A Spy In The Archives: A Memoir of Cold War Russia

By Sheila Fitzpatrick

I.B. Tauris

a-spy-in-the-archivesMoscow, June 1968. A young Oxford doctoral student is outed as a spy in a Soviet newspaper. It could have been a devastating event for an ambitious young academic but, in a comic twist worthy of an Evelyn Waugh novel, the episode seems to go unnoticed by everyone except the dons of St Antony’s College, Oxford. It helps that the newspaper mistakenly believes the scholar to be a man, and that there is confusion in the official records between her maiden and married names. Still, so much for the rigour of the KGB.

The alleged spy in question was Sheila Fitzpatrick who would return to the Soviet Union many times, and forge a career as a highly regarded historian of the Soviet Union. These memoirs are a fascinating account of her earliest visits, when as a graduate student at St Antony’s she got a place on a British Council student exchange programme. Here, Fitzpatrick draws on her colourful correspondence with her mother and her own diary and while inevitably the letters home omitted much to ensure they got past the KGB censors, they remained detailed accounts of Fitzpatrick’s experiences. Looking back, she is constantly surprised by the frankness of her letters.  

Fitzpatrick arrives in Moscow in 1966 at the height of Cold War tension. It’s an era of spies and espionage with spy scandals filling the newspapers. Some, like the Cambridge group, remain familiar (Kim Philby had defected in 1963), but there were many more like Oleg Penkovsky and George Blake who have been largely forgotten. An atmosphere of suspicion surrounds everything, especially for foreign exchange students like Fitzpatrick. Men who befriend her are more than likely to have been sent by the KGB, and neighbours are required to write regular reports. Fitzpatrick recounts how a series of KGB agents befriend her, their methods often hilariously inept and unsubtle, but she is all too aware of the very real dangers of entrapment.

Despite this, Fitzpatrick is quickly bitten by the Moscow bug. This may partly be because Moscow offers an escape from her native Australia and her father’s recent death, and Oxford where she’d spent two miserable years. It’s partly because of personal friendships, including her first tour guide, whose intellect and aesthetic sensibilities captivate Fitzpatrick. But more than this, Fitzpatrick falls in love with Moscow, even though exploring it is a bewildering challenge. There are no accurate street directories available, and no telephone books. Fitting in, and trying not to look like a foreigner, means looking drab with mud-coloured clothes and sensible boots. Fitzpatrick encounters the youth counter-culture that had begun to emerge but it’s all a very long way from the Swinging Sixties of Carnaby Street. Shopping is a laborious process, involving long bus journeys, complicated queuing systems and half-empty shelves. Men drunk in stairwells are a common sight, many of them war veterans with missing limbs.

Fitzpatrick conveys a fascinating portrait of an academic and intellectual world where the ideological battles are real, current and heartfelt. In Oxford, she finds that the St Antony’s people think Soviet history can be written on the basis of diplomatic and intelligence gossip. Academia was highly politicised: her Oxford supervisor, Max Hayward, had been kicked out of Moscow and was periodically attacked in the Soviet press for his “anti-Soviet activities”, while another academic was reputed to be linked to an émigré organisation practising sabotage activities in the Soviet Union. In Moscow, Fitzpatrick gets close to the literary magazine Novy Mir, whose fortunes she sees as indicative of the struggle between reform and conservatism in Soviet politics. During her early years in Russia, as the years of Khrushchev’s Thaw are replaced by the more regressive policies of the Brezhnev years, Novy Mir duly suffers and its reform-minded stance is neutered through enforced changes to its editorial board.

Fitzpatrick was something of a pioneer in her field: there were few Soviet historians in the 1960s because the Soviet period was yet to be recognised as a legitimate subject of historical research. Indeed, she is drawn to Soviet history because at the time so little was reliably known. Her research is focused on Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment. Fitzpatrick recounts how she makes contact with Igor Sats, Lunacharsky’s brother-in-law and secretary, and Irina, Lunacharsky’s daughter, despite the hostility between them and Alexander Ovcharenko, Fitzpatrick’s academic supervisor at Moscow State University. Irina becomes a close, and protective, personal friend, while Sats becomes a surrogate father figure who falls in love with Fitzpatrick, and she writes about both with real affection.

The history that Fitzpatrick is dealing with is deeply personal. This is apparent with Igor and Irina, but it touches everything. Igor was part of a generation who had lived through the Revolution, the Civil War, Stalin’s show trials and Great Purges, World War II and de-Stalinisation under Khrushchev. Unsurprisingly, the devastating impact of these events meant they were still at the forefront of people’s minds in the 1960s. Igor had escaped the Gulag, but had been under close surveillance and many of his contemporaries had been swept away in the Great Purges. He carried physical scars too, having his teeth removed as they’d rotted in the marshes of the Smolensk Front, and he died in 1979 from a Civil War wound. Irina had grown up a child of privilege but found herself shunned when her parents’ circle of friends were declared “enemies of the people”. This isn’t a history of those events, but it is an illuminating insight into how they shaped a generation. Irina exercises tight control over her father’s legacy and reputation, Fitzpatrick deflecting the suggestion she should write a biography of Lunacharsky as she realises Irina would only support a hagiography.

A Spy In The Archives is a candid memoir that captures a moment in time in a way that is honest, thoughtful and often entertaining. It is a coming-of-age memoir, capturing the insecurities and uncertainties of a young student finding her way in an alien world. Fitzpatrick is the quiet, determined type, not one to be put off by the initial limitations of her spoken Russian, or the apparently unsurmountable obstacles thrown at her by Soviet bureaucracy. She comes across as a solitary figure, setting out to avoid not only her fellow Western exchange students but also the Russians who would seek her out. This makes her life harder, but ultimately her infiltration of Soviet life is more rewarding for her, and for us. While she may not have officially been a spy, ultimately even she questions whether her scholarly activities amount to some kind of espionage. Fortunately for us, Sheila Fitzpatrick’s vivid portrait of 1960s Moscow makes her a perfect spy on a lost world.

Sheila Fitzpatrick’s book is available to buy from Amazon: A Spy in the Archives: A Memoir of Cold War Russia


About James Taylor

James Taylor is a writer and television producer. He is the co-author of the bestselling books Spitfire Ace and Bomber Crew and has worked on historical documentaries including The Wildest Dream, Munich: Mossad’s Revenge, Secrets of Egypt and Carthage: The Roman Empire. Through his company Altogether Media (www.altogethermedia.co.uk), he brings together co-production and distribution partners for factual television and media projects.

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