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In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, historian Sheila Fitzpatrick spoke to a group of University students and community members on changing scholarly approaches to the revolution, Soviet history in the last fifty years, and her accompanying work on these topics.

Fitzpatrick began by recalling the story behind the stern profile photo of her that was used on the promotion poster for the talk. She jokingly said that The Chronicle of Higher Education, a newspaper and website that presents news, information, and jobs for university faculty, asked her not to smile.

“The whole point was so that [Russians] look to be very unhappy and hostile people, which of course may be true,” Fitzpatrick said with a smirk.

Fitzpatrick spoke about her interest in the concept of original sin, which is the Christian doctrine of humanity’s state of sin resulting from the fall of mankind, brought about by Adam and Eve’s rebellion in Eden. Fitzpatrick is not Christian, nor was she brought up as one — her father was an atheist. However, the Christian concept of original sin shaped her thinking on human nature, which informed her later academic work.

Fitzpatrick claimed her interest in original sin came from “watching and being the victim of scapegoating” in her all-girl private school in Melbourne. “Scapegoating was popular in my school and they enjoyed the act of scapegoating on whatever grounds it may be,” Fitzpatrick said. 

While studying for a bachelor’s degree at the University of Melbourne, Fitzpatrick read English writer John Bunyan’s work on original sin and studied the 17th century English revolution, which portrayed human beings as lacking innate goodness, a view that she shared.

Due to her negative view of human nature, Fitzpatrick explained that the failure of idealism, in the context of “the pathos of inevitable disappointment of those who have hope for radical change,” is prominent in her first book, “The Commissariat of Enlightenment: Soviet Organization of Education and the Arts Under Lunacharsky, 1917–1921.”

She recalled one Soviet review of her book that disparaged her choice of 1921 as the end date of the book. Although she had material written up to 1929, Fitzpatrick chose to stop at 1921 due to a word limit. She acknowledged that the review pointed out that periodization determines the story one tells. After her first book, Fitzpatrick became even less idealistic.

“I decided that violence and bloodshed are not accidental products, but the very point of revolution for many of those who participate,” Fitzpatrick said. “In other words, revolution is inseparable from the arousal of base passions.”

In her eyes, people join revolutions because they “want to commit violence against the people they don’t like,” and this is especially true of the young men who were the main recruits for the Communist Party in the Russian Civil War. Such an opinion placed her on a collision course with revisionists — socialist historians in the 1970s who studied Soviet history. An argument between Fitzpatrick and these revisionists arose in the 1980s when she pointed out that no sooner had the Bolsheviks taken part in the revolution than the proletariat disappeared because the soldiers and sailors were demobilized. Another disagreement that arose between her and the revisionists was her conclusion that workers are more interested in rising out of their class than being part of the uplifting proletariat class.

Due to her sympathy toward the discussion about the proletariat, she became interested in how there was a general understanding that the “proletariat” was synonymous with “communists.”

“It seemed ironic to me that policies of affirmative action for workers, or allowing individual workers to rise into the elite, was a way of fulfilling the Marxist promise that workers should become masters,” Fitzpatrick said.

When writing about the proletariat, Fitzpatrick was advised not to use the phrase “upward mobility,” since using such an “American” phrase would be covertly suggesting that the Soviet Union was as democratic as the United States.

In 1967, while studying the topic of education — what she called “the most innocuous topic one can study according to the Soviet point of view” — Fitzpatrick concluded that bureaucratic conflict is reflected in a bureaucratic archive.

“[This observation] may not be [worth recognizing] now, but it was certainly worth saying back in the 60s, because the assumption was that bureaucratic conflict was not a part of the Soviet system,” Fitzpatrick said.

She witnessed constant fights in policy between institutions, which often resulted in appeals, adjudications, and extensive lobbying. Moreover, it became clear in the late 60s and early 70s that bureaucrats and officials in the ministries found themselves uncomfortably under pressure, not only by occasional interventions from above but also radical pressure from below. Fitzpatrick addresses such pressures in her book,Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1928–1931.”

“The question that arose in the heated discussion of that book was a question of initiative, or in other words, ‘Did pressure from below arise when signals from above gave the green light to put on pressures of a certain type?’” Fitzpatrick said.

The Great Purge, which lasted from 1936 to 1938, prevented Fitzpatrick from fully uncovering the answer, since deductions about that era could only be made through the limited information the government allowed to circulate.

While many were pleased with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fitzpatrick “was not enough of a socialist” to share that perspective. Instead, Fitzpatrick remembered experiencing intense interest and curiosity, wondering ‘Who would have thought this would happen?’ and ‘What happens next?’ The collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of previously classified historical archives provoked Fitzpatrick to think more about historical methodology. Also, through increased access to these archives, historians were able to learn much more about how the Soviet society functioned.

After moving to the University of Chicago in the 1990s, Fitzpatrick became interested in writing about denunciation — when one writes a statement that is damaging to the authorities and is subsequently punished for its publication. Twenty years of work on denunciation culminated in the 2015 publication of “On Stalin’s Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics.

Fitzpatrick’s current projects focus on social history, including the displacement of Russians after World War II and the reasons why displaced persons do not wish to return to the Soviet Union. She also plans to collaborate with British anthropologist Caroline Humphrey to write about Soviet society.

The lecture, titled “Writing the Russian Revolution,” took place in the Louis A. Simpson International Building on Tuesday.

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