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Soviet Secret History Revealed


A prestigious American publishing house - Yale University Press - is printing a ground breaking series of books on Soviet history, based on heretofore secret Russian archives.

The Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991 after president Mikhail Gorbachev resigned. The Cold War effectively ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. One of the by-products of the Soviet Union's demise is that formerly inaccessible and secret archives have been opened up for the perusal of scholars from Russia and other countries.

One of the most ambitious endeavors is a project undertaken by Yale University Press entitled: The Annals of Communism. Since the early 1990s, under the direction of senior editor and Russian historian Jonathan Brent, 25 volumes have been published from documents found in a variety of archives.

"The materials we've published have come from the former central [communist] party archive, the archive of the Central Committee, the archive of domestic economy, the state archive of the Russian Federation known as GARF. We've published materials from the presidential archive and from the K.G.B.," said Brent

Cold War History

The series has focused on a variety of subjects from the C.I.A./K.G.B. rivalry in Berlin, a book about Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin and another on the American Communist Party.

Brent says an advisory committee helps him decide what topic to research. "The assassination of [Sergei] Kirov [a Stalin rival], for example; the collectivization of the countryside; the famine of the 1920s and early '30s; the Katyn forest massacre, for instance," he said. "These are topics. How did they happen? What was the process underlying them? Who was responsible? Do we know who killed Kirov?"

Once a topic is chosen, Brent says he and other historians contact the various Russian archivists to decide how to proceed.

"For instance, in the history of the Gulag [Soviet forced labor camps], the first volume of which we've now published - an extraordinary collaborative effort - there were as many as 20 Russian researchers working in various parts of Russia, in former Soviet archives amassing materials, documents of all sorts: party documents, state documents, local documents, letters from inmates, letters from the guards and so on and so forth," said Brent. These were all brought to Moscow where they were inspected by a team of Russian scholars. And eventually, we hewed out of this material a book of about 100 key documents with a narrative."

Russian Cooperation

Brent says that in the early 1990s when the Annals of Communism project began, Russian archivists were very forthcoming. But that has changed.

Brent recalls a meeting he had last month in Moscow with the head of the Russian archival service, Vladimir Kozlov. The meeting was to mark the 15th anniversary of their collaboration and Brent quotes Kozlov as saying that 15 years ago, there was a spirit of cooperation and openness.

"And he said now, unfortunately, America and Russia have moved apart. People in America are beginning to accuse Russia of becoming an enemy rather than an ally and the world does not seem nearly as hopeful or cheerful or positive as it did then," said Brent. "Now, he did not refer to the closing of the archives, but this was clearly a change in attitude."

Brent also says Russian archivists have reclassified documents, making them once again unavailable for researchers.

William Chase, a member of the Annals of Communism advisory board, says the reclassification of documents happens worldwide.

"These are high-level political decisions much in the same way that the Bush administration reclassified documents. And presidential administrations in the U.S. have done this in the past, so the Russians did it," said Chase. "There were no rules in the early 1990s and so what they did was to start to very gradually implement rules. And it has closed a few things down. But you know what - the archives are huge, they are vast, they are rich - there is plenty of stuff to be found."

Stalin's Archive

The next project in the Annals of Communism series is a joint venture with the Hoover Institution to look into what is called Stalin's personal archive.

Jonathan Brent says it is a vast body of material that includes Stalin's personal library. "I spent many, many hours in the archive this past January going through these materials. It's absolutely fascinating, because these books in his library are not just books in a library. He annotated them. He underlined them," said Brent. "He wrote marginal notes. And what's important about this is that Stalin never kept a diary, he had no journal. He had no lover to whom he wrote letters. He didn't write revealing letters or intimate letters to any close confidants like [Vyacheslav] Molotov, [Lazar] Kaganovich, even to his daughter. There is no record of Stalin as a personality."

Brent says what they will find in these archives will open up a whole new dimension to the study of Stalin's leadership. He expects to publish at least ten more volumes in the Annals of Communism as a result of the Stalin project.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.