union or simply an account of a memorable period in one woman’s life!