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Putin vs. the Truth

The collapse of the Soviet regime gave the heads of Russia’s archives new commercial opportunities. In the first chaotic years of the Yeltsin government, when they were allowed to run their archives as their personal fiefdoms, there was money to be made from the journalists and publishers who flocked to Moscow (and very rarely to St. Petersburg) in search of secrets and sensations from the vaults. There were tales of Western publishers buying up exclusive rights to the archives, of deals being made to reserve parts of them for certain Western researchers,1 and even rumors that precious documents were being sold.2

For scholars too there were real gains. Intellectually, the end of communism was a liberation for historians. They could travel to Russia, work in the archives freely, and publish what they liked, without fear of retribution from the Soviet authorities.

To understand this liberation, one has to appreciate what it was like to work in the Soviet archives as a foreigner. From 1984 to 1987, I worked in the Central State Archive of the October Revolution (TsGAOR), now the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), for my first book, on the peasantry in the Russian Revolution and the Civil War. There were no more than a handful of foreign historians working in the archive at that time. We had no access to the catalogs (it was only in 1986 that they began to be made available) so our only information about the contents of the archive came from the footnotes of Soviet publications. The system worked on the principle of preserving everything but admitting the existence of only those materials cleared for publication by Soviet historians.

All our requests for documents were vetted by a woman from the KGB. As foreigners we had to work in a separate reading room, without access to the canteen, so that we would not come into contact with Soviet historians or archivists, who might help us with our work. There was just one flaw in the system: the reading room for Soviet researchers shared a toilet with the room for foreigners. In those days I was a smoker, so I’d go there frequently and chat with Soviet historians and archivists, who liked my Western cigarettes and were happy to find out for me the numbers of the files I needed for my work.


Jonathan Brent is the editorial director of Yale University Press. In January 1992, he arrived in Moscow for the first time, and with the help of a young American scholar, Jeffrey Burds, he tried to persuade the heads of Russia’s most important central archives to do business with him. Brent’s plan was to publish a series of volumes of selected documents from the newly opened Soviet archives, employing American scholars and Russian archivists as editors—a project that became the Annals of Communism, of which so far twenty volumes have been published (and another ten are in preparation) on various themes in Soviet history. In the first part of his engaging and well-written memoir, Inside the Stalin Archives, Brent tells the story of the project’s genesis. He conjures up the Moscow of the early 1990s, a time when the Russians were struggling to recover from the loss of the old certainties following the collapse of the Soviet system and adapt to a market-based economy. On his first visit to the former Party Archive, Brent notices “a small glass vase of fresh violets” at the feet of a statue of Lenin; on a later visit he notices that these have been replaced by plastic flowers; and then the flowers disappear.

There were rival Western publishers who would perhaps pay more for sensational material from the archives. But the affable American was guided well by Burds and his friends in the Russian scholarly community, who advised Brent to emphasize his scholarly intentions and show respect for the Russians. “Don’t come on like a conquering hero; don’t be a smug American; don’t look down on them because their system failed and ours triumphed.” Sitting down for his first meeting with the archive officials, Brent did something he had been told to do by Burds: he opened a fresh packet of Winston cigarettes, offered them across the negotiating table, and accepted the counter-offer of a packet of Russian cigarettes as a gesture of respect. And then Brent made a naive speech about how he had “grown up under the sign of the Cold War” and had lived in fear of nuclear attack; how he had also grown up listening to his “father’s record of the Red Army Chorus and had marched around our apartment to their glorious melodies”; how he had thought that “people who could sing such songs…could not possibly be my enemy”; and how he had now come to Moscow “with the hope that we could negotiate in good faith and reach an understanding that would enrich both sides of the table.”

I may have gone on too long, but I wished to make clear that for me this was not simply a business deal: it was a quest for understanding an enigma that was not a set of academic or political questions but the context of my life experience and that of my generation of Americans.

One can only wonder what the heads of Russia’s archives made of such a speech, but what persuaded them to do business with Brent was relatively straightforward: he promised that as editors of the published volumes they would be paid royalties in dollars on equal terms with the Americans. Once it became clear that they would make some money for themselves—and that the researchers of their archives would be paid as well—they readily revealed the riches of the archives and negotiated contracts for their publication in America. Brent’s initial list of subjects (the Great Terror, the Church and the Revolution, the Comintern and the repressions of the 1930s) was soon supplemented by other volumes on the Russian Revolution, the last diary of the Empress Alexandra, the murder of the Romanov family, and Soviet espionage in the US. There was not much that Brent was not prepared to buy.

What remained unclear was whether Yale would have exclusive publishing rights outside Russia, as he insisted it should have (in fact, there are lots of cases of the Russian archives selling the same documents to several publishers); whether there would be a Russian publication of all the documents (and, if so, who would pay for it); and whether other researchers, from Russia or abroad, would be allowed to make use of the archives while they were being prepared for publication by the American academics selected as editors by Yale (there were plenty of complaints by scholars on this score). Brent recognized

that it was vital the books be available in Russian for Russian readers; otherwise, was it not some form of plunder? Otherwise, how would this knowledge penetrate Russian society? And without this knowledge, how could a new society begin to be constructed?

This was an important admission to make because at the time there was a widely publicized protest by Russian nationalists and Communists about the “theft” of Russia’s archives by foreigners accused of wanting to blacken Soviet history by focusing attention on its darkest spots. As Brent explains, a potential problem was avoided by negotiating subsidies for the Russian publication of the volumes in the Yale series, leaving it to the individual archives to decide what documents to add or take away from each volume, though so far only fourteen of the twenty volumes in the Yale series have been published in Russia.


The Annals of Communism is an admirable enterprise. In it, some of the most important revelations from the former Soviet archives have been published for the first time.3 Many of the volumes have successfully combined the publication of new materials with original analysis.4 But others have been less successful, either because the documents themselves are relatively insignificant,5 or because they include jargon-ridden academic commentaries.6

In the second half of Inside the Stalin Archives, Brent gives a summary of some of the books in the series (though without giving any details of their authors or even a list of the titles in a bibliography). The series, we are told, will culminate in the publication of several volumes of documents from Stalin’s personal files. In a final chapter, Brent has some interesting reflections on Stalin’s notes in the margins of the books in his private library:

As I looked at page after page of Stalin’s corrections, annotations, and commentary, I realized that while he professed a worldview set radically against metaphysics and Kantian idealism, Stalin was an idealist in the sense that he believed completely in the primacy of ideas. This represents a radical, if almost invisible, reorientation and revision of Marx’s philosophy and is the key to understanding Stalin’s threat to “mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts—yes, by his thoughts—threatens the unity of the socialist state.”

Stalin’s personal archive was opened on the initiative of Alexander Yakovlev, the Party’s last propaganda chief and the main intellectual force behind Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform program, who after 1991 championed the cause of victims of repression and campaigned for a moral reckoning with the crimes of Soviet history. Until his death in 2005, Yakovlev was the chairman of the International Foundation of Democracy, established by President Boris Yeltsin in 1996, which has so far published no less than eighty-eight volumes of documents from the Soviet archives in its outstanding series Rossiia: XX vek (Russia: The Twentieth Century).

This represents by far the largest and most important series of published documents in Russia, although there are several smaller projects that have also brought to the attention of a Russian academic readership damning new material from the archives on the repressions of the Stalin years.7 Some of the volumes in the Yakovlev series have been published with the help of Western institutions, including the Hoover Institution and Yale University Press. Unfortunately, Brent does not discuss the impact of these Russian publications on the public debate about Stalinism in Russia, although it was evidently part of his mission (as it was of Yakovlev’s) to help Russian society democratize itself through a better understanding of its recent history.

  1. 1

    The best-known case involved Allen Weinstein, who at that time was president of the Center for Democracy, with close ties to the Republicans. For his book The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—The Stalin Era, coauthored with Alexander Vassiliev (Random House, 1999; reviewed in these pages May 11, 2000), his publisher was reported to have paid a group of retired KGB officials a substantial sum (Weinstein talked of $100,000) for “exclusive” access to the relevant KGB documents (see Jon Wiener, “The Archives and Allen Weinstein,” The Nation, May 17, 2004). This was a clear violation of the code of ethics of the International Council on Archives, which calls for “the widest possible” access to documents. Despite protests by many scholarly organizations, including the Society of American Archivists and the Organization of American Historians, Weinstein was appointed the ninth archivist of the United States in 2005. He resigned from the post on health grounds in December 2008.

  2. 2

    Several times in my recent researches in the Military History Archive I was told by staff that documents containing the Tsar’s signature had been lost.

  3. 3

    See, for example, Stalin’s Letters to Molotov, 1925–1936, edited by Lars T. Lih, Oleg V. Naumov, and Oleg V. Khlevniuk, translated from the Russian by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, and with a foreword by Robert C. Tucker (Yale University Press, 1995), reviewed in these pages, March 6, 1997; The Diary of Georgi Dimitrov, 1933–1949, edited by Ivo Banac, translated from the German by Jane T. Hedges, from the Russian by Timothy D. Sergay, and from the Bulgarian by Irina Faion (Yale University Press, 2003); The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov, edited and annotated by Joshua Rubenstein and Alexander Gribanov, with an introduction by Joshua Rubenstein and translations by Ella Shmulevich, Efrem Yankelevich, and Alla Zeide (Yale University Press, 2005), reviewed in these pages, October 20, 2005.

  4. 4

    See J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932–1939, with translations by Benjamin Sher (Yale University Press, 1999); William J. Chase, Enemies Within the Gates? The Comintern and Stalinist Repression, 1934–1939, with translations by Vadim A. Staklo (Yale University Press, 2001); Katerina Clark and Evgeny Dobrenko with Andrei Artizov and Oleg Naumov, Soviet Culture and Power: A History in Documents, 1917–1953, with translations by Marian Schwartz (Yale University Press, 2007).

  5. 5

    See The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archive, edited by Richard Pipes with the assistance of David Brandenberger, and with translations by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick (Yale University Press, 1996); reviewed in these pages, March 6, 1997.

  6. 6

    See Stalinism as a Way of Life, edited by Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei K. Sokolov, with documents compiled by Ludmila Kosheleva, and with translations by Thomas Hoisington and Steven Shabad (Yale University Press, 2000); reviewed in these pages, November 29, 2001.

  7. 7

    For example, the series Dokumenty sovetskoi istorii ( Documents of Soviet History), established by the late Franco Venturi (Moscow: Rosspen, yr TK), or the five-volume series of documents on collectivization, Tragediia sovetskoi derevni: Kollektivizatsiia i raskulachivanie: Dookumenty i materialy v 5 tomakh, 1927–1939, edited by the late Viktor P. Danilov, Roberta Manning and Lynne Viola (Moscow: Rosspen, 1999–2006), which will be published in three volumes in the Annals of Communism.

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