Australian historian Sheila Fitzpatrick has spent her career documenting the history of the USSR. She tells Jacobin about her latest project, which looks at the Soviet citizens who migrated to Australia and their complicated relationship with their homeland.

Memorial service held by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Sydney, Australia, to commemorate the Holodomor, June 28, 1953. (Wikimedia Commons)

Since the 1960s, the Australian historian Sheila Fitzpatrick has devoted her career to trying to understand the USSR — what it was, how it worked, and what it meant. Her work, based always on close reading of the archives, became in the 1970s the leading part of an unofficial “revisionist” school of social historians who rejected the notion that the USSR was a completely controlled totalitarian state.

Fitzpatrick was born and raised in postwar Australia, where her father Brian was a nonconforming socialist journalist — an experience she wrote about in her memoir My Father’s Daughter. A few years ago, Fitzpatrick returned to her native country, where she has been applying the same methods of archival research and revisionist attention to histories from below to the story of postwar migration to Australia.

Owen Hatherley talked to her about her new book White Russians, Red Peril, which tells the story of the thousands of Soviet citizens and ethnic Russians who migrated to Australia in the 1940s and ’50s.

Owen Hatherley

You grew up in Melbourne, and have moved back there recently.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

I was so keen to get out of Melbourne way back. It’s very funny to return to it.

Owen Hatherley

It was pejorative, right? Melbourne in the ’50s as an incredibly businesslike, bleak city.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Everything was closed on Sunday, and pubs closed at 6:00 p.m.

Owen Hatherley

This comes up in White Russians, Red Peril, these people being amazed that there’s only one entertainment and it’s the pub and it closes at 6:00 p.m.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

I don’t know whether my deep sympathy for them came through because I just think it must have been awful. Arriving I mean. It was bad enough having grown up there, but at least if you’d grown up there, you could leave when you grew up. But a migrant can’t think like that, not a migrant from postwar Eastern Europe.

At least if you’d grown up in Melbourne, you could leave when you grew up. But a migrant can’t think like that.

Owen Hatherley

But they could get a car incredibly quickly, which these people seemed to appreciate.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

They could build a house. There was a great shortage of builders, but while you couldn’t get a house built, you could save enough for a plot of land on the outskirts, and build your own house in five years, and then you’d have the little house and the car.

Owen Hatherley

Whereas you grew up in a flat, which was pretty unusual in Australia at the time.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Yeah. Real Australians didn’t live in flats, so that was part of our complete outsider status. I’m sure that, first of all, my father didn’t have the money to buy a house, but on the other hand they could probably have rented one. There was something they liked about living in a flat — but then they sent me to a private school.

Among the grievances against my parents, or really the main one, was that they insisted on sending me to a private school. First of all, it was academically awful. Secondly, it was anti-communist, and therefore I got all this “your father’s a Communist,” although he wasn’t. But it was against the family code of honor to say you were not a Communist if you were not a Communist, because somebody who wasn’t a Communist had to not deny it.

This was all very tedious. I kept saying, “please, I want to go to the state school,” which was on the tram line. They just wouldn’t do it, which made me very annoyed and frustrated.

The architect Robin Boyd lived in a Roy Grounds–designed house directly opposite ours. These were architecturally much better than ours, which was built in the late ’30s in that kind of style — it’s called art deco by the estate agents, but the only art deco thing you can really discern is there’s the odd curve. Émigré architects like Frederick Romberg built flats in St Kilda because basically flats were considered a Jewish form of life. Everybody in our block of flats was a European migrant except for us.

But on the other hand, we didn’t seem to feel any particular kinship with them either, despite my father’s close involvement with left-wing Jewish intellectuals, because these people were not left wing and they were not intellectuals. They were refugees. That didn’t cut it for him. Perhaps it was just because they weren’t drinking people. In other words, he was a person whose sociability revolved around drinking, either in the house or in the pub. If they don’t drink, then how do you get on good terms?

Owen Hatherley

I wanted to start by asking about your relationship with the Left. Obviously, it’s biographically important, with the influence on you of your father, the socialist journalist Brian Fitzpatrick, when you were growing up in Melbourne, but also of your mentor as a young historian in the 1960s, the old Bolshevik writer and editor Igor Sats. But how do you think of it now?

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Fathers as much as mentors — Igor was also a father figure as well as a mentor. I saw them as similar, but in my mind they probably figured as dissidents. Igor was not what was called a dissident in the Soviet Union because he was a critic from within the system, but in a broader sense one could regard him as somebody who is always “agin [against] the government,” like my father.

It interested me, the comparison between what that meant in the two systems, because it was a somewhat heroic role in the Soviet Union — it was a given that you were on the side of right. There was a sense that that was a matter of bravery, whereas in Australia you might try to cultivate a heroic mode, but the people around you only thought it was a bit ridiculous.

My relationship to the Left is certainly that I come from it. That is to say, it’s my tribal origin.

I thought in a certain sense it was easier to be a dissident in the Soviet Union. There was a lot more reinforcement and solidarity and so on. Now, mind you, because my father was on the Left, on the far left, but not a Communist, that cut him out of some of what solidarity would have been around. Because if you were brought up actually as a child of Communists you then had a community, and my father’s strange position didn’t give him a community.

To address that question directly, my relationship to the Left is certainly that I come from it. That is to say, it’s my tribal origin, and I therefore have a loyalty to it, but I have stayed out of any kind of political engagement.

I wanted to find out what the Soviet Union was like. On the Left, they hoped it was good, but they didn’t know anything. And on the Right, they hoped and affirmed that it was bad but also didn’t know that much. So I was really curious to know — what can this be like? — which was the main stimulus for going there.

In fact, this involved an argument with my father, in that I thought it was not a very important thing to him. He hoped the Soviet Union was okay and was prepared to defend it against criticism, because he assumed the criticism was biased. As a teenager when I started criticizing him for all kinds of things, one of those things was basically: How do you know anything about the Soviet Union?

So it was a curiosity about something unknown. Being a Sovietologist who is trying not to run a particular political line was very difficult because of the pressures on both sides to do that. It was simply very difficult to extract yourself from that sort of mode of thinking that anything you say about the Soviet Union is either praise or condemnation.

Owen Hatherley

White Russians, Red Peril follows on in some ways from Mischka’s War, your book about your husband, the Latvian physicist Misha Danos. What was it like merging these two places — the country that you grew up in and the country you’ve devoted your career to studying?

Sheila Fitzpatrick

I had never intended to come back to Australia, and nobody thought I would, unlike most Australian expatriates, including most of my friends, not all of whom came back, but they always meant to, and I didn’t. But then after my husband died, I didn’t want to keep on living in America — or I wanted not to end my life in America, you might say — I thought, where will I go? I thought of a bunch of places, and in the end decided on coming to Sydney.

But I thought that if I come back, first of all, in Australia, I thought nobody cares about Russian history here, so I need another specialty: namely the history of migration. They care more now, of course, because of Ukraine. At that point I thought that this was a matter of indifference there. I wasn’t even sure that, once I was in Australia, I would keep going to Russia to work in the archives, and in that case, I would certainly have needed another research area.

So I’m now making it sound incredibly rational. But there’s also the fact that I was uprooting myself again. I’ve done migration before, in my twenties, and then I went from Britain, where I probably thought I’d stay, to America. And so finally I’m moving again, and that, of course, made me interested in the process of migration.

When I wrote Soviet history, I was, of course, an outsider looking in. I was not a part of it.

In part in the same terms, in Tear off the Masks!, I was interested in the phenomenon of self-reinvention. When the society you’re in changes, come the revolution, you’ve got to give a different account of yourself. Migration is the same. Your account of yourself has to change.

But then back to the practical: I thought, well, I can also do migration history, and specifically that of those Russians who found themselves displaced after World War II who came to Australia. I was thinking about a different kind of book to write about Russians in Australia, and in part because of the connections with Tear off the Masks! that I’ve mentioned.

But also when I wrote Soviet history, I was, of course, an outsider to that, an outsider looking in. I was not a part of it. Now, in general, Australian historians writing about Australia tend to think of themselves very much as a part of it. I didn’t think of myself as a part of Australia, although I do increasingly.

My Russians coming to Australia, they’re arriving in a strange place. And I have just done that, too, although it’s a strange place that I also know. My knowledge of Australia is actually very strange because up to 1964, I had a reasonably good knowledge of its politics and social life. And then I didn’t pay very much attention until 2012.

But on the other hand, all my contemporaries and friends, they had a whole life in that time, and all kinds of dramatic things happened, including in the public realm, that I didn’t participate in. I like trying to understand things that I don’t fully understand, so that it was really interesting to go to the Soviet Union in the ’60s, because there I fully didn’t understand it and worked hard to understand it.

Now, coming back to Australia, I have this sort of partial understanding with a tremendous forty-eight-year gap in the middle. That makes finding out about the forty-eight years in the middle really quite interesting as well.

Owen Hatherley

And during that time Melbourne and Sydney became multicultural cities, which they hadn’t been before.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Oh, yes, absolutely. I mean, they’re unrecognizable from what I left. It is very much improved, in my opinion, from what I left.

Owen Hatherley

And in a way this starts with those people recruited at the end of the war by the Australian Labor government. But they’re not the people the Labor minister for immigration, Arthur Calwell, thinks he’s getting — they go to the displaced persons (DP) camps and think that with these Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Ukrainians, and Croats, they’re getting good (and of course white and non-Jewish) working-class folk who will join trade unions and vote Labor, and of course what they’re actually getting is middle-class professionals who are very hostile to the Left.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

They did manual labor for two years — they were indentured for two years — but that’s the end of it. At a certain point early on, Calwell and some of his people did think that they were getting the equivalent of Dutch Protestant social democrats or something. That was not what they got. They got anti-communists whose votes probably helped keep the Australian Labor Party out of office for decades.

On the Left, when I was growing up in the late 1940s and ’50s, there was a lot of suspicion of the DP migrant. The Left in Melbourne had a strong Jewish component, and the Jewish component was not happy about what it perceived as the letting in of collaborators. And of course, the immigration authorities did let in Nazis, and there was a lot of distress about that within the left wing of the Jewish community and in the Left in general.

When my father thought of Baltic migrants, he would tend to assume that they were likely to be collaborators and Nazi sympathizers.

Therefore, in writing about the Russians, I’m sort of writing against the grain of my tribal loyalty, because from our family point of view, we were in favor of the Jewish migrants and against anybody who criticized them, but we were not keen on other DPs. When my father thought of Baltic migrants, he would tend to assume that they were likely to be collaborators and Nazi sympathizers, and that was a widespread view in the trade unions as well.

I was reminded of that when I was writing Mischka’s War, because Misha (later my husband) was a Latvian who became a DP at the end of the war and was therefore open to that accusation of collaboration. I gave a paper on it at the Australian National University, in an academic context, and somebody basically jumped up and said, “well, why do you take Misha at face value? After all, he was a Latvian and therefore almost certainly a Nazi.” I was really taken aback by that, and angry at the attack on Misha. But that attitude was a common one, and I’m sure that my family had it when I was growing up.

Owen Hatherley

Certainly what unites many of the Russians in White Russians, Red Peril with the better-known Baltic and Ukrainian and I guess also Croatian and Serbian migrants is that they were people who preferred living under Nazi occupation to living under Soviet occupation.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Yes, that’s right. Another characteristic of Russian migrants once they get to Australia, as well as to the United States and other places, is that there’s a celebration of identity in terms of patriotism (Russian), religion (Orthodoxy), and anti-communism — this doesn’t apply only to the Russians, but to all the Slavic and Eastern European migrant groups.

In the Russian case, this is particularly interesting in that these are historically markers of identity for “White Russians,” the émigrés who left Russia after the revolution and lived in Europe between the wars, who were among those who were resettled in Australia and other countries as DPs after World War II. But that’s not so for the former Soviet Russians who arrived at the same time.

Many of them had in fact passed themselves off as White Russians in the DP camps after the war, to avoid being repatriated to the Soviet Union. Once they arrived in Australia, many of the Russian migrants preferred to forget that they had ever been Soviet — all the more because, during the Cold War, that wasn’t going to make them popular in Australia.

Once they arrived in Australia, many of the Russian migrants preferred to forget that they had ever been Soviet.

They tended to take a very strong anti-communist position, with regard to both domestic and international affairs. Probably in most cases they really did dislike the Soviet Union, but whether they privately did or didn’t, they needed to take that position, for fear of being labeled “Red” just because they were Russian. So that gives me, as a social historian, the interesting question of how people handle a flawed identity, which is what “Soviet Russian” was in Australian Cold War terms.

Owen Hatherley

Some of them, I suppose, dealt with that ideologically, in that many of them were active on the Right, in organizations like the National Alliance of Russian Solidarists (NTS), the far-right Russian émigré organization that had been based in Yugoslavia before the war. But also a lot of them would go to the pro-Soviet Russian Social Club in Melbourne and watch Soviet films.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Yes. But they would also contribute to the building of an Orthodox church in the suburbs they were living in, and there was more effort being put into that. Now, if you were a Soviet person, inventing an Orthodox identity was sometimes quite challenging.

Some Soviets would have retained Orthodox faith to a degree, particularly in the villages, but those who grew up in towns much less. But once you got to Australia as a Russian new Australian, Orthodoxy was the core of the identity — Orthodoxy and anti-communism. And of course, the Church (which was the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad) was very active against Communism, too.

Owen Hatherley

In terms of flawed identities, a lot of these Russians came into Australia through claiming to be Ukrainian. But later you write that one of the problems of the Russian identity was shown when Ukrainian émigrés gradually came to organize around an anti-colonial identity, based on the memory of the Holodomor and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Even though the Russians had their “Day of Irreconcilability” on the anniversary of the October Revolution, and published books with titles like Russians Are Not Communists, they couldn’t be part of that anti-colonial identity the Ukrainians were building, because they were mostly Russian monarchists.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Yes. Although I haven’t really got the whole Russian-Ukrainian relationship in Australia straight yet. Some of these people called themselves Russian and some of them called themselves Ukrainian, and they went to Orthodox churches that defined themselves as either Russian or Ukrainian, depending on which one happened to be there.

In Australia, the situation was different from that of Canada, where you had a relatively large Ukrainian diaspora already in situ for the postwar migrants to join. In Australia, there was a small prewar Russian community, about five thousand people, which included people who might later identify as Ukrainian.

Owen Hatherley

There’s something interesting that John-Paul Himka and Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe have written about with reference to Ukraine, where the often quite apolitical Ukrainian DPs, many of whom had been forced laborers in the Third Reich, came to be led in the camps by veterans of the OUN. Something similar happened here with the way the NTS came to speak for the Russian DPs.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

I wouldn’t see the camps as an ideological training ground so much, as that would suggest strongly that it was coming from outside, but as the cauldrons where ideology was being fired. In the Russian case, it seems to me that what tended to happen was that immigrants from the earlier, postrevolutionary immigration, who were better educated, more upper class, basically ran the camps almost by right.

NTS was the organization that united many of them. I mean, obviously there were lots of White Russians who were not NTS, but the ones who ran the camps were. That’s where I think you saw established the model where a former Soviet person was helped by these intellectuals who were running the council of the immigrants to acquire a false passport, saying that one was stateless — in other words, White Russian.

Then after having the passport, you also acquired the identity you were learning. If you look at some of the memoirs from the White Russian immigrants running the camps, they’re really fascinating in their emphasis on their pedagogical role. They gave classes with the bigger purpose of reforming the thinking of these people.

Owen Hatherley

You write about two groups of migrants, one from the DP camps in Europe, and one from China, when the Russian communities in Shanghai and especially Harbin gradually made their way to Australia between the revolution in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution in the ’60s. Did you find much difference in the way these two émigré groups saw each other?

Sheila Fitzpatrick

There is a real difference. The World War II people were the ones whose children complained that their parents never said anything about the past, never gave them a clear account of anything, wouldn’t even clearly say where they were born, leaving the whole question of origins very murky. All sorts of things were simply not mentioned, including previous marriages and wives and children left back in the Soviet Union.

Whereas the DP migrants from Europe often came as single people, the Harbin people generally came as families, and often came along with not only their own family from Harbin, but lots of other families who also come — and they were interested in their past. They told their children about the past. They had a nostalgia for Russian Harbin, but also sometimes they even had a nostalgia for China. It was a much easier, less tortured relationship to the past.

Owen Hatherley

Even though the Russia that they were nostalgic for was located in China.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Yes, that’s the irony of it. Many of the Russian migrants who came to Australia from China had never actually lived in Russia. On the other hand, in one sense they had closer connections with the Soviet Union than the European DPs who had actually lived there.

Many of the Russian migrants who came to Australia from China had never actually lived in Russia.

One of the fascinating things is that as far as I can gather, practically everybody who came to Australia from Harbin or Shanghai had either a family member or quite close friends who decided to repatriate to the Soviet Union, and to a degree contact was kept up. So there’s another big difference.

I’m not saying they were not anti-communist, it’s just that it was different. For the World War II migrants, the European lot and their children, the Soviet Union becomes a sort of devil’s land that you couldn’t even think of. It wasn’t so for the China Russians. On the one hand there was the myth of prerevolutionary Russia, but you would also know a few people that lived in the Soviet Union now.

Many of those who arrived in the Soviet Union in the late ’40s did end up in the gulag, though not forever — but it’s not that they had an easy passage. I’m not at all suggesting that they heard good things about the USSR, just that the place was real to them in a way it wasn’t for most Australians at the time.

Owen Hatherley

Did you start writing White Russians, Red Peril as a result of Mischka’s War — did one lead to the other?

Sheila Fitzpatrick

I started thinking about writing Mischka’s War after Misha died in 1999. I went through his papers and as a historian I couldn’t help cataloguing them. I saw that there was something that I could write and wanted to write, but I couldn’t write it straight away. It was about ten years later, but it was in my mind for all that time.

Probably when I was thinking about choosing the topic of migration, I chose DPs because I knew an awful lot about two DPs: Misha and his mother Olga. I had read their correspondence when they were living in Germany as DPs but in different places, since it was among Misha’s papers. Those letters were fascinating because they showed the range of things that DPs could do in practice, as opposed to what you would gather from the archives of the international organizations (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration [UNRRA] and International Refugee Organization [IRO]) that looked after them.

They simply often did things that were not meant to be in the repertoire for DPs: for example, DPs are never meant to set up businesses, but Olga keeps setting up little businesses. That was very interesting for me, because I knew the Misha stuff before I went to the archives and read the literature and saw that practically everything about Misha and his mother’s DP status, including the fact that they didn’t live in camps, was unusual.

They were what were called “free living” DPs. Then I gradually realized that the whole literature is based on information from the people who lived in camps, because those are the people whom the UNRRA knew most about.

Owen Hatherley

There are so many things in that story that are so deeply strange and unusual, like when he went on this jolly off to Germany in 1944 — and accidentally found himself in Dresden during the firebombing.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

He did take my breath away when he first mentioned that he had gone to Germany to study in June 1944. He did it because if he had stayed in Riga he would have been conscripted into the Waffen-SS.

Owen Hatherley

Even more odd is his nationality — Latvian but also Hungarian, and also, though it’s unclear whether he knew it or not (the Germans clearly didn’t), Jewish.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

It was interesting to me that his brother in Latvia insisted on telling me that “we were part of the German society” in Riga, which was not Misha’s view at all, although they were German-speaking and he went to the German high school. I think the reality is that a Hungarian, probably Jewish, was not that welcome in Riga’s German society, even if he speaks German. But for Misha’s younger brother, it was a mark of social standing.

Owen Hatherley

You also mention something that I found very much when I spent two months in Latvia in 2016, mostly in Kuldiga, in Courland — that its history is totally compartmentalized. The people working on Latvian Latvia, German Latvia, Russian Latvia, Jewish Latvia, don’t seem to talk to each other or factor the other’s experience into the history.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

I came across that in a more scholarly, practical way. In other words, I was trying to get the sense of the history of opera in Riga, but there are no books on the history of opera in Riga. It’s the Russian opera, the German opera, or the Latvian opera. They’re all separate history. They have nothing in common with each other.

At the moment I’m working on another DP book, about Soviet and Baltic migration, this time — Soviet and Baltic DPs in Europe and their dispersal. It’s called Lost Souls, which is a reference to the Soviet view that DPs in Europe ought to be returned to them as Soviet property (a bit like serfs, referred to in property dealing as “souls,” in old Russia). In other words, the resettlement and repatriation of a small group of voluntary repatriates.

I have terrific archival material on it, and I find that really quite fascinating. Obviously, I’m drawing to some extent on the Australian diaspora, but North America is going to have to come up strongly. I had lots and lots of archival material from doing White Russians, Red Peril, and that meant that in COVID lockdown, I could write more or less from what I had.

If you were a DP, you were in the camps, and one of three things was going to happen to you. One, you went back. Two, you’d resettle. And the third was that you couldn’t make up your mind to do anything and so you stayed in Germany.

The first option, repatriation, is one I found terrific material on in Russian archives, so it plays a much larger role in this book than in White Russians, Red Peril. As far as resettlement is concerned, a big theme is the differences between White Russians and former Soviet citizens, something that hasn’t really been noticed in the scholarship so far.

I’m adding the Baltic DPs, a group the Soviets claimed as Soviet (on the basis of the incorporation of the three Baltic states in 1939) but that the Western Allies quickly decided were not subject to Soviet repatriation. When I say Baltic, I really always focus on Latvia, because that’s where I know most about and respond to most.

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