TIME Magazine

September 11, 1995 Volume 146, No. 11

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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

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