Read All About It! But Hurry
William F. Buckley Jr.
National Review, April 22, 1996
After months and months of negotiation, one American enterprise made a deal with the half-dozen most critical custodians of Soviet data. It would bring out 25 volumes, perhaps as many as 50, laying bare, so to speak, the minutes of the Communist era, 1917-1991. It wasn't the State Department that managed this, or the CIA, or the Library of Congress, let alone the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was Yale University Press. Jonathan Brent, its executive editor, made a deal that gave U.S. scholars the right to research and to publish the critical archives of the regime. Of the KGB, the military, the Presidium, the Central Committee, the foreign ministry. The terms? The Yale University Press is obliged to publish its volumes simultaneously in Russian, for distribution from Moscow.
Now this enterprise is a huge contribution to an understanding of the most important political phenomenon of the century, the rise and fall of the Communist international movement. The documents tell us not only about the workaday machinations of the largest totalitarian organization in history, but also about its actors. We have already from the Annals of Communism series a volume giving us the letters written by Stalin to Molotov, his most trusted subordinate - arguably, his only trusted subordinate. They tell us things many of us more or less knew - that Stalin was suspicious, ruthless, ironhanded - but they do so with the finality of the holographic original. Labor problem out there? Stalin writes to his lieutenant, "Definitely shoot two or three dozen wreckers from these apparaty [sic], including several dozen common cashiers." Volumes are scheduled, all of them edited under scrupulous scholarly supervision, that deal with the last days of the
Romanovs. There will be volumes on Lenin's secret archive, the church, the people and the Bolsheviks, Soviet politics and repression, the diary of Georgi
Dimitrov, the assassination of Sergei Kirov... "What Saudi is to oil, these records are to twentieth-century history," Bruce Nelan wrote in Time magazine.
Now here is the problem.
The parliamentary turmoil in Russia casts long shadows. The Russian Left has never liked the idea of disgorging all the secrets because they have the effect of eviscerating any trace of idealism in the Soviet experiment, at least in the hands of its generals. And the Russian Right doesn't like it because the firm hand of authoritarian government beckons to a society punchdrunk with liberalism and suffering now corruption, crime, inflation, and unemployment. The elections in June could very well result in a Communist victory. How long between such a development and a freeze of the agreement with Yale? It would not happen overnight, and there would be great pressure from the archival community within Russia to continue with the operation. The publications are of academic and historical interest to the United States. Their importance to Russia has to do with the country's future. And the volatility of the political situation justifies proceeding without delay.
And the U.S. problem? Funds. The usual good soldiers have made contributions - Olin, Smith Richardson, Bradley - but, to date, less than $400,000 (out of $3 million needed) has been raised. The project is unique. If it were less than that we could say of it that it is "the kind of thing" the National Endowment for the Humanities was created to encourage. Why not? Why not the Ford Foundation? The Rockefeller Foundation? The MacArthur Fund?
The judgment of this observer is that we have here something on the order of a biblical narrative discrediting everything about the Soviet Union popularized by leftist fancy for two generations. The hero John Reed turns out to have been paid $1 million for his work as a Soviet agent. The labor-union movement was primarily an instrument of Soviet power. The independent "progressive" movements in the United States, France, Italy were Moscow operations. We have here a historical juggernaut capable of refashioning the trendy history in which so many American scholars were once ensnared; and they are not in the mood, many of them, to invite the coroner to certify to their
Imagine, just imagine the amount of money that would have flowed in if an early document had established that Alger Hiss was, through 1935-1945, a U.S. patriot, untempted by an ideological wind east of the New Deal. If such a document existed, the MacArthur types would have handed the Yale enterprise the keys to their treasuries. The National Endowment? You account for it. But if you have influence, use it to raise money for the Annals of Communism series of the Yale University Press, Executive Editor, Jonathan Brent, 302 Temple Street, New Haven, Connecticut 06520.