Jonathan Brent:: Mines Data From Soviet Archives for Yale University Press

Historians in the News

Documenting the crimes of the Soviet Union has been a project that Jonathan Brent has been preparing for all his life. Since 1995, Brent, associate director and editorial director of the Yale University Press, has headed an effort producing 20 books documenting mass murder, espionage, imprisonment of dissidents and other atrocities engineered by the Kremlin.

Anti-Communists during the Cold War, trying to rally the West against Moscow, long accused the Soviets of such outrages. But with the Soviet Union largely closed to outsiders, foreign policy conservatives and military hawks were forced to rely on testimony from dissidents and defectors.

Brent's 20-book project, “The Annals of Communism,” provides new and vivid details from documents that have been mined by hundreds of his researchers over the years, combing Soviet archives since the collapse of the totalitarian state in 1991.

It documents Soviet espionage in the United States, efforts by the Soviets to manipulate the Spanish Civil War and a history of the Gulag slave labor camps.

The research shows “the dissolution of what anybody would think of as civilization,” Brent said. “This is why I'm studying it and why I think it's so important.”

Among the piles of books and papers in Brent's New Haven office is an enlarged copy of a memo to Soviet leader Josef Stalin recommending the execution of 16,000 Polish military officers in 1940. The mass killings were carried out by gunshots to the back of the head, Brent said. “The guns got so hot, young officers brought fresh guns,” he said.

Another book in the series details self-portraits by Bolsheviks in the 1920s that began as cartoonish caricatures of each other and evolved into grotesquely vicious and pornographic images that foreshadow the show trials of the 1930s, Communist Party purges and executions of Stalin's rivals.

“If you want to talk about the banality of evil, this is it,” said Brent, who also is a professor of history and literature at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. “Lenin and Stalin gave Hitler the blueprint.”...

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