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Forbidden History

Renounce Fear: Memoirs of a Historian (Otreshis ot Straha)

by Aleksandr Nekrich
Overseas Publications Interchange (London), 414 pp., $13.50

When Aleksandr Nekrich arrived in the West in 1976, he was known as one of the most distinguished Soviet historians, a respected Party member whose career had some years before been destroyed by the authorities. He was expelled from the Party in 1967, after his first book, June 22, 1941, showed that the USSR had been unprepared for the Nazi invasion largely because of Stalin’s errors.* Nekrich remained in the Soviet Union during the late Sixties and early Seventies, writing his memoirs and quietly working on a second book, The Punished Peoples, on an even more dangerous topic: Stalin’s brutal deportation of some one million people from the Caucasus and Crimea during the Second World War. Forbidden to teach and greatly restricted in his research, he continued to study official documents and the unpublished work of other scholars who had investigated the deportations that Soviet authorities are still reluctant to acknowledge took place. The opening passage of his memoir, not yet published in English, conveys something of his mood during this period between his expulsion from the Party and his decision to emigrate to the West:

The time for memoirs has come. I am fifty-two years old. I already feel the incessant movement of time. I can measure it in increasingly smaller segments. At the beginning of my life eternity lay before me. Then I got the taste of decades passing by: later on I could feel the passage of a single year. Now I have developed a feeling for months, weeks, days before eternity will engulf everything once more.

Renounce Fear is a quiet and detached account of the difficulties Nekrich encountered in pursuing historical research inside the Soviet Union—of his determination to investigate topics that the authorities decided were not to be discussed, as well as of the compromises that he had to make in order to continue working at all. At the beginning of his career, in the late 1940s, he wrote a dissertation on British foreign policy on the eve of World War II, defying his professor’s warning against studying such recent history. Nekrich’s paper discussed the efforts that the Soviet diplomats Maxim Litvinov and Ivan Maisky made in the early Thirties to establish relations with Western leaders and to encourage opposition to the growing strength of Germany. By the late Forties, Nekrich recalls, both men were “in disgrace…and the very mention of these names provoked great irritation.” But in his dissertation it was also necessary to pay what he calls in his memoir “adulatory tribute to the wisdom of J.V. Stalin” and of the pact he signed with Hitler on August 23, 1939. Nekrich could not even mention this pact in the essay, How the Second World War Broke Out, written in 1958 in collaboration with Vladimir Khvostov, the director of the Institute of History. “This question was and would remain too sensitive for Soviet historiography,” Nekrich comments. “No Soviet historian, including myself, dared at the time to cross the limit of the permissible and to leave the framework of official treatment of the past.”

Even when he was accepted as a historian, Nekrich was not permitted to travel freely or to use Western sources. He was not allowed to visit most Soviet archives and was frequently expected to rewrite the historical record to conform to the shifting Party lines that determine “historical truth” in the USSR. After the revolution, he notes, the Party sought “to create a new collective memory for the people, to completely throw out memories of what actually happened, to exclude from history whatever does not coincide or directly refutes the historical pretenses of the CPSU.” At first this meant silencing people who had witnessed embarrassing historical events. Later it meant crudely manipulating the facts and intimidating historians, including two of Nekrich’s teachers: the Marxist philosopher Abram Deborin and Ambassador Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to England before and during World War II. Both men were loyal Party members, highly respected within the Soviet Union and also in the West.

In his memoir, Nekrich describes Deborin’s meeting with three students, Yudin, Mitin, and Rantsevich, during the summer of 1930. They had come to report to their professor that several other scholars, including the academician Ivan Luppol, were thought to be Trotskyites. Deborin was appalled when they suggested that he “dissociate himself completely” from the suspected scholars: Luppol was not a Trotskyite and he saw no reason to abandon him. Even more astounding was another demand by the three informers—that Deborin “must declare Stalin the great reader in the forefront of philosophy.” At the time Deborin was merely bewildered by the visit and his students’ preposterous arguments. Some years later, during the purges, Luppol was arrested and shot, while Deborin himself was denounced as a “Menshevik idealist” and forbidden to continue his research on Marxism.

Ivan Maisky was arrested two weeks before Stalin’s death and charged with being a British spy. Beria knew that Maisky was innocent and intended to release him, but before he could do so, Beria was himself arrested and shot, charged by Molotov and Malenkov with the excesses of the Stalin period. Knowing that Beria had wanted to free Maisky, the two remaining members of the ruling triumvirate claimed that Maisky had been an ally of Beria, that Beria planned to appoint him as foreign minister once he gained control of the government.

Maisky was not brought to trial until 1955. The charges of espionage and treason were dropped. But after holding him in solitary confinement for over two years, the regime could not simply declare him innocent. He was accused of “anti-Soviet agitation” and sentenced to six years in prison, then released immediately after the trial. Later the judgment of the court was canceled and he was completely rehabilitated.

Like Maisky and Deborin, Nekrich was a dedicated communist. He had joined the Party in 1943 during the battle of Stalingrad, and later, as a respected scholar, became a member of the Party Committee at the Institute of History. He continued to work within the official limits imposed on historians throughout Stalin’s rule. As soon as Stalin died, Nekrich remembers, the government began to relax its control over historical research. “In 1953–1954 I thoroughly reworked my manuscript, expanded and supplemented it with new documents…. But we could not rid ourselves of the self-censorship which had firmly entrenched itself inside our subconscious.”

Only after Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin in February 1956 did Soviet intellectuals become more confident. Nekrich describes the decade between 1956 and 1966 as a time “of searching, of freedom from the burden of the past, years of creative enthusiasm.” Khrushchev himself was the first to criticize openly Stalin’s wartime leadership and challenge his claim to be a military genius. And Khrushchev’s joke that Stalin tried to conduct military strategy using a globe on his desk made it possible for Nekrich and several well-known generals to attack the policies Stalin pursued on the eve of World War II.

Nekrich’s book, June 22, 1941, was written in the early 1960s when criticism of Stalin’s crimes was most openly encouraged. His work, however, went further than any other Soviet account in showing how Stalin’s policies contributed to the success of the Nazi invasion. And although Nekrich’s conclusions were couched in familiar patriotic language, they contained shocking revelations:

1) Stalin’s purge of the Red Army in 1937-1938 greatly weakened and demoralized the Soviet armed forces. Virtually the entire high command, including all division and brigade commanders, were killed.

2) Stalin used evidence fabricated by the German Gestapo to condemn the Soviet marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky and many of his colleagues.

3) The British and American governments did not, as Stalin claimed, encourage or provoke the Germans to attack the Soviet Union in 1939.

4) Stalin’s pact with Hitler in August 1939 left the Soviet Union largely unprepared for war and vulnerable to Hitler’s invasion when it came.

5) In the months before the German invasion, Stalin ignored intelligence reports and overwhelming evidence that an attack was soon to come.

June 22, 1941 did not “cross the limit of the permissible”—at least for the Khrushchev period. The text of the book was examined by five different censors within the KGB, the Red Army, and the Party itself. Only the KGB found the book “unsuitable” for publication. Nekrich had cited too many “bourgeois sources” and also too many recent Soviet books that showed what the censors called “a subjective approach to appraising the history of the Soviet people.” Yet the KGB could not by itself stop publication of Nekrich’s study.

June 22, 1941 was not published until October 1965, a year after Khrushchev was removed from office. The entire edition of fifty thousand copies sold out within three days. But by that time Khrushchev’s successors had begun to silence criticism of the Stalin era. If Khrushchev had remained in power, or if the book had appeared in 1964, when it was first accepted for publication, Nekrich might have been spared reprisals. As it was, when the book appeared in 1965, the Party line was already changing for the worse.

There had been signs earlier in the year that the official view of Stalin was changing. In April an article calling for “a just historical reevaluation” of his wartime leadership appeared in Literaturnaya Gazeta. There were rumors that the new regime of Brezhnev and Kosygin had prepared a list of as many as two thousand intellectuals who would be arrested for the opinions they had expressed under Khrushchev’s rule. In September Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were arrested for publishing stories and essays abroad under the pseudonyms Abram Tertz and Nikolai Arzhak: They were convicted in February 1966; their case soon became a symbolic cause among students and intellectuals who demanded they have an open trial. Two days after their closed trial was over, the authorities convened a public discussion of Nekrich’s book at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism in Moscow.

Already in January,” Nekrich remembers, “rumors began to reach me that they were preparing a rout of my book.” He learned that officials of the Red Army and several departments of the Central Committee of the CPSU were determined to have him denounced. To counter their plans, he encouraged his friends and colleagues to attend the meeting, reasoning that “mean actions are created in silence, in darkness” but that “openness…if it cannot do away with cruelty…can in any case paralyze or weaken it.”

Both Nekrich and the authorities were astonished when more than two hundred people appeared at the meeting. Professor Grigory Deborin—the son of Nekrich’s teacher and a well-known apologist for the regime—opened the discussion by challenging Nekrich’s claim that Stalin had ignored intelligence reports and other evidence of Hitler’s impending attack. “Stalin’s estimate of German intentions was endorsed by all those around him,” Deborin argued, “so Stalin cannot be considered solely responsible for his mistakes.”

But several speakers opposed Deborin. Colonel Vyacheslav Dashischev of the General Staff argued that Stalin’s “guilt is immense.” Others criticized Nekrich for underestimating Stalin’s responsibility. One speaker called Stalin a criminal, and the old Bolshevik Alexei Snegov declared that he should have been shot. In a famous exchange, Deborin asked Snegov which “camp”—meaning which side—he belonged to. Snegov replied, “The Kolyma camp,” where millions of other prisoners died in the gold mines. Colonel Vasily Kulish, the editor of a journal of military history posed the most acute challenge to the regime:

To ask whether Stalin’s guilt was total or limited is still a typical attitude of the personality cult. One is still concentrating on Stalin…. We should ask how such a situation was able to come about…. We must analyze the process which allowed Stalin, who was not equal to his task, to become head of the Party and the state, with unlimited powers.

Nekrich felt that the discussion had vindicated his work. “In spite of all the quibbling and reservations,” he writes in his memoir, “historians are aware that the principal reason for our lack of preparedness for the war was the system of unlimited tyranny.” Within a few days after the meeting a transcript circulated in Moscow and then appeared in the West and in Eastern Europe. At the time it was one of the most provocative documents of the dissident movement to have emerged from the Soviet Union. The director of the Institute of History urged Nekrich to write to the Central Committee acknowledging “the mistakes and inadequacies of the book.” But Nekrich would not back down:

I had made my decision when I wrote the first page of my manuscript…. A new period of my life was opening for me and in this probably final part there should not be any place for the conformity of our hypocritical society.

On March 18, 1967, over a year after the meeting at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, the German magazine Der Spiegel published a long article on Nekrich and his book, using photos by a TASS photographer. The article may have been planted by the KGB to provide a pretext to attack Nekrich. Its author speculated that Brezhnev had wanted to rehabilitate Stalin at the Twenty-third Party Congress in 1966 but had been opposed by the progressive intellectuals, scientists, and veterans who supported Nekrich’s book. Nekrich believes the article was shown to Brezhnev, who then ordered the Party to investigate June 22, 1941 and its “use as bourgeois propaganda.”

Two months later Nekrich was summoned to appear before the Party Control Commission. His interrogators asked why he wrote the book and what he thought about the controversy over it. “What, in your opinion, is more important,” they asked. “Political expediency or historical truth?” Nekrich tried to avoid answering directly, but when pressed he said he believed in historical truth.

A month later he appeared before the Control Commission itself, in the chambers of Arvid Pelshe, a member of the Politburo known to be responsible for destroying the careers of wayward Party members. Describing Pelshe and the other members of the Commission, Nekrich recalls that “their speeches breathed hatred not only toward me but toward everything that was connected to breaking with Stalin and his policies.” One of Pelshe’s assistants spoke maliciously of rehabilitated prisoners, accusing them of “spreading discontent.” Nekrich then understood his case was

a long-wished-for occasion for them to vent their anger which had accumulated over the last ten to twelve years, when these people who had been educated and promoted under Stalin were then obliged to participate in anti-Stalinist measures.

Nekrich was expelled from the Party, and his book was withdrawn from Soviet libraries. Although he remained a senior research scholar at the Institute of History, he was allowed to publish no more than one article a year in an academic journal of limited circulation. Nor was he permitted to supervise graduate students, “because my superiors assume that I cannot teach them anything.” At the Institute of History, where he had worked for more than twenty years, his colleagues avoided him.

Nekrich remained in Moscow during the next eight years, writing his memoirs and his second book, The Punished Peoples. He befriended Western journalists and prominent dissidents like Pyotr Yakir, General Pyotr Grigorenko, and Andrei Sakharov, but decided not to join the dissidents in open protest against the regime. The manuscript of The Punished Peoples was sent to the West in the summer of 1975 when it became clear that it could not be published in the USSR Nekrich himself hesitated to leave the Soviet Union. He appealed to the Institute of History of publish his work on British foreign policy and allow him to supervise graduate students. His appeals were unanswered. And “gradually,” he writes, “I began to get tired of the need for self-censorship in my books and articles…in my private talks and discussions.”

In Renounce Fear, he writes of the irony surrounding his decision to emigrate. In 1932, when Nekrich was twelve years old, one of his first cousins left Latvia for Palestine. When he learned of her plans, he sent her what he now calls “a terrible letter which embarrassed me all my life. I accused her of betraying the international proletariat….” In 1975 he wrote to her again, asking her to forgive him and requesting an invitation to join her in Israel. His decision to come to the West—he has recently been doing research at Harvard—is yet another sign of the ideological exhaustion of a regime that is afraid of its writers and its own history.

  1. *

    An English translation of June 22, 1941 is contained in June 22, 1941: Soviet Historians and the German Invasion, edited with a prologue by Vladimir Petrov (University of South Carolina Press, 1968). Curiously, Petrov’s name appears on the cover and the title page as the sole author of the book. The volume also contains the samizdat report of the meeting at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism as well as two reviews of Nekrich’s book from the Soviet press.

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