|Author: Mark Kramer|
THE LIMITS AND CONTRIBUTIONS OF ARCHIVAL RESEARCH ON THE COLD WAR
The collapse of Communism in East-Central Europe in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union two years later created valuable opportunities for archival research on events of the Cold War. Although the initial inclination of some scholars – and especially of some journalists – was to look for sensational revelations that would undercut or drastically alter existing accounts of post-1945 history, this impulse soon faded as researchers became increasingly aware of the limits as well as the utility of the newly available archival holdings. Most scholars now approach the former East-bloc archives with due circumspection, while also being mindful of the genuine opportunities that exist.
Access to Documents
Part of the reason that great care is needed when working with East European and Russian materials is that a lot of document collections are not yet available, especially in Russia. A few privileged Russian institute administrators and academicians have been permitted to work in the Russian Presidential Archive (the repository of the former Soviet Politburo archive), but the Presidential Archive has never been generally accessible. The former KGB archive in the Lubyanka, which is now controlled by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), is closed for all postwar topics. The Russian foreign intelligence (SVR) archive in Yasenevo and the Russian military intelligence (GRU) archive in Podol’sk are hermetically sealed. Even the best-connected Russians, such as the late military historian Dmitrii Volkogonov and the former senior aide to Mikhail Gorbachev, Aleksandr Yakovlev, who now heads a government commission on political repression during the Soviet era, have not been permitted to work with GRU materials. The main postwar military archive, known as the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense (TsAMO), is also inaccessible. A handful of documents from the SVR archive and TsAMO have occasionally been released, but there is no access at all to the wider holdings of these repositories.
Nor do scholars have more than a rough idea of what is actually contained in the Presidential Archive, TsAMO, the KGB archive, the SVR and GRU archives, or even the former Soviet Foreign Ministry archive. Detailed guides and finding aids for these archives (with lists of holdings at various levels of categorization) are not publicly available. Although the Foreign Ministry archive has been partly open for research since the early 1990s, the finding aids for the archive are still secret, despite a pledge by the ministry in the early 1990s that it would declassify them. Scholars instead have to depend on the Foreign Ministry archivists to bring them materials on a particular topic – an arrangement that often leads to frustration.
In short, vast collections of high-level Soviet documents are unavailable and will likely remain so for many years or even decades to come. Entire categories of Soviet documents – such as foreign intelligence reports, covert operations documents, military intelligence reports, military planning documents, and military operational materials – are inaccessible in Russia. A considerable number of KGB and foreign intelligence documents can be found in the archives of the three Baltic states (where all materials from the Soviet period are declassified and freely accessible), but the scattered items there (almost all of which are still classified in Moscow) obviously are no substitute for the incomparably larger collections in Russia.
The enormous gaps in the documentary evidence from Russia should make one very skeptical about pronouncements regarding what “we now know,” especially when those pronouncements come from scholars who rely exclusively on the minuscule number of items that get translated into English.
Interpretations of Documents
To be sure, even if all the archives in Russia were open to everyone, a consensus on the historical record would remain elusive. Scholars are bound to differ in their interpretations of key documents and events, and they are also likely to make different choices about the archival materials and other evidence they study and cite. No one, not even those who know the requisite languages, can take account of all the possible sources from the former Communist world, not to mention from the major Western archives. Selectivity is unavoidable. For various reasons, then, debates and disagreements about historical topics would continue even if all the documentation from the Soviet era is someday made available.
Moreover, the documents themselves have to be used with great caution. The problem is not so much that materials can be forged (this would be relatively easy to detect in most instances, given the nature of the Russian and East European archival filing systems), but that items can be read out of context and misinterpreted. Whether deliberately or unintentionally, some reports and memoranda convey an inaccurate sense of what actually happened. Scholars must bear in mind the circumstances in which a document was written, the purpose of the document, the identity of the author, the identity of the recipient, the effect of the document (was it read? did it influence policymakers? etc.), and the reason it was prepared. Unless archival materials are evaluated carefully, they can sometimes be very misleading. It is much to our benefit that Soviet and East European officials never expected that their documents would someday be made available to the public, but we should never assume that we can simply take a document at face value.
Despite all these caveats, there is little doubt that the release of documents in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union – highly imperfect and partial though it has been – and the publication of memoirs and other first-hand accounts are helping to winnow some of the areas of disagreement and to refocus certain debates. Individual documents can sometimes reveal a lot, but the more common pattern is one of cumulative inference from thousands of pages of documents and memoirs. Scholars who methodically pore over archival materials and other sources can emerge with a much better understanding of specific events and recurrent themes. They also are likely to gain many insights into decision-making procedures and organizational behavior.
Case Study: The Soviet-Yugoslav Split
The extent to which the newly released evidence can improve and alter our understanding of key events in the Cold War can be seen in some of the research done in recent years on, among other topics, the split between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in 1948. The rift first emerged in public at the June 1948 Cominform summit, whereYugoslavia, which had earlier been one of the staunchest allies of the Soviet Union and one of the most orthodox Communist regimes, was expelled and publicly denounced. Several articles by the Russian scholar Leonid Gibianskii have confirmed that the rupture with Yugoslavia, which developed behind-the-scenes for several months and finally reached the breaking point in March 1948, stemmed from both substantive disagreements and political maneuvering. Documents collected by Gibianskii and others from the Russian and East European archives (including archives in Belgrade) indicate that the level of animosity between the two sides by mid-1948 was even greater than Western analysts had previously thought.
The most serious differences between Moscow and Belgrade had arisen over policy in the Balkans. Stalin was increasingly wary of Tito’s efforts to seek unification with Albania and to set up a Yugoslav-dominated federation with Bulgaria, a topic that Gibianskii has explored at some length.1 This issue figured prominently in the last face-to-face meetings between Stalin and Tito, in May-June 1946; but at that point the divergent positions of the two sides had not yet generated any serious recriminations or acrimony. Not until August 1947, when Yugoslavia neglected to obtain Soviet approval before concluding a treaty with Bulgaria, did the matter come to a head. In a secret cable to Tito, Stalin denounced the treaty as “mistaken” and “premature.” Tensions increased still further over the next several months as Yugoslavia continued to pursue unification with Albania, despite Moscow’s objections. Under pressure from Stalin, Tito promised in January 1948 not to send a Yugoslav army division to Albania (as Yugoslavia had tentatively arranged to do after deploying an air force regiment and military advisers in Albania the previous summer to prepare the country to “rebuff Greek monarcho-fascists”). Despite this concession, the Yugoslav leader’s failure to maintain adequate consultations with Moscow had deeply irritated Stalin. In February 1948, Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov warned Tito that “serious differences of opinion” about “relations between our countries” would persist unless Yugoslavia adhered to the “normal procedures” of clearing all actions with Moscow beforehand. 2 These procedural concerns were at least as salient as any policy disputes in the exchanges over the Balkans.
A few other points of contention had also emerged between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the early postwar years. In particular, Tito was far more willing than Stalin to provide military and financial aid to Communist guerrillas in “gray-area” countries, notably in Greece. On other issues, too, the Yugoslav leader had occasionally objected to what he regarded as the Soviet Union’s excessively conciliatory policies toward the West -- an ironic position in view of subsequent developments. Quite apart from the various disagreements between the two sides, Stalin had also clearly decided to seek an abject capitulation from Belgrade as an example for the other East European countries of the unwavering obedience that was expected. In the end, though, no approach could have been more counterproductive. Far from demonstrating Soviet strength, the split with Yugoslavia revealed the limits of Soviet military, political, and economic power.
On the military side, many factors -- the likelihood of confronting determined Yugoslav resistance, the burden of deploying large numbers of troops from an army that was already overstretched, the transport and logistical problems of crossing Bulgaria’s mountainous terrain into Yugoslavia, the possibility of provoking a war with the West (a concern that became particularly acute after the United States responded vigorously to North Korea’s attack against South Korea in June 1950), and a belief that Tito could be ousted by non-military means -- played a part in Stalin’s decision not to launch an invasion. Economic and political measures proved equally futile when Yugoslavia turned elsewhere for trade and economic assistance, and when Tito liquidated the pro-Moscow faction of the Yugoslav Communist party before it could move against him. Documents released in the 1990s showed that Stalin’s aides devised a multitude of covert plots to assassinate Tito, including several that involved a notorious special agent, Josif Grigulevich, who had been posing as a senior Costa Rican diplomat in Rome and Belgrade. The idea was for Grigulevich (code-named “Max”) either to release deadly bacteria during a private meeting with the Yugoslav leader or to fire a concealed, noiseless gun at Tito during an embassy reception. 3 All such plans, however, ultimately went nowhere. The failure of these alternatives left Stalin with the unattractive option of resorting to all-out military force, an option he declined to pursue.
If Yugoslavia had not been located on the periphery of Eastern Europe with no borders adjacent to those of the Soviet Union, it is unlikely that Stalin would have shown the restraint he did. Khrushchev later said he was “absolutely sure that if the Soviet Union had had a common border with Yugoslavia, Stalin would have intervened militarily.” 4 Plans for a full-scale military operation were indeed prepared (though the full plans have not yet been released from TsAMO or the Presidential Archive), but in the end the Soviet Union was forced to accept a breach in its East European sphere and the strategic loss of Yugoslavia vis-?-vis the Balkans and the Adriatic Sea.
This brief discussion of new evidence from the East European and former Soviet archives about the Soviet-Yugoslav split indicates the richness of the latest work on this topic. Research on countless other issues and events has been equally worthwhile and illuminating. The former East-bloc archives are not a panacea for our study of the Cold War, but they certainly are helping us to get a better sense of what happened and why.