Print this page

Sheila Fitzpatrick on history vs memoir

Reviewed by
June–July 2014, no. 362
Sheila Fitzpatrick on history vs memoir

Sheila Fitzpatrick on history vs memoir

Reviewed by
June–July 2014, no. 362

In Iris Murdoch’s novel, The Sandcastle (1957), a young artist called Rain Carter is commissioned to paint a retired schoolmaster, Demoyte, an eccentric with an offbeat sense of humour. Instead of his usual attire – a shabby red velvet jacket with tobacco stains and bow tie – Demoyte turns up wearing a nondescript grey suit, explaining to a friend: ‘Am I to be summed up by a slip of a girl? ... I’m going to lead her up the garden [path] … She shan’t know what I’m like if I can help it!’

I sympathise with the painter. Historical subjects can be rather like Demoyte, doing their best to mislead and to hide their real selves and purposes from us. This is particularly true of political history, which is what I’m doing at the moment with my book On Stalin’s Team. Stalin was a great self-mystifier, with a talent not only for fashioning himself for history but also for fashioning his archive for historians. But it’s true of any kind of history about people who leave records. They give you an account of what they did and why they did it, but that’s spun for the audience and the record; the trick is to find out what they actually did and why (to the extent this is knowable) they did it. Of course, you can go too far with suspicion about statements of motive; Stalin certainly did. He was suspicious of all historians who scrabble in archives without a fixed conviction about what they are going to find there. He called them ‘archive rats’.

Stalin was proud of not letting people pull the wool over his eyes. He prided himself on knowing that whenever a bureaucracy asked for money they were lying about its actual resources and exaggerating its needs. This is something historians should remember. Institutional archives – that is, the records of government bureaucracies – are basically telling the story from the institution’s point of view. Their aim is self-justification, often in complex turf wars with other institutions, not the gathering of objective and reliable data for the use of future historians. As a historian, you should never have a happy relationship of trust with your sources and the data they offer you. Your sources and your data are all, in the nature of things, biased.


But what about the historian? As I was taught in the history department of the University of Melbourne back in the 1950s, the historian’s task was to strive for objectivity. We were like scientific experimenters, not letting anything contaminate our experimental data. Full objectivity was of course not realisable, but it was a goal to which one needed to get as close as possible. The personal and the partisan were biases and distortions that would prevent you from getting at ‘truth’. If you wanted to offer a subjective view (so the conventional wisdom went), write literature or propaganda, not history.

‘As a historian, you should never have a happy relationship of trust with your sources and the data they offer you. Your sources and your data are all, in the nature of things, biased.’

I was a true believer in the objectivity approach to writing history for a long time, primarily because I found myself working in America as a historian of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.With Soviet historians writing blatantly biased accounts of their own history (their work going through censorship to make sure they got the bias right), and American scholars writing pretty blatantly biased accounts of ‘the empire of evil’ from their side, defiant objectivity, or the refusal to take sides, seemed the only possible stance. Of course, it was a stance that got me into trouble with both sides. The attitude in US Sovietology back in the 1970s was that if you were not unmistakably ‘anti-Soviet’ you must be ‘pro’. The Soviets were even more insistent on this dichotomy, and moreover added their own Marxist rider that the claim to be objective was in itself a political stance of non-sympathy with the Soviet Union; they called people like me ‘so-called objective bourgeois historians’. At least that was better than their other category for foreigner historians of the Soviet Union – ‘bourgeois falsifiers’.

By the 1990s the Cold War was over, more or less. Within the historical profession, objectivity was acquiring a bad name and subjectivity was getting interesting. The moment I remember becoming aware of that shift was when I moved to the University of Chicago in 1990 and gave a talk to the department on my work, delivering my usual critique of politicised history in the Soviet context. Our black and feminist historians glared at me and said, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ I realised that the issue of advocacy history was more complicated than I had thought, but I still didn’t want to write it myself. Objectivity and detachment might, I conceded, be considered an emotional (subjective) choice like any other for historians. But if so, it was my choice.

Since memoirs are subjective by definition, I am probably the last historian who should have turned to writing them, but somehow I did. The first one, My Father’s Daughter (2010), about growing up in 1950s Melbourne, was meant to be a detached work written with a light touch – a ‘really good likeness’ of my father, just as Iris Murdoch’s portraitist aimed for – warts and all – but also capturing the essence of his quirky personality. It was not my plan to go deep in self-revelation; I initially saw myself as outside the painting, like the portraitist, or at least with my own individuality muted and camouflaged, wearing the equivalent of Demoyte’s nondescript grey suit. It didn’t work out that way. I hadn’t gone far before I realised that you don’t make a portrait of your father without stirring up all sorts of emotions: love, pity, disappointment, resentment, regret – and without offering an involuntary self-portrait as well.

My father, the radical historian Brian Fitzpatrick, was less averse than I to putting himself into this work. Indeed, it was doubtless his purple passages, usually written when drunk, that made me such a devotee of cool detachment. He is known as an economic historian, specialising in British imperialism in Australia and the Australian labour movement, but if you look at his later work – The Australian People and particularly The Australian Commonwealth – you can see that he was way ahead of his time in introducing not just his civil liberties/human rights concerns, but also himself into his history.

Before he wrote his histories, he wrote an autobiographical novel, The Colonials, published last year by MUP (and reviewed here in February 2014). It includes lots of social history about the home front in the Melbourne suburb Moonee Ponds during World War I, but the key thing in it is the portrait of his father, written ostensibly from the standpoint of an omniscient narrator but actually from that of the fourteen-year-old son, the stand-in for the author’s younger self. The son is infuriated by his father, critical of him, but he also feels a profound, almost crippling, pity for him and his disappointments.

By the time I was born, my father had put away his autobiographical novel and his original family along with it. Apart from one brother, he seemed to have ditched Moonee Ponds, claiming – to my shock as a child – that he couldn’t remember all his sisters’ names. I didn’t see how anyone could forget that, and I still can’t. In the novel he treats the sisters with sympathy, but he compacts the five of them into two. That seems to me almost as incomprehensible as forgetting their names. My reaction suggested that autobiographical fiction was not a natural genre for me. So I stayed with memoir.

My second effort in this genre, A Spy in the Archives (2013), is about being a foreign student in Moscow in the late 1960s. Once again I envisaged a light, detached tone, plus plenty of local colour. I had thought about writing about this period of Soviet history as a historian, and in fact did quite a lot of exploratory archival work, but somehow a scholarly book didn’t emerge. I had the feeling that, as far as I was concerned, Soviet history stopped when I came in, which was the autumn of 1966; once I was a participant, even in the distant capacity of foreign visitor, I couldn’t write about it as a historian. Bring in the subjective element, colleagues and publishers said, it’s okay now, even fashionable. I didn’t want to do it. Perhaps it triggered echoes of my adolescent embarrassment at my father’s intrusion of self – which I now enjoy – in The Australian Commonwealth. In any case, it apparently violated my personal sense of genre. If I’m in it, it’s got to be a memoir.

Spy didn’t veer as much into autobiography as Daughter, but it did a bit. For one thing, Igor Alexandrovich, my Soviet adoptive father, became a central character; it became a book bringing Igor back to life. Igor was an old spy, as he liked to boast (i.e. a field reconnaissance person in World War II, not a KGB man), and the KGB gave both of us a certain amount of trouble about our friendship. But that’s not the main reason A Spy in the Archives has that title. We foreign students in Moscow in the Cold War 1960s were all obsessed with the KGB spying on us (it was the age of Philby and the ‘Cambridge Five’), and the KGB was obsessed with the possibility that we were spying on them. In particular, they thought foreign researchers on Soviet history were spies – not necessarily literally, in the sense of being on some intelligence service’s payroll, but ‘objectively’, as they liked to say, meaning that, regardless of the details, anyone trying to find out their secrets (as a historian must) was essentially spying on them. I knew I wasn’t on anyone’s payroll, and I didn’t feel like a capitalist, but I’m not sure that under interrogation I could have denied with any conviction that I was, in the Soviet sense, a spy.

Stalin cropped

Stalin would have had no doubts about the matter. All historians who put data above ideology were ‘archive rats’, and if they were foreign, they were spies, it was absolutely clear. I wasn’t working on Stalin then, but I am now. With the present project, I am planning to spy on Stalin, using the intelligence tactic he most feared – planting a spy among his closest associates to get the inside story. My book is not a Stalin biography; rather, it is a collective biography of Stalin and his team – the dozen or so men who over a period of thirty years were closest to him (Molotov, Kaganovich, Khrushchev, Beria among them). It is not conventional political history, more like an ethnography of a ruling group, focusing on strategies for coping, surviving, and advancing in the world of what Simon Sebag Montefiore called Stalin’s ‘court’. I am essentially applying to a study of the political élite the techniques I used when describingthe everyday practices of ordinary people in my books Stalin’s Peasants (1994) and Everyday Stalinism (1999).

This is my first big historical work since finishing Spy. The question as I started writing was whether, and how, the experience of writing memoirs was going to change things. I read around in the theoretical literature on objectivity, and the point that impressed me most was Thomas Nagel’s: to the extent that objectivity is a ‘view from nowhere’, it is a contradiction in terms. Iris Murdoch’s young painter might think she was approaching her subject with an open mind (without a ‘point of view’), but she was undoubtedly proposing to paint him not only at but from a particular point in space. In other words, she was somewhere in relation to him as she painted, not nowhere. That brings me back to Stalin. If my view of Stalin can’t be from nowhere, where is it from?

I puzzled about that for a long time. The way the point-of-view question was always posed in Soviet history during the Cold War was ‘for’ or ‘against’: are you writing a pro-Stalin book or an anti-Stalin one? Undoubtedly, my private feelings about Stalin are more anti than pro, but it goes against all my instincts to take either of those two positions. There are people who think that if you are writing about one of the twentieth century’s great ‘evil-doers’, showing up the depth and breadth of his evil is the sum of what you should do. That’s a great task for a prosecutor but not, to my mind for a historian, or at least not for me as a historian. I want to understand the people I write about, how their minds work, why they think they do the things that they do, what they see as their options. That is not what a prosecutor does, or, for that matter, a counsel for the defence. So I can’t make either of the basic Cold War positions my starting point.

‘If my view of Stalin can’t be from nowhere, where is it from?’

Sometimes biographers have a personal connection with their subjects. Stalin and I don’t have that kind of relationship. If I try to fantasise a connection between us, putting us in imagination in the same time and space, all that happens is that I melt away as fast as I can before he notices me, which is what I used to do back in the old days in the Soviet Union if there was a KGB man around. If they don’t know you, my thinking was, you are in less danger of being pulled into one of their tricky schemes. (It worked, on the whole.)

Still, that doesn’t get me off the hook about having, if not a point of view in the metaphorical sense, at least a vantage point for the observation of Stalin. The vantage point I have chosen is from within Stalin’s team – setting up my easel among his close associates, mixing with them at the office and the dacha. It’s what a good spy would do, as Stalin was well aware; I can almost see him ordering my arrest from beyond the grave. But unless he catches me, the view from inside the team is an interesting and unfamiliar one, combining the standpoint of victims and perpetrators. Seeing him close up through lenses of fear and admiration, the team could never forget that they were his potential victims. But in point of historical fact, and from the viewpoint of the rest of the world, they were not Stalin’s victims but fellow perpetrators of violence that they considered justified and necessary – even if, being less bold than Stalin, they might not have thought them up themselves.

One of the reasons memoirs are different from history is that love is involved: you want not just to write about people who are no longer alive but also to celebrate them, raise them from the dead. It’s different from what historians and even biographers do. Sometimes biographers are said to have fallen in love with their subjects, but that’s just a metaphor. They didn’t love them in real life.

Stalin is not the kind of biographical subject people tend to fall in love with. He’s tricky, like Demoyte, a cunning, devious man, automatically resisting anyone’s appraising gaze. He would have agreed with Demoyte’s objection to being ‘summed up by a slip of a girl’ and been equally insistent that ‘she shan’t know what I’m like if I can help it!’ He would certainly have wondered whether she was a spy. I want to outwit Stalin in my book, to cut through his mystifications and obfuscations and understand what made him tick. But he still feels dangerous as a subject, even when painted incognito, at almost a century’s remove. God forbid that I should mix up my genres and accidentally raise him from the dead.

This is a revised and abridged version of the John Ward Lecture, delivered at the University of Sydney, 27 March 2014.

Sheila Fitzpatrick on history vs memoir

From the New Issue

You May Also Like