Sheila Fitzpatrick

Sheila Fitzpatrick’s new book, The Shortest History of the Soviet Union, will be published early next year.

Get your story straight: Soviet Nationhood

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 2 December 2021

It’s​ a puzzle to know how to think about the Soviet Union, now that it is gone. Was it a Russian empire in disguise, which broke apart when its oppressed colonies finally liberated themselves? Was it a benevolent federation in which the Russian big brother generously subsidised its younger siblings and paid for their education? Or was it, perhaps, a multinational state in which the...

‘Quelle est cette odeur agréable/Bergers, qui ravit tous nos sens?’ In the old French carol, the shepherds to whom the angel announces the birth of Christ are first struck by a ravishing scent they can’t identify, then by a great light, and finally by heavenly sounds. This introduction of a smell to the Annunciation story has no biblical justification, as far as I can...

To King’s Cross Station: Lenin’s London

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 7 January 2021

Lenin​ liked London. He arrived in April 1902, not long after his release from Siberian exile, and spent about a year in the city before moving on to Geneva, returning for several briefer visits over the next decade. Like a good tourist, he explored the East End on foot and investigated the rest of the city from the top of a bus. He went to local workers’ meetings he had found out...

Whatever Made Him: The Bauman Dichotomy

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 10 September 2020

Do we need​ biographies of public intellectuals? Is knowledge about a scholar’s life relevant to an understanding of their work? The Polish-Jewish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman thought not, and sedulously avoided the personal in his books and essays. His biographer, Izabela Wagner, obviously disagrees: she seems to find Bauman’s life more interesting than his books, which are...

Which Face? Emigrés on the Make

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 6 February 2020

Peter Reddaway wasn’t surprised by the Soviet Union’s collapse or, for that matter, by any of the twists and turns of Soviet policy and fortunes over the previous thirty years related in his memoir. Good was bound to win out in the conflict with evil. Joshua blew his trumpet bravely for a few decades, and finally the walls came tumbling down. The collapse of the Soviet Union was – apparently – a victory for the dissident cause. That moment, 1991, is indeed the right one for Reddaway’s memoir to end on. Carry the narrative any further – to 2001, 2011 or even in prospect to 2021 – and it would have to stop being a story of dissident triumph and become yet another story of defeat, given the virtual obliteration of the dissident cause and even memory in the post-Soviet Russian Federation. But then again, does that really matter? Perhaps Soviet dissent was always less remarkable as an actual political movement in the domestic context than for the magnified reflection it gained in international media.

Commotion in Moscow: Paris Syndrome

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 1 August 2019

Paris can be a dangerous place to visit. The Japanese are said to be particularly vulnerable to the medically recognised condition called ‘Paris syndrome’, which inflicts anxiety, depersonalisation and dizziness on those whose expectations are too high. Soviet Russians, though less prone to physical collapse than the Japanese, were even more heavily invested in Paris as the Mecca of civilised cultural pilgrimage. Despite the Soviet disdain for capitalism, deep respect for the Western cultural heritage was built into the Soviet system. The only problem was that the Soviet Union’s borders were closed.

People and Martians

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 24 January 2019

While he deplored the Soviet regime and wanted all its dirty secrets exposed, there was a jokey, blokey aspect to Robert Conquest, a whiff of the Oxford debating society and student satirical review, that made him an anomalous figure in international Sovietology, which tended towards the deadly serious. For Conquest, the Soviet Union was no doubt an evil place, but above all it was a bizarre one, a society whose baroque self-inventions and elaborate mendacity made it an apt subject of black comedy.

Just like that: Second-Guessing Stalin

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 5 April 2018

Stephen Kotkin​’s Stalin is all paradox. He is pockmarked and physically unimpressive, yet charismatic; a gambler, but cautious; undeterred by the prospect of mass bloodshed, but with no interest in personal participation. Cynical about everyone else’s motives, he himself ‘lived and breathed ideals’. Suspicious of ‘fancy-pants intellectuals’, he was an...

Good Communist Homes

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 27 July 2017

The extraordinarily detailed information on the households and the complexity of their domestic relations is one of the remarkable and unique aspects of this book. Nobody knew what a good communist home ought to be like, Yuri Slezkine remarks, but on the basis of House of Government data it looks strikingly non-nuclear. Partnerships shifted, not always rancorously, so that an ex-wife plus children might be living down the hall from the new wife plus children, with the husband dividing his time between the flats.

What’s Left? The Russian Revolution

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 30 March 2017

Historians’ judgments, however much we hope the opposite, reflect the present; and much of this apologetic and deprecatory downgrading of the Russian Revolution simply reflects the – short term? – impact of the Soviet collapse on its status. By 2117, who knows what people will think?

Diary: Andrei Platonov

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 1 December 2016

It’s almost time​ to celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution, but there are few real celebrants left, in Russia at least. For most Russians, Stalin the nation-builder is part of the usable past, but Lenin cuts less ice, and the Bolshevik Revolution is an outright embarrassment. No doubt it won’t be possible to ignore the centenary altogether, as Putin might like. A few...

Vodka + Caesium: Nostalgia for the USSR

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 20 October 2016

Svetlana Alexievich​ won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, but some people still don’t think her books are literature. In fact, they are collective oral histories, of similar genre, though completely different in tone, to those of Studs Terkel in the United States, whom she has probably never read. Her main influence as far as genre is concerned was the Belorussian writer Ales...

Zanchevsky, Zakrevsky or Zakovsky? Julian Barnes

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 18 February 2016

The two great preoccupations of Barnes’s Shostakovich are his own character weaknesses and his relationship to the Soviet regime (‘Power’). The women in his life get some attention, his male friends less. The interior monologue is written in the third person, and occasionally reads as if it might be a translation from the Russian, which is all to the good, since one doesn’t want one’s foreign protagonists sounding too English. The prevailing tone is ironic, a form of self-protection Shostakovich hopes ‘might enable you to preserve what you valued, even as the noise of time became loud enough to knock out window-panes.’

Going Native: The Maisky Diaries

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 3 December 2015

There​ is a striking photograph of Ambassador Maisky, elegantly dressed in a three-piece suit, balding on top as distinguished diplomats often are, standing in front of a life-size portrait of Stalin, who is wearing a simple army jacket. The photo is from the late 1930s, probably taken after Maisky was rebuked by Moscow for not keeping enough Stalin icons in his London embassy. Maisky is...

Almost Lovable: What Stalin Built

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 30 July 2015

Back in the day, everyone knew that Stalinist architecture was hateful. The Poles notoriously loathed the Palace of Culture and Science that was the gift to war-ruined Warsaw from the Soviet elder brother or – as the Poles saw it – master. Foreigners and sophisticated Russians sneered at Moscow’s wedding-cake buildings and lamented the old Tverskaya that had undergone a Stalinist remake as Gorky Street.

Whose person is he? ‘Practising Stalinism’

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 20 March 2014

Arch Getty​ spent a great many hours in Soviet libraries and archives (presumably during the 1980s), trying to understand Stalinism, studying its institutions and formal procedures, reading resolutions and exegeses that explained, in the characteristic self-satisfied tone of Soviet bureaucratic documentation, that the wise decisions of the Party’s Central Committee and Council of...

Reasons for Not Going Back: Displaced by WWII

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 11 April 2013

‘The magnitude of the problem is such as to cause the heart to sink,’ a member of the Fabian Society wrote in 1943, contemplating the hordes of uprooted people who would need resettlement when the Second World War was over. The International Labour Organisation estimated that 30 million had been ‘transplanted or torn from their homes’ since the beginning of the war....

Who gets the dacha? Marshal Zhukov

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 24 January 2013

Of the Soviet Union’s World War Two military leaders, Marshal Zhukov was the most celebrated, both at home and in the West. Broad-faced, stocky, plain-spoken with a touch of swagger, Georgy Konstantinovich epitomised Russian solidity and resolve. The commander with the golden touch, Stalin’s favourite, he seemed to be everywhere during the war: stopping the Germans entering...

Outfox them! Stalin v Emigrés

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 8 March 2012

The Soviet Union claimed leadership of the world revolution in the 1920s and 1930s – not surprisingly, since of all the European upheavals at the end of the First World War, theirs was the only revolution that succeeded. But the trouble with leading the world revolution, as far as Stalin and his associates were concerned, was that you had to deal with foreigners. Abroad was scarcely less...

Voldemort or Stalin? Shostakovich

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 1 December 2011

Dmitry Shostakovich was once seen in the West as the quintessential Soviet loyalist. Avant-garde composers despised him and official descriptions of him as a ‘fighter for peace’, ‘progress’ and ‘humanism’ didn’t help his reputation in the world outside. Things he himself said over the years appeared to confirm the Soviet image: his Third Symphony...

Deaths at Two O’Clock: Suicide in the USSR

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 17 February 2011

Say you are killing yourself in the name of the Russian intelligentsia, and you will die

like a hero. That one shot will awaken the sleeping conscience of this country … Your name will become a household word. Your death will be the topic of the day. Your picture will be in all the papers … The Russian intelligentsia will gather about your coffin. The cream of the nation carry...

A Spy in the Archives: Was I a spy?

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 2 December 2010

They gathered us in a dark-panelled windowless basement in the Foreign Office for a briefing. The year was 1966, and the group was made up of 20 or so British students selected to go to the Soviet Union for ten months under the auspices of the British Council. Plus one Australian, myself, who had managed to get on the British exchange because Australia didn’t have one. Our nameless briefer, who we assumed to be from MI6, told us that everybody we met in the Soviet Union would be a spy. It would be impossible to make friends with Russians because, in the first place, they were all spies, and, in the second, they would make the same assumption about us. As students, we would be particularly vulnerable to Soviet attempts to compromise us because, unlike other foreigners resident in Moscow and Leningrad, we would actually live side by side with Russians instead of in a foreigners’ compound. We should be particularly careful not to be lured into sexual liaisons which would result in blackmail (from the Soviet side) and swift forcible repatriation (from the British). If any untoward approach was made to us, or if we knew of such an approach being made to someone else in the group, we should immediately inform the embassy. This was not a normal country we were going to. It was a Cold War zone.

The Old Man: Trotsky

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 22 April 2010

When Isaac Deutscher was writing his great three-volume biography in the 1950s, Leon Trotsky was a name to conjure with. The first volume came out in 1954, a year after Stalin’s death and 14 years after Trotsky’s murder in Mexico by Stalin’s agent. The epic battle between the two antagonists was still fresh in people’s minds; all over the world, small stubborn groups...

Cultivating Their Dachas: ‘Zhivago’s Children’

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 10 September 2009

History has its moments of euphoria when people embrace in the streets out of sheer love for their neighbours, police horses are garlanded with flowers, and everyone understands that the old lies and repression are gone for ever. I’m not sure that these moments occur in Britain. Certainly they didn’t in the Australia where I grew up in the 1950s, and as a result I’m always...

Many Promises: Prokofiev in Russia

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 14 May 2009

It is generally assumed that Soviet composers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich were forced by the regime to simplify their style and write ‘life-affirming’ music that conformed to the canons of Socialist Realism. Most people think this was bad for their music, though a few hold the contrary. Now comes the shocker from Simon Morrison, a Princeton musicologist: Prokofiev wanted to...

Like a Thunderbolt: Solzhenitsyn’s Mission

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 11 September 2008

‘Lives of Remarkable Men’ was a series established by Maxim Gorky in the 1930s so that the Soviet Union might know its heroes. It’s ironic that Liudmila Saraskina’s deeply admiring biography of the David who challenged the Soviet Goliath should now appear under its imprint. As Saraskina tells the story, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian patriot and Orthodox Christian, was a man with a mission from the first. Unswerving, uncompromising, beset by perils and enemies, stoically enduring great ordeals, he set out to bring down the Soviet system. Like any prophet – like Lenin, to use an analogy more congenial to Solzhenitsyn than to Saraskina – he knew himself born to a historic destiny, suffering agonies of frustration when its accomplishment seemed impossible. In the end, his mission, like Lenin’s, succeeded. In fact, one might say that it succeeded at Lenin’s expense, a triumphant negation of Lenin’s success.

Charmer: Stalin’s Origins

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 1 November 2007

Stalin was a ‘grey blur’ in the opinion of Nikolai Sukhanov, the Menshevik-Internationalist chronicler of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky thought him a faceless ‘creature of the bureaucracy’, even in power. These must be among the most misleading descriptions ever to capture the fancy of generations of historians. There was one notable exception among the scholars:...

Obscene Child: Mozart

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 5 July 2007

As Saul Bellow once wrote, we have a problem talking about Mozart. It is the fear of having to contemplate transcendence and being embarrassed by something for which we have no vocabulary. To make matters worse, Mozart composed sublime music but, in contrast to Beethoven, had the wrong personality for sublimity, being prone to clowning and lavatory humour. Think of the babyish and buffoonish...

Diary: remembering my father

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 8 February 2007

Ya ya ya, your father’s a Communist! The girls at my school in Melbourne in the late 1940s liked to taunt the oddballs in their midst; other targets were orphans (Ya ya ya, your father died in the war!) and Jews. My father was not in fact a Communist, he was an independent, a maverick who ran the Australian Council for Civil Liberties as a front organisation for himself, I thought,...

Normal People: SovietSpeak

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 25 May 2006

If there is a prize for best title of the year, this book surely deserves it. Alexei Yurchak, a Russian-born, US-trained anthropologist, has written an interesting and provocative book about the way young Soviet Russians talked in the Brezhnev period and what they meant by what they said. For Yurchak, discourse is everything: there is no ‘real world’ outside the world we construct...

A Little Swine: on Snitching

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 3 November 2005

‘Report any suspicious persons,’ the message flashing above the New Jersey turnpike said as I drove south towards Washington a few months after 9/11. I did not respond to the call, but it reminded me of someone who did: Pavlik Morozov, the heroic young Soviet denouncer of the early 1930s whose legend is the subject of Catriona Kelly’s new book. Unfortunately in Pavlik’s case the suspicious person he dobbed in was his own father, and angry relatives took revenge by murdering him. Pavlik won a lasting place in Soviet martyrology as the boy who was brave enough to put loyalty to the state above loyalty to family. Then, in the twilight of the Soviet regime in the 1970s and 1980s, he became the anti-hero of the Russian intelligentsia’s counter-myth, which presented him as a cowardly betrayer and a dupe. The real-life Pavlik story is, of course, more complicated; and Kelly has set herself the task of straightening it all out, which includes correcting an earlier revisionist effort, Yury Druzhnikov’s Denouncer No. 001.

Terkinesque: A Leninist version of Soviet history

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 1 September 2005

When I was growing up in Australia in the late 1950s and 1960s, the displaced European intellectual turned academic was a familiar figure on university campuses. Refugees from totalitarian and wartime Europe, conversant with Marx and Weber, polyglot and multilingual (but always with strongly accented English), veterans of complicated doctrinal wars in the sectarian world of European...

This book changed my sense of the big story of Soviet history as well as the big story of the Jews in the modern world.* Chapter 4, in particular, the interpretative history of Jews in the Soviet Union (and the United States and Israel), which takes up almost half the book, should be compulsory reading for everyone who has ever expressed an opinion on the subject.

Yuri Slezkine dedicates the...

Richard Pipes, Russian historian at Harvard and sometime member of President Reagan’s National Security Council, is famous for his hatred of Communism. He doesn’t like Russia much, either. Nor does he particularly care for most Russia and Soviet experts, regarding them as given to romanticising and whitewashing their subject. Worst of all are ‘revisionist’ Soviet...

“Nina realised that her diary was potentially dangerous. After her mother read it, fearing that it ‘might contain something counter-revoluntionary’ and finding that it did, Nina crossed out some of the most dangerous passages. But her first, typically adolescent reaction was a stab of embarrassment that her mother had read what she’d written about boys. In an earlier entry she had said: ‘What if the apartment is suddenly searched and it is confiscated because of my completely uncensored remarks about Stalin? And it winds up in the hands of the secret police? They’ll read it and laugh at my amorous gibberish.’ In the event the NKVD didn’t laugh when they read her diary.”

The Good Old Days: The Dacha-Owning Classes

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 9 October 2003

“Kitchens and bathrooms were the sites of epic battles over property (saucepans, washbasins) and use of space. Readers of Svetlana Boym’s Common Places will recall the nightmarish story of her parents’ efforts to entertain foreign visitors in their room in a communal apartment while a stream of urine from a drunken neighbour . . . trickled slowly under the door.”

Has 20th-century Russia a history? The problem is that Russia – or, to be precise, the Russian Federation – became a nation state, or something approximating to it, only after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For nearly seventy years (1923-1991), it was part of the Soviet Union; for the first 17 years of the century, it was part of the multinational empire ruled by the Romanovs. ‘What was Russia? And what was Russia’s part in the Soviet Union?’ Robert Service asks in his introduction. But there are no answers to these questions, only – as is frequently the case in this rich but sometimes inconclusive work – a series of options. ‘For some witnesses the Soviet era was an assault on everything fundamentally Russian. For others, Russia under Stalin and Brezhnev attained her destiny as the dominant republic within a USSR. For yet others neither tsarism nor Communism embodied the positive quintessence of Russianness.’ Russia in the 20th century, Service tells us, was an entity with changing borders and a population only weakly and intermittently interested in being ‘Russian’, incorporated within multinational states whose leaders’ attitudes to Russianness changed over time. Strictly speaking, it was not even ‘Russia’ that was incorporated, but a multinational ‘Russian Socialist Federated Republic’. In a more literal sense than Churchill intended, Russia was ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’.’‘

On the Banks of the Tom

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 10 November 1994

Leo Tolstoy was not only a great writer but also a passionately outspoken public moralist in the Russian prophetic mode followed a century later by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A political presence because of his impact on public opinion, he steered clear of direct political involvement. He was above politics. ‘On the one hand,’ Lenin wrote of him in 1908, ‘we have a remarkably powerful, direct and sincere protest against social lies and falsehood, while on the other we have the Tolstoyan, i.e. the washed-out, hysterical cry-baby known as the Russian intellectual, who publicly beats his breast and cries: I am vile, I am wretched, but I am morally perfecting myself; I do not eat meat any more and now feed only on rice patties.’


I too was there

1 December 2016

Annie Epelboin writes with her own memories of Igor Sats (Letters, 15 December 2016). Of course people show different sides of themselves in different contexts. But in this case, there is an obvious explanation, not related to the revolutionary romanticism she (wrongly) attributes to me. As long as Sats was working with Alexander Tvardovsky at the journal Novy Mir, they were engaged in a struggle to...

The Nazis were less harsh: Mischka Danos

Mark Mazower, 7 February 2019

In​ 1989, the Soviet historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, well known to readers of the LRB, was on a plane when the passenger next to her struck up a conversation. She’d been watching him write...

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We were​ ‘milk-drinkers’ by comparison, Vyacheslav Molotov, for many years Stalin’s deputy, said of Stalin’s inner circle. ‘Not one man after Lenin … did...

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At the climax of the last of the great Stalinist show trials in the late 1930s, Andrei Vyshinsky, the Soviet prosecutor general, declared that the ‘masks’ had been ‘torn...

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Palaces on Monday: Soviet Russia

J. Arch Getty, 2 March 2000

It was not until the 1970s that ‘Soviet studies’ evolved into ‘Soviet history’. The totalitarian model, with its focus on government control of an inert population, gave...

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Comparative Horrors: delatology

Timothy Garton Ash, 19 March 1998

I recently received a letter from a German theatre director, objecting to a passage of my book The File in which I wrote that, back in the Stalinist Fifties, an East German friend of mine had...

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