independent since 1891  
spacer spacer spacer
yalealumnimagazine.com   about the Yale Alumni Magazine   classified & display advertising   back issues 1992-present   our blogs   The Yale Classifieds   yam@yale.edu   support us


The Yale Alumni Magazine is owned and operated by Yale Alumni Publications, Inc., a nonprofit corporation independent of Yale University.

The content of the magazine and its website is the responsibility of the editors and does not necessarily reflect the views of Yale or its officers.


Comment on this article

Inside the Russian Archives
Through a combination of luck and savvy, Yale University Press has secured unique access to decades of classified Soviet documents. The resulting books are likely to rewrite much of 20th-century history.

The phone call came in the middle of the night. It was getting on toward Christmas in 1991, and Jonathan Brent, then the senior humanities editor at Yale University Press, recalls hearing a message that sat him straight up in bed. “Now’s the time for you to come to Moscow,” said the familiar voice of Jeffrey Burds, a Russian scholar at the University of Rochester.

Glasnost, the policy of openness to the West initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, was, Burds explained, about to liberate a treasure trove of material, much of it stamped soversheno sekretno—top secret—that was held in the vast archives of the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union. Brent had already been working with representatives from the newly opened archives of Hungary and Czechoslovakia to publish their holdings. If he and the press were interested in expanding the project, said Burds, the opportunity was now at hand.

A month later, Brent was in the capital of the Russian Federation, where he and the directors of several archives worked out a set of protocols that would lead, after some tortuous negotiations, to contracts giving the press the rights to publish documents that had been off-limits to all but a handful of Communist officials. Among the stunning revelations: American radical John Reed was paid more than $1 million by the USSR to support Communist activities in America; businessman Armand Hammer laundered money for the Soviets; and the Communist Party of the United States was a virtual puppet of the Kremlin.

What has turned out to be nothing less than a scholarly coup was the result of a remarkable combination of good connections and speed. Before coming to Yale, Brent had been director of the Northwestern University Press, where he specialized in Russian and East European literature. In that position, he had met many of the researchers with experience working in the Soviet archives (those containing prerevolutionary material were already open to scholars). So when press director John Ryden gave his new editor permission to journey to Moscow, Brent’s American and Eastern European contacts helped him make the right connections.

“The Yale name gave us instant recognition and credibility,” says Brent, but there was something more that ultimately convinced the Russian archivists that the press would be the best organization to handle the publication of their material. “In Russia, it’s not simply who you know, it’s more a matter of familiarity, of what they call znakómstvo,” he says. As an example, Brent, who speaks Russian and has studied the country’s literature, recalls an experience he had on that crucial first trip, when he met with the heads of several government archives. After nearly an hour of negotiations at the Archive of the National Economy, director Kuzmina “suddenly broke off the conversation and said, ‘We’ve had enough talk.’ She went into her closet and came back with a brown paper bag of strawberries, which astonished me,” said Brent. “Strawberries in January! I don’t know how she got them, but I happened to have a bottle of cognac in my briefcase, so we had a little party to celebrate. We really hit it off.”

Znakómstvo prevailed in Brent’s other negotiations as well, and more than three years later, the first books to result from those initial meetings are now in bookstores. “We initiated the entire project because we thought these documents would change our understanding of the history of the 20th century,” he says, “and we haven’t been disappointed.”

Brent, who was recently named the press’s executive editor, explains that the Annals of Communism, as the groundbreaking series is called, will include at least 17 volumes, each with joint Russian and American authorship, on topics that range from “Soviet politics and repression in the 1930s” to “antigovernment opposition under Khrushchev and Brezhnev.” Among the just-published titles is Stalin’s Letters to Molotov, 1925–1936, and in the works is the publication and analysis of a facsimile copy of the last diary of Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna.

For specialist and nonspecialist readers alike, however, it is the appearance last month of The Secret World of American Communism that is sparking the most interest. In this well-documented look at the evolution and activities of the Communist Party of the USA, Harvey Klehr, a professor of politics at Emory University, John Earl Haynes, a historian at the Library of Congress, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, a Russian historian and archivist, demolish what they call “the predominant view among scholars”—that the CPUSA was simply a political alternative to the Republicans and Democrats, and not an arm of a Soviet government bent on toppling the U.S. government. “As the documents in this volume show,” the authors note, the CPUSA was in fact a “conspiracy financed by a hostile foreign power that recruited members for clandestine work, developed an elaborate underground apparatus, and used that apparatus to collaborate with espionage services of that power.”

The reader is left with the chilling feeling that in one sense, at least, the notorious Joseph McCarthy was right: Communists marching to a Moscow drummer were abroad in the land and looking for secrets, including atomic secrets, to pass on to their Soviet sponsors. However, nowhere in the archival files the authors have so far examined is there evidence that any of the people the fiery senator from Wisconsin tried to indict were actually guilty of their alleged crimes. “It is difficult to regard Senator Joseph McCarthy’s assault on political civility as much more than the vicious partisanship of a political bully,” Klehr, Haynes, and Firsov write.

But while the authors report that “the internal Communist threat to the United States was often wildly exaggerated,” a number of documents they have uncovered tend to support the charges made by Whittaker Chambers, the journalist who claimed in 1948 that the U.S. State Department of the 1930s had been rife with CPUSA members who were part of a Soviet-organized spy ring.

The most celebrated member of the group, Chambers claimed in testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, was Alger Hiss, a former State Depart­ment official who had become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Hiss steadfastly and persistently denied that he had ever belonged to a Communist espionage “apparatus,” to use the term of that day; in fact, his defenders maintained that there never had been a Communist underground in Washington that worked through the CPUSA for the Soviet intelligence-gathering service.

Unfortunately for those still arguing over the Hiss case, “there’s no smoking gun,” says Brent. Alger Hiss’s name has not appeared in any of the archival files the researchers have so far examined. But in confirming allegations that there was indeed a spy ring in the State Department, the documents lend credibility to the arguments of Chambers and many modern historians that Hiss, who was eventually convicted of perjury, was engaged in espionage.

Of course, conclusive documents may yet surface. The press has publishing agreements with the State Archive of the Russian Federation and the Center for the Preservation of Documents of Contemporary History, in addition to the Archive of the National Economy. It is also negotiating with other archives. These repositories hold a vast sea of paper—Kyrill Anderson, director of the Contemporary History archive, estimated his holdings at more than two million folders, each containing some 200 pages of material. And other sources—such as the secret police archives and sections of the Presidential Archives—remain off-limits to scholars, Russian and non-Russian alike.

However, even if such a “smoking gun”—or guns—were to be found, would the material be believable? “The problem of falsification is a complicated one,” says Brent, noting that while some recalcitrant Cold Warriors have long maintained that the Soviets laced their files with bogus papers, the sheer volume of the archives seems to guarantee their veracity. As Brent points out, falsifying selected documents among the million or so on file without creating errors or contradictions would be almost impossible.

In the case of the CPUSA material, there is another factor at work that makes them believable: The files had been sealed, locked in a vault since 1944, and, apparently, forgotten for nearly half a century. “In March of 1992,” Brent says, “Fridrikh Firsov and I were having lunch in New Haven, and he was telling me about the Comintern archives.” It was through the Comintern that the Soviet government managed Communist parties in foreign countries. Was there, he asked Firsov, material on the CPUSA? The archivist said yes, but then quickly added that nobody actually knew what the files contained. The Soviets, he explained, had long written off the possibility of effecting a socialist revolution in the U.S., and the lack of interest in the CPUSA archive was so total that Firsov wasn’t even sure of its location. But on his return to Russia, he managed to find the long-untouched papers in a warehouse outside Moscow and personally supervised their transfer to his archive, where he worked with American scholars Klehr and Haynes to make sense of the material.

Brent readily admits to the possibility that the files contain forgeries, but he says that any concerns he and the press harbored about being hoodwinked were “put to rest after speaking with researchers and listening to the way they approached these documents. The safeguard is that each book is built on a wide documentary base.”

Still, the absence of false material does not, however, ensure that only the truth remains, notes Yale’s Mark Steinberg, an associate professor of history who is working on two books in the Annals of Communism series. “Say you find an order to shoot someone,” says Steinberg, who has worked in various Soviet archives since 1983. “Do you take it at face value? Was the order ever carried out? Who was it written for? Is the source reliable? What were the motives of the author? To believe anything, you need corroboration, ‘truths’ repeated by unrelated sources, not just a statement that makes its way up the chain of command.”

Then, there’s the matter of completeness. “There are lots of missing documents,” the historian explains, “and one has to ask not only what was removed from the files, but what was never written down in the first place. Stalin, for example, gave many orders orally.” So did Lenin, who may—or may not—have given what is perhaps the most famous order in Soviet history—to shoot the Czar and his family. Steinberg and his Russian collaborator V. M. Khrustalyov are using previously unavailable material from the archives to write The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty for the press.

When the historians began combing through a cache of letters written by Nicholas and Alexandra and members of the royal family and court from February 1917, when the Russian ruler was arrested, to shortly before the executions took place in July of 1918, there was hope that the lingering mystery might finally be solved.

The mystery remains. And while the incriminating piece of paper could, like the file that might end the Alger Hiss debate, reside in some still-secret archive, says Steinberg, “it is completely plausible that there was no need for such an order.”

Although the documents the historians have so far examined do not resolve the issue of responsibility for the royal murders, they do put a new face on the Czar and Czarina. Moreover, says Steinberg, they “show the human texture of the revolution and the revolutionaries.” Through the letters, the ruler, widely perceived as witless and weak, is instead revealed as “a strong-willed monarch who lacked flexibility” and ran into “equally strong-willed Bolsheviks who were also blinded by their own faith.” Like collided with like, and as the old order collapsed, discipline went with it. In July 1918, with the revolutionaries suddenly on the brink of defeat, the execution directive needn’t have come from the top, says Steinberg. The Czar’s proletarian jailers could simply have acted on their own. “The documents don’t answer all our questions,” Steinberg admits.

However, the new material, and the Yale Press books that will result from access to it, promise readers a better understanding of the events that have shaped the world for the past 70 years. This is the start of a long process and, as Vladimir P. Tarasov, head of the international relations section of the State Archives Service of Russia, said on a visit last year to New Haven, “there’s no going back.”

Steinberg is not so sanguine. Having recently returned from Moscow, he concedes that he is worried about the current political situation in Russia. “Everything’s very fragile,” he says. Quite apart from the political situation, the conditions in the archives are deteriorating. “The lights come on one day, the heat the next, but rarely both together. And there’s a profoundly unhappy staff who are paid nothing, or next to it.” To make matters worse, says Steinberg, “there’s a black market for archival documents,” making the theft of critical material increasingly likely.

Despite the problems, however, the work continues apace. “The entire project has been a real education for me,” says Jonathan Brent. “For decades, the West modeled itself on its response to Communism, so these newly revealed facts of history not only help Russians understand their own past, they help us to understand some fundamental issues about justice and being an American in the 20th century.”  the end


©1992–2012, Yale Alumni Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Yale Alumni Magazine, P.O. Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905, USA. yam@yale.edu