The Written Records Of The Dead Horse

Claire Berlinski at City Journal:

When Gorbachev and his aides were ousted from the Kremlin, they took unauthorized copies of these documents with them. The documents were scanned and stored in the archives of the Gorbachev Foundation, one of the first independent think tanks in modern Russia, where a handful of friendly and vetted researchers were given limited access to them. Then, in 1999, the foundation opened a small part of the archive to independent researchers, including Stroilov. The key parts of the collection remained restricted; documents could be copied only with the written permission of the author, and Gorbachev refused to authorize any copies whatsoever. But there was a flaw in the foundation’s security, Stroilov explained to me. When things went wrong with the computers, as often they did, he was able to watch the network administrator typing the password that gave access to the foundation’s network. Slowly and secretly, Stroilov copied the archive and sent it to secure locations around the world.

When I first heard about Stroilov’s documents, I wondered if they were forgeries. But in 2006, having assessed the documents with the cooperation of prominent Soviet dissidents and Cold War spies, British judges concluded that Stroilov was credible and granted his asylum request. The Gorbachev Foundation itself has since acknowledged the documents’ authenticity.

Bukovsky’s story is similar. In 1992, President Boris Yeltsin’s government invited him to testify at the Constitutional Court of Russia in a case concerning the constitutionality of the Communist Party. The Russian State Archives granted Bukovsky access to its documents to prepare his testimony. Using a handheld scanner, he copied thousands of documents and smuggled them to the West.

The Russian state cannot sue Stroilov or Bukovsky for breach of copyright, since the material was created by the Communist Party and the Soviet Union, neither of which now exists. Had he remained in Russia, however, Stroilov believes that he could have been prosecuted for disclosure of state secrets or treason. The military historian Igor Sutyagin is now serving 15 years in a hard-labor camp for the crime of collecting newspaper clippings and other open-source materials and sending them to a British consulting firm. The danger that Stroilov and Bukovsky faced was real and grave; they both assumed, one imagines, that the world would take notice of what they had risked so much to acquire.

Stroilov claims that his documents “tell a completely new story about the end of the Cold War. The ‘commonly accepted’ version of history of that period consists of myths almost entirely. These documents are capable of ruining each of those myths.” Is this so? I couldn’t say. I don’t read Russian. Of Stroilov’s documents, I have seen only the few that have been translated into English. Certainly, they shouldn’t be taken at face value; they were, after all, written by Communists. But the possibility that Stroilov is right should surely compel keen curiosity.

For instance, the documents cast Gorbachev in a far darker light than the one in which he is generally regarded. In one document, he laughs with the Politburo about the USSR’s downing of Korean Airlines flight 007 in 1983—a crime that was not only monstrous but brought the world very near to nuclear Armageddon. These minutes from a Politburo meeting on October 4, 1989, are similarly disturbing:

Lukyanov reports that the real number of casualties on Tiananmen Square was 3,000.

Gorbachev: We must be realists. They, like us, have to defend themselves. Three thousands . . . So what?

And a transcript of Gorbachev’s conversation with Hans-Jochen Vogel, the leader of West Germany’s Social Democratic Party, shows Gorbachev defending Soviet troops’ April 9, 1989, massacre of peaceful protesters in Tbilisi.

Stroilov’s documents also contain transcripts of Gorbachev’s discussions with many Middle Eastern leaders. These suggest interesting connections between Soviet policy and contemporary trends in Russian foreign policy. Here is a fragment from a conversation reported to have taken place with Syrian president Hafez al-Assad on April 28, 1990:

H. ASSAD. To put pressure on Israel, Baghdad would need to get closer to Damascus, because Iraq has no common borders with Israel. . . .

M. S. GORBACHEV. I think so, too. . . .

H. ASSAD. Israel’s approach is different, because the Judaic religion itself states: the land of Israel spreads from Nile to Euphrates and its return is a divine predestination.

M. S. GORBACHEV. But this is racism, combined with Messianism!

H. ASSAD. This is the most dangerous form of racism.

One doesn’t need to be a fantasist to wonder whether these discussions might be relevant to our understanding of contemporary Russian policy in a region of some enduring strategic significance.

[…]

troilov says that he and Bukovsky approached Jonathan Brent of Yale University Press, which is leading a publishing project on the history of the Cold War. He claims that initially Brent was enthusiastic and asked him to write a book, based on the documents, about the first Gulf War. Stroilov says that he wrote the first six chapters, sent them off, and never heard from Brent again, despite sending him e-mail after e-mail. “I can only speculate what so much frightened him in that book,” Stroilov wrote to me.

I’ve also asked Brent and received no reply. This doesn’t mean anything; people are busy. I am less inclined to believe in complex attempts to suppress the truth than I am in indifference and preoccupation with other things. Stroilov sees in these events “a kind of a taboo, the vague common understanding in the Establishment that it is better to let sleeping dogs lie, not to throw stones in a house of glass, and not to mention a rope in the house of a hanged man.” I suspect it is something even more disturbing: no one much cares.

“I know the time will come,” Stroilov says, “when the world has to look at those documents very carefully. We just cannot escape this. We have no way forward until we face the truth about what happened to us in the twentieth century. Even now, no matter how hard we try to ignore history, all these questions come back to us time and again.”

The questions come back time and again, it is true, but few remember that they have been asked before, and few remember what the answer looked like. No one talks much about the victims of Communism. No one erects memorials to the throngs of people murdered by the Soviet state. (In his widely ignored book, A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia, Alexander Yakovlev, the architect of perestroika under Gorbachev, puts the number at 30 to 35 million.)

Indeed, many still subscribe to the essential tenets of Communist ideology. Politicians, academics, students, even the occasional autodidact taxi driver still stand opposed to private property. Many remain enthralled by schemes for central economic planning. Stalin, according to polls, is one of Russia’s most popular historical figures. No small number of young people in Istanbul, where I live, proudly describe themselves as Communists; I have met such people around the world, from Seattle to Calcutta.

We rightly insisted upon total denazification; we rightly excoriate those who now attempt to revive the Nazis’ ideology. But the world exhibits a perilous failure to acknowledge the monstrous history of Communism. These documents should be translated. They should be housed in a reputable library, properly cataloged, and carefully assessed by scholars. Above all, they should be well-known to a public that seems to have forgotten what the Soviet Union was really about. If they contain what Stroilov and Bukovsky say—and all the evidence I’ve seen suggests that they do—this is the obligation of anyone who gives a damn about history, foreign policy, and the scores of millions dead.

John Derbyshire at The Corner:

Some years ago I exposed the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Dead Horses to National Review readers. The SPCDH exists to prevent the flogging of what are, according to them, dead horses — for example, the evils of Communism. “Good heavens, are you conservatives still banging on about that? Everybody knows all about it. It was all publicized to death years ago. Sorry, old chap — you’re just flogging a dead horse.”

If you don’t think that the SPCDH is a mighty force in the Western world, read this. Please. Sample:

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.

Academic Elephant at Redstate:

Berlinski suggests that the root of the problem is a basic academic affinity with the tenets of communism and I’m inclined to think she’s right. In perhaps the same impulse that leads many denizens of the ivory tower to sympathize with Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, there is a tendency to view Soviet communism as a flawed but still valid experiment. For those who believe in the basic soundness of Marxism, the catastrophic failure of the Soviet Union is an inconvenient truth made more palatable by the assertion that it was brought about by external factors. The line seems to be that the Soviets were no better and worse than we–different, sure, but perhaps we could learn from them and we certainly are in no position to judge.

This never-never land of moral relativism is shattered by the kind of cold, hard documents Berlinski describes. A picture emerges of a creeping evil that threatened to engulf the west even as we were attempting a rapprochement with it. And yet the response is a collective yawn–perhaps a delicately raised eyebrow, a hint of impatience with this unseemly attempt to rake up bygones. Look away. There’s nothing to see here.

Unfortunately there is all too much to be seen–from the psychiatric “hospitals” to the hard-labor camps to the execution chambers–all of which added up to an utter disregard for human life and dignity that is at least on par with the depravities of Nazism. Berlinski writes:

We rightly insisted upon total denazification; we rightly excoriate those who now attempt to revive the Nazis’ ideology. But the world exhibits a perilous failure to acknowledge the monstrous history of Communism. These documents should be translated. They should be housed in a reputable library, properly cataloged, and carefully assessed by scholars. Above all, they should be well-known to a public that seems to have forgotten what the Soviet Union was really about. If they contain what Stroilov and Bukovsky say—and all the evidence I’ve seen suggests that they do—this is the obligation of anyone who gives a damn about history, foreign policy, and the scores of millions dead.

As uncomfortable as it may be for those who think it’s progressive to keep Mao’s Little Red Book on their bedside table or favor the radical chic of a Che t-shirt, we need to expose and acknowledge the reality of Soviet-style communism that has claimed so many tens of millions lives. A good place to start would be recognizing it for what it was, and understanding its history. To their credit, Yale University Press has published some related volumes of late, although they have not picked up the material in Berlinski’s article. Hopefully they will reconsider and publish the Stroilov and Bukovsky archives as well.

Frank Warner:

There also is a transcript of an April 28, 1990, discussion between Gorbachev and Syrian dictator Hafez Assad in which Assad suggests that Iraq needs to expand its borders to be better positioned to “pressure” Israel. And Gorbachev agrees with Assad.

The world needs to see these documents, all of them translated in every language, if the human race is to learn anything from Communism in practice.

On a sympathy scale of 1 to 1 million, Communism gets 1 point for pretending to be for equality and against bigotry. (Historians go out of their way to give Communism that point.) But Communism loses that point for pretending, for enslaving and for being the most deadly ideology in the history of the world.

Yet who knows that? Do our children know that Communism killed 140 million people in the 20th century, and primarily in “peacetime”? Do even most adults know that? The history has yet to find its way to our history books.

Jules Crittenden:

Hey, I thought Gorbie was supposed to be a good guy. Turns out the splotch is more than skin deep. Of course, Vlad was supposed to be a good guy, too. George Bush looked into his soul, and … never mind. Quick show of hands. Who’s surprised?

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