Ron Radosh

Claire Berlinski on Soviet Espionage: A Misleading Article Appears in City Journal

A few days ago, City Journal posted an important article on its website. It was written by Claire Berlinski, an American journalist who lives in Istanbul, and titled “A Hidden History of Evil: Why doesn’t anyone care about the unread Soviet archives?” We all know that since the fall of Communism, the world’s response to Soviet totalitarianism was quite different than that which occurred after the end of Nazism in 1945. The Nuremberg trials put the leaders of the defunct Third Reich on trial for war crimes, and in so doing, told the world the extent of how the entire Hitler regime was based on illegality, murder, genocide, and criminal behavior.  Berlinski writes:

In the world’s collective consciousness, the word “Nazi” is synonymous with evil. It is widely understood that the Nazis’ ideology—nationalism, anti-Semitism, the autarkic ethnic state, the Führer principle—led directly to the furnaces of Auschwitz. It is not nearly as well understood that Communism led just as inexorably, everywhere on the globe where it was applied, to starvation, torture, and slave-labor camps. Nor is it widely acknowledged that Communism was responsible for the deaths of some 150 million human beings during the twentieth century. The world remains inexplicably indifferent and uncurious about the deadliest ideology in history.

There is nothing exceptional about this argument.  Indeed, these points are the entire basis of the famous The Black Book of Communism published in 1997 in France and two years later in the United States, and the major book by the late Francois Furet, The Passing of an Illusion:The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, a best seller in France that was translated into thirteen languages and published in our country in 2000.  And in her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Gulag:A History, Anne Applebaum addresses herself to the very issue of why the Soviet camps did not make the same impact on the West as those which killed the Jews in the Nazi Holocaust. The message of these three books and others like it may not be “widely acknowledged” by some on the Left, but enough has been written to leave few others with any excuses by now not to know the truth.

Communism saw no Nuremberg trials, and the world Left continued to argue that there was an essential difference between Communism and Nazism: the former supposedly emerged from Enlightenment philosophy and a well-meaning search for a more humanitarian and equal social order for the people of the world; the latter emerged from volkish ideology, espousal of war as a philosophy, and the espousal of evil and extermination of the Jewish people as a necessary basis for a new Aryan order. One could argue that in fact, Communism and its leaders killed more people numerically than Hitler’s fascist order. But no matter, the Left believes that anti-fascism was essential for progress, while anti-Communism was morally and politically wrong.

Berlinski  addresses the issue of what she says are “unread [and by implication unknown] Soviet archives,” compiled in London by one Pavel Stroilov, a Russian exile living in London, and yet another archive put together by the famed Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who possesses “a massive collection of stolen and smuggled papers from the archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.” On the Stroilov archive, Berlinski claims that the originals remain classified in Russian archives.

The Bukovsky collection, copied by the dissident illegally during the short lived trial of the Communist Party in the early years of the Yeltsin post-Soviet government, was also potentially quite explosive, since his documents, as do Stroilov’s material,  reveal much of Soviet activity in the regime’s waning years that casts Mikhail Gorbachev in “a darker light than the one in which he is generally regarded.”  Berlinski proceeds to give examples from both collections.

The documents, she argues, also reflect badly on Western and U.S. leaders, all anxious to achieve détente with the Soviets and hence willing to get “far too close to the USSR for comfort.” She points to material that compromise Kenneth Coates, a British member of the European Parliament whom she says “sought to extend Soviet influence in Europe”; Spain’s Francisco Fernandez Ordonez, who sought “success of the socialist revolution in contemporary conditions” in Europe; and France’s Premier Mitterand, who sought along with Gorbachev to get Germany united as a “neutral, socialist entity under a Franco-Soviet condominium.” And Britain’s Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, she writes, sought to end Britain’s Trident nuclear missile program with Gorbachev’s help.

Her own essay, however, acknowledges that in fact these documents were available, and that  political figures did address their implications.  For example, she writes that one Gerard Batten, a British political figure, publicly wrote that if true, it meant that Kinnock had approached “one of Britain’s enemies” to gain approval for Labour’s defense policy.  So if they were buried, how did Batten know about them? How was he able to tell this to the European Parliament in a speech given last year? Berlinski never answers that question.

Her point is that no one seems to care, since “the rules are different…for Communist fellow travelers.” She also writes that other material implicate then Senator Joe Biden and Senator Richard Lugar who, in 1979, evidently said “they absolutely do not care for the fate of most so-called dissidents.” If so, their statements reveal that  the two senators were  so anxious for détente that they would have gladly sacrificed doing anything to help imprisoned and persecuted Soviet era dissidents. Other similar statements were made in the past regarding the late Senator Edward Kennedy. They may or may not be true. But are they surprising? I think not.  Neoconservatives first came to prominence as critics of the realpolitik practiced by members of  both political parties in that era. Remember the great opposition to Henry Kissinger from neoconservatives, especially by Washington’s Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson.

Finally, Berlinski addresses the issue of why Stroilov could not find anyone willing to publish his material as a book, and why Bukovsky, whose Judgement a Moscou was published in France and Moscow, could not get it published here. Bukovsky told her that Random House bought it but insisted that he “rewrite the whole book from the liberal left political perspective,” something which he nobly refused to do. Did she check with Random House to get their version of the story? If so, she does not tell us.

More shocking is her implicit attack on one of the giants of American publishing, a man who has done more to educate the public about the secret history of the Soviet Union, including Soviet espionage, than any other person in the industry. This, of course, is Jonathan Brent, formerly editorial director of  Yale University Press, and editor of the seminal series “Annals of Communism,” of which many volumes Brent had to force the press to publish against much opposition. (Much of the details of Brent’s accomplishment can be found in this profile by John J. Miller that appeared in National Review, also available on Miller’s personal website for non-NR subscribers.)

Taking Stroilov’s word, Berlinski accepts that he and Bukovsky approached Brent, who supposedly was at first enthusiastic, and who then asked Bukovsky to write a book based on the documents pertaining to the first Gulf War and the Soviets. Strolilov told her he sent them off, and simply never heard from him again, despite sending e-mail after e-mail. “I can only speculate what so much frightened him in that book,” he told her. She tried herself to contact Brent, she says, but also got “no reply.” She sees this as simply a sign that Brent had other things on his mind, but she cites Stroilov’s belief that the “Establishment” would rather let “sleeping dogs lie.” Berlinski has an easier reason: “No one much cares.”

Right after this paragraph, Berlinski cites what she calls “the widely ignored” book by Alexander Yakovlev, the architect of Gorbachev’s perestroika, who unlike his boss, broke completely with Marxism, and who says that the Soviet Union murdered over 30 million people. She does not mention that the book was published by none other than Jonathan Brent, who would have been delighted if the book had great sales — something no press can guarantee. Indeed, her assertion of some perfidy on Brent’s part, that this brave man was somehow scared to publish the Stroilov or Bukovsky material, is more than absurd. It amounts to an unjust and unwarranted slander on the one editor who more than anyone else in the field has worked to get Americans to comprehend the crimes of Communism.

She ends her article with the following clarion cry. Let Berlinski speak in her own words:

We rightly insisted upon total denazification; we rightly excoriate those who now attempt to revive the Nazis’ ideology. But the world exhibits a perilous failure to acknowledge the monstrous history of Communism. These documents should be translated. They should be housed in a reputable library, properly cataloged, and carefully assessed by scholars. Above all, they should be well-known to a public that seems to have forgotten what the Soviet Union was really about. If they contain what Stroilov and Bukovsky say—and all the evidence I’ve seen suggests that they do—this is the obligation of anyone who gives a damn about history, foreign policy, and the scores of millions dead.

The academic world and  publishers, she is alleging, are derelict in their duty to history, truth and to those who died as Communism’s victims. A harsh charge. No wonder it has been picked up and reprinted everywhere. The weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal features it in its “Notable and Quotable” column, which thousands of the paper’s subscribers read. The website “Lonely Conservative” asks “why [do] those who aren’t true believers refuse to expose the truth?” Red State calls it “Inconvenient History” that those who “have academic affinity with the tenets of communism”refuse to accept, and as the days go on, more on the conservative blogosphere will pick it up.

Is Berlinski correct? I don’t think that the evidence supports her claims. To answer the question, I consulted with major experts familiar not only with Bukovsky’s and Stroilov’s claims, but with what is in the Soviet archives, and what is and what is not available. It was not hard to do. Why did Berlinski not take this easy step?

First, I turned to Mark Kramer, editor of the American edition of The Black Book of Communism, and editor in chief of The Journal of Cold War History, published at Harvard University. He responded with the following two assessments.

First, Kramer said that Berlinski “knows very little about the Russian archives.” Kramer has seen Stroilov’s documents, and says that “there is nothing in them that isn’t readily available to researchers at the Gorbachev Foundation archive.” (my emphasis.) Moreover, this material is also available at Harvard’s Cold War Studies collection, as well as the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which has additional material that Stroilov’s archive does not have. He notes that when Stroilov worked at the Gorbachev Foundation and copied its manuscripts, the collection was not yet complete.

It turns out as well that Bukovsky did not realize — and Kramer personally told him more than a decade ago — that “almost everything in his collection has been available in Fond 89 at RGANI since 1993.” (My emphasis. Kramer is referring to material in the Russian archives in Moscow, using their identification system of “fond” and the name of the archive.)  Moreover, these 3000 documents were microfilmed and are available at the Library of Congress as well as many other libraries in the United States! For those scholars who wish to see them, there are item level finding aids with cross-indexing that can easily be used.   Bukovsky, he acknowledges, has a rather small number of documents on dissidents and on his own case that are not in Fond 89, but Kramer photocopied these long ago, and posted them eight years ago on the Internet. As he concludes: “The notion that the Stroilov and Bukovsky collections are being willfully disregarded for some nefarious reasons is absurd.”

Later, Kramer added the following in another e-mail to me:   

I’m not sure precisely what Bukovsky approached Jonathan [Brent] about, but I think it was about putting out an English edition of Bukovsky’s “Jugement à Moscou,” which came out in 1995 from Robert Laffont (the same publisher that later put out “Le livre noir du communisme”). The “Jugement à Moscou” edition was a translation of the Russian edition, but the Russian edition (“Moskovskii protsess”) didn’t come out until 1996. Subsequently, a Polish edition was also put out. The reason that no English edition has been published is partly…[that] the commercial prospects are minimal at best — but it’s also because a lot of the stuff Bukovsky cites has already been published in full in English translation, and the value added by the book is not at all evident. … All of the documents have in fact been available for more than a decade as scanned images on Bukovsky’s website. But, as I mentioned earlier, almost the entire Bukovsky collection is just a duplicate of items in Fond 89, and the images on his website (which were pieced together from a handheld scanner he was using in early 1992) are inferior to those available in Fond 89, including the Fond 89 microfilms that we have here and that are also available at numerous other university libraries and large public libraries. Moreover, Fond 89 includes a lot of things that are not in his collection. … The[Wilson Center] Cold War International History Project has put out translations of many of the documents.

Next, I asked Anne Applebaum, who knows as much about these records as any working scholar, what her response is. She e-mailed me the following:

Ten years ago, I would have agreed with Berlinski. Unfortunately, she seems totally unaware of what has been published and what has been made available over the past decade. Since 1990, hundreds of thousands of Soviet documents have been microfilmed by the Hoover Institution, published online, and reprinted in enormous collections sponsored by Yale University press and others. One of the collections she seems most incensed about – Bukovsky’s document collection – is easily available to researchers. I made extensive use of it at Hoover where it can be read on microfilm. These many documents have revolutionized Soviet scholarship, and have provided the basis for hundreds of academic books, popular books and scholarly articles in the past decade.

She is also quite wrong in thinking that US publishers are uninterested in publishing books based on”unofficial” KGB document collections either. The Mitrokhin Archive and the Vassiliev collection, for example, have both been used to produce excellent books. (The latter produced Spies, by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, the definitive account of the  history of Soviet espionage in the United States).

I share Berlinski’s desire to have more of this history published, but her anger is completely misplaced. She should be denouncing the Russian government, which has slowed down the declassification of secret documents, and which continues to hold back material vital to understanding Stalin and Stalinism.

Finally, I asked Jonathan Brent, who is now executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City, to comment on Berlinski’s attack on his reputation. I reached Brent, whom I got to know when he was editor of the volume I wrote with Mary Habeck on the Soviet Union and the Spanish Civil War that was part of the Annals of Communism Series. (It occurs to me that Berlinski might not have realized that Brent left Yale University Press, and that might account for her inability to reach him there.)

Here are Brent’s comments:

What I’ve seen of these materials does not amount to a book YUP could have published because Bukovsky and his young associate won’t show the originals but only their redactions of the copies they have.  There’s no way of knowing what is left out—or what may be put in. They use extracts from documents not whole documents and therefore there is inherent uncertainty as to context and content. Without proper historical contextualization there can be no systematic approach to understanding the materials, as there was with the Vassiliev documents that Harvey [Klehr] & John [Haynes] used.  In the end, frankly, I couldn’t piece their materials together to make any kind of narrative that Yale Press could stand behind.  KGB materials are notoriously difficult to study.  THERE ARE NO SMOKING GUNS and documents that look like smoking guns are often fakes of one sort or another or taken out of context.  If Bukovsky would make the originals available for study by qualified historians, then there would be a chance of real results.  I’m afraid that this present publicity is an attempt to make money.  Why hasn’t he produced a study or a book out of these materials and submitted it in a regular fashion?  The reason is that it’s extremely difficult to make a responsible argument out of them.  As for Berlinski’s claim that she tried to contact me, I have no record of this or I would have told her what I’m telling you.

As for why American publishers are wary of such a book as Bukovsky and Stroilov have produced, the reason is hardly that they wish to suppress knowledge, but that they don’t think they can make money.  That is, the commercial publishers were burned badly by the KGB sponsored books produced in the early 90s; and the scholarly publishers are wary because of the lack of scholarly credibility of the authors and the status of the materials.  The Cold War will become a hot topic again at some point but it’s not there yet.  Even SPIES, one of the very best books ever written about the espionage in America, has only sold about 10,000 copies in cloth—far less than a commercial publisher could tolerate.

Brent also said he checked his e-mail on his computer in all possible places, and could find no record of Berlinski trying to get in touch with him or leaving him any messages.

When John Haynes and Harvey Klehr worked with Alexander Vassiliev, they cross checked all his material with reports in the Venona decrypted Soviet KGB messages, as well as convened a panel of scholars who carefully vetted Vassiliev’s meticulous copying of actual KGB documents, and only after this panel approved the material, did Yale University Press go ahead with plans for publication. An academic publisher has standards to uphold, and when a work of this sort is planned, they must be certain that the veracity of the documents are taken into account. This is especially the case when ideological opponents will go on the attack. As I previously noted in my review of their book in The Weekly Standard,  Amy Knight in the prestigious TLS accused them of “McCarthyite” methods.

In conclusion, I think it is clear that Claire Berlinski has not only overstated her case; she has also unfairly impugned the reputation of Jonathan Brent, underestimated what is actually available for anyone to see, and uncritically accepted some of the claims made to her by both Bukovsky and Striliov. She did not check with experts who regularly use this archival material to find out whether or not their claims are accurate.

The failure to publish their documents is not an example of the world failing to acknowledge “the monstrous history of Communism,” but of a decision by conscientious editors that these particular documents need more work before anyone can publish them. And in the meantime, those who do want to consult them, have every opportunity to do so. Sometimes there is an easy answer to what on first glance looks like a serious academic and political scandal. If large numbers on the Left ignore the lessons of Communism — that is a situation which many of us have long tried to address — it is not the result of failure to publish either Bukovsky’s or Stroilov’s material in the United States.

The only scandal is why City Journal, one of the most important and distinguished journals in the United States, printed such a weak and misleading article that is far below its usual quality.