I first encountered Sheila Fitzpatrick's work in the mid-1990s. The 1986–87 controversy in The Russian Review about how to write a social history of Stalinism was taught as a milestone in the historiography of my field. Instinctively, I took sides against my professors and with Fitzpatrick's call to remove the state from the centre of analysis, a methodological tactic informing much of what I have written since. Soon I became her student, first still at the University of Tübingen, where she was a visiting professor, then in the doctoral program of the University of Chicago. In the past three years, since Fitzpatrick's return to her native Australia, we have become collaborators on a joint research project. My endorsement adorns the dust jacket of On Stalin's Team's Australian edition.
This latest of Fitzpatrick's many books focuses on the dozen or so men who, at any given point in time, formed the dictator's closest collaborators. Some of them changed over the years, but a core was stable from the factional fights in the 1920s to beyond Stalin's death in 1953. This was a team of hard men. They respected Stalin as leader partially because he was tougher and more ruthless than they. This 'tricky bastard' was no weak dictator dependent on the loyalty of his underlings, however. When push came to shove, Stalin always had the last word; he had the power to define who was in the team, and who was not; and from the Great Terror onwards, Stalin also held power over life and death. A perverse kind of a team player, he craftily exploited this threat to rule his subordinates.