Jonathan Brent's Inside the Stalin Archives.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 8 2008 6:33 AM

Russia's Usable Past

A strange journey into the historical archives.

Inside the Stalin Archives by Jonathan Brent.
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Jonathan Brent arrived in Moscow, in the winter of 1992, bearing gifts: salami, biscuits, chocolates in the shape of the Statue of Liberty, bottles of Jack Daniels, stacks of $1 bills, cartons of Winston cigarettes. His sole Moscow contact—a young American historian—had explained to him that the latter would help ensure the success of the meetings he had scheduled with directors of the former Soviet state archives. At his very first appointment—with the chairman of the Communist Party archive—Brent carried out the ritual as instructed:

I took out my pack of Winstons and lit a cigarette. My counterpart across the table did the same. I smiled and slid the pack across to him. He took it after a moment, withdrew a cigarette, and started to push the pack towards me. I held up my hand and shook my head. So he pushed his own cigarettes toward me instead. The transaction was complete. …

And thus, in a cloud of smoke, Brent and his new Russian colleagues launched one of the most ambitious archival publishing projects of all time.


Brent was, and still is, the editorial director of the Yale University Press, not a job, one would think, that requires qualities like adventurousness or an ability to tolerate heavy smoking and large quantities of drink. But in the immediate post-Soviet moment, Western ventures of any kind, with any Russian partners, required precisely those sorts of talents. In the same period—I'm guessing it was 1993—I also visited British historian Norman Stone, one of the first Western researchers allowed into the Moscow archives, in the ex-KGB officer's flat he shared with a young British businessman (one of his former students, if I remember correctly) and the businessman's ludicrously beautiful Russian girlfriend. Stone was sleeping on a kind of prehistoric pullout sofa, vodka bottles were in conspicuous evidence, and the KGB officer's hideous wooden furniture dominated the room—all of which was fairly typical at the time.

But unlike many of that first generation of Westerners in Russia, Brent wasn't primarily looking for sensational material—though, of course, when it fell into his hands, he didn't object. More important, for him, was the prospect of a long-term contract with one or more of the newly open Russian archives, one that would result in the publication of a series of books in both English and Russian. This was a scholarly project, he writes, not a commercial one: "What sustained it was the conviction shared by the heads of the archives and Yale that the value of publishing these documents was greater than the money it would take to publish them or the revenue we might realize by their sale. … They were somehow at the center of what gave us a shared life in the twentieth century and would take us further towards understanding that life than any other means in our possession."

Yale's convictions were not, alas, always shared, either by the archive directors or by the Russian public. The former often believed that their material held a good deal more commercial value—and more possibilities for personal enrichment—than did Yale; the latter were often convinced that these American researchers were trying to "steal" their national secrets.

This mistrust did not ease with time, either. Only a few years before, during the early period of Gorbachev's glasnost, newspapers with archival "revelations" had sold in the millions. But by the early 1990s, many Russians were already struggling to cope with the Soviet collapse. They faced a logistical crisis—how to get by in dramatically changed circumstances—and often a psychological crisis as well. Perhaps the old system was bad, they now felt, but at least back then we were powerful. And now that we are no longer powerful, we don't want to hear about how bad it really was, especially from foreigners.

Nevertheless, Yale, along with a very few others—most notably the Hoover Institution, which made microfilm copies of the entire Gulag administration archive and other important collections—persevered. The result was an extraordinary series, "The Annals of Communism," whose collective impact on Soviet historiography is something akin to that of the Rosetta Stone on the study of hieroglyphics. Among other things, Brent published edited collections of documents on the Spanish Civil War, the Great Terror, collectivization, the Katyn massacre, and the gulag; Stalin's correspondence with various henchmen, including Molotov and Kaganovich; the police files of Andrei Sakharov; even the final diary of the last Czarina.

A few did contain sensations: Yale's book on the American Communist Party, authored by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, exposed, among other things, the CPUSA's secret financial relationship with the Soviet Union and its covert obedience to Soviet causes. Brent's own book, Stalin's Last Crime, described the anti-Jewish purge carried out by Stalin at the end of his life—and hints, though doesn't quite prove, that Stalin was murdered.

All of this gave a new lease on life to the incestuous world of Soviet studies, which had been divided for decades into historians who preferred the triumphant version of Soviet history, accessible in official documents like newspapers, and those who listened to the very different story told by witnesses, refugees, and dissidents. This essentially ideological argument ended forever with the publication of archival information by Yale and others, replacing it, for the first time, with real history—and proving, among other things, that the witnesses, refugees, and dissidents had largely been right .

Although he discusses some of the academic issues that lay at the heart of the Yale project, the point of Inside the Stalin Archives is somewhat different: Brent is less interested in what his series meant for Western academics and more interested in explaining the strange atmosphere of post-Soviet Moscow, and in particular the ways in which Russia's twisted past continued to shape its present. *

Elsewhere—in East Germany, for example—the collapse of communism meant that the archive doors swung wide open, and researchers of all kinds flooded inside. But in Moscow, each archive (state, party, military) made its own decisions about which documents to release and to whom to release them. Some, among them the Russian state archive, where gulag documents are kept, were relatively open, though more out of negligence than any commitment to historical truth. I worked there in the 1990s and had the impression that nobody much cared if a bunch of foreigners were reading some old crumbling documents, let alone wasting their time writing books about them. By contrast, the military and ex-KGB archives were always kept under tight control. The image of the Red Army, the identities of informers—all of these things continued to matter to the Soviet authorities and still do.

In the past couple of years, this control has even expanded, with reclassification of documents and heavier restriction on foreign researchers. And in place of the official disregard of the past, there is now a new, state-promulgated version of history. The crimes of Stalinism are acknowledged but downplayed: "Mistakes were made." By contrast, the Second World War, and in particular the moment of Stalinist military triumph in 1945, is ever more loudly celebrated in books, films, and public anniversaries.

This change of attitude has a political purpose, of course. Ex-President and de facto Russian leader Vladimir Putin is well aware that the more people take pride the Soviet past, the less likely they are to want a system that is more genuinely democratic and genuinely capitalist. The more nostalgia there is for Soviet-era symbols, the more secure he and the ex-KGB clique around him are going to be. Putin has in effect made a promise to the Russians that goes something like this: Support me, and Russia will once again be stable; Russians will get rich; the media will sing in harmony with the politicians; the country will have an international presence, just like it was when you or your parents were young. And nobody will talk about how bad we used to be.

What Brent's book provides is some sense of that strange moment of transition, the few years between the crumbling Soviet Union of Gorbachev and glasnost and the resurgent Russian nationalism of the present. He evokes the odd smell of Moscow streets, some combination of poor plumbing, boiled cabbage, and exhaust fumes; the conversations with Russians who constantly wanted to know what things cost in America and were taken aback to realize that we were far richer than they were; the furtive assignations with ex-KGB officers, always eager, even excited, to speak; the cheap plumbing fixtures; the tasteless cookies and too-strong black tea; the odd vacuum where everything—ideology, politics, nation—used to be. That anarchic, open, exciting, and frightening atmosphere is gone now: Moscow is a more rigid, more subdued, and more hierarchical place. The past is on its way to being reburied, or at least reassessed. If Brent arrived in Moscow with Winston cigarettes today, I'm afraid that nobody would pay any attention to him at all.

Correction, Dec. 8, 2008: This article originally referred to Jonathan Brent's new book as Inside the Soviet Archives. The correct title is Inside the Stalin Archives. (Return to the corrected sentence.)