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Ron Radosh

The Berlinski Article: Some Detailed Answers

May 19th, 2010 - 12:12 pm

Since writing my critique of Claire Berlinski’s article in The City Journal, she has responded at their website. I agree with her that at present, when the main challenge to the West is the rise of radical Islam, much of our dispute is about past history. But there are other implications to be considered as well. These have been raised by Jonathan Brent, in his letter to Berlinski, which can be read here.   I am in strong agreement with the concluding point Brent makes in his letter:

How or why the Cold War ground to a halt–the crimes of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and their predecessors are matters of great historical importance, but the intellectual inertness of the West in the face of the recurrence of precisely those evils that gave rise to those crimes in the first place is incomprehensible to me. I speak of the revival of Stalin’s image in Russia on the one hand and the revival of nationalistic, crypto-Nazi movements across Eastern Europe on the other. What this signifies must be taken seriously in the West, but so few people are able to take it seriously because it is so rarely put into the proper historical/political context and the facts of it get muddled in political agendas that slyly redirect attention from criminality and responsibility to victimhood. This to me is the great story unfolding in Europe at present and one Americans ought to know more about.

Many of the issues raised by Berlinski about the archival collection of both Bukovsky and Stroilov are technical. For this reason, a detailed and precise analysis has been made in answer to Berlinski’s article by Mark Kramer, editor of The Journal of Cold War History at Harvard University. Here is Kramer’s response in full:

“To preclude further confusion, I need to explain the background.  In late 1991 and 1992, more than 3,000 documents were gathered for a trial of the Soviet Communist Party before the Russian Constitutional Court.  The trial made little headway and soon ground to a halt.  Bukovsky was on an official commission that reviewed these documents, and, using a handheld scanner, he copied around 900 of them, which, to his great credit, he made fully available on-line in the late 1990s.  At the time he scanned the documents, there was no guarantee that the Russian government would ever make any of the items accessible, and he therefore admirably wanted to have copies of them in case the collection was subsequently sealed.  But as it turned out, the Russian government did make photocopies of nearly all of the formerly secret documents available to the public, starting in late 1992.  Some 3,000 declassified documents are stored in Fond 89 of the Russian State Archive of Recent History (Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Noveishei Istorii, or RGANI), covering the whole Soviet period.  In addition to the items declassified for the trial, photocopies of a small number of other documents (mostly ones turned over by the Russian authorities to foreign leaders during state visits) were subsequently added to Fond 89.  Because the various items were released in batches, they were arranged and initially catalogued somewhat haphazardly, with only sporadic attempts at thematic coherence and chronological order.  But fortunately in 1995 an excellent item-level finding aid appeared in Russian, organized chronologically and extensively cross-indexed.  The finding aid covered nearly 80 percent of Fond 89, and the remaining 20 percent was covered in a comprehensive English-language finding aid compiled by Lora Soroka of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in the late 1990s.  The Fond 89 holdings were microfilmed in the mid-1990s by the British publisher Chadwyck-Healey (which has since been taken over by the ProQuest Information and Learning Company) with funding and support from the Hoover Institution.  The 25 reels of microfilmed Fond 89 documents were then made available for purchase in the West and have been acquired by numerous university and public libraries.

Given the common provenance of the Bukovsky collection and Fond 89, it is hardly surprising that there is a very high degree of overlap between them.  The large majority of documents in the Bukovsky collection are also in Fond 89, as anyone who has used the two collections can attest.  To give a quick example:  The Bukovsky collection contains 31 documents about Poland in 1980-1982 and 42 documents pertaining to the Soviet war in Afghanistan.  All of these documents appear in Fond 89.  The Bukovsky collection does contain some documents (especially about repression of dissidents) that are not in Fond 89, but only a relatively small number, whereas Fond 89 contains a large number of documents (more than 2,000) that are not in the Bukovsky collection.  It is good to have both collections, but the reason that scholars and students primarily use Fond 89 is that the collection is far more extensive and has very useful finding aids.  (I should note, however, that Berlinski’s description of the Bukovsky collection as “unorganized” is incorrect.  In fact, the collection is organized both topically and chronologically.)

Berlinski claims that the documents in Fond 89 (she is referring to the Bukovsky collection, but, as I noted, there is a very high degree of overlap) “are largely unknown, undiscussed, and ignored by the media” and says that “they have certainly not been translated in full.”  In fact, many documents in Fond 89/Bukovsky have been described and analyzed by journalists over the past 18 years.  Among others, Michael Dobbs in The Washington Post and Serge Schmemann in The New York Times published numerous articles discussing items in Fond 89/Bukovsky.  Many documents have been discussed in the British and German and French press as well.  The collection has by no means been “ignored by the media.”  It is true that the documents have “not been translated in full,” but Berlinski fails to mention (and apparently is unaware) that a vast number of translations of Fond 89 documents have been published over the past 18 years by the Cold War International History Project (CIWHP) in its Bulletins and Working Papers and on its website.  Many translations have also been made available by the National Security Archive and by other organizations.  To cite an example, let me return to the Poland and Afghanistan documents in the Bukovsky collection.  All of these, every single one, were translated in the 1990s and published by the CWIHP.  I know for sure because I was the one who translated them, but much the same could be said about other parts of the collection.  The CWIHP and the National Security Archive have done invaluable work in making translations of Russian documents available (including many hundreds of documents in addition to those in Fond 89), but Berlinksi seems unaware of what has been done.  To be sure, both the CWIHP and my own program at Harvard and the NSArchive would welcome having all of the documents translated, but translation entails expense and priorities have to be set.  Bear in mind that many scholars who use these materials are apt to use the originals instead of translations.  Rather than complain that the Fond 89 documents have “not been translated in full,” Berlinski might consider helping the CWIHP and NSArchive obtain the funding to translate all of the documents.

Regarding the Stroilov documents, I mentioned before that based on what I had seen thus far, there is nothing in them that is not readily available to researchers at the Gorbachev Foundation Archive.  I can judge only by what Stroilov has chosen to release thus far.  Last September he made available to Michael Binyon of the London Times some documents pertaining to Margaret Thatcher’s position on German unification and Soviet policy toward Germany, especially notes from a conversation that Thatcher had with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow on 23 September 1989.  Binyon published an article in The Times on 11 September 2009 describing the record of Thatcher’s comments as “explosive” and “likely to cause [an] uproar.”  The Times on its website posted translations of this document and of some other documents provided by Stroilov regarding Soviet policy toward Germany.  When I checked these, I found that I had copies of them from Opis’ 2 of Fond 2 at the Gorbachev Foundation Archive.  I also found that Svetlana Savranskaya of the National Security Archive had already put out translations of most of the documents, including the full record of the Gorbachev-Thatcher conversation on 23 September 1989.  In addition, I found that Thatcher herself, on p. 792 of her Downing Street Years memoir (published in 1993), had accurately recounted this meeting, including the points that Binyon deemed to be “explosive.”  I came away from all this with a degree of skepticism about Stroilov’s claims to have obtained documents that are not available to any other researchers.

But because I have not seen Stroilov’s full collection, I cannot offer a final judgment about it.  If Stroilov wants his collection thoroughly used and appraised, he should provide it to the CWIHP or National Security Archive so that it can be made available in full to experts, who can then compare it with the materials they have acquired from the Gorbachev Foundation Archive.  Short of that, his claims have to be assessed on the basis of the selective items he has made available thus far.

Let me turn finally to Berlinski’s contention that there is “a dangerous indifference to the history and horrors of Communism.”  This is an accurate characterization of large parts of the former Soviet Union, especially Russia, but it is certainly not an accurate assessment of the situation in the United States, which is what Berlinski is talking about.  When I published The Black Book of Communism in the late 1990s, I looked on it as a work that built on a good deal of top-notch scholarship that was being done in the 1990s.  In the eleven years since The Black Book appeared, an immense amount of first-rate scholarship has been published on almost every aspect of the atrocities and crimes of Soviet Communism — the wanton destruction of peasants, the bloodshed and mass famines caused by forced collectivization, the purges, the mass terror (including the so-called mass operations), the deportations of entire nationalities, the Gulag, and numerous other topics.  Other scholarship of this sort is in the pipeline, such as Norman Naimark’s book Stalin’s Genocides, which is due out soon from Princeton University Press.  Berlinski says nothing about any of this work, nor does she mention Yale University Press’s Annals of Communism series, which has made available large numbers of translations of documents pertaining to these topics and numerous others.  Fortunately, future generations of students will have no problem learning about the horrors and crimes of the Soviet regime.  There is ample room for more to be done (and indeed more is being done), but what has been produced thus far is worthy of praise, not a blithe condemnation.”

Finally, another scholar, Mikhail Tsypkin, of the Naval Postgraduate School, has prepared his own comment, which follows  on the next page.

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