The undercover effort to tell Lunacharsky's story

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Spy in the Archives
By Sheila Fitzpatrick
Melbourne University Press, 2013
346 pages, $32.99 (pb)

When Sydney University Professor Sheila Fitzpatrick was doing some crafty archival sleuthing as a British PhD student in the late 1960s in Moscow, it was not unexpected that any state guardians might suspect a female spy at work.

Fitzpatrick could see some justification. “Any suspicious archives director who thought I was trying to find out the secrets of Narkompros was dead right”, she notes in Spy in the Archives.

The book is her memoir of her research on the ministry (the Commissariat of Enlightenment ― Narkompros) headed by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Bolshevik’s first minister for education and the arts.

Fitzpatrick was indeed ferreting out forbidden information. But, unlike her mentors, the anti-socialist Western Sovietologists, her goal was to understand, not discredit, the Soviet Union.

She did not start out with this aim, however. She had chosen Lunacharsky mainly because the cultured, liberal patron and protector of the arts was pretty much untilled academic territory. But her initial mocking tone towards Lunacharsky gave way to that measured objectivity which she brought to all her work on the Soviet Union.

It is not surprising that Fitzpatrick’s career should be trademarked by dispassionate detachment. Although from a left-wing family, the radicalism of the '60s passed her by while she fixated on her job as an “anthropologist” of the Soviet Union.

Her books give an impeccably accurate depiction of everyday Soviet life, not only its shortages and frustration (epitomised by a Moscow University buffet sign, “No milk. And won’t be any”) but also its political complexity (the tangled dance of neo-Stalinists, dissidents and reform communists).

One constant, however, was the maddening bureaucracy ― obstructive, capricious and unpredictable. Fitzpatrick enterprisingly learned how to negotiate the archival administration and access sensitive documents. She figured out how to “read the silences” from official records when someone was falling into political disfavour, and how to discern the conflicts that existed behind the “bland generalisations of formal resolutions”.

The “excitement of the game of matching my wits against that of Soviet officialdom” may not offer the most exciting material for a spy tale, but Fitzpatrick flirted with career disaster when outed as a quasi-spy, an “ideological saboteur”. She avoided denial of access to visas and archives only through some hapless Russian PhD student informer confusing her real identity.

To compensate for the deficit of espionage drama, Fitzpatrick’s book has diverting accounts of her romantic entanglements, gossip about historians and surprisingly civilised encounters with her KGB watchers. She also depicts the warm tutelage she received by Irina Lunacharskaya (Anatoly’s adopted daughter) and Igor Sats (Anatoly’s literary secretary and brother-in-law ― an “Old Bolshevik” and implacable enemy of privilege and connections, including his own).

Fitzpatrick’s books are useful resources, but somewhat bloodless. Her scholastic excitement about all things Soviet is not animated by an affinity with the political passions that drove the revolution’s makers.

She admires the “revolutionary idealism” of Lunacharsky. But rather than his visionary spirit, she shares the cynical negativity of the conservative Sovietologists about what she calls “the pathos of revolution, with its inevitably disappointed hopes”.

Spy in the Archives is one more solid brick in Fitzpatrick’s worthy scholarly edifice but, reflecting her belief in the doomed failure of socialist transformation, one more deadweight in the wall that divides, and protects, the elite from the many.

From GLW issue 1008