Inside the Stalin Archives

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Jonathan Brent’s memoir Inside the Stalin Archives is divided into two main parts. In the first, he discusses his first trip to Moscow to negotiate access to various Soviet archives for the planned Annals of Communism series for Yale University Press. The Boris Yeltsin government had officially opened all these archives to scholars, both Russian and foreign, but making that access a reality required quite a bit of negotiation. In the memoir’s second part, Brent discusses various later trips, though in less detail. In particular, only in the first part does he provide significant coverage of his time away from the negotiations.

Brent went to Moscow in January, 1992, to arrange scholarly access to various Soviet and Communist Party archives for the purpose of producing books for Yale University Press. These books were to be coauthored by Russian scholars, who would receive equal pay. The archivists who helped locate the documents would also be paid for their work. Yale wanted exclusive rights to publish outside Russia; there would be no restrictions on publication within Russia. Money was always a concern; only a few of the twenty Annals of Communism volumes published so far have been popular sellers, so the project has always depended heavily on donations. The desire for exclusive non-Russian rights (to prevent being upstaged by other publishers) was perhaps the most difficult negotiating point. Fortunately, the Russian archivists were well aware that Yale University Press had a good reputation for scholarship.

Brent first visited the Central Party Archive, where even taking the elevator was a bit of an adventure: He wanted to go to the third floor, and the first three floors were listed as 2, 2, 3. At the archive, Brent met Fridrikh Firsov and Vladimir Kozlov, who had recently moved from the Central Party Archive to the Federal Archive Service. Kozlov took Brent to his own archive and, having to attend another meeting, left him with Oleg Naumov. At this point, Brent explained his primary interests in the archives: materials on the state terror of the 1930’s, the church and its role in the revolution, the Communist International (Comintern) and its role in the oppression of the 1930’s, and Soviet daily life in the 1920’s and 1930’s as revealed by the letters of peasants and workers.

On his first trip, Brent stayed with a general’s widow named Mariana. Though she lived in the Moscow equivalent of an upscale apartment, her quality of life was wretched even by working-class American standards. In particular, the apartment often seemed about to fall apart, though it never quite did. The food generally was merely edible; Brent reports eating cookies that were nearly tasteless. (He also got them in a restaurant.) Perhaps not surprising, his visits were accompanied with gifts of American cigarettes, liquor, biscuits, salami, and chocolates, which represented a quality of goods not available in 1992 to ordinary Russians. In his first meeting with Firsov and Kozlov, he gave the latter a package of Winstons in exchange for a package of Russian cigarettes, a carefully choreographed transaction that reads as though two spies were meeting. The analogy is appropriate, as many influential Russians disliked opening the archives to foreigners.

Brent’s first trip to Russia lasted several days, and he was able to see some archival material, including material on the last days of Czar Nicholas II, such as a diary kept by Czarina Alexandra. Seeing this material was an ironic experience for Brent: In 1972, he had an argument with his girlfriend because he considered the executions of the czar’s family members (even those of the children) justified by their crimes. Revolution, he argued, has no room for pity. Presumably, he later came to realize the error in this judgment. Firsov also showed Brent documents on the Comintern and its role in Soviet espionage (which became the subject of one of the first Annals of Communism books).

Brent returned to Moscow in July, 1992, to finalize the contract. In doing so, he chose not to use the suggested contract written by a lawyer that Yale University Press had consulted, believing its conditions were too favorable to Yale for the Russians to accept. After completing his negotiations successfully, out of curiosity he showed the contract to Oleg Naumov, who confirmed that it would have broken their trust and thereby stopped the project in its tracks. The Russians soon agreed to the contract, but then later in 1992 they began to back off and call for some new negotiations. Brent was very concerned that this might mean an end to the project, but he was able to resolve matters on his third trip, in January, 1993. On this occasion, he noted the problems that resulted from differences in meanings...

(The entire section is 1957 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Foreign Affairs 88, no. 5 (September/October, 2009): 159.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 17 (September 1, 2008): 923.

Library Journal 133, no. 18 (November 1, 2008): 77-85.

The New York Review of Books 56, no. 7 (April 30, 2009): 25-28.

The New York Times Book Review, January 25, 2009, p. 14.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 24, 2009, p. 8.

The Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2008, p. A17.