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A Spy in the Archives: A Memoir of Cold War Russia [Hardcover]

Sheila Fitzpatrick
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

30 Oct 2013
Shortlisted for the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize 2014

In 1968 historian Sheila Fitzpatrick was 'outed' by the Soviet newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya as the next thing to a spy for Western intelligence. A graduate student at Oxford, Fitzpatrick had spent time in Moscow to access several of its archives for her doctoral research on A V Lunacharsky, the first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Moscow, the world capital of socialism, was renowned for its drabness. The buses were overcrowded; there were endemic shortages and endless queues. This was the era of Brezhnev, of a possible 'thaw' in the Cold War, when the Soviets couldn't decide either to thaw out properly or re-freeze. Yet, despite KGB attention, and the impossibility of inding a suitable winer coat, Sheila felt more at home in Moscow than anywhere else- a feeling cemented by her friendships with Luacharsky's brother-in-law, Igor and daughter, Irina. Punctuated by letter to her mother in Autsralia and her diary entries from the time, and borne along by Fitzpatrick's wry insightful narrative, A Spy in the Archives captures the life and time of Cold War Russia provides a unique insight into everyday life in the Soviet Union.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: I.B.Tauris (30 Oct 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1780767803
  • ISBN-13: 978-1780767802
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 14 x 4.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 75,864 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description


'absorbing... an exceptionally lucid and purposive account... this is a book about self-discovery, and about the shy, self-doubting but unusually astute and determined young woman who embarked on it... a remarkable record not only of personal history, but of Soviet and indeed British history as well.'

'A Spy in the Archives is the insanely readable crowning achievement of a distinguished career, a book every historian should dream of writing. Through the autobiographic report of her visit to the Soviet Union, she tells a story of bureaucratic hassles but also of deep and lasting personal friendships.'
Slavoj Zizek

'The vanished world of Brezhnev's Russia brought to life with unususal erve, a disarming candour and a shrewd eye for telling detail.'
Robert Dessaix

'Invaluable' --(Literary Review)


'a vivid account'
--(Times Higher Education)

'Fascinating' --(Telegraph)

'a vivid account' --(Times Higher Education)

About the Author

Sheila Fitzpatrick is Emerita Professor of History at the University of Chicago and Honorary Professor of History at the University of Sydney. One of the most acclaimed historians of twentieth-century Russia, she is the author of several books, including The Russian Revolution; Stalin s Peasants, Everyday Stalinism,Tear off the Masks!, and My Father's Daughter: Memories of an Australian Childhood.

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5.0 out of 5 stars HIGHLY RECOMMENDED - MUST READ 20 Mar 2014
A bit of a spooky spy thriller centered around the Stalin era, an innocent abroad. A historian interested in the soviet politics and working of the Russian empire. The perfect person to become a spy whilst living in England, and attending college there. This novel captures the life and times of Russia in the cold war, soviet espionage at its best.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sheila Fitzpatrick A Spy in the Archives (London England, 2013). 345 pages. 12 Mar 2014
By Beau Samples - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Sheila Fitzpatrick’s memoir A Spy in the Archives is an account of her Soviet studies career and highlights her trips the Soviet Union; beginning in 19660s and ending with thru the collapse of the Soviet Union. The bulk of the memoir, however, concerns her first two research trips taken in X and Y. A look into her thoughts on daily life, as seen through her letters to her mother, as well as accounts told from her memory and notes she took during the time, provide an accurate sense of her daily life and thoughts during the 1960s and beyond as she established herself as a leading Soviet expert. Fitzpatrick argues that her gender as well as shaky translation from English to Russian allowed her work to continue in the Soviet Union for as long as it went. Her firsthand account of researching the Soviet Union through archives and libraries during the time of the Soviet Union provide a primary account given by a “Westerner” that is nearly unheard of in the field of Soviet-Russian studies.
The beginning of A Spy in the Archives conveys the manner to which Fitzpatrick went about getting into the Soviet Union and subsequently being able to return and continue research. Fitzpatrick married multiple times throughout her career, which helped her fly under the KGB radar multiple times. Her multiple identities and nationalities make her a unique researcher during a time when everyone was under strict observation. An Australian by birth, Fitzpatrick married a British citizen to get a British passport to then take part in a British Exchange to the Soviet Union. Fitzpatrick’s first trip to the Soviet Union occurred in 1966 when she traveled by train for three weeks throughout present day Russia. While Fitzpatrick did not do archival research during this time, this trip set up her subsequent trips to the Soviet Union and was the springboard to her next fifty years of work and research. The evidence used for her memoir came from first- hand experience, but also through a reexamination of her letters and diaries from that time. This adds to the credibility arguments presented throughout her career and this memoir.
A strong attribute of Fitzpatrick’s memoir is her employment of storytelling not only by documenting her bureaucratic hassles during her research in the Soviet Union, but also of the personal relationships she forged during her time in the USSR. A crucial part of her Soviet experience came from her decades- long friendships with Igor Alexandrovich Sats and Irina Anotolevna Lunacharskaya, Both were Soviet citizens who reciprocated Fitzpatrick’s dislike for Victor Ovcharenko’s care of Lunacharsky’s wWorks, which was the basis for their long lasting friendships. Specifically, Fitzpatrick became close to Irina because: “Irina was a fluent, persuasive conversationalist and a virtuoso of the telephone, with a well-honed instinct for the limits of the possible in any given situation” (129). Irina overwhelmed Fitzpatrick, something from which Fitzpatrick learned and thrived. Igor “adopted” Fitzpatrick and was one of her greatest allies and critics; orally reviewing her works to her in front of other Soviet scholars. He saw her as a waif that needed to be adopted (145). He had an aversion to privilege that drove those around him mad, but also garnered him tremendous respect.
The greatest strength of this memoir is its delicate balance between discussing the professional work of Fitzpatrick with her personal life. Many historians divide their personal life from the research they publish because of their distinct differences. Fitzpatrick’s experiences in the Soviet Union directly influenced the work that she completed and the manner in which she did her research. This memoir gives the story behind the story. The title of the memoir, A Spy in the Archives is a reference to Fitzpatrick’s decades long self-questioning of whether in fact she was a spy working in the archives of the Soviet Union. The concluding paragraph of the book states that Fitzpatrick still struggles with the notion of whether or not she was indeed a spy. “Perhaps I was, perhaps I wasn’t, but I hoped grace would abound and I would escape being cast into the pit” (345).
Fitzpatrick’s memoir leaves one yearning to learn more about other Sovietologists’ experiences during the same period. A supplemental memoir of her work since the collapse of the Soviet Union would be the crown jewel in her storied career. One lingering question that I am left with is how her work changed once the Soviet collapsed and also what fields of Post-Soviet studies can still be explored that have not been extensively researched already. The importance of this book will only grow as time passes and Sovietologists who lived and worked during the seventy-four years of the Soviet Union begin to retire and pass on their accounts as spies.

Beau Samples
Miami University | Oxford, OH
4.0 out of 5 stars A Spy in the Archives Review 8 Mar 2014
By Tom Wood - Published on Amazon.com
Sheila Fitzpatrick’s, A Spy in the Archives, gives a unique insight into the Soviet Union following the thaw of the mid 1960s. She gives an enthralling account of what it was like to be a western historian researching in the previously restricted archives of the Soviet Union. Her memoirs detail the nature of the Soviet Union in 1966-1967 and her research of the first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky. Her keen eye for detail allows her to depict the otherworldly nature of the Soviet State and allows the reader an in-depth look and the USSR in the late 1960s.
As a westerner and a historian she describes the daily life of the Soviet citizens and how they feel about their government. Fitzpatrick has a keen eye for detail, she discusses how the average Soviets citizen lives and the difficulty they have obtaining clothing and other goods. One of the problems she encounters is trying to locate a suitable winter coat for the brutal winters. This problem emphasizes some of the routine difficulties that Russian citizens encountered in their daily lives. Through her eyes we see the true nature of the Soviet systems, the endless bureaucracy. She talks about how getting anything done in the Soviet system was nightmare of red tape. “Getting permission to do anything was a big problem in the Soviet Union, involving endless visits to bureaucrats who demanded ever more documents and didn’t care how much time you had to waste.” Getting permission to do research in the archives required the approval of various government officials who were in no real hurry to listen to her requests.
The memoir dashes many of the beliefs that Westerners had about the Soviet Citizens. There seemed to be a western sentiment that most people in the soviet sphere of influence were longing for the freedom the west had. Fitzpatrick addresses this in her memoir. She describes how many, including Lunarcharsky’s brother-in-law and former secretary, Igor Sats, still believed in the Soviet ideals despite some of the problems of the government. Igor was a wealth of information for Fitzpatrick because he worked directly under Lunarcharsky in the 1920s and up until Lunarcharsky’s death in 1933. He had met some the most notable members of the communist party at the time and had lived through Stalin’s purges, when a many of his compatriots did not.
Her memoir gives an extraordinary perspective about a relatively unknown time in Soviet culture. At the time that she is in the USSR, most “experts” only speculated on what Soviet culture and government was like. “Western Sovietologists believed that the soviet system of government was monolithic… one of the first things struck me was that things were not monolithic at all.” Sovietologists made guesses about the Soviet system, and did so from afar with little evidence as there was little evidence available. She provides the “boots on the ground” point of view that enables us to understand the secretive Soviet machine that we knew so little about.
One of the positive aspects of the memoir is that everything she writes is an accurate description of what was happening and what she was thinking at the time. She continuously refers to the diary that she kept while in the USSR. She also uses the correspondence between her and her mother to further understand her thoughts at the time. This is a good thing, as she is referencing from her notes at the time and not trying to recall her state of mind decades after the fact. One of the weaker points is that memoir is that it is only her opinions and experiences it lacks an official perspective. They are merely her interpretation of her brief experience in the USSR, which makes her memoir somewhat subjective.
Fitzpatrick also deals with her own personal crises. She is labeled a spy by a newpaper, further complicating her situation in the Soviet Union. She ponders if she is actually a spy. She is, after all, interested, in exposing things about the Soviet government that they do not want out in the open. She treats the people she meets with suspicion as it is guaranteed that the KGB is watching her movements and trying to deduce whether or not she is a spy. She derives a certain thrill from the idea that she is being watched. She knew that she was being watched, but she was unaware to what degree she was being monitored.
Fitzpatrick’s memoir is incredibly important in the present day. With the collapse of the Soviet Union we have the influx of all the official records that Fitzpatrick and historians like here worked so hard find. However, because the Soviet Union is no more, there are few westerners that have actually experienced Russia under the communists. Fitzpatrick’s memoir is unique in this way. She is one of the few westerners who had access to archives before the collapse of the Soviet Union. She is one of even fewer that kept a diary of her experience that could be turned into book and provide us with insights in into the USSR in the late 1960s.
4.0 out of 5 stars "A Spy in the Archives" Book Review 3 Mar 2014
By Austin Davis - Published on Amazon.com
Shelia Fitzpatrick’s memoir A Spy in the Archives details her life as a young doctoral student from Australia moving to St. Anthony’s College in Oxford, England in the 1960s. The core of her memoir surrounds her trials and tribulations to writing her dissertation on Anatoly Lunacharsky as she was able to research in the archives of Moscow beginning in 1966. In addition to illuminating the struggles that academics faced trying to conduct archival research in seemingly all areas of Soviet Study, Fitzpatrick provided a detailed descriptions to her experiences as a young, foreign woman living in the Soviet Union.

Though her research topic of Anatoly Lunacharsky, a revolutionary politician, might not have been the most well-known figure of Soviet history to study, Fitzpatrick’s descriptions of life during the Brezhnev Era make A Spy in the Archives a gem. Fitzpatrick was one of the pioneering Sovietologists, and her memoir discusses in great detail her appreciation and excitement of successfully being allowed to enter and conduct research in the archives of Moscow. However, as much as her memoir is about her own, personal experiences as a young academic, perhaps the most illuminating aspect of A Spy in the Archives is the zeal to which Fitzpatrick describes daily life in the Brezhnev Era. She meticulously reexamined letters she sent to her mother and her diary. Through this process of reexamination, the reader can hear not only Fitzpatrick’s voice when she was a young researcher, but her more experienced and less nave voice as a memoirist, revisiting her experiences with a critical eye that comes from age. The frankness with which Fitzpatrick criticizes her own voice is refreshing.

Fitzpatrick additionally describes in great detail the friendships she made while studying in Moscow, most notably Irina, the daughter of her research subject Anatoly Lunacharsky, and Igor, Lunacharsky’s brother in law. Her friendship with Igor presented her with a knowledgeable man who had lived through both revolutions of 1917 and World War II. He showed Fitzpatrick that the Soviet experience was not understood in the Soviet Union the same way it was understood in the West. Politically and personally, Igor revealed to Fitzpatrick the multiple layers of society that are often counted out when countries are discussed in a political sense as Fitzpatrick showed when describing Igor by writing, “He [Igor] and Novy Mir believed that truth was discoverable, non-relative, and communicable as long as its communication was not blocked” (246).

In her portrayal of life in the Soviet Union, Fitzpatrick does not hold back on discussing the good, the bad, and the ugly of daily life. Her remarkably comically portrayal of the difficulties she had in trying to use the swimming pool at her university (from the mean older women yelling at her for not properly showering or wearing shoes, to the maze of stairs and hallways in an incredible convoluted manner) show how challenging daily life could be for people living in the Soviet Union. Fitzpatrick’s detailed narrative of everything from riding a bus to trying to obtain research permits, sheds light on the daily trials that everyone in the Soviet Union was forced to live with.

Throughout her memoir, Fitzpatrick battles with the question of whether or not she considered herself a spy and who exactly the KGB thought she was. Through her inner reflections upon this question, she wrestles with the idea of being a spy in a way of life that she mastered after her years of living in Moscow. She toyed with the question of being a spy until the final page of the book saying, “But how should I know, if even the Holy Ghost, known in the Soviet Union as the KGB, couldn’t make up its mind?” (345).
Overall, Shelia Fitzpatrick’s memoir A Spy in the Archives provides a fascinating look at both the study of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and also daily life under the Brezhnev Era. At times she is more concerned with describing the technical aspects of dissertation research in archives which makes the book drag, but it does not diminish the readability of the memoir. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about either the Brezhnev period, daily life in Moscow, or the process that encompasses researching for a dissertation. Her memoir is a solid testament to her prodigious career as a Soviet Historian.
4.0 out of 5 stars Sheila Fitzpatrick's "A Spy in the Archives" 3 Mar 2014
By Kimberly Foster - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Sheila Fitzpatrick’s memoir "A Spy in the Archives" is a compelling look at the mindset of those western students who had the opportunity, and the guts, to research in Soviet archives during the Cold War. Born and Australian citizen to decidedly communist parents, Fitzpatrick’s quest to be admitted to a study program in Moscow in 1966, and then to be admitted to the archives for research, is a backdrop to the deeper questions of what it meant to be a historian presumed both to be a spy and to be spied upon. Over and again, Fitzpatrick, labeled a spy by a Soviet newspaper, had to confront the question of her motives for studying in the Soviet Union. Originally traveling to Moscow out of academic interest, the occasionally paranoid atmosphere that resulted in anything from self-censorship (of letters, speech, and diary entries), to outright accusations of espionage (in favor of both the West and Moscow) led to the author questioning her own motivations. In the end, she attempts to keep herself as far from any accusation of espionage as possible, although in the climate of the 1960s Soviet Union, this was almost impossible.

Yet, Fitzpatrick persists in bringing us at least one version of the truth, one based on hard evidence, which was woefully difficult for anyone writing on the Soviet Union to acquire. Sovietologists and Kremlinologists often had to make do with incomplete information, and Fitzpatrick was determined to back up her thesis on the early Soviet commissar, Anatoly Lunacharsky, with hard evidence. However, she does not rely only on the archives. During her stay in Moscow, Fitzpatrick meets Irina Anatolevna and Igor Alexandrovich Sats, both of whom were connected with her work on Lunacharsky. Through Irina and Igor, Fitzpatrick shows not only the scholarly life in the Soviet Union, but can connect the reader to how life was for (not necessarily the average) Soviet citizen. Through Irina, and especially Igor, Fitzpatrick is able to pull back the screen a little bit to show the behind-the-scenes politicking that dictated the lives of Soviet citizens that engaged in any kind of scholarship.

Given the amount of time that has passed between the events of the memoir and when the author has written it, Fitzpatrick has written her memoir in an almost uniquely historian fashion, using old letters and diary entries to try to figure out her own mindset while a PhD student in Moscow. Fitzpatrick interrogates her own motivations as a “historian-spy,” (197) as she puts it, and attempts to run down the origins of her thought processes. However, as with all historical sources, no matter how complete, there are holes in her attempts to reconcile past, present, and primary source. Several times, Fitzpatrick must come to the conclusion that she does not know what her reasoning for certain actions were, or that in retrospect, she was less clever than she thought she was. Looking back with the added experience of decades, Fitzpatrick is able to place her own actions and experiences in the wider framework of the turmoil that occurred at the time and see how political happenings in the Soviet Union affected scholarly life. As a memoir of Cold War scholarship, Fitzpatrick conveys the difficulty of working caught between the First World and the Second World, and trying to delicately negotiate between these two powers, both of which want the privilege of any information she might bring back. Fitzpatrick’s constant attempts to keep from inadvertently becoming an “ideological saboteur” (1) comes through as the honest attempt of a student who may be slightly over her head to keep her work, and experiences, as free of the taint of Cold War espionage as possible.

Fitzpatrick’s memoir of life as a researcher in the Soviet Union, and her attempts to remain true to herself and keep her work as free of political taint as possible is still a struggle that historians undergo today. The urge to identify too closely to the people and times you are studying, or of not detaching yourself enough from your own culture, can both have an effect on the validity and equitability of a work. While it is impossible to go into a study blind to what has come before, and is even dangerous to do so, acknowledging prejudice from the outset, as Fitzpatrick does, is paramount in maintaining historical integrity. Fitzpatrick eventually acknowledges her own “spy-like characteristics” (342) and how that muddies the water of her own allegiance, which she says was “neither to the Soviet Union nor Great Britain” (342). Her memoir of research under the aegis of the Cold War can be adapted to the present times, when our enemies are not so obvious and easy to find.
4.0 out of 5 stars The Soviet Subject and Soviet History 21 Feb 2014
By Caroline Johnson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In her latest autobiographic work, A Spy in the Archives, Sheila Fitzpatrick presents a vivid picture of life in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Fitzpatrick presents herself as a young doctoral student from Australia studying at St. Anthony’s College in Oxford in the late 1960s. She perseveres through personal obstacles and red tape to perform dissertation research on Anatoy Lunacharsky in Moscow, USSR. Once in Moscow, Fitzpatrick provides a personal account of the difficulties, not only as a scholar performing research in the Soviet Union, but also as a young woman attempting to understand Soviet life. Throughout the work she references a fixation on spies within the Soviet Union, as she herself had several close encounters with the Russian Committee for State Security, known as the KGB. She informs the reader within the first few pages that she was deemed, unknowingly, as a spy in a Soviet newspaper. Fitzpatrick questions her motives as a Soviet historian and wrestles with the memories of her own past in order to understand the Cold War atmosphere from within the Soviet Union.
Fitzpatrick’s arguments are subtly and cleverly intertwined throughout each page, and the memoir supports the revisionist goals of Fitzpatrick’s original work. Her attention to detail and mastery of connecting personal events to a larger picture highlights how, in her experience, Soviet history is best explained from an internal perspective. Fitzpatrick meets Igor Sats, Lunacharsky’s brother-in-law and the only person present at the time of his death. Through her interactions with close friends such as Igor, she reveals an emic understanding of Soviet history as compared to that of the west. She remarks, “Soviet history as Igor understood it was a kind of black comedy. That’s not wholly unlike seeing it as a tragedy, which is a standard western view, but there are significant differences” (159). As she travels outside of Moscow and major cities, Fitzpatrick reveals that the larger urban areas are not representative of all Soviet life. During her end-of-year trip, she recalls, “the further we got from Moscow, the warmer it got and the brighter and livelier it became” (256). All of these experiences create a portrait of life within the Soviet Union that could not have been properly understood from an outside perspective.
To portray these larger themes to the reader, Fitzpatrick uses notes from her diaries and letters to/from her mother and those closest with her. As a scholar, she describes the experience of working in Soviet archives, and even wrestles with a controversial publication in the Soviet Union known as Novy Mir. Novy Mir represents the truth of the USSR to her good friend Igor, and Fitzpatrick relates how “He [Igor] and Novy Mir believed that truth was discoverable, non-relative, and communicable as long as its communication was not blocked” (246). Through Fitzpatrick’s detailed descriptions of the people she meets, the places she lives and travels, and her academic experience, she supports her view of social history by immersing the reader into the heart of life in the USSR through her eyes.
Fitzpatrick’s account of the Soviet Union, being intensely personal, provides the reader with an abundance of details. Though her introspection is helpful in order to relate to her experiences, at times the amount of characters introduced or mundane details can overwhelm the reader. Additionally, the book reflects the nature of a memory, at times jumping from scene to scene or chronologically challenging the reader to recognize anachronisms as simple personal reflection. This could quite possibly be intentional, as A Spy in the Archives is a memoir in nature while also arguing her personal interpretation of Soviet history. It would certainly be of the reader’s advantage to have a basic background in Soviet history, but regardless of the level of knowledge one enters with, the memoir is both enjoyable and challenging to the reader.
As one of the leading scholars on Soviet history, Fitzpatrick offers a look at what it was really like to study and live in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Her work shows that it is possible to use personal reflection and relationships to understand Soviet life while also remaining objective as a historian. Though the Cold War is long over, A Spy in the Archives forces a reflection of the Soviet era and the best way to represent it. Sheila Fitzpatrick reminds us that there is something inherently revealing about using the Soviet subject to better understand the Soviet way of life.
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