Professor Sheila Fitzpatrick

Rarely are historians afforded the chance to write on a historical era with reference to their own experiences. But Honorary Professor Sheila Fitzpatrick, from the Department of History, is doing just that in her newest project, offering a unique glimpse into one of the most secretive
regimes of recent memory: life in the Soviet Union.

Fitzpatrick is finalising a memoir on her time as a postgraduate student in Moscow in the 1960s, evocatively titled A Spy in the Archives (Melbourne University Press). The celebrated academic is widely regarded one of the world’s preeminent scholars on this dark chapter of
modern history, devoting her life’s work to a bottom-up historical perspective of the Soviet Union for nearly 50 years.

“It was incredible to go there as a postgraduate student in the late 1960s, when access to that society was still very difficult,” she says. “Then it was a great moment when formerly closed archives opened with the collapse.”

In recognition of her groundbreaking work in the field, Fitzpatrick was awarded the prestigious American Historical Association’s (AHA) Award for Scholarly Distinction in 2012. The annual prize is considered America’s highest distinction in historical studies, awarded to senior historians who have primarily studied in the United States. The majority of Fitzpatrick’s academic career was
spent overseas before she joined the University of Sydney in 2007.

Despite being the first recipient in the field of Soviet history to ever be granted the AHA prize, Fitzpatrick maintains a modest response to the accolade, recalling her reaction to the news as “a
nice start to my day.”

“I was completely taken by surprise by the award, and of course delighted,” she says. “It has only once before gone to a Russianist, and never to a Soviet historian.”

The AHA award is the latest in a line of accolades recently accumulated by Fitzpatrick. She received the award for Distinguished Contribution from the US-based Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, and her memoir, My Father’s Daughter: Memories of an Australian Childhood, won Australia’s Magarey Medal for Biography.

It seems Fitzpatrick was destined for a career as a historian. Her father was an Australian economic historian; her mother taught history at Monash; while her brother is currently Professor of Modern Irish History at Trinity College Dublin.

“My passion for history perhaps came from my family,” she says. “But I remember that it was doing the research for my 4th-year honours thesis on Soviet music at the University of Melbourne in about 1960 that it really hooked me.”

Among her forthcoming projects is a new book on Stalin and his close political associates, Stalin and his Team (Princeton University Press). This work presents an opportunity for Fitzpatrick to pursue a long-time intrigue not just of Joseph Stalin but also his inner circle, including Vyacheslav Molotov, Georgii Malenkov, Lavrentii Beria, and Nikita

“Despite war, purges and all sorts of turmoil, this team more or less stayed together from the late 1920s to the mid 1950s, even after Stalin’s death, when they became known as the ‘collective
leadership’,” she explains.

With an ARC-funded project on displaced persons from the Soviet Union and their migration to Australia, writings on the Russian composers Shostakvich and Prokofiev, as well as lecturing and mentoring commitments, the 71-year-old historian shows no signs of slowing down just yet.

“This has been the happiest transition period one could imagine,” she says. “I had a very warm welcome from my colleagues at the University of Sydney when I arrived in early August. And now we have this [AHA prize] to celebrate together.”