International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International Vol. 20 (1994): Capital, Labor and the Nation-State

Review: Washington Exhibition of Russian Archives

“Revelations from the Soviet Archives” is the title of a new exhibit that opened June 17, 1992, at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. It consists of approximately 300 items—letters, telegrams, minutes, resolutions, reports and photographs—that have been recently made available by the Russian government.

The first thing that must be said about this exhibit is how little light it actually sheds on either the history of the Soviet Union or the nature of the Stalinist regime that emerged in the aftermath of Lenin’s death in 1924.

Inasmuch as the Library of Congress has assembled an exhibit that seeks merely to substantiate the shallow and hackneyed theme that served as the leitmotif of the vast bulk of American Cold War anticommunist historiography—that the Stalinist regime was the natural and inevitable product of the October Revolution—what is on display offers few “revelations.”

For an American audience that is largely unfamiliar with the complex and tortured history of the Soviet Union, an exhibit that exposed and effectively illustrated the historical fact that the Stalinist regime consolidated its power on the basis of the mass killing of communists in the USSR would certainly produce an educational experience that could be described as a revelation.

But such an approach would have been totally incompatible with the political aims of the organizers, who conceived of this exhibit not as an exposure of Stalinism, but as a condemnation of socialist revolution in general. Therefore, the items selected for exhibit deal inadequately and superficially with the Stalinist annihilation of the founders and principal leaders of the October Revolution. There is remarkably little about the Moscow Trial frame-ups and the Great Terror that they unleashed. There is nothing at all on the persecution and destruction of the Trotskyist opposition in the Soviet Union, which culminated in the assassination of Leon Trotsky in August 1940.

Nor does the exhibit include any material on the crimes organized by the Stalinist regime against other anti-Stalin socialists beyond the borders of the USSR, such as the murder of Andres Nin, the leader of the Spanish POUM, in 1937; the New York kidnapping of Juliet Stuart Poyntz, a dissident member of the American Communist Party, during that same year; the 1941 murder of Walter Krivitsky, a defector from the GPU, in a Washington, DC, hotel room; and the assassination of anarchist leader Carlo Tresca in New York in 1943.

It remains the task of more penetrating and principled researchers to uncover the documents that will expose the political organization of these crimes and their perpetrators. What is on display at the Library of Congress is an exhibit which sets out to prove, on the basis of a few documents tom out of their essential historical and political context, that the real architect and inspirer of terror and mass repression in the Soviet Union was Lenin. Stalin, it is asserted, merely followed in his footsteps.

The exhibit attempts to prove this point with items that supposedly demonstrate Lenin’s brutality—as, for example, in instances during the pre-Stalin period when Lenin issued explicit orders for the execution of those engaged in anti-Soviet activity. One item, cited in the press all over the United States, documents Lenin’s demand that a group of kulaks (wealthy peasants) be publicly hanged to intimidate enemies of the Soviet regime.

On the basis of such a document the “identity” of the regimes of Lenin and Stalin are supposedly established! But what is missing in this judgment is the not unimportant question of political context. Lenin’s orders were issued at a time when the revolutionary government—besieged on all sides—was waging a desperate struggle to survive. If Lenin is to be condemned for the implacable orders he issued in defense of a threatened revolution, then he should be joined in the dock by other great historical personages.

Let us imagine that at some point in the future, a document is unearthed which contains, in Lincoln’s hand, the explicit orders upon which Sherman acted when his troops set fire to Atlanta. Would that change history’s assessment of Lincoln’s moral stature? Of course, Lincoln has one advantage over the Bolshevik leaders: he was, at least, the leader of a bourgeois revolution with which most American historians have reconciled themselves. Lenin, the leader of the first and only successful working class revolution, is not entitled to the moral dispensations of middle class academics.

Be that as it may, it requires a high degree of cynicism to draw a moral equal sign between the actions of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the midst of a terrible civil war and the cold-blooded mass murder and terror directed by Stalin twenty years later against an entire generation whose work and thoughts were bound up with the October Revolution and the ideals and hopes that this great event inspired.

The opening of the exhibit on June 17 was followed one day later by a symposium which included two well-known American Sovietologists, Robert Tucker of Princeton University and Adam Ulam of Harvard University, and two members of the regime of Boris Yeltsin—the minister in charge of archives, Rudolf Pikhoia, and General Dmitrii Volkogonov, who, in addition to serving as Yeltsin’s adviser on military affairs, is now in charge of KGB archives. He has also written biographies of Stalin and Trotsky and is presently completing one of Lenin.

The Librarian of Congress, James Billington, set the tone for the symposium by emphasizing the central “revelation” of the exhibit: the role played by Lenin in implementing the totalitarian terror that Stalin merely continued.

Pikhoia and Volkogonov enthusiastically endorsed the remarks of Billington. Both spoke as fervent anticommunists who now consider the October Revolution the most diabolical event in history. Pikhoia celebrated the collapse of “the idea of progress” upon which Marxists had based the legitimacy of the revolution, while Volkogonov began his remarks by regretting that it was not within his power to “cancel the revolution.”

For years these men had made their careers within the Soviet Union as defenders of the Stalinist regime; and were careful, in their books and articles, to write only what was acceptable to the ruling bureaucracy. Only a few years ago, during the heyday of glasnost, when the possibility of the collapse of the Soviet Union still seemed remote, Volkogonov cast himself as a “socialist” critic of Stalinism. He had this to say in the foreword to his biography of Stalin: “[When we condemn Stalin for his crimes, it is politically and intellectually wrong, and morally dishonest, to deny the achievements of the system and its possibilities in principle. These achievements were made not thanks to but in spite of the Stalinist way of thinking and doing” (Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy [New York, 1991]).

But times have changed: Volkogonov depends on new sources of income; and, therefore, he has adopted the very same positions that he so recently denounced as “intellectually wrong” and “morally dishonest.”

During a brief question period that was allowed near the end of the symposium, I had the opportunity to make a brief comment:

“The opening of the Soviet archives and the unrestricted exposure of their contents will result, when that actually happens, in the complete refutation of one of the greatest lies of the twentieth century: that Stalinism had anything whatsoever to do with Marxism or socialism. In fact, the consolidation of the Stalinist regime was achieved on the basis of what can only be described as political genocide directed against the socialist intelligentsia and socialist workers movement of the Soviet Union.

“With this historical background in mind, a criticism of the present exhibit, as well as today’s discussion, is in order. The exhibit makes no reference to the fate of the Trotskyist opposition to the Stalinist regime. But it is no more possible to seriously deal with the crimes of the GPU-NKVD without examining the fate of the Trotskyists than it is to deal with the crimes of the SS and Gestapo without examining the fate of the Jews.”

At this point, Billington interrupted and asked whether I wished to ask a question. I then posed the following question to General Volkogonov: As he is responsible for the archives of the KGB, would he guarantee that complete access will be allowed to all files relating to the crimes committed against the Trotskyist movement, including to those files that identify the provocateurs who were active in the Fourth International from the time of Stalin until the demise of the Soviet Union?

Volkogonov refused to reply directly to this question. Instead, he claimed that his biography of Trotsky, which has yet to be published in the United States, contains spectacular information about secret contacts between Trotsky and the Kremlin in the years after his deportation from the Soviet Union. Volkogonov then cited three letters written by Trotsky to the Soviet government during the 1930s, in which he offered to collaborate loyally in overcoming the catastrophic problems created by Stalin’s policies. This information is hardly as spectacular as Volkogonov imagines. One such letter, written by Trotsky in 1932, was published nearly twenty years ago in an edition of his writings. They merely demonstrate that Trotsky’s activities were motivated not by a lust for power or subjective hatred of Stalin, but by a profound devotion to the genuine interests of the Soviet Union as a workers state. Indeed, Volkogonov himself noted that across the text of Trotsky’s letters were to be found, in Stalin’s hands, frantically-written notes demanding the physical elimination of the leader of the Fourth International.

It would be nothing less than political folly to believe that the emerging bourgeois regime of Yeltsin, staffed by hordes of ex-Stalinist functionaries, would willingly make available those critical archives which expose the crimes committed by the Stalinist regime against the Soviet working class and the international socialist movement.

It will require, rather, a worldwide political campaign demanding the complete and unrestricted opening of the archives of the Stalinist regime.