Date: July 21 2012
Tears tend not to be thought of as a very effective wartime weapon but the story of Sheila Fitzpatrick and the Soviet archives boss in the very frosty 1960s shows how wrong that can be.
During the Cold War the Soviet Union was a closed country. The few Westerners allowed to visit came through highly prescribed routes and, once arrived, kept under very tight supervision. With tens of thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at each other, the military and intelligence apparatuses of both the Soviets and Western governments put a high premium on acquiring information from the other. Given the essentially sealed nature of the Soviet Union, information from behind the Iron Curtain was especially prized being that much harder to get.
Enter the innocent young Australian history graduate recently arrived in England to undertake doctoral studies at St Anthony's College, Oxford. Sheila Fitzpatrick was short, shy but even in her undergraduate days at the University of Melbourne in the late 1950s, not without presence. In her just published memoir My Father's Daughter, Fitzpatrick recalls ''sitting in my corner like Antigone'' at a student thespian party where fellow undergraduate Germaine Greer, ''about two foot taller [and] telling implausible but spellbinding stories of her sex life'' suddenly noticed her watching intently. Writes Fitzpatrick: ''[S]he stopped in mid flight, towering over me, and demanded of the room in general: 'Who is this f---ing child sitting and f---ing staring at us and not saying a f---ing word?' ''
Fitzpatrick wrote her long honours essay on Soviet music. Posed Fitzpatrick: The Soviet Union said it wanted to make the arts accessible to the people, but has it? ''I found the process of researching that and thinking about it absolutely fascinating so I was totally hooked on that,'' Fitzpatrick recounted in an interview with University of Leeds historian James Harris last year. ''To me, doing history and reading history are incredibly different activities, and it was the doing I really liked.''
Hooked and holding a first class honours degree in her hand, Fitzpatrick arrived in Oxford in 1964 expecting extraordinary things. Instead she found that the rigorous primary source and objectivity-focused training as an historian she'd got at Melbourne University was right up there as far as standards were concerned. Oxford didn't seem to have any Soviet experts to guide her: she was assigned an English Literature academic to supervise her doctorate. Since a history of the Soviet Union hadn't yet been written, she thought she might as well start writing it.
''What I did at Oxford, since you didn't actually get taught anything,'' she recounted later, ''[was] read the work on Sovietology, mainly American. And I thought it was pretty awful, all politicised - they're not really trying to use a range of sources. Okay it's hard to get sources,'' she thought, ''but you don't have to only use Pravda and Stalin's collected works - there is some other stuff out there. That's what kept me in the field, keenly interested, but already with a slightly challenging attitude to the existing scholarship.''
The innocent abroad then set about organising her passage to the Soviet Union with the intention, as any good Melbourne-trained historian would, of accessing archives. It was the mid-1960s and any agent of any Western intelligence agency in the world would have killed (in some cases literally) to be able to pull that off.
''I didn't realise that in the Soviet period you didn't get access to archives, because Oxford didn't have historians who'd tried to do this, so I just didn't know it. And I was very convinced of the rightness of my cause. I went around explaining to archives directors, I really need access.'' One after the other they said no. The no's began to weigh heavily. Finally, the last straw, in front of one Soviet archives boss too many.
''He said no,'' Fitzpatrick said. ''I was so frustrated I started to cry. I was very embarrassed by it. He then pats me on the shoulder more or less, in the way Soviets sometimes do, and decided: The young girl, doesn't matter, doesn't matter what she writes. He picks up the telephone and says: 'You can get some archives'.''
Fitzpatrick, these days Bernadotte E. Schmitt, Distinguished Service Professor Emerita at the University of Chicago, in historian James Harris's estimation for one, has done more to shape the field of modern Russian history than any other contemporary historian. My Father's Daughter, Fitzpatrick's memoir of growing up the daughter of left legend Brian Fitzpatrick and beleaguered mother and historian Dorothy Fitzpatrick, has just won the Australian Historical Association's Magarey Medal. She's kicked a goal.
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