Invitation to a Beheading

Stalin: Triumph & Tragedy

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


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…

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