Five years in a gulag camp gave Roman Brackman a reason to find out what motivated Russia's ruthless dictator to ruin so many lives
I have spent many years searching for the "real" Stalin - for the personal motivations behind the murderous purges and brutality of his reign. In particular, I have traced the history of a secret file proving Stalin's pre-revolutionary career as an Okhrana (Tsarist secret police) agent - a file that Stalin went to extraordinary lengths to suppress after it was discovered in 1926. It is my belief that the story of this secret Okhrana file explains the great purges of the 1930s and much of the subsequent history of the Soviet Union. My research has been spurred on by the fear that, if I failed to recover the truth, the bits and pieces of evidence that I had unearthed would disappear with the passage of time, unnoticed or neglected by other authors.
To hide the truth, Stalin sent millions of people to their deaths, forced defendants at the show trials during his long rule to confess to crimes he himself had committed and inundated Soviet archives with forged and doctored documents. Rightly or wrongly, I felt that the information I had gathered provided me with an insight into the "method behind Stalin's madness". I also felt that the circumstances of my own life compelled me to reveal the truth about his.
Stalin impinged on my life from an early age. I was born and grew up in the centre of Moscow, on Arbat Street, a road that formed part of the traditional route taken by him and his entourage on their way to and from the Kremlin in their Packard limousines. When I was four years old, my mother used to wake me up early in the morning for a two- hour train ride from Moscow to visit my father, an engineer, who was a prisoner in a gulag near the town of Dmitrov. He was sentenced to five years' hard labour in 1935 for having "a negligent attitude towards socialist property". The inmates in his camp were building the Moscow-Volga canal. The columns of prisoners, the camp's barbed wire and watchtowers are still vivid in my memory. During my early childhood, I often stayed with my beloved grandparents. I remember my grandfather, a tall, scholarly man with a full grey beard, who, when referring to Stalin, would mutter, "that bandit!" in a low voice meant only for my grandmother's ears. But I heard him.
I had to go with my classmates to the "people's demonstrations" in Red Square. As the columns moved, I remember looking at Stalin standing on top of the Lenin mauso-leum, periodically waving his hand. I wondered why "that bandit" was so adored by the crowd around me with their hysterical cries of: "Long live comrade Stalin!" In 1950, two of my classmates and I were arrested and sentenced to ten years in a gulag for attempting to escape across the Soviet-Turkish border and for "anti-Soviet propaganda". Five years later, under the first post-Stalin amnesty, we were released, along with millions of other prisoners. During my five years in the gulag, I met many people, and their stories left a deep impression. Many of them could not explain why they had been arrested. They kept asking: "Why?" Perhaps my research started then, in the gulag, with those "whys?". At that time, I had no idea about Stalin's ties to the Okhrana. None of my fellow inmates would have dared to mention this dangerous subject even if they had known anything about it. By that time, everyone who might have known anything about Stalin's greatest secret was dead. I got just one clue when in 1951, at the Norylsk Special Regime prison camp number five, I met Yakov Tsynman. He was about 50 and had joined the Bolsheviks on the eve of the Russian revolution, fought in the civil war and later joined the Soviet secret police. He had been arrested in 1938 and was one of the rare survivors of Stalin's great purges. Several inmates advised me not to trust him because of his secret police past. But after a while, I realised that he was a committed communist, one of those decent, but naive idealists, who mistook Marxist dogma for reality. He could not explain the mass arrests and executions under Stalin, except to say that they could be the result of Stalin's fear of certain secrets in his past being revealed. He never mentioned what kind of secrets they might be. Perhaps he did not know what they were, but his words set my mind working.
In the winter of 1952, Tsynman was crushed to death after a locomotive suddenly shoved two freight cars together. With the help of a friendly guard, I smuggled out the news to his wife and two daughters. Years later, I spotted his name on a list of arrested NKVD (penal service) officers. He was described as the assistant chief of Azerbaijan NKVD, stationed in Baku. I left Russia in 1959, not knowing anything about Stalin's Okhrana story. It was only after I came to the United States that I read the 1953 book The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes by Alexander Orlov, the NKVD general who defected to the West in 1938. It hinted at Stalin's greatest secret, but it was Orlov's 1956 article in Life magazine that provided my first encounter with Stalin's Okhrana file and the military conspiracy to depose and execute him. I realised that, important as proof of Stalin's role in the Okhrana was, it paled into insignificance in comparison with that played in Soviet history by the file's suppression. Orlov's revelation was met by almost universal disbelief, but, having checked it against other evidence, I became convinced it was true.
The same issue of Life contained I. D. Levine's article "A Document on Stalin as Tzarist Spy", in which he cited a document, later known as the "Eremin letter", that Levine said proved Stalin was an Okhrana spy. An avalanche of denials by Soviet history scholars insisted that it was a forgery. Indeed it was. I studied the glaring mistakes in the Eremin letter again and again and began to realise that its mistakes seemed to have been made intentionally, both to discredit the document and to put to rest the very notion that Stalin had ever been an Okhrana agent. I became convinced that only Stalin could have had the motive and ability to produce such a professional forgery. Telling Levine this was not easy - he had spent ten years trying to prove that the document was genuine. He looked at me for a few moments and said: "You must write Stalin's story," and invited me to visit him in his Waldorf farm in Maryland where he gave me his large archive on Stalin. I was also helped by Edward Ellis Smith, author of the 1968 book The Young Stalin , based on documents in the Okhrana archive at the Hoover Institution in Stanford.
During my research, I also read Provocateur Anna Serebriakova , a book published in 1931 supposedly by I. V. Alekseev. As I read it, however, it dawned on me that I was in the presence of Stalin. I could almost hear his Georgian accent, I recognised his peculiar logic and spotted his non-Russian- sounding phrases. I realised that the book's real author was Stalin, not Alekseev and I set out to prove this. The book consisted mostly of reproductions of documents from the Okhrana file of the elderly agent provocateur Anna Serebriakova, who was exposed in 1925 and sentenced to seven years in prison. She died soon afterwards. In the last chapter, Stalin masterfully described the psychological profile of an Okhrana agent, apparently not recognising himself in this description.
My book's title, The Secret File of Joseph Stalin: A Hidden Life , was only partly influenced by the important role Stalin's Okhrana file played in his reign. In a larger, allegorical sense it also reflects the fact that Stalin's whole life story has been hidden, as if in a secret file. In another sense, the secret police under Stalin and all his successors have functioned like an enormously magnified Okhrana. It is this that has been Stalin's most enduring legacy.
The Secret File of Joseph Stalin: A Hidden Life , published by Frank Cass, £35.00, is available to THES readers at £30.00 (including packing and postage) by calling 01752 202301 and quoting reference THE1.