The Far Side of the Soviet Moon

Ten of Russia's most disturbing unsolved mysteries.

SERGEI GUNEYEV/AFP/Getty Images
SERGEI GUNEYEV/AFP/Getty Images
SERGEI GUNEYEV/AFP/Getty Images

The 20 years since the Soviet collapse have been a gold mine for historians -- gold because of the valuable discoveries in archives and memoirs, and a mine because of the intense, frustrating labor that's often required to bring them to light. In many ways, we've still only scratched the surface of Soviet history; what we've found so far has made for engrossing accounts taken from records and testimony about once-secret events. But there's so much we still don't know.

Consider a hefty and valuable new volume, Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe. The book is like a secret vault that lays out the most fascinating top-secret documents about the revolutions of 1989. Vladislav Zubok, one of the volume's editors, compared it to the observable side of the moon -- there is still a far side that has not been seen.

In that spirit, here is my entirely arbitrary list of 10 Soviet mysteries waiting for us on the far side of the moon.

The 20 years since the Soviet collapse have been a gold mine for historians — gold because of the valuable discoveries in archives and memoirs, and a mine because of the intense, frustrating labor that’s often required to bring them to light. In many ways, we’ve still only scratched the surface of Soviet history; what we’ve found so far has made for engrossing accounts taken from records and testimony about once-secret events. But there’s so much we still don’t know.

Consider a hefty and valuable new volume, Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe. The book is like a secret vault that lays out the most fascinating top-secret documents about the revolutions of 1989. Vladislav Zubok, one of the volume’s editors, compared it to the observable side of the moon — there is still a far side that has not been seen.

In that spirit, here is my entirely arbitrary list of 10 Soviet mysteries waiting for us on the far side of the moon.

1. What happened to the billions of dollars’ worth of gold and cash supposedly held by the Communist Party after the Soviet collapse? Some foreign press reports at the time suggested it was swiftly spirited away to foreign bank accounts, but there has never been any evidence. Yegor Gaidar, Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister, once hired the international private detective firm Kroll Associates to help find it, but to no avail. How much was involved, and where did it go?

2. Did the Soviet Union ever develop a portable "suitcase" nuclear weapon? There has been lots of wild speculation, but never any proof. The Russian general Alexander Lebed said in 1997 that there were 100 Soviet-era suitcase nukes built and that about half were missing. But Lebed’s account was vague and inconsistent, and others denied it or claimed he may have confused them with nuclear land mines. Who was right?

3. In the first weeks after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in late April 1986, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was strangely silent. He didn’t speak out about it until May 14, more than two weeks later. What was said and done at the highest levels in those early days of the emergency? Why did this man of action seem so paralyzed?

4. From the early 1970s, Soviet leaders approved a secret biological weapons program. We know broad outlines of the research, but there is almost nothing known about the military side. Was there a "concept of use," or a military doctrine, for germ warfare, against whom, and on what battlefield? Were special-purpose weapons created for it? What happened to all of it after the Soviet collapse?

5. We’re still missing key information about the Cuban missile crisis, like just what was said during visits to the Soviet Union by Cuban revolutionaries such as Raúl Castro and Che Guevara before the 1962 crisis, and Fidel Castro afterward. Although records have emerged of Politburo meetings and cables during the crisis, their talks with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev before and after could shed new light on why they deployed the nuclear weapons and what lessons they drew from it.

6. In his 1999 book, Ken Alibek, a defector who was deputy director of the Soviet germ warfare program, said the "principal aim" of the KGB operation "Flute" was "to develop psychotropic and neurotropic biological agents for use by the KGB in special operations — including the ‘wet work’ of political assassinations." What was the scope and ultimate disposition of Flute?

7. Starting in 1981, Moscow sent urgent instructions to the KGB and the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, to gather information about a possible U.S. nuclear first strike. The instructions became known as RYAN, for Raketno-Yadernoe Napadenie ("Nuclear Missile Attack"). Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB agent spying for the British, leaked RYAN to the West, and the details of RYAN were eventually published by Gordievsky and Christopher Andrew in their 1990 work, KGB: The Inside Story. But we still don’t know how the leaders in Moscow, particularly spy chief Yuri Andropov, who became general secretary in 1982, reacted to the incoming reports. Could the Kremlin really have been as paranoid about nuclear war as it seemed?

8. In the early 1980s, the Soviets built a massive underground bunker in the Ural Mountains known as "Grot," apparently as a nuclear-survivable command post for the Strategic Rocket Forces. U.S. intelligence picked up signs the bunker was under construction, but it has long been shrouded in mystery. What was Grot’s original purpose?

9. Sometimes a secret can be hidden in a mound of data. The United States puzzled for years — inconclusively — about the actual burden of defense and security on the Soviet economy. With different systems, currencies, methods, and materials, the cost of a tank to the Soviet state was almost certainly not the same as in the United States. Even contemporaneous inside reports, such as those compiled by Vitaly Katayev, a Central Committee staffer whose papers I found for my book The Dead Hand, left open many questions of fact and analysis. Katayev estimated that some 20 percent of the Soviet economy was devoted to defense (the CIA had estimated 15 to 17 percent), but there were many imponderables, from how to calculate the true cost of labor and materials in a centrally planned economy to the fact that Soviet defense factories also made things like televisions and sewing machines on the side. How heavily did the arms race weigh on the Soviet Union?

10. How well was the Soviet leadership served by KGB foreign intelligence? When it came to figuring out Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, Katayev said that the KGB always overestimated the threat because the agency was afraid of underestimating it. Gordievsky has said that KGB reports were often just recycled from newspaper clippings because they lacked better sources. How good was KGB intelligence? How systemic was the bias toward telling the leadership what it wanted to hear?

With thanks to Michael Dobbs, James Hershberg, Svetlana Savranskaya, and Mikhail Tsypkin.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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