Why It's Important to Quickly Publish Soviet Archives Related to Stalin's Crimes

Roundup: Talking About History

Jonathan Brent, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (March 10, 2004):

You cannot compromise with revanchists," Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev tells me as we sit and talk in his office at the International Democracy Foundation, in a renovated mansion located on Malaya Gruzinskaya Street in Moscow, not far from the city center.

Yakovlev is 80; his gray hair is swept neatly back, revealing jagged lines of thought that converge on his forehead like a geological formation. He limps from a World War II injury and possesses penetrating black eyes. Formerly the Soviet ambassador to Canada and educated at Columbia University, he speaks good English, but there is a practiced distance in his manner. His tone of voice turns easily to irony, deflecting familiarity.

After some topics of general conversation, such as America's intentions in Iraq, its isolation from Europe, and the crisis of leadership throughout the world, he gestures with his hand. "Now let's return to our own lambs," he says in Russian, thus drawing us back to the purpose of my visit, which is to clarify my press's commitment to copublish, with his foundation, seven or eight volumes of documents that he is preparing from what is termed Stalin's Personal Archive. The architect of perestroika during the Gorbachev years, Yakovlev was granted the high privilege of publishing the material by Boris Yeltsin, soon after the then-president took office in 1991, for his exceptional service in helping to engineer the collapse of totalitarian rule.

Culled from a vast number of documents, the first volume of more than 900 pages, published in a Russian-language edition last year, chronicles Stalin's seizure of supreme power through his co-optation and manipulation of the security services from 1922 to 1936, and the onset of the Great Terror. It helps explain why the system, established by Lenin, inevitably instituted strakh -- fear -- as the ruling element in the psychology of the Russian people.

That fear, Yakovlev believes, continues to this day in all but the youngest generation. His publishing project is despised by the revanchists, who would like to see a return to the old Communist system. It will, Yakovlev hopes, help stave off such a return. He is desperate to get the material out as quickly as possible because, as he has repeatedly told me, the windows of reform have been closing gradually over the last several years.

Gleb Pavlovsky's recent statement in Expert suggests why Yakovlev is anxious. Pavlovsky, a political adviser to the presidential chief of staff, has asserted that President Vladimir Putin governs only with the indulgence of forces greater than himself. Yakovlev points out that Pavlovsky could not have made that statement without permission. But permission from whom? Was it a provocation? A warning? A poll in September 2003 indicated that 77 percent of the Russian population would vote for Putin's removal, suggesting that underlying the present apparent stability of the country, contradictory forces of destabilization remain at work. Putin's recent abrupt dismissal of his prime minister, which some observers see as a victory for the security services over reformers, further hints at the direction of the regime. Putin seems intent on restoring the personnel and prestige of the security services, and the governmental muddle that has resulted from the cabinet shuffle will give him additional opportunities.

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