From the Chicago Tribune
Combing through the Soviet archives
Jonathan Brent discusses `Annals of Communism' series that he
overseesElizabeth Taylor, Tribune's literary editor
A decade ago this fall, the Soviet Union
dissolved, and guarded historical archives there were opened. Jonathan Brent,
editorial director of Yale University Press and a son of legendary Chicago
bookseller Stuart Brent, has spearheaded an effort to publish documents from
those government and Communist Party archives. The Yale series "The Annals of
Communism" ultimately will comprise 25 volumes spanning the history of the USSR.
Brent was in Chicago recently to promote the latest book in the series, "Spain
Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War," edited by Ronald Radosh,
Mary R. Habeck and Grigory Sevostianov. He spoke with the Tribune's literary
editor, Elizabeth Taylor:
Q. I understand that you first became
interested in Russia when you were growing up in Chicago.
A. I was about 7 or 8 years
old, and I would take the Chicago public bus to school in the morning.
Frequently, I would sit in a seat and I would stare up at the ads above the
windows, and there was a picture of this man who did not look like an evil man
to me. He looked like he had an appealing face for some reason. He was fat and
short, and he looked like he was a nice man.
But his hand was in a fist,
and he was pounding on something, and either above his head or underneath him it
said, "We will bury you." And I was fascinated by that, by the problem of this
man with this face that I took not to be that of a criminal or a monster saying
that he was going to bury me.
I think that was my first experience of the
Cold War. And it was an image that stuck in my mind for years and years and
years. And only much later did I understand what that was all about.
And the fat man was Khrushchev?
A. It was, I discovered later, an ad for
the United Nations. It was somehow advertising the importance of the United
Nations as a forum for expression and controlling the dangerous international
Khrushchev was giving his speech at the United Nations. I
think he pounded the rostrum or he took his shoe off and hit the table and said,
"We will bury you." And I've repeated that line to friends of mine in Russia,
and they remember it. And, of course, what they say to me is that he was not
saying that they would kill us, but that communists, the communist system, would
bury the capitalist system.
Q. Did your interest in Russia begin with
literature and lead to politics and history?
A. One can read Hawthorne
and Melville and Faulkner and Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and you don't have to worry
about--you don't have to care, you don't have to know who the president of the
United States is. You don't have to know whether the Democrats or Republicans
But if you read [Russian poet Osip] Mandelstam,
there is hardly a page that goes by but you are wondering, "Well, what were his
relations to the authorities?" How can you read "Dr. Zhivago" without thinking
of the terrible, terrible battles that went on between [author Boris] Pasternak
and the government.
You cannot read Isaac Babel without knowing that he
was arrested and shot, that his stories are about the terrible internal
conflicts and the crucible of the Soviet Union at that time. Inevitably you're
drawn into the politics, the political situation, whether you want to be or not.
And the literature of the time becomes part and parcel of the larger
Whereas in America, it's much
easier to think of a story as a story. It's much easier to think of a novel [as
an] aesthetic object. In Russia, in the 19th and the 20th Centuries, art was not
just an aesthetic object. It was a political act. It was often enough an act of
some kind of real courage and moral commitment on the part of the
When you think of all of the writers who were destroyed by the
system, who wrote tripe, who gave in and yielded, you see how much strength it
took for somebody like Isaac Babel to write vigorous prose. And Babel stopped
writing. In his famous speech in 1934 at the Moscow Writers' Congress, he said,
in effect: "Comrade Stalin has given us everything. He's given us food.
Comrades, he's given us freedom to go anywhere in the country we would like.
He's given us the freedom to travel abroad. He's made it possible for us to have
the freedom to pursue our craft as we would like without worrying about money or
anything." He said, "But comrades, there's just one small little tiny nasty
little freedom that he has not allowed us, but it is a freedom of which we avail
ourselves far too often. And that is the freedom to make a mistake."
he said: "That is a freedom that we must claim for ourselves. And if we don't,
God help us." And he said, "But since there is no God, we must help ourselves."
That's a tremendous speech.
And so, you can't escape the
Q. The series has shed light on many prominent figures--Alger
Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, and John Reed, for instance--but this makes me
wonder: What's the most important lesson from your work?
A. The most
important thing has to do with the savage ferocity of power when it is
unconstrained by a political and social system that limits it.
seems very abstract and dry, but what happened in the Soviet Union--what we're
seeing through these documents--is that there was one thing that Stalin and
Lenin and those followers who supported them did consistently, consciously,
coherently from beginning to end. It explains the purges. It explains Stalin's
immense cruelty. It is the one thing that Stalin and his comrades and Lenin and
his comrades did from beginning to end, which was to fight to preserve the
absolute power of the Bolshevik Party. That was more important than
But then what happened was that in the absence of a political
system that could control that power, the essence of the system became Stalin
himself. So that loyalty to the Bolshevik Party became loyalty to Stalin.
Ultimately loyalty to Stalin became more important than anything else, which is
why he killed off all of the old Bolsheviks. The old Bolsheviks made the mistake
of thinking that they were being loyal to Stalin because they were loyal to the
ideals of Marx and Engels and Lenin. And they didn't understand that for Stalin,
loyalty did not mean loyalty to those ideals. It meant loyalty to
You know, it's like the joke about the accountants and the Mafia.
The Mafia is advertising they need an accountant. And all the accountants show
up at a Holiday Inn on a Sunday morning, and one after another they're rejected.
And finally one guy says to a guy who's leaving the room, "What questions are
they asking that are so difficult?" He says, "I don't know. It's so strange.
They say, `How much is 2 plus 2?' " So the guy goes in and they say, "Well, how
much is 2 plus 2?" And he thinks about it and he says, "Well, how much do you
want it to be?"
And that's what Stalin wanted, you see. So those
documents that we published in "Spain Betrayed" show how from the very beginning
the Soviets had no intention of supporting the republic. The republic was a
front for the establishment of Soviet power in Western Europe. That's what it
And so the poor [jerks] who went over there in the Lincoln
Brigades, with all their idealism, and all of their high language and
camaraderie and everything, were just tools.
And, of course, the disgrace
is that the American Communist Party then protected it. They then pretended that
this was the great fight against fascism. That Stalin was the only leader who
stood up to Hitler. Nonsense! Nonsense!
The whole thing--it stank from
the beginning because what was central to Stalin was power. And what was
essential to the power was loyalty to Stalin. And if you didn't understand that,
you got a bullet in the head.
Q. What are you working on
A. Well, actually I'm writing two books. One is a biography
of Isaac Babel. And the other is this history of the Doctor's Plot.
Doctor's Plot began with the death of a very powerful member of the Politburo,
Andrej Zhdanov in 1948. And eventually, by 1953, the doctors who had treated
Zhdanov were accused of having murdered him. Now, as it happens, the doctors who
actually treated Zhdanov were not Jewish, but by 1953, when this story broke and
Stalin had concocted this huge plot, all the doctors were Jewish. And it turned
into a Jewish conspiracy to murder Politburo members. Stalin wanted to induce
hysteria in the country.
And in the wake of this, hundreds and hundreds
and hundreds of people were arrested. The rumor was that Stalin was preparing a
huge pogrom against the Jewish population of the Soviet Union at that time. Big
concentration camps had been built. And the explanation for these concentration
camps was that they were for war criminals, war prisoners. But at that time in
the Soviet Union, there were only about 5,000 German soldiers left over from the
war, not nearly enough to fill up concentration camps that, according to their
own assessment, could hold 250,000 people. So what were these camps
And there are all of the signs here that Stalin was preparing a big
show trial with the expulsion of the Jews from the cities and something horrible
But Stalin dies in March of 1953, three months after this story
is made public in Pravda. And so the question has always been, was Stalin
murdered? And so that's going to be the last chapter of the book.
Copyright © 2001, Chicago