Leadership in field leads to new role for FitzpatrickThe opening of archives in Russia has provided a wonderful opportunity for Sheila Fitzpatrick, the Bernadotte E. Schmitt Professor in History and a leading scholar on the Soviet Union, whose current work looks at the complaints people made to authorities during the Stalin era.
"I look at denunciations -- accusatory statements made by citizens against other citizens to state authorities," she said. "It's a new topic of inquiry and quite exciting."
Fitzpatrick's leadership in her field has led to her election this year as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. She also has been elected an honorary fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities.
Fitzpatrick is among a pioneering group of scholars who have based their work on records of the Soviet Union that were recently made available. The records provide a rich look at the lives of ordinary people, who often communicated with authorities through letters.
In the Soviet era, people wrote authorities to cast doubts on people's political loyalty and to gain advantage over others by calling into question their social origin, Fitzpatrick said.
"There were also mundane accusations, such as accusing people of stealing from a farm," she said. "Another kind of accusation, which was not necessarily justified, was to denounce an apartment-mate as being of anti-Soviet origins for the purpose of getting him evicted so that you could have his space."
The denunciations were one of the few avenues for citizens with complaints about others because the Soviet legal system did not provide well for legal suits, and there were no real elections to facilitate redresses of grievances, she said.
"It was always a gamble, however," Fitzpatrick said. "There was a chance that the denunciation might work, but there was also a chance that it would backfire, and the person making the accusations would get investigated."
As part of her work on accusations, she and Robert Gellately are co-editing Accusatory Practices: Denunciation in Modern European History, 1789-1989, which will be published in the spring by the Press. The book includes an article by Fitzpatrick on denunciations during the Stalin era.
Fitzpatrick joined the faculty in 1990 after serving on the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. She received her B.A. in 1961 from the University of Melbourne and her D.Phil. in 1969 from Oxford. This spring she will be a visiting professor at the University of Tuebingen in Germany.