On both sides of the Iron Curtain

November 24, 2006

Soviet-era historian Aleksandr Fursenko had the luck to work in the US and found peace studying the most contentious of issues. He tells Huw Richards about the Cold War, Khrushchev and the impact of individuals on history.

When residents of Aleksandr Fursenko's native city were polled on what it should be called, he voted for "Leningrad". Before jumping to a conclusion about his personal politics, it should be known that the Russian historian names Thomas Jefferson as his personal historical hero and keeps a portrait of the American founding father and third President in his office.

It gives some idea of the complexities that Fursenko, an extremely vigorous 78-year-old who has just been in the UK to promote a book on Khrushchev, has dealt with in a long lifetime as a historian. The significant pointer here, though, is Jefferson, not Lenin.

Fursenko recalls the aftermath of the vote, in which popular opinion came down on the side of reverting to the pre-1914 name, St Petersburg. "A friend asked me: 'How can you vote for it to be named for Lenin?' and I told him that I didn't see it in those terms. I was born in Leningrad, was used to the name and could not imagine how it could be called anything else'," he says.

It has been his home for his whole life, except for wartime evacuation as a teenager to Kazakhstan - so he missed the 900-day siege of the city by the Germans - and six years in Moscow from 1996 to 2002, when he was chair of the history department of the Russian Academy of Sciences. His business card lists two addresses, but he leaves no doubt where both heart and home are. "It was a privilege to work in Moscow and, of course, there are fantastic archives you cannot find anywhere else, materials you could not have imagined being able to use in the Soviet era. But Moscow is hectic. In St Petersburg, I can live more quietly and write more easily."

The other continuous thread in his life has been a fascination with America dating back to his time as an undergraduate at Leningrad State University in the immediate postwar years. He says: "Even before I graduated, the Russian Academy of Sciences invited me to go and work there as a postgraduate, because I was very active in the study of American history and there were few people - and nobody in Moscow - studying it."

What might seem a potentially contentious area of study instead provided him with a contented and peaceful academic life. "I was a very happy member of staff and I got married early to a girl I met at university, who is still with me," Fursenko explains. When he speaks of the academy as "an ivory tower" it is a rare use of that phrase in a positive sense, as a place that provided refuge from some of the harsher aspects of Soviet life.

Early guidance was provided by a supervisor, piquantly named Boris Romanov. "He was like a second father, a guide not only in scholarship but in life" - who had survived imprisonment during the Stalin purges of the 1930s. It was Romanov who advised Fursenko to accept a project that led to a two-volume history of the American Revolution, published in 1960 - one that he was initially inclined to turn down. This led to a series of publications on American themes, including the Rockefeller family - and gave him the chance to travel to the US, working first as an expert on the Soviet exhibition in 1959 and then as a visiting scholar in 1968 and 1974.

His regard for the progenitors of American nationhood was uncontroversial - "The American Revolution could be seen as a heroic battle for freedom against colonial rulers" - and his career untroubled: he can remember only one article in a lifetime of publications creating problems with the censor. A self-denying ordinance helped keep him out of potential trouble.

"I made sure that, until things started to change under Gorbachev, I never wrote about anything that had happened in Russia since 1917," Fursenko says.

In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, he was close to normal retirement age and a recently elected full member of the Academy. But he recognised the academic implications. He says: "I knew it would mean the opening up of archives and opportunities that had never previously been available to historians."

At the same time, his personal knowledge of American history and his contacts among US scholars made him ideally placed for collaborative work covering both sides of the Cold War. His new book, Khrushchev's Cold War , is his second collaboration with University of Virginia scholar Timothy Naftali, following One Hell of a Gamble , which focused on Cuba's role in the Cold War.

A possible reaction against his Soviet past may be seen in Fursenko's rejection of theory. "Our mission," he says, "is to describe events and to show how they developed, an empirical step-by-step account, avoiding ideology. It is all based on the study of the documents, some of which had not previously been examined by historians. We had very rich sources. As one professor once told me: 'It is important that you don't write your conclusion before you study the documents, and you must check constantly that the documents support that conclusion.'"

The documents, including the minutes of Soviet Presidium meetings, show for the first time how Khrushchev's inner circle stopped him from taking the superpowers into a nuclear war on three occasions. Despite this, Fursenko's conclusion is broadly favourable to Khrushchev and his policies as First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union between 1953 and 1964.

Fursenko argues that Khrushchev's policy of seeking a solution to the impasse over the status of Berlin, divided into West and East zones since the end of the Second World War, by creating pressure on the US elsewhere - notably in Cuba, where the attempted deployment of Soviet missiles in 1962 is generally reckoned to be the world's closest shave yet with nuclear war - was never feasible, but was well intentioned.

If successful, it could have eased the burden of military spending on the Soviet economy and improved living standards. Fursenko says: "Khrushchev was a Stalinist and did many dreadful things, but his aim was to give his people a better life."

It can be argued that anyone would look good if they followed Stalin, but Fursenko points out: "There were powerful people such as Molotov, Malenkov and Kaganovich who wanted to continue Stalin's policies, and Khrushchev had to fight them, particularly in the first few years. It is clear from his conversations with [Yugoslav leader] Tito in 1955 that he wanted to change things. He began the changes that led eventually to those made by Gorbachev."

Fursenko believes strongly that individuals matter in history. Khrushchev was nothing if not an individual. "He was not educated and was barely literate, and this was a problem for him. Yet he was open and fresh, a new phenomenon." His showmanship made an impact on his visit to the United Nations in New York - British Premier Harold MacMillan famously requested a translation when Khrushchev pounded his desk - but it did not make him popular in Russia. Fursenko says: "This is because only dictators and strong men become popular in Russia. Previously there had been the myth that Stalin could do anything. Khrushchev dispelled this myth, he did not pretend he could do everything himself."

One striking benefit from a book combining archive sources from both sides of the Cold War is clear evidence that neither, in spite of the resources poured into intelligence, really knew very much about what the other was doing. Fursenko cites the CIA reporting, backed by leading academic analysts, that it was highly unlikely Russia would try to deploy nuclear weapons in Cuba in 1962 and a KGB source who commented glumly: "The Politburo thought they knew everything and did not think they needed our regular advice."

Much has changed in the 42 years since Khrushchev was deposed as Soviet leader, as any native of the city formerly known as Leningrad is inevitably acutely aware. It seems possible, though, that the mutual ignorance of nations in conflict has not.

Khrushchev's Cold War: The Inside Story of An American Adversary by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali is published by W. W. Norton, £22.99.

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