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Invitation to a Beheading

Stalin: Triumph & Tragedy

by Dmitri Volkogonov, edited and translated by Harold Shukman
Grove Weidenfeld, 642 pp., $29.95


A few days after the collapse of the August coup in Moscow last year, reliable sources in the Russian government said the KGB had for months been burning archives in underground furnaces. But even the celebrated efficiency of the secret police was no match for their own graphomania. In Moscow and in cities across the former Soviet Union, there are tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of documents describing the crimes, decisions, and trivia of the regime. When it came time to cover its tracks, the KGB found itself with too much paper to burn. Top-secret files at Lubyanka were always stamped “khranit’ vechno“—to be preserved forever. Historical memory is not so easy to erase.

Three days after the arrest of the coup plotters, Boris Yeltsin issued a decree sealing the archives of the KGB and the Communist Party and putting them under the jurisdiction of the Russian, rather than the Union, government. Even now, before scholars have had a chance to look carefully through these countless papers, a string of grotesque highlights has appeared in the Russian and foreign press: Lenin’s directives to kill more peasants, prostitutes, and professors; the Politburo’s denunciation of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry as “devoid of ideals, foreign to Soviet literature”; the minutes of meetings describing KGB operations in Kabul before the invasion of Afghanistan. A favorite document, which was featured at a recent exhibit of Soviet-era archives at the Library of Congress, describes how Lenin gave John Reed one million rubles for unspecified favors at a time when many thousands of people in Russia were starving.

The archives of the old regime have become big business. At the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York recently, publishing executives from Crown squired a couple of boxy KGB officials to lunch in the Grill Room to discuss foreign rights deals. The people at Yale University Press boasted to The New York Times that their deal for Party archives was better and more reliable than Crown’s purchase of KGB papers. Meanwhile, some scholars in the former Soviet Union, including the historian and Russian legislator Yuri Afanasyev, are convinced that Russia should establish its own public research centers and that a new policy should be drawn up to regulate sales of copies and originals abroad.

While scholars, publishers, and politicians sort things out, individual citizens have been able to satisfy their emotional hunger for knowledge about relatives who disappeared in the labor camps. With the help of the organization Memorial, my wife was able to obtain the NKVD documents revealing the date and the camp in the Urals where her grandfather was killed. One of my closest friends in Moscow simply approached the archivists tending the materials of the Communist Party Central Committee and asked for her grandfather’s file. With little ceremony she was given three packets of documents, including a photograph of her grandfather, the first picture of him she had ever seen. Now her grandfather, who was shot in 1937, has become something more to her than a mythic shade of the Great Terror.

In the early days of glasnost, the Soviets’ obsession with their archives seemed strange to foreigners. A history-starved people was curiously reluctant to depend on Western scholarship. Official presses began publishing long-banned works, including Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror and Stephen Cohen’s biography of Nikolai Bukharin, but the people of the Soviet Union wanted their own histories. They wanted, as readers and citizens, access to the primary sources, the miles of alphabetized files in the basement archives of Lubyanka, the Central Committee, and the Ministry of Defense.

At first, the Communist Party leadership maintained strict control over the press and scholarship. Party-police bureaucracies, with appropriately Orwellian acronyms (Glavlit, et al.), patrolled the newspapers and publishing houses. They were especially quick to suppress criticism of the military, the KGB, Lenin, or Gorbachev himself. But since the stated mission of the early Gorbachev years was a rebuke of Stalinism, the leadership felt compelled to support the publication of a critical biography of The Great Friend of the Peoples. The author would have to combine both daring and restraint. He would have to impress the liberal intelligentsia without enraging the generals.

For the first “above-ground” Soviet biography of Stalin, the Party apparatus sanctioned the work of Colonel General Dmitri Antonovich Volkogonov. The Kremlin leadership believed that Volkogonov, as a historian and loyal military man, would lend credibility to the project, but without going too far. His military record was unimpeachable: he was an expert in psychological warfare and had advised Castro in Cuba and Mengitsu in Ethiopia on the arts of deception and propaganda. As the head of the Ministry of Defense’s Institute of Military History, Volkogonov had been roaming around in the closed archives in Moscow and accumulating material on Stalin for more than a decade. As a result, the Kremlin did not have to wait long before Volkogonov was able to finish and publish the project.

I first met Volkogonov in 1988 when he was still in the official fold and about to publish his biography, Stalin: Triumph & Tragedy. (The English translation did not appear until 1991.) The publicity flaks around the Foreign Ministry were pitching him as their “breakthrough historian”—which caused immediate suspicion. For the liberal intelligentsia in Moscow and Leningrad, Volkogonov was not an inspiring choice. He had published dozens of books and monographs on military ideology and none of them even hinted at independence, rigor, or critical thought. Here was a military man who had played the game; if he harbored dissident thoughts, he had not yet committed a whisper of them to paper.

But at a meeting with journalists at the Foreign Ministry, Volkogonov was impressive. He spoke without bluff or euphemism. He was familiar with the major Western scholarship on Stalin, making detailed and admiring references to a number of books, especially Robert C. Tucker’s multivolume biography-in-progress. As a way to defend himself against official Party historians who would attack his use of foreign scholars, Volkogonov wrote in the foreword, “Without realizing it, Stalin did far more to blacken the name of socialism than anything written by Leonard Schapiro, Isaac Deutscher, Robert Tucker or Robert Conquest.” Volkogonov clearly had full access to the spetskhran—the “special shelves” of Soviet libraries where banned books were secreted away. In his bibliography, he cites books that were, until glasnost, unavailable for ordinary Soviets: Adam Ulam’s biography of Stalin, Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky, Richard Pipes’s Russia Under the Old Regime, Milovan Djilas’s Conversations With Stalin, and the memoirs of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva. In addition, Volkogonov read and made reference to the works of Stalin’s enemies, the men he defeated and executed: Bukharin, Trotsky, Rykov, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Tomsky.

If Volkogonov had merely cribbed the Western biographies of Stalin and published their findings under his name in the Soviet Union, his book would have had a certain notoriety. The mere notion of a Red Army general laying bare the awful facts of the Stalin era would have been an astonishing advance in the Soviet Union’s attempt to recover its historical memory. But he did much more. Volkogonov will be remembered not so much as a great thinker or writer, as rather for the uniqueness of his access and the way he made scholarly use of his political position. He alone had the chance to exploit the paperwork of the totalitarian regime, and he went everywhere: the Central Party archives, the USSR Supreme Court archives, the Central State archives of the Army, the Ministry of Defense archives, the Armed Forces General Staff archives, and the archives of several important museums and institutes, including the Institute of Marxism-Leninism.

On those shelves, Volkogonov found no definitive answers to the remaining riddles of history. For example, he did not come up with a “smoking gun” in the 1934 murder of the Leningrad Party chief, Sergei Kirov. Nearly all Western scholars assume, with good circumstantial reason, that Stalin ordered Kirov killed in order to eliminate a potential political threat and to set the stage for the Great Terror. Volkogonov assumes the same and writes:

The archives that I have searched do not provide any further clues for making a more definitive statement on the Kirov affair. What is clear, however, is that the murder was not carried out on the orders of Trotsky, Zinoviev or Kamenev, which was soon put out as the official version. Knowing what we now know about Stalin, it is certain that he had a hand in it. The removal of two or three layers of indirect witnesses bears his hallmark.

But while Triumph & Tragedy makes no sensational advances, while it does not “solve” the enigma of Stalin’s motives or produce a definitive death toll for the repressions of the era, the book is in no sense a failure. By providing excerpts from hundreds of memos, telegrams, and orders that had never been seen by scholars before, Volkogonov allows the reader a terrible intimacy with the Soviet despot. Triumph & Tragedy gives a new texture, at once horrifying and bland, to our knowledge of one of the worst passages in human history. Here, as he guides us through the files, Volkogonov wrestles with Stalin’s manipulation of his own cult:

Stalin often dealt with matters without giving a written decision. I must have looked at several thousands of items of correspondence addressed to him personally on all manner of subjects: progress reports on the harvest, the deportation of entire peoples, notification that sentences had been carried out, the removal of senior staff, the building of arms factories, decoded cables from intelligence sources, translated articles from the Western press, personal letters to him, and all sorts of schemes and inventions and crazy ideas. I estimate that he read between one hundred and two hundred documents a day, ranging from one page to whole files. In most cases he simply initialled them. Before submitting material, [Stalin’s assistant A.N.] Poskrebyshev would append a square sheet of paper with the draft of a suggested decision and the name of its author. Stalin rarely wrote long decisions. If he agreed with a plan he would place his initials on the piece of paper, or simply say “Agreed” and hand it back to his assistant to be put in a pile.

Occasionally, Stalin would indicate to the party and the people that he was against all glorification and idolatry. Such moves were simply playing to the gallery. There is, for instance, the following letter in the archives:

To Comrades Andreyev [of Children’s Book Publishing] and Smirnova [author of Tales of Stalin’s Childhood],

I am decisively against publishing Tales of Stalin’s Childhood. The book is full of factual errors. But that’s not the main thing. The main thing is that the book has a tendency to instill in the minds of the Soviet people (and people in general) a cult of personalities, of leaders and infallible heroes. That is dangerous and harmful. The theory of ‘heroes’ and the ‘crowd’ is not a Bolshevik one, but is SR [Socialist Revolutionary]…. The people make better heroes, the Bolsheviks reply.

I advise you to burn the book.

16 February 1938. Stalin.”

This carefully written note was calculated, in fact, to enhance the glorification of Stalin, not to stop it. Who would now be able to say that he was not modest?

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