Commies, Joe Biden, and the Disputed Historical Interest in the Cold War


In City Journal, Claire Berlinski writes a sad-if-true account of contemporary historical disinterest in the archives of the last totalitarian superpower:

Pavel Stroilov, a Russian exile in London, has on his computer 50,000 unpublished, untranslated, top-secret Kremlin documents, mostly dating from the close of the Cold War. He stole them in 2003 and fled Russia. Within living memory, they would have been worth millions to the CIA; they surely tell a story about Communism and its collapse that the world needs to know. Yet he can't get anyone to house them in a reputable library, publish them, or fund their translation. In fact, he can't get anyone to take much interest in them at all.

Then there's Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who once spent 12 years in the USSR's prisons, labor camps, and psikhushkas—political psychiatric hospitals—after being convicted of copying anti-Soviet literature. He, too, possesses a massive collection of stolen and smuggled papers from the archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which, as he writes, "contain the beginnings and the ends of all the tragedies of our bloodstained century." These documents are available online at bukovsky-archives.net, but most are not translated. They are unorganized; there are no summaries; there is no search or index function. "I offer them free of charge to the most influential newspapers and journals in the world, but nobody wants to print them," Bukovsky writes. "Editors shrug indifferently: So what? Who cares?"

What's in there? Berlinski doesn't speak Russian, and is somewhat skeptical about the defectors' claims. Though she does detail a translated selection of gossipy Soviet dealings with glad-handing western politicians, including a brief Soviet-archives account of a 1979 meeting with Sen. Joe Biden:

Unofficially, Biden and [Sen. Richard] Lugar said that, in the end of the day, they were not so much concerned with having a problem of this or that citizen solved as with showing to the American public that they do care for "human rights."…In other words, the collocutors directly admitted that what is happening is a kind of a show, that they absolutely do not care for the fate of most so-called dissidents.

Berlinski comments:

Remarkably, the world has shown little interest in the unread Soviet archives. That paragraph about Biden is a good example. Stroilov and Bukovsky coauthored a piece about it for the online magazine FrontPage on October 10, 2008; it passed without remark. Americans considered the episode so uninteresting that even Biden's political opponents didn't try to turn it into political capital. Imagine, if you can, what it must feel like to have spent the prime of your life in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, to know that Joe Biden is now vice president of the United States, and to know that no one gives a damn.

Remarkable indeed. But then Ron Radosh, who knows a thing or two about the subject, strongly criticizes Berlinski's conclusion, particularly as it pertains to western scholarly interest in the subject:

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 Striliov'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?

After publishing the results of those conversations, which you really should go read if you're interested in the subject, Radosh concludes:

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.

Whole City Journal piece here; Radosh response here; first link via Michael Totten.

Reason's Michael C. Moynihan smoked cigarettes with Bukovsky earlier this month, and wrote about the odd historiography of the Cold War in the November 2009 issue, which also included a column from me on "the unknown war."