What did you do in the war, dar­ling? Ju­dith Arm­strong

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Sheila Fitz­patrick’s ex­ten­sive con­tri­bu­tion to the his­tory of Soviet Rus­sia well de­serves the ac­claim it has re­ceived. Per­haps not so widely known are her vol­umes of mem­oir: My Fa­ther’s Daugh­ter (2010), an ac­count of the life and times of his­to­rian and dis­si­dent Brian Fitz­patrick, and A Spy in the Archives (2012), more an in­stance of mis­taken iden­tity than gen­uine es­pi­onage, but still an ab­sorb­ing ac­count of what it was like to do post­grad­u­ate re­search in 1960s Moscow.

Now a third piece of life-writ­ing has ap­peared, Mis­chka’s War, aris­ing from Fitz­patrick’s (se­cond) mar­riage to Mis­chka Danos, whose pick-up line when he found him­self, aged 67, seated next to a younger woman in an aero­plane in 1989 was a po­lite query re­gard­ing her Mis­chka’s War: A Euro­pean Odyssey By Sheila Fitz­patrick MUP, 313pp, $34.99 un­place­able ac­cent. He, how­ever, ad­mit­ted only to com­ing from “the Baltics” — the “mid­dle one”. Nev­er­the­less, these coy be­gin­nings led to an ex­tremely suc­cess­ful mar­riage, Danos’s third, that lasted 10 years be­fore Misha, as Fitz­patrick calls him, suc­cumbed to a stroke.

Her de­ci­sion to write about him was trig­gered by the open­ing of a box of diaries, doc­u­ments, cor­re­spon­dence and pho­to­graphs be­long­ing to Misha and his mother, Olga. These dated from the late 1930s to the early 50s, by which time mother and son had be­come dis­placed per­sons in Ger­many, both try­ing sep­a­rately to im­mi­grate to the US. Fitz­patrick be­gan to cat­a­logue and trans­late the pa­pers, then to in­ter­view fam­ily and friends, and fi­nally to write what is not a mem­oir, be­cause it dwells not on their years to­gether, but on the piec­ing to­gether of Misha’s life in Latvia, Ger­many and fi­nally the US be­fore she met him.

This mis­sion was com­pli­cated by Misha’s quirky tem­per­a­ment. By na­ture he came at things obliquely, while loy­alty to those he loved could af­fect his abil­ity to see clearly. Would it be dis­loyal on her part, won­dered his widow, to use the tech­niques of the pro­fes­sional his­to­rian to fer­ret out se­crets that strong feel­ings had urged him to let lie? He “didn’t do de­tach­ment”. Fitz­patrick, in con­trast, comes to see that she is de­tached even about her­self, ac­knowl­edg­ing in her in­tro­duc­tion the in­evitable ten­sion be­tween wifely rem­i­nis­cence and his­tor­i­cal ob­jec­tiv­ity. Is it pos­si­ble for a “search for knowl­edge” to be also an “of­fer­ing of love”, she asks, with­out quite grasp­ing that to recog­nise a prob­lem is not nec­es­sar­ily to over­come it.

The story it­self is a saga. In the early 1940s the Danos fam­ily — Olga and her three sons — were liv­ing in Riga, she sup­port­ing them all by work­ing in the fash­ion in­dus­try while the boys, Ar­pad, Mis­chka and Jan, stud­ied. Latvia, pre­vi­ously un­der Soviet ju­ris­dic­tion, had fallen to the Ger­mans soon after the be­gin­ning of World War II; life for ev­ery­one had be­come har­ried

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