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?

In his portrayal of Stalin, Volkogonov was more critical than many of his liberal critics might have expected. Triumph & Tragedy shows Stalin to have been a coward, a miserable commander-in-chief during World War Two, a “mediocrity but not insignificant,” as Trotsky once put it. Volkogonov provides the conclusive documentary evidence that Stalin, using blue or red pencils, personally ordered the deaths of thousands as easily as if he were signing a check. Here he describes how, at the height of the purges, Stalin wiped out the ranks of his own Central Committee, using the most absurd charges and pretexts for arrest and execution:

More than half of the Central Committee were “spies” and “agents of the Tsarist secret police”! Twenty years after the collapse of the Romanov dynasty, and its police department was still fuctioning as if nothing had happened! I have searched the yellowing lists that were circulated to members of the Central Committee for their votes, but have yet to find one negative vote, one objection, or any expression of doubt. Only “in favor,” “I agree,” “definitely agree,” “a sound decision,” “a necessary measure,” and so on. Conscience was clamped silent by lies and fear.

…According to I. D. Perfilyev, an Old Bolshevik who had spent many years in a concentration camp and who told me the story, once, in Molotov’s company, while discussing a routine list with [secret police chief Nikolai] Yezhov, Stalin muttered to no one in particular: “Who’s going to remember all this riff-raff in ten or twenty years time? No one. Who remembers the names now of the boyars Ivan the Terrible got rid of? No one…The people had to know he was getting rid of all his enemies. In the end, they all got what they deserved.”

The people understand, Iosif Vissarionovich, they understand and they support you,” Molotov replied automatically.

In Moscow, I got to know Volkogonov and interviewed him several times, first in his incarnation as a military historian, then later when he became a political outcast, and, finally, when he became a radical deputy in the Russian Parliament in 1990 and a top military adviser to Russian President Yeltsin. Even early on, when he had to take great care about how, and with whom, he talked about his work, Volkogonov never concealed just how deeply his days in the archives had moved him.

I would come home from working in Stalin’s archives, and I would be deeply shaken,” Volkogonov told me. “I remember coming home after reading through the day of December 12, 1938. He signed thirty lists of death sentences that day, altogether about five thousand people, including many he knew personally, his friends. This was before their trials, of course. This was no surprise. This is not what shook me. But it turned out that, having signed these documents, he went to his personal theater very late that night and watched two movies, including Happy Guys, a popular comedy of the time. I simply could not understand how, after deciding the fate of several thousand lives, he could watch such a movie. But I was beginning to realize that morality plays no role for dictators. That’s when I understood why my father was shot, why my mother died in exile, why millions of people died.”


Volkogonov was born in the Siberian city of Chita in 1928 and later moved to the Pacific coast of Russia. His father was an agrarian specialist and his mother cared for the three children. In 1937, at the height of the purges, Anton Volkogonov was summoned to the local Party committee where he was arrested for the crime of possessing printed matter of a “politically questionable” origin—a pamphlet by the “right deviationist” Nikolai Bukharin. Volkogonov’s father was never seen again. “He just disappeared into the meat-grinder of the purges,” Volkogonov said. “When I was older, my mother whispered to me, ‘Your father was shot. Never, never speak of it again.”’

This family of an “enemy of the people” was exiled to the village of Agul in the Krasnoyarsk district of western Siberia near an ever-growing complex of forced labor camps. When he was a child, Volkogonov saw long columns of prisoners marching from the rail stations fifty miles away to the camps. Guard dogs, barbed wire, and watch-towers were all part of his childhood landscape. With each passing month, NKVD workers cordoned off more land and built more camps. The guards dug huge trenches in the pine forest and carried the corpses to the trenches at night on old-fashioned Russian sleds. Schoolchildren would go looking for pine nuts in the forest and they would hear gunfire, Volkogonov recalled, “like the sound of canvas being ripped apart.”

Volkogonov’s mother died just after the end of the war. Like many other orphans, Dmitri Antonovich entered the military as a draftee and never left. His brother and sister were adopted by other families. As a young private and officer during the late Forties and the Fifties, Volkogonov got a thorough education in political orthodoxy. He learned quickly that no deviation was too small to be noticed. Toward the end of Triumph & Tragedy, Volkogonov lets himself enter his portrait of the system, here as a student of military equipment and state ideology:

Students were tested first and foremost for their ability to summarize Stalin’s works. I remember being kept back by the teacher when I was attending the Orel tank school. He was a lieutenant colonel, no longer a young man, and was very much liked by the class for his good nature. When we were alone he handed me my work, which was a summary of sources, and said to me in a quiet and fatherly voice: “It’s a good summary. I could see right away you hadn’t just copied it down and had given it some thought. But my advice is, summarize the Stalinist works more fully. Understand, more fully! And another thing, In front of the name Iosif Vissarionovich, don’t write ‘Com.’ Write ‘Comrade’ in full. Got it?” That night one of my roommates told me they’d all had similar conversations with the teacher of Party history. The exams were coming up and there were rumors that in a neighboring school “they had paid attention” to the sort of “political immaturities” I had shown in my summaries.

As an officer, Volkogonov was prepared to do anything for the Motherland. At a nuclear test site he was ordered to drive a new model tank straight through the area that had just been the epicenter of an atomic bomb test. And he did. “There was nothing I would not do,” Volkogonov told me. “I was a young lieutenant when Stalin died and I thought the heavens would fall without him. The fact that my father had been shot and my mother died miserably in exile, that didn’t seem to matter: it was destiny, incomprehensible. My mind was contaminated. I was incapable of analyzing these things, of putting the pieces together.”

In the Komsomol and the Communist Party organizations of the Lenin Military Academy in Moscow, Volkogonov became such a master of the standard texts of dogma that he gained a reputation among the senior officers as an especially reliable polit rabotnik, a political propagandist. Volkogonov got a doctorate in philosophy—which, in those days, meant Marxist-Leninist philosophy—and, in 1970, was transferred to the army’s department of propaganda. There he climbed the ladder steadily; he was promoted to general at forty, won a professorship at forty-four, and made it to deputy chief in charge of political instruction. Along the way, he also earned a doctorate in history.

With his high rank and credentials, Volkogonov was allowed access to all the most important—and closed—archives in the capital: the Party archives at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, the military and KGB archives, the archives of the October Revolution, and the records of the tribunals that handed out sentences during the purges. He was also able to talk with retired officers who had worked with Stalin during the war, old Bolsheviks who had known Stalin in the early Twenties.

But make no mistake about who I was,” Volkogonov told me. “I was not a closet radical. I cannot distort history to suit my needs. The fact is, I was an orthodox Marxist, an officer who knew his duty. I was not part of some liberal current. All my changes came from within, off on my own. I had access to all kinds of literature. You know there were many people, especially young officers of the KGB, who think liberally because they had more information than anyone else. That’s why there have always been a lot of thinking people in the KGB, people who understand the West as it really is and what our own country really was.

I was a Stalinist. I contributed to the strengthening of the system that I am now trying to dismantle. But latently, I had my ideas. I began asking myself questions about Lenin, how, if he was such a genius, none of his predictions came true. The proletarian dictatorship never came to be, the principle of class struggle was discredited, communism was not built in fifteen years as he had promised. None of Lenin’s major predictions ever came true! I confess it: I used my position. I began gathering information even though I didn’t know yet what I would do with it.”

While working in a KGB archive during the thaw, Volkogonov even read his father’s file and learned that what his mother had whispered had been true. Anton Volkogonov was shot in 1937 just after his arrest.

As if in a dream, Volkogonov decided he would write a trilogy on Stalin, Lenin, and Trotsky. By the late Seventies, Volkogonov was secretly working on the Stalin volume. His apartment was crammed with tens of thousands of xeroxed documents and books, many of them banned. As time passed, and the times grew a bit more liberal, Volkogonov made little secret of what he was doing. The military hierarchy, however, decided that Volkogonov’s historical research was not “consistent” with his position as a propagandist. He was shunted aside and installed at the Institute of Military History, a move that represented a demotion, Volkogonov said, of “three steps down the ladder.” For a soldier, perhaps. But for a historian, the demotion was a gift. Now Volkogonov had more time and access to the archives. When the leadership finally came looking for a biography of Stalin, Volkogonov was there, ready to write.


Of all the major events in Soviet history since 1917, the one that was preserved the longest as an unquestionable victory of the regime was the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany.1 Not even the Revolution held a more essential place in the collective psyche of the Soviet people.

The May 9 victory parades were just one element in the cult of the war. Even in the mid-Eighties, you could turn on the television any day of the week and there was a better than even chance that a group of veterans, old and festooned with medals and ribbons, would be talking about the Battle of Stalingrad to a group of theatrically interested schoolchildren. The war was the touchstone, the regime’s lingering reason for being. When Gorbachev defended his allegiance to socialism in early 1991, he said, yes, his grandfathers had been persecuted, but how could he betray his father, who fought bravely at the Dniepr and was wounded in Czechoslovakia? Gorbachev recalled his train ride in 1950 from Stavropol to Moscow and looking out the window at mile after mile of devastation and misery. If he abandoned socialist principles now, he asked, would he not be betraying the memory of the 27 million Soviet citizens killed during the war?

For the hard-liners, the meaning of the cult of the war went even deeper. Victory in the war served to legitimize the brutal collectivization and industrialization campaigns that went before it. Though these men no longer celebrated Stalin, at least not in public, their view of history was surely Stalinist. In textbooks and on television, the Party’s propagandists portrayed the war as proof of the system’s ultimate strength—the system that saved the world! Of course there had been excesses, the Stalinist pamphleteer Nina Andreyeva once told me, but without collectivization “we would have starved during the war,” and without industrialization “where would the tanks have come from”?

Even as late as 1991, the military leadership held on to the habit of sponsoring official histories, and few projects were more important to the hierarchy than the writing of a new history of the war. This would be the third multivolume official history of the Great Patriotic War since Stalin’s death. The last history, prepared during the neo-Stalinist era of the early Seventies, was filled with lies, including the fable that Leonid Brezhnev had fought heroically at a decisive battle. But the Ministry of Defense, which was in charge of the project, knew that by this time, several years into the glasnost era, a completely bogus history was out of the question. The committee-written project would have to address the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the purge of the officer corps in the late Thirties. The history would have to answer the question of why the Nazis were able to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941 with such ease.

The man in charge of the first volume, tentatively titled On the Eve of the War, was General Volkogonov. Marshal Dmitri Yazov, the defense minister, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the leading military adviser to Gorbachev, General Valentin Varennikov, the commander of all ground forces, and the other hard-liners at the top of the army accepted Volkogonov as editor, knowing they would not get a warmed-over version of the old histories of the war. As the director of the military’s main history institute, he was the logical man for the job. They were prepared for a history that was more critical than those published under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. But they were not prepared for what they got.

In late 1990, Volkogonov’s team turned in a draft that coolly assessed the relative evils of Stalin and Hitler and described in full detail the “repressive command system” which carried out, at Stalin’s direct order, the wholesale slaughter of thousands of officers before the war. The draft explored the roots of Stalin’s Terror and its origins in the Red Terror that followed the Revolution. The authors wrote critically of Stalin’s negotiations with the Nazis that allowed Moscow to annex the Baltic states and other key territories. Most appalling of all to the hard-liners, Volkogonov’s draft concluded that the Soviet Union had won the war despite Stalin, not because of him. They implied that perhaps the deaths of 27 million Soviet people were in vain, that the victory of the Soviet Union represented the victory of one brutal regime over another.

The Ministry of Defense sent copies of the draft history around to various “reviewers”: generals, admirals, officials in the Communist Party, and the heads of the major institutes. Their reaction was, for the most part, angry and quick. Akhromeyev gave an interview to the reactionary Military-Historical Journal that accused Volkogonov of acting as a “traitor.”

Had Volkogonov succeeded in publishing the work, with its obviously false positions as set out in the first volume, it would have done great harm, and not only to history,” Akhromeyev said. “The lies about the war would have been used for undermining the integrity of our country and the socialist choice, and for the constant defamation of the Communist Party. This could not be allowed.” Volkogonov, he said, was an anti-Communist “turncoat” serving just one master: the equally anti-Communist Russian president, Boris Yeltsin.

The denunciations had only just begun. On March 7, at an elegant meeting hall in the Department of Defense, fifty-seven generals, Central Committee officials, and ultra-official academics gathered to review Volkogonov’s work. The chairman of the editorial committee, General A. F. Kochetov, opened the session by reminding everyone that “when the original conception of the ten-volume work was discussed everyone agreed with the idea that the driving force [of the victory] was the Soviet people, the people’s army, the toilers, all led by the Party. But today, proceeding from the interests of the moment, everyone insults and blames the Party. Suddenly the people are to blame…. Many of the reviews asked the question: ‘If things were so awful before the war, why did we win?’ “2

Kochetov pointed out incredulously that in the book there was an implicit (and intolerable) comparison of socialism with fascism. He said that some of the reviewers had also complained that Volkogonov betrayed the intentions of the volume by discussing the origins of the system leading up to the war, and others simply objected to the titles of chapters such as “The Political Regime Grows Stricter” and “The Militarization of Spiritual Life.”

Kochetov then opened the session for “general discussion”: an invitation to a beheading. General Mikhail Moiseyev, chief of the general staff, attacked Volkogonov saying that he was merely out to inspire “today’s destructive forces”—meaning Yeltsin and the pro-independence activists in the republics.

Defend the army!” came the calls from the hall.

Later, Valentin Falin, the head of the Central Committee’s international department, took the floor. “We must point out the insufficiencies of this volume, its thousands of mistakes,” he said. “I have not seen such fantastical stuff in 30 or 40 years…. To waste government money on this is out of the question!”

Volkogonov turned pale. He had grown away from these men, but he had only now become aware how much. After more than an hour of denunciations, he finally demanded the floor.

Respected comrades!” Volkogonov began. “My voice in this hall will no doubt be a lonely one. There is not likely to be a real scholarly discussion here. This is a tribunal on scholarship, on history, on a large group of writers. Instead of an analysis of the issue, there is just unbridled criticism…. In the atmosphere that has been created here I cannot write a new history. To write only about the victory of 1945 means to talk nonsense about 1941, about the four million prisoners, about the retreat to the Volga. It is impossible to reduce history to politics.”

Volkogonov had only begun, but now Varennikov, one of the most reactionary generals in the Ministry of Defense hierarchy broke in, shouting, “There is a suggestion to deny him the tribune!”

Volkogonov refused to back down.

I am no less a patriot than Falin and love the Motherland no less than him,” he said. “But you cannot change the consequences of history. I agree with those who say there are many faults in this volume…. But let’s discuss and debate them. We’ll give our points of view. But, no, Comrade Falin and some others do not engage in scholarly debate, but rather make accusations about a lack of patriotism.”

Enough!” one general shouted. “Listen to this!”

Somewhere in the hall came the shout, “Stop his speech!”

Volkogonov kept going, arguing that unless the book and the Soviet people dealt with all the cruelty and misery that had preceded the war, there could be no understanding of what happened after the opening volleys of the Nazi invasion.

How else can we look at the fact that 43,000 officers and other army officials were purged?” he said. “And what of the other victims? We don’t need blind patriotism. We need the truth!… Mine is a lonely voice in this hall, but I want to see what you say about it all in ten years.”

Finally, the swarm overtook Volkogonov. The generals shouted him down, and he did not speak again. But the ritual was far from over. Two and a half hours after the session had begun, Marshal Yazov, the minister of defense, arrived. Yazov had the lumpy face and bulbous nose of a village drunk. And he was none too bright. When it came time to appoint a new defense minister after Mathias Rust managed to land his little plane on Red Square, Gorbachev went way down the ladder and found Yazov, the chief of military operations in the Far East. The man had a reputation for mediocrity. But that was the point. Gorbachev wanted a man utterly without cunning. He wanted a pleasant mutt, a loyal friend.

But that was years ago, and now, with the conservatives in the midst of a full-fledged counterrevolution against radical reform, Yazov was showing his strength. He despised the direction perestroika had taken. He quickly addressed the group, and there was no doubt that his anger went far beyond any rough draft or a three-star general named Volkogonov. The battle over the book represented to him nothing less than the general struggle for power in the Soviet Union.

The ‘democrats’ now have made it their goal to prepare and carry out a Nuremberg II on the Communist Party,” Yazov said. “The volume has in it the outlines for an indictment for such a trial.”

This book has at its foundation a libel of the Party,” Varennikov pitched in.

In this hall,” Yazov continued, “I think, everyone is a Communist. And Communists cannot spit on their party.”

It was over. Volkogonov was dismissed from the editorial committee and his draft was “returned to the board for fundamental reworking.” Another victory for the hard-line coalition. Five months later, in August, Yazov, Varennikov, Moiseyev, and other men in the room would go even farther and attempt a coup d’état.


In the spring of 1991, Volkogonov invited me to meet with him in his hospital room where he was being treated for cancer. He was exhausted by his battle with Yazov and the generals and the war being waged between the supporters and enemies of radical reform. As a deputy in the Russian Parliament and as Yeltsin’s military adviser, Volkogonov had thrown in his lot with the radical democrats. There was no longer any room for compromise with the Yazovs of his old world.

This whole period we are living in now is about scrubbing this [Stalinist] mentality from our minds,” he said. “The generals in the army reproach me for being a chameleon. They say I am a traitor or a renegade. But personally I think it is a more courageous stance to abandon honestly something which has been devalued by history instead of carrying it to the end in your soul. There are people among them who criticize me in public and, in private, say I am right but they can’t say so.

Totalitarian systems usually absorb people absolutely. As I have come to realize, very few people have been able to transcend such a system, to tear themselves away from it. Most people of my generation will die imprisoned in this system, even if they live another ten or twenty years. Of course, people who are twenty or thirty are free people. They can liberate themselves from the system quite easily. The only thing I have to offer is my experience. Maybe my example will be valuable in tracing the crisis, the tragedy, and the drama of Communist ideas and utopia played out over the generations.”

When I saw Volkogonov again, the coup was over. Yazov and Varennikov were charged with treason. His health was improved and he was hard at work on a biography of Lenin and thinking about writing a memoir. Recently, Volkogonov accompanied Yeltsin to a summit meeting at the White House. While his antagonists languished at home in jail awaiting trial for treason, Volkogonov was in the Rose Garden. He was among the most powerful figures in a new Russia. But after all the attacks Volkogonov had to endure in 1990 and 1991, he took special pleasure in one of his ceremonial roles. A general who had been branded a traitor little more than a year before was now chairman of the presidential commission examining the archives of the KGB.

  1. 1

    See Nina Tumarkin’s excellent article, “The Soviet Union: The Great Patriotic War as Myth and Memory,” The Atlantic, June 1991.

  2. 2

    The transcript of the meeting was published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 18, 1991. Pavel Felgenhauer, the paper’s superb defense correspondent, told me that he got the document from Volkogonov. None of the figures at the meeting, however, disputed the accuracy of the transcript, Felgenhauer told me.