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

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.