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Back in the USSR: my life as a ‘spy’ in the archives

Spies were a glamour news item in Western (and Soviet) press in the 1960s; it was the age of Kim Philby, British spymaster-cum-Soviet spy, and the endless media hunt for the “fifth man” of the Cambridge…

What links the former Soviet Union to the Russia we know today? Rob Ketcherside

Spies were a glamour news item in Western (and Soviet) press in the 1960s; it was the age of Kim Philby, British spymaster-cum-Soviet spy, and the endless media hunt for the “fifth man” of the Cambridge Five. That’s the environment I entered in September 1966, when I went to Moscow as a British Council Exchange student.

It’s hard to convey how exotic and potentially perilous Moscow seemed to Westerners then. This was the height of the Cold War, when scarcely any foreigners could live for a year in Moscow alongside Soviet citizens, and we British students (I was actually an Australian, but it was a British exchange) were specially briefed by someone from MI6 about the dangers of making Soviet friends, since they would all be spies and assume the same of us.

Sheila at Kuznetskii bridge over Moscow river, 1969. Author's image.

Presumably there were some real spies in our British group; there certainly were in the Soviet group sent to Britain, since one of them ended up as No. 3 man in the KGB. I myself was not a spy, even though the place I was doing my Soviet history doctorate, St Antony’s in Oxford, was notorious in both the British and Soviet press as a “spy college”, having been founded after the war by ex-intelligence people.

But sometimes I felt like one, just because, from the Soviet standpoint, anyone who tried to find out things the Soviet Union didn’t want known about itself and its history qualified as a spy.

I spent three lonely months falling in love with Moscow but knowing almost nobody. Then I made Russian friends, as most of the British group did, who turned out to be friends for life.

The KGB was interested in our friends and lovers, up to a point, but what they really disapproved of was marriage between a Soviet citizen and a foreigner.

Although it was no longer against the law, it was hard to do, and harder still to export your spouse once you had married them. There were sad cases of foreigners who had married Russians and stayed in the Soviet Union, cast off by their embassies and under pressure from the Soviets to give up their British or American passports. Those passports were our most precious possession: they meant that, unlike Soviet citizens, we could leave the country.

Soviet citizens in Moscow, 1969. Rob Ketcherside

The only thing as exciting as my new friendships were the archives. Foreigners were generally not allowed into archives of the Soviet period in case they found out “state secrets”, a Soviet obsession, but I had a relatively innocuous topic (Soviet education in the 1920s) and managed to gain limited access.

The State Archives – unchanged – in 2012. Author's image.

It was a constant battle of wits with the archivists to get the material you wanted, particularly since the inventories of what they had were themselves state secrets, so you had to guess. Absolutely off limits were classified documents and because of the obsession with secrecy, many documents were classified.

But it turned out that, even with unclassified documents, you could find out a lot. That process felt so surreptitious that if they had arrested and interrogated me, I might have broken down and confessed to being a spy. But it wasn’t the Stalin period any more, so they weren’t going to arrest me as long as I was on the official British exchange. The worst thing they could do was to declare me persona non grata and throw me out of the country.

That happened to a handful of foreign students each year; and I might have been one of them, since at the end of my first year I was denounced in the newspaper Sovetskaia Rossiia as “next thing to a spy” for writing an allegedly defamatory article about Soviet history. But I was lucky: the article was published under my maiden name and nobody made the connection.

A 1968 article in newspaper Sovetskaia Rossiia denouncing the author as the “next thing to a spy”. Author's image

I had been a Soviet historian, practising my trade in the United States, for more than 20 years when in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. No one expected it, least of all the Russian population, who watched in bewilderment as erstwhile Soviet officials pocketed whatever state asset they had their hands on when the music stopped, from real estate to whole republics.

For Russians, the great thing about the collapse was that the borders opened and they were able to travel abroad; the worst thing was that they lost all the “fraternal” republics and found out that at least some of their brothers thought they were imperialists. For historians, it was a wonderful time because we were suddenly able to read the classified part of the archives – in effect, dig up all the dirt.

Moscow State University, 1969. Rob Ketcherside

Or nearly all: while the Communist Party’s archive opened because the formerly ruling party was now no longer in power, the KGB archive stayed closed, for the opposite reason. The KGB, renamed FSB, was one Soviet institution that survived the debacle more or less intact. It makes sense that the strongest and savviest of Russia’s post-Soviet leaders, Vladimir Putin, should have come from its ranks.

In the old Soviet Union, you didn’t joke about being a spy, any more than you would now joke at any international airport about being a terrorist with a bomb. I’d forgotten that when I wrote my Soviet memoir and called it A Spy in the Archives; or perhaps I thought it was no longer relevant, since the Soviet Union was dead. Russian friends quickly set me right: if you’re a foreigner and have any sense, you still don’t joke about being a spy.

And if you write about the second world war, you’d better be careful not to disrespect the Soviet war effort – you can get five years prison for that, according to a Russian law passed this month.


Sheila Fitzpatrick is author of A Spy in the Archives (Melbourne University Press, 2013) and many books on Soviet history. She will be giving a Curiosity Lecture on the Soviet Union at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on May 24.