From the Chicago Tribune


Combing through the Soviet archives

Jonathan Brent discusses `Annals of Communism' series that he oversees

Elizabeth Taylor, Tribune's literary editor

September 2, 2001

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.

Q. 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 situation.

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 controlled Congress.

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 political-social-historical landscape.

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 writer.

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."

And 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 politics.

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.

Now that 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 anything.

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 him.

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 was about.

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 personally?

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.

The 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 for?

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 to come.

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 Tribune