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In Other Words

The Blank Spots

Why so many remain.


In 1992, barely a year after the collapse of the USSR, three Russian lawyers were granted unprecedented access to the holy of holies — the minutes of the Politburo, the Soviet Communist Party’s highest body. President Boris Yeltsin was anxious to secure his political triumph by seeking to outlaw the Communist Party, and his lawyers were entrusted with using the historical records to prepare his case before the newly formed Constitutional Court.

Secluded in a former Soviet government compound, the legal team went through boxes and boxes of secret documents. It was an incredible trove, inspiring the lawyers to dramatize Politburo sessions and then collapse with laughter at the absurdity of the discourse of late totalitarianism. (The earlier, Stalin-era documents were more likely to make them shudder in shock and pain.)

They had a rich variety of amusements to choose from: One evening I had a chance to join them in their seclusion as they re-enacted the 1985 Politburo session in which the communist leadership discussed what to do with Nobel-winning dissident Andrei Sakharov, at that time kept in internal exile in the city of Gorky. The astonishing archive also included descriptions of plans to cover up the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, private letters sent by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and intercepted by the KGB, and reams of minutiae such as the decision to place a KGB officer in the role of the Canadian correspondent for the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Massive disclosures filling in the "blank spots" of history, as they were commonly referred to at the time, had already begun emerging in the preceding years of glasnost, when the Soviet media, the mouthpieces of Soviet propaganda, were suddenly transformed into nationwide reviews on the country’s history. At that time people’s appetite for the exposure of the dark communist past seemed insatiable. But most of those secrets were not entirely news: Some had come out during the Khrushchev thaw in the 1950s and early 1960s, others through samizdat or Western media. The publication of truly secret documents began after the 1991 collapse of communism, when state control over the archives was eased and academic researchers, amateur historians, inquisitive journalists, and lawyers like those on Yeltsin’s team rushed to see the newly available trove of data.

And yet these secrets, however fascinating, ultimately had a limited impact among the people they most directly concerned: Russians. In the hardship and insecurity that followed communism’s collapse, disillusionment set in, and the interest in Soviet secret histories quickly faded away. More recently, and especially over the last decade of Vladimir Putin’s rule, a majority of Russians have not wanted to be reminded of communist crimes; they often resent attempts to reinvigorate critical debate of the Soviet past. This may explain why top-level decision-making in today’s Russia is no more transparent than it was in its communist predecessor. New dark secrets build up fast.

Below are ten out of a host of disclosures of the past decades that may have brought back pieces of history yet failed to add up to a nationally shared historical narrative.

1. In 1992, Yeltsin’s government released secret documents from the special archive of the Communist Party providing definitive evidence that the 1940 Katyn massacre, in which 22,000 Polish nationals were killed, was ordered by Stalin. (The fact had been denied by all communist leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev.) But almost two decades later a plurality of Russians still stuck with Stalin’s version of history and blamed Hitler for Katyn. After the tragic crash of the Polish president’s plane last year and the broadcast on Russian television of Katyn, a movie by Polish director Andrzej Wajda that told the correct story, the numbers shifted: In April 2010, 35 percent held Stalin responsible, and only 18 percent said it was Hitler’s crime. A year later, however, the effect had somewhat worn off: While 34 percent blamed Stalin, 24 percent blamed Hitler.

2. Vast archival evidence accumulated over the post-communist years proves that Stalin was not just the mastermind behind the Soviet terror, but also directly responsible for the executions of innocent people. He routinely mocked justice by simply signing off on "shooting lists" put together by state security officials. The condemned would be executed within days or weeks. Today the Russian nation remains divided on Stalin: Thirty-eight percent consider him a "state criminal," but 44 percent do not.

3. Pavel Sudoplatov, one of Stalin’s hangmen, was in charge of a laboratory that tested lethal poisons on people convicted by Stalin’s repressive machine. The Soviet "Doctor Mengele," Sudoplatov was among the very few prosecuted for his crimes by Khrushchev. But after Khrushchev’s ouster, the next government put a lid on this and other disclosures. It was only in 1990 that a Russian archives researcher, Nikita Petrov, reopened the story of Sudoplatov’s hideous crimes. Since then his monstrous crimes have been covered by the Russian media, but the public has barely paid heed.

4. As the Soviet Union collapsed, it was revealed that the USSR had funneled illegal cash delivered by KGB couriers to a broad range of political "allies" ranging from foreign communist parties to terrorist organizations such as the Irish Republican Army.

5. The 1962 Novocherkassk massacre, in which workers in southern Russia rose to protest against a dramatic decline in living standards and were brutally suppressed by the military, was kept tightly under wraps for 30 years. In 1992, documents pertaining to the attacks were finally declassified, allowing the families of two dozen victims to identify and rebury their remains.

6. As the Cold War came to an end it was finally confirmed, as the Americans had suspected and the communist leadership had denied, that Soviet pilots flew combat missions in the Korean War. The Soviet pilots themselves, who had fought in North Korean uniforms and communicated in Korean words spelled out for them in Cyrillic to keep up the pretense, were the ones to come forward. The disclosure demonstrated that the Cold War was not just an existential struggle between capitalism and communism or a proxy war fought in the Third World; in fact, American and Soviet soldiers were engaged in live air battles.

7. An explosion at the Mayak nuclear facility in the Urals in 1957 caused a nuclear catastrophe almost on a par with Chernobyl. But in the Soviet Union the Communist Party had total control over the information, and disasters were kept secret from the public. Although residents of the area, many suffering from horrific radiation poisoning and long-term cancers, were obviously aware of what had happened, the Mayak catastrophe was hushed up for decades and admitted to only after the Soviet collapse.

8. Ever since the Soviet dissolution, Russia has repeatedly blamed the West for breaking the promise it allegedly made to Gorbachev not to expand NATO eastward after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. Thanks to meticulous archival research by American scholar Mark Kramer, we now know that such a promise was never made.

9. For almost a decade the communist leadership denied Soviet responsibility for the 1983 downing of a Korean airliner over the Sea of Japan, in which all 269 people on board were killed. Finally, in 1992, Yeltsin disclosed top-secret memos proving that the Soviet leadership had distorted and withheld the truth about the shootdown of the airliner by a Soviet interceptor.

10. Archival materials released in the mid-1990s exposed Theodore Alvin Hall to have been a key figure in the spy network at the Manhattan Project that enabled the Soviet Union to detonate its first atomic bomb in 1949. The Rosenbergs had played a smaller role in the spy ring and were electrocuted; Klaus Fuchs’s role was crucial, and he was sentenced to 15 years. But Hall got away with it. He died in his home in Britain of natural causes in 1999.

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