History / Sheila Fitzpatrick

A Spy in the Archives

In 1968, Sheila Fitzpatrick was ‘outed’ by a Soviet newspaper as a spy. A graduate student at the time, her experiences are collected in her memoir, A Spy in the Archives. Read an extract from the book below.

A Spy in the Archives

The Foreign Office briefed us before we went off to Moscow on the British Council exchange. Or rather, I suppose, MI6 briefed us, for the speaker was never introduced by name. The setting was a dark-panelled windowless basement in the Foreign Office building, and the subject was the dangers facing foreign students in Moscow. Everybody we met in the Soviet Union would be a spy, we were told. It would be impossible to make friends with Russians because, in the first place, they were all spies, and, in the second, they would make the same assumption about us. As students, we would be particularly vulnerable to Soviet attempts to compromise us because, unlike other foreigners resident in Moscow and Leningrad, we would actually live side by side with Russians instead of in a foreigners’ compound. Detailed instructions were offered about how to avoid getting into trouble with the KGB. We should be particularly careful not to be entrapped into sexual liaisons which would result in blackmail (from the Soviet side) and swift forcible return to Britain (from the British). If any untoward approach was made to us, or if we knew of such an approach to someone else in the group, we should immediately inform the embassy.

Our group of twenty listened respectfully, but few availed themselves of the chance to ask questions. There must have been quite a lot of silent scepticism in the room about the briefer’s claim that it would be impossible to make friends with Russians, as most of the group, like me, had surely been before on tourist trips and met their own Alyoshas, not to mention Vics. I certainly thought the briefer was out of date, and was a bit surprised at the strength of the Cold War message. At the same time, it was hard not to shiver at the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere and the speaker’s emphasis that if you got into trouble in the Soviet Union, it could be real trouble. In Stalin’s time, the Soviet assumption had been that foreigners, particularly from capitalist countries, were likely to be spies. That wasn’t exactly the dominant view in the post-Stalin Soviet Union, but it hadn’t wholly disappeared either. Exchanges like ours existed, but it was presumed that both sides would use them to send a few spies, or spies in training, along with the regular students. I found out when I was doing some research on the exchanges that one of the Soviet students sent to Britain in the mid 1960s—our counterparts—was an up-and- coming intelligence agent who by 1971 was KGB resident in Norway and thirty years later had risen to No. 3 in the KGB hierarchy. I doubt that the intelligence man in our group, whoever he was, had such a brilliant later career, but he was surely there.

Certainly the Soviets frequently protested about spies on the student exchanges. The Leningrad KGB put out a booklet based on its files of such cases from the 1960s entitled Scholarly Exchange and Ideological Diversion. Since the beginning of the exchanges in the late 1950s, the booklet noted, ‘the sinister shadow of the CIA’, and by the same token MI6 and all the European intelligence agencies, had hung over them. The exchange was frequently used as a cover for spying and ‘anti-Soviet activity’, which meant expressing opinions the Soviet authorities didn’t like or spreading information they regarded as harmful; ‘anti-Soviet activity’ was actually an offence punishable by imprisonment under the Soviet Criminal Code, although in practice they didn’t usually prosecute foreigners for it but just expelled them from the country. In one of the Leningrad cases, a Belgian exchange student caught in anti-Soviet activity had confessed to his KGB interrogators that ‘he had been given detailed instructions about how to act so as not to attract the attention of the Soviet security forces’—in other words, he had had a briefing just like ours. His interrogators smiled at such naivety (this observation is included in the report), but it didn’t give us exchange students much to smile about if even attending the Foreign Office’s mandatory advance briefing put us in the wrong with the KGB.

Spying was an obsession with everyone on the exchange. Our conversations throughout the year were full of speculation about whether such and such a Russian was a spy. There was gossip about the American exchange group, which seemed to have trouble keeping the CIA as well as the KGB at bay. We assumed that at least one of our number was a real spy, since in that Iron Curtain divided world the chance of smuggling someone in would obviously be irresistible to both sides. We also assumed, based on the experience of previous years, that at least one of us, who might be a real spy but probably wasn’t, was likely either to be expelled by the Russians for anti-Soviet activity or sent home by the British for being compromised by the KGB. As the year went on, the grapevine brought news of various incidents where exchange students had been followed or found themselves targets of entrapment and other forms of KGB attention. Entrapment (provokatsiya) meant that the KGB set you up in some compromising situation (sex with a Russian, especially homosexual, which was a criminal offence; black-market dealings; distributing anti-Soviet literature) and then tried to blackmail you: we won’t pursue this if you’ll just agree to give us information from time to time in the future.

I was told in strict confidence by one of our British group that one of the other students had been trapped in this way and—instead of telling the embassy, as we were supposed to do, and being sent home posthaste—had agreed to the KGB offer. The convolutions of possible spying scenarios seemed to be endless. Towards the end of the year, my Soviet friend Sasha, a student who lived in the Moscow University dorm, told me that he thought that this same British student had been tailing him. The whole story seemed wildly improbable, but on the off-chance there was anything in it, the range of possibilities was mind-boggling. Sasha could have been a KGB stooge (though I didn’t think he was) trying to stir up trouble within the British group or just elicit some comment from me on the British student concerned. The British student could be spying on Sasha on behalf of British intelligence, though it was difficult to imagine a reason unless it had something to do with the Soviet student’s friendship with me. Or, most implausibly, the British student could be spying on Sasha for unknown reasons on behalf of the KGB.

‘Are you a spy (ty shpionka)?’ was the ingenuous question asked me by a schoolgirl in Volgograd. I said no, but in my own mind the answer wasn’t absolutely clear-cut. No, I was not a spy: that is, I was not on the payroll or working unpaid for any national or émigré intelligence agency. But I knew some spies, broadly construed: my Oxford college, St Antony’s, was full of them, admittedly mainly retired; and not long after my arrival in Moscow I was appalled to receive a signed letter through the open post from one of them. How close did a connection have to be to become culpable? We exchange students were often invited to the embassy, where officials (some of whom must have been intelligence officers) showed interest in our experiences and observations of Soviet life; and at the end of the year we all had to write a detailed final report for the British Council, which was probably passed on to the Foreign Office and MI6, on the same topic. There was even the possibility of individual debriefing, as I discovered after my return to Britain, if one was thought to have sufficiently interesting things to report. Where did that come on the continuum between being a spy and being an innocent bystander?

No doubt it was a symptom of our collective paranoid obsession with spying that such thoughts would even come into my mind. In the unlikely event that I had wanted to be absolutely honest in replying to the Volgograd girl’s question, I might have said, ‘Not intentionally.’ But even that might not have been fully accurate, since in my capacity as a historical researcher, I wanted to find out things the Soviet authorities wanted to hide, and they counted that as spying. Given my status as a hunter out of secrets, I never felt totally innocent—but perhaps nobody did in the Soviet Union. The most accurate answer to the Volgograd question might have been: ‘I don’t think so’. Or even ‘I hope not’. ■

A Spy in the ArchivesSheila Fitzpatrick is Emerita Professor of History at the University of Chicago and Honorary Professor of History at the University of Sydney. Her memoir A Spy in the Archives, from which this is an extract, is out this month. One of the most acclaimed historians of twentieth-century Russia, she is also the author of The Russian Revolution; Stalin’s Peasants; Everyday Stalinism; and Tear off the Masks!
Image shows Sheila Fitzpatrick wearing her ‘Ministry of Railways’ coat, by the Moska River, in the winter of 1969.
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