It was one of the darkest chapters of twentieth-century Europe: the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union, when an estimated ten million people were killed by famine, died in labour camps or during the forced collectivisation of farms, or were executed.
We know much about the actions of the Soviet state and the Communist Party – but we knew little about the impact of Stalinism on ordinary Soviets until an Australian academic, Sheila Fitzpatrick, began publishing her ground-breaking social and cultural histories.
One of the world’s pre-eminent scholars of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, Fitzpatrick’s work – nine books, ten edited books and scores of book chapters and journal articles – has fundamentally reshaped global perceptions of that period, while illuminating the everyday lives of peasants and urban dwellers.
Fitzpatrick was prominent among the “revisionist” historians who, from the 1970s onwards, at the height of the Cold War, studied Stalinism “from below”.
The revisionists rejected the “totalitarian” model of their predecessors, who interpreted history from the standpoint of the state and its leaders. They sought a more nuanced understanding of Soviet society than the basic dichotomy of supporters and dissidents.
Fitzpatrick scrutinised issues such as class, identity, education and social mobility, while taking care to avoid whitewashing Stalinism’s horrors.
However, she was attacked by both left and right – the latter accused her of being a Stalin apologist – after publishing works such as Education and Social Mobility in the Soviet Union, 1921–1932. In that 1979 book she concluded that Communism benefited workers, who were recruited into party roles, educated, then given managerial or professional positions.
An Australian historian in Russia
The bedrock of Fitzpatrick’s work, starting from her time in Moscow in the 1960s researching her thesis, has always been primary source material from the state archives. These turned into a rich trove following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Books such as Stalin’s Peasants (1994) were the first by a Western specialist to explore accounts of peasant life. Fitzpatrick used the same “everyday life” approach when researching the in-depth story of Stalin’s inner circle, recounted in the award-winning On Stalin’s Team (2015).
Having taught in the UK and the US as well as in Sydney, Fitzpatrick has had a wide-reaching influence on generations of scholars. At the University of Chicago, where she was based for twenty-two years, she established the largest doctoral program in Soviet history outside eastern Europe.
In recent years, she has published several memoirs, including one about her relationship with her father, the radical historian Brian Fitzpatrick (My Father’s Daughter, 2010). She is currently researching a book about Soviet attempts to repatriate displaced people after World War II.
Engaging with a global power
Fellow Sovietologist Ronald Suny has written that Fitzpatrick “maintained … the highest scholarly standards of objectivity, neutrality and faithfulness to the sources … [while] fearlessly treading on the toes of sacrosanct orthodoxies, forcing readers to rethink what they thought they knew”.
Her work represents a valuable model for historical inquiry that strives to understand a society in all its complexity. It also offers lessons for nations engaging with a Russia seeking to reassert itself as a global power.