June 8, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 19

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    Graduate Teaching Award: Sheila Fitzpatrick

    Sheila Fitzpatrick tells her graduate students in Russian history that they can be pioneer scholars in their field.

    "In many cases, they can be the first people to write about material in the newly opened archives," said Fitzpatrick, the Bernadotte E. Schmitt Professor in History and one of the nation's leading scholars on the Soviet Union.

    To prepare the students to study the voluminous archives, Fitzpatrick teaches a course on Soviet sources. In class and in outside conversations with her students, she helps them learn to maneuver through the bureaucracy of Russia's official record keeping.

    "The archives in the former Soviet Union are not like American libraries," Fitzpatrick explained. "You can't just walk in and take what you want. You need to know what you're looking for before you go and be prepared sometimes to negotiate issues of access and the cost of doing photocopying."

    But the hassles are worth the rewards, Fitzpatrick said.

    "The exciting thing about study in Russia now is that not only are archives opening for the first time, but students can study in places other than Moscow," she said. Fitzpatrick's graduate students, who typically spend a year in Russia, have recently spent time studying in such places as western Siberia and the far-eastern coastal city of Vladivostok.

    Although the Soviet archives are a valuable resource, Fitzpatrick encourages her students to examine a wide variety of materials and not put undue value on materials found in the archives.

    "Just because you found it in the archives, doesn't mean it's necessarily the truth. No single document is capable of telling you the truth," she said.

    She encourages such independent thinking in her classes as well.

    "If I hear something coming back to me in a discussion that sounds too similar to my own point of view, I challenge the position," Fitzpatrick said. "If I think we need a variety of viewpoints on an issue, I'll ask for them."

    Although she has taught her course on Soviet sources twice, Fitzpatrick, who has been on the Chicago faculty since 1990, tries to keep teaching new courses to share her vast knowledge of the Soviet period. She has taught a course, for instance, that draws on her research concerning Soviet peasants who lived during the 1920s and 1930s. Her book on the topic, Stalin's Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization, broke new ground in Soviet research as the first book by a Western specialist to use letters written by peasants as a source on village life after collectivization. Fitzpatrick is also the author of three other books on the Soviet era, all of which have substantially reshaped scholarly interpretation of that period.

    Fitzpatrick hopes that her students will continue to broaden the scope of research on the Soviet Union. The newly opened archives present a multitude of possibilities, she said.

    "Seldom do historians get a chance to use materials that no one else has used before," she said, "but this is the opportunity these students have."

    -- William Harms