September 11, 1995 Volume 146, No. 11
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FOUNTAIN OF TRUTH
In a hugely ambitious project, scholars are editing documents from
secret archives that tell the real story of the Soviet Union, from its
birth to its collapse
GRAY MORNING. LATER lovely sunshine. Baby has a slight cold."
With a prosaic note on the weather and her ailing son Alexei, heir to
the throne of Russia, the Empress Alexandra wrote her last diary entry
on a mid-July night in 1918. A few hours later, she was shot to death on
orders from the country's new communist government. She and her husband
Czar Nicholas II, their five children and four family retainers were
herded into a room in a house in Yekaterinburg. A 12-man execution squad
opened fire with revolvers, then stepped up to finish the job with more
gunshots and bayonets. "Thanks to all this," their commander
Yakov Yurovsky reported, "the entire procedure, including
verification [feeling the pulse], took around 20 minutes."
Like much of the Soviet Union's brutal 74-year history, the basic
facts about that regicide have been known for several years. But
questions lingered. Now doubts that may still be open on this and
hundreds of other issues are likely to be resolved in a series of books
drawn from newly opened archives in Moscow. Yale University Press is
bringing them out under the general title of Annals of Communism. This
week Yale will publish The Fall of the Romanovs, a collection of letters
and documents illuminating the ruling family's otherworldly drift toward
death as revolution overtook them. Next year will bring publication of
Empress Alexandra's last diary, which she kept in English right up to
the night of her execution and from which the quotation above is taken.
It is hard to overstate the excitement scholars feel about the
opening of the Soviet archives in recent years--millions of secret files
that show the inner workings of the world's first and, so far,
longest-running totalitarian state. What Saudi Arabia is to oil, these
records are to 20th century history. Yale's joint U.S.-Russian effort
will produce at least 19 volumes in the next five years, and possibly as
many as 45. A documentary television series based on the Annals will
also be made. The raw material for the books, each edited by an American
and a Russian, comes primarily from four archives in Moscow: the former
Central Party, Central Committee, October Revolution and the Russian
State Archive of the Economy. Containing more than 250 million
documents, they offer immense new detail on the Russian Revolution, the
history of the Communist Party from 1917 to the collapse of the Soviet
Union in December 1991, and the secret police among much else.
"The history of the Soviet period can now begin," says
Jonathan Brent, executive editor of Yale University Press and the head
of the project. When the file drawers in Moscow began to open in January
1992, Brent dashed in and spent six months negotiating a contract for
access to some of the largest archives. While the material is of
exceeding interest to historians in the West, the scholars involved
believe the biggest impact will be on the Russians themselves. Each of
the Yale books will be published in Russian as well as English and will
be distributed in both Russia and America. "It will give Russians a
whole new way of evaluating their own history," says William
Taubman, a Russian expert at Amherst College. To Brent, the
collaborative approach was essential. "It would be obscene for this
to be published in the West and not in Russia," he says.
The Russian editors agree. The documents will prove once and for all
that Soviet history had been systematically falsified. Vladimir Naumov,
who is co-editing one volume in Moscow, says, with some wonder, "We
will be able to write what actually happened." Though it is not
news in the West, Naumov looks forward to proving that the communists'
October Revolution of 1917, was not a "revolution of the
people" as the Soviets propagandized. "Only a quarter of the
population supported the revolution," he says.
The first two books in the series were published earlier this year.
One of them, The Secret World of American Communism, produced
documentary evidence that the Communist Party in the U.S. operated an
underground espionage network that acted on orders directly from Moscow.
The left has always argued that the American party represented the
interests of an indigenous, independent political movement; it will be
very hard for anyone to believe it anymore. Among other news:
industrialist Armand Hammer used his businesses to launder cash payments
from Moscow to the U.S. party, and John Reed, the often romanticized
American journalist, took a subsidy from the Soviets estimated at $1
million in the form of jewels, gold and silver. Overall, the book offers
"the first new revelation about American communism in a
generation," wrote Theodore Draper, the dean of American historians
on the subject.
The other published volume, Stalin's Letters to Molotov, is the first
English-language collection of the Soviet dictator's correspondence.
Vyacheslav Molotov served Stalin as Foreign Minister and was one of his
closest colleagues from the revolution until the dictator's death. This
book strikes at the heart of a debate raging in Russia: Was Stalin
really that bad?
MANY WHO RESENT the collapse of the Soviet Union or simply regret the
loss of great power are trying to salvage some of his glory. These
letters, though they show Stalin hard at work on the issues of
governing, also reveal an angry political plotter and an icy
executioner. In a letter from 1930 he blames bureaucratic
"wreckers" for disrupting food supplies and orders: "Have
the ogpu [secret police] announce that all these scoundrels will be
executed by firing squad." As Robert Conquest, an expert on the
Stalin purges, says, "The exchanges printed here give us Bolshevik
thought in the raw, in all its crudity and coarseness."
It is sometimes argued, almost wistfully, that Stalin led the
communists into real brutality, whereas the father of the Soviet state,
Vladimir Lenin, was not as murderous. Such a view probably will not
survive a reading of a forthcoming volume titled Lenin's
"Secret" Archive, which reproduces files from his office. The
book is being edited by Harvard historian Richard Pipes and Russian
scholar Yuri Buranov. Pipes has always treated the Soviets very
severely, but in his work with the Lenin archives, he says, he was
"half hoping" to find a human side to Lenin. Instead, Pipes
says, "I found him even more cruel, more indifferent."
There will surely be shocks in the three volumes that will be devoted
to the documentary history of the Soviet labor camps, where untold
millions died, after the Gulag was established in 1930. And still more
revelations will come in a volume, scheduled for publication in 1999,
that will document large-scale opposition to the government among
ordinary citizens during the eras of Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid
Brezhnev. "This is not a book about dissidents," says its
Russian editor, Vladimir Kozlov. "We are examining a citizenry that
was trying to oppose the government constitutionally." It was a
long period in which Russians progressively lost faith in their system
and paved the way for Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika. "The
ideology," says Kozlov, "could no longer be supported."
The American and Russian collaborators are spending as much time as
possible working together in Moscow and the U.S. The research for the
project will cost more than $1 million by the time it is completed, and
much of the funding comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities
and several private philanthropies. The Soros Foundation, for example,
has supported the Russian researchers who are unable to maintain their
work financially and whose archive offices are short of tools like
computers, printers and copiers.
For the Russians, says Brent, "this history is vital for the
construction of a democratic society. A lot of people share that
view." Nevertheless, rising nationalism in Russia casts a shadow
over the future of such efforts to search for the truth. The extreme
right and left are determined to salvage some legitimacy from the past
and would like to call a halt to historical muckraking. Not all the
state archives are open yet, and those that are may come under tighter
control. But this project seems safe. Copies of the documents for the
books Yale plans to produce are reportedly already in the U.S.
--Reported by John Moody/New Haven, Brigid O'Hara-Forster/New York
and Constance Richards/Moscow
Copyright 1995 Time Inc. All rights reserved.