"Inside the Stalin Archives" by Jonathan Brent ()

02/24/2009 |
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http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122818209610571071.html ( )

Documents and Disorder
Tense negotiations over access and rights in a dodgy ethical atmosphere.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 came not only the chance of opening up a closed society but the hope of a kind of scholarly glasnost -- opening up closed archives and bringing long-buried secrets into the light of day.

In 1992, Jonathan Brent, an editor at Yale University Press, first flew to Moscow to investigate the possibility of publishing documents from the vast collections of the defunct Soviet state. In "Inside the Stalin Archives," he gives us an account of his experience over the years -- meeting with archive directors, ex-KGB agents and aging politicians, rummaging through state labyrinths (the Central Party Archive alone has 250 million documents), engaging researchers and editors, and eventually viewing diaries, letters and other treasures long hidden away from the world.

The result of Mr. Brent's efforts, so far, is the 20 volumes of Yale's "Annals of Communism" series, many of which offer archival documents alongside the commentary and analysis of scholars. In "The Secret World of American Communism" (1995), for instance, Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Fridrikh I. Firsov produce 92 documents showing the extensive Soviet espionage apparatus in the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s. Other books in the series present Lenin's unpublished writings, trace the Soviet role in the Spanish Civil War and reproduce the KGB file of Andrei Sakharov (1921-89), the physicist and dissident.

Unearthing such material wasn't easy. Mr. Brent recounts tense negotiations over access, rights and payment in a dodgy ethical atmosphere where protocol -- other than bribery -- was unknown. His Russian counterparts repeatedly threaten to shred contracts on grounds of mere personal displeasure. A KGB general, whose memoir Mr. Brent considers publishing, intimidates him by referring to the birth of Mr. Brent's daughter -- not public information. To investigate the origins of Stalin's Great Terror, a Russian historian tells Mr. Brent that he must venture deep into KGB archives. "Will we get to the bottom of the KGB?" Mr. Brent asks. "Of course," replies the historian. "But the KGB has many bottoms."

Mr. Brent intersperses his archival quest with reflections on modern Russia. His argument -- based on his frequent visits and on his own scholarly expertise (he is the author of "Stalin's Last Crime: The Doctors' Plot") -- is that the Soviet mentality is reasserting itself aggressively in Russia today. He sees a return not to the 1930s but to the 1970s: Scholars are bullied for insufficient reverence toward the Red Army; documents, though made public for a while, are reclassified into secrecy; rooms are perfunctorily bugged. In short, Mr. Brent finds that the Soviet state is not as defunct as he thought.

Certainly, in Mr. Brent's view, Russia feels the same: drab, careworn, suffocating. He describes the unrelieved crumminess of all Russian manufactures that are not weapons or space stations. Empty restaurants run out of menus, their strange meats unpierceable by the average fork. He attaches special meaning to the arrival of Russian Vogue in 1998, a sign that high-end consumerism had arrived for the lucky few. But one day he witnesses how Western markets mix with Russian illiberalism: The patrons of a Stefano Ricci clothing store are hustled out as men with submachine guns take up posts at the entrance. A billionaire has come to shop, it turns out. Russia remains a country of men, not laws.

Along with serving as an editor at Yale University Press, Mr. Brent is professor of Russian literature at Bard College, and "Inside the Stalin Archives" strives for a literary sheen. The glut of allusion ranges from the merely learned ("another Gogolian canard") to the downright professorial ("like the golden nail in the flea's shoe in the story by Leskov"). Mr. Brent often uses the 10-ruble word when the 25-kopeck one will do. He doesn't take a Kleenex from his pocket but must "extract" it. And why board a bus when you can be "drawn upward into the interior"? One evening he is drawn upward into the interior of the wrong bus, and after two agonized paragraphs of coping with the calamity he confesses in extremis: "I was about to yield entirely to the sensation of dissolving into invisibility, of being swept into will-less and forgetful obscurity, when the bus turned onto a gradual leftward route that in a moment would become recognizable as Kutuzovsky Prospect!" I hate to think what happens when he loses his wallet.

But perhaps a touch of existential despair may be excused when, for locals, it is tradition itself. No country that staggers within a century from Third Rome to Third International to Third World looks confidently to its future. When Mr. Brent asks a woman what she thinks about the years ahead, she answers: "I don't." So perilous seem the alternatives -- enfeebling disorder here, Vladimir Putin's proto-tyranny there -- that a Russian scholar offers Mr. Brent this gloomy philosophy: The best thing that could happen to Russia right now is nothing.

History was fiction during the Soviet era, and proud Russians still resist embarrassing truths. Mr. Brent asks: "Could the legacy of Stalin be on the verge of a rebirth?" The despot has millions of defenders in Russia, no matter that in 1937 alone he had 353,074 Soviet citizens shot after trials typically lasting less than 20 minutes. Russians regularly rank Stalin as one of their great leaders because, Mr. Brent notes, he represents in their minds the glorious patriotic power that repulsed Hitler, brought half the world under its rule and gave a battered people a measure of glory and order. The antidote to Stalin-worship, of course, is a broad dissemination of facts too long concealed from the world -- the goal of Mr. Brent and his publishing project.

But Mr. Brent never answers his question about Stalinism's rebirth. He suggests only that Russia is "poised" in a "twilight" between "authoritarianism and freedom." It goes too far to speak of Stalinist revival, but one thing is certain: The question of Russia is really the question of how authoritarian it will become.

Mr. Tartakovsky is an associate editor of the Claremont Review of Books.

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