Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Exciting Moments of Discovery in Researching Soviet Archives
Honorary Professor at the University of Chicago and Sydney University, historian Sheila Fitzpatrick gave a lecture on Stalin and Post-War Anti-Semitism in the USSR at the HSE’s International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences on Thursday 22nd October. In her talk, Professor Fitzpatrick looks at anti-semitism as a bone of contention between Stalin and his closest colleagues in the years when challenging the leader could have life-threatening consequence. As she explained in an interview with the HSE English News website, Sheila Fitzpatrick’s interest in the ‘Jewish question’ came out of her latest book.
I've just published a new book, On Stalin's Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics, which looks at the team around Stalin — Molotov, Voroshilov and the rest, more or less the same membership as the Politburo, who made up Stalin's social as well as political circle - from the late '20s. I thought it would end with Stalin's death, but it turned out that the team's rebirth without Stalin as a reforming "collective leadership" 1954-57 was too interesting to leave out. My talk on Thursday came partly from On Stalin's Team — I got interested in the "Jewish question" in the late 1940s and 1950s, and mean to do more research on it.
When did the history of modern Russia become a focus for your work?
It always was, or rather the history of the Soviet Union. It was 20th-century communism I was initially interested in rather than Russia. I have never done serious pre-1917 research on Russia.
Currently one line of my research is actually transnational - the fate of displaced persons from the Soviet Union after the Second World War, and Soviet attempts to repatriate them.
What's the most sudden and exciting finding in your 'journey' through Soviet social and cultural history for so many years?
In the past year, the most exciting archival discoveries were interrogations of people arrested in the Zhemchuzhina case (Molotov's wife) in 1949, and reports from a Soviet intelligence man in Australia trying, with very little success, to persuade resettled Displaced Persons to repatriate in the early 1950s. Of course when classified central state and party archives opened at the beginning of the 1990s, along with provincial archives that had not been accessible to foreigners, that was a great time for all of us. Most interesting for me was to find all the "voices from below" in the form of letters and appeals to the authorities from ordinary people.
How did your cooperation with the HSE start? This isn’t your first visit, is it?
I first came to HSE on an invitation of one of my Chicago graduate students, Kristy Ironside, last year. That's when I saw for myself what an exciting place it was and met people like Prof. Oleg Budnitsky, who invited me to give a talk a few weeks later on my 1960s Moscow memoir, A Spy in the Archives.
You visited Russia for the first time as an exchange student from an Oxford college in 1960-s in the height of the Cold War. Your book based on your letters and memories from that period is quite a read and provides a lot to think about. What's your feeling about the situation today? Is the Cold War in any manifestation possible in our time? What could be the best message to politicians and young people to avoid it?
I don't get into contemporary politics — maybe that is the result of caution from my Cold War apprenticeship.
Do you read Russian modern literature?
Not much. I just read all the Russian newspapers while I'm here, and it sometimes feels as if I am the only person who still reads them. The place I stay doesn't have a working TV.
Moscow has changed drastically since your first visit. Do you have favorite places here? Are you going to visit some special places this time?
This visit is too short for me to do much besides work in the archives. But I always make a point of going to some concerts, usually at the Conservatoire. This year it's Bach's St John's Passion and Monteverdi, along with a concert of violinists. I am a serious amateur violin player myself, mainly string quartets. For some reason Moscow is the only major city I go to regularly where I don’t have a group to play with when I visit, so if anyone can introduce me to other serious quartet players (professional or good amateur) for my next visit (whole repertoire from Haydn to Bartok and Shostakovich), I would be grateful.
Last time I played in Moscow was a masterclass at the Conservatorium in about 1966 (Bach double violin concerto, and the professor asked, ‘who is the "little Uzbechka"?’).
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service
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The International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and its Consequences at HSE University held a Graduate Student Seminar in Soviet History together with Sciences Po (France) on June 17 – 18, 2019. HSE News Service spoke with participants and instructors of the seminar, which examinedthe impact of WWII on the Soviet Union and surrounding regions, as well as aspects of the Soviet system from Stalin up to the 1980s.
On June 24-25, HSE University held the international academic conference, ‘The 1990s: A Social History of Russia’ organized by International Center for the History and Sociology of World World War II and its Consequences, the Boris Yeltsin Center, the Egor Gaider Foundation, and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. HSE News Service spoke with Roberto Rabbia, one of the international participants, about how he became interested in Soviet history, why he reads Soviet newspapers, and what he has learned from his research.