Poisoned ink

August 18, 1995

Zhores Medvedev reports on the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the bulk of Stalin's personal archive.

This year academics in both East and West have been able to take advantage of several newly published volumes of archival documents relating to Russia's Stalinist era. Among these papers, Stalin's personal letters to his closest colleagues have attracted particular attention. Researchers have gained access for the first time to letters written in Stalin's own clear, careful handwriting which radically change the accepted view of him. Until recently, few historians even suspected that the correspondence existed.

Stalin often wrote notes and letters to various party and government officials. Occasionally he answered letters he had received from ordinary citizens. Some were published during his lifetime or included in his collected works which began to be published in 1946. But his confidential correspondence with Politburo members has never been made public.

In the last years of his life Stalin spent most of his time at his Kuntsevo dacha on the outskirts of Moscow. In the summer and autumn he travelled to his residences on the shores of the Black Sea. His letters of instruction became a prominent feature of his particular style of governing the Soviet Union.

The letters that Stalin wrote between 1925 and 1936 to Viacheslav Molotov, member of the Politburo and chairman of the Soviet government, survived only because Molotov himself gave them to the Central Party Archive in 1969. He did not, however, hand over the letters which they wrote to one another during the Great Terror. A different Stalin and Molotov would have been revealed in that correspondence: people who were concerned less about the level of smelted steel or the volume of state grain purchases than about the physical elimination of opponents who had, until recently, been their colleagues.

During his 30 years in power Stalin wrote thousands of letters to his colleagues. Yet only a small proportion of the dictator's epistolary legacy has survived. Published examples of his letters to Politburo members Molotov, Sergei Kirov, Mikhail Kalinin and writer Maxim Gorky bear witness to his organisational abilities and, sometimes, to his sense of humour. But during the time that he enjoyed good relations with them, he also wrote to Nikolai Bukharin, Alexey Rykov, Grigorii Zinoviev and other Politburo members who, on his orders, were later arrested and shot. When they were arrested, investigators found these letters, and also others from Lenin, in the personal archives which they confiscated. Letters written in Stalin's own hand were returned to him and he decided whether to destroy them or whether to keep them in his own personal archives.

Stalin never stopped caring about his posthumous reputation. He believed that his manuscripts, notes, drafts of speeches and articles, orders and directives would be kept and carefully studied in the same way that the manuscripts of Marx, Engels and Lenin were studied in his time. He ordered that official documents (for example, the original of the August 1939 agreement between Germany and the USSR with its special protocols and maps) should be placed in a special, highly secret archive of the Politburo which should be kept in perpetuity. Access to these special files should be restricted to future supreme leaders of the USSR. He kept his personal papers, letters from his close colleagues, secret reports from the intelligence services and the state security apparatus and many other documents which were intended for his eyes only in safes in his Kremlin study, at Kuntsevo and at his summer residences in the south. No one, not even his personal secretaries, had access to the safes in his studies. He kept the keys on his person.

Immediately after Stalin's death on the morning of March 5 1953 his Kremlin rooms were locked and placed under guard. No one doubted that his study would be turned into a museum just as Lenin's Kremlin office had been converted. By the time Stalin was buried on March 9, the Institute of Marx, Engels and Lenin attached to the central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) had been renamed the Institute of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. A special party-state commission consisting of scholars from the institute and senior Central Committee officials was to take his personal archive and working documents for safekeeping and future study. When the members of the commission entered his Kremlin study two days after the funeral, however, they found that both his big safe and the drawers of his desk were empty.

Rumours about the mysterious disappearance of Stalin's archives began to circulate among historians in Moscow soon after his funeral. No official explanation was ever offered. In 1955, when the idea of turning his study into a museum was abandoned and it was decided to dismantle it, several letters addressed personally to Stalin were found when the furniture was removed. One of them was written by Lenin on March 5 1923. In it Lenin demanded that Stalin should apologise for his rudeness to Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin's wife. It was quoted by Nikita Khrushchev in his secret speech on the Cult of Personality at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in February 1956. A second letter, ending with the words "Koba (Stalin's party nickname), why do you need my death?" was written by Bukharin in the Lubyanka prison on March 14 1938, a day before his execution. Extracts from this were published later in biographies of Bukharin. A third letter was dated 1950. It was a short personal letter to Stalin from Marshal Tito and read: "If you do not stop (sending terrorists to murder me), I will send one man to Moscow and there will be no need to send a second."

The first person to make public the fact that Stalin's effects disappeared immediately after his death was his daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva. But in Twenty Letters to a Friend she only mentioned Stalin's rooms at his dacha in Kuntsevo. His dacha contained several identical studies, all furnished in the same way. Afraid of an attempt on his life, Stalin slept and worked in a different room each day. In each, according to Svetlana Alliluyeva, there was a large table covered in books, newspapers and papers a bed, a large soft carpet and a stove. Stalin liked to sit at the fire and he slept in the room in which he worked. On the day after his death, his daughter reported strange events in the house in Kuntsevo: "Laurentii Beria (the security chief) had the whole household, servants and bodyguards, called together and told them that my father's belongings were to be removed right away, no one had any idea where, and that they were all to quit the premises. Men and women who didn't have the slightest idea what was happening and who were practically in a state of shock, packed up my father's possessions, his books and furniture and china, and tearfully loaded them on trucks. They were all carted off somewhere, to the sort of warehouse the secret police had plenty of."

Colonel General Dmitri Volkogonov was the first person to reveal that Stalin's Kremlin study was also emptied. In 1989 he published the most recent and most detailed biography of Stalin. Unlike previous biographers, he was given access to the secret archives of the Central Committee of the CPSU. Volkogonov reports that despite Stalin's prodigious memory, he took notes of Politburo meetings in a special thick notebook. He also kept personal letters not only from Lenin, but also from Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, deputy head of the government until 19, and even from Trotsky.

Volkognov goes on to say that despite strenuous efforts, he could not discover either the notebooks or the letters: "When the safe was opened officially, it was found to be empty, apart from its owner's party card and some insignificant papers". His hypothesis is that it was Beria who destroyed Stalin's personal archives. He claims that he did this even before Stalin died, while the doctors were trying to save his life and while Beria's colleagues were watching at his bedside. He argues that Beria made a dash for the Kremlin: "His hasty departure for the Kremlin was possibly connected with his effort to remove from Stalin's safe documents which might contain instructions about how to deal with him, a last will that might not be so easy to contest, made while Stalin was in full control of his faculties."

Volkognov repeats his theory of what happened to Stalin's personal archives several times in the book. In fact, however, his version is highly improbable. By the time of Stalin's fatal illness, Beria had already ceased to be the all-powerful chief of the secret police. Beria's people were actively being purged from the security organs, and a number of people beholden to him had been arrested, particularly in Georgia. A new wave of repression (the "Doctors' Plot" and the "Zionist conspiracy") had begun at the end of 1952 and it was proceeding independently of Beria. Moreover, despite his title of Marshal, from 1952 onwards Beria was subjected to a "personal examination" (ie a search) each time he visited Stalin. This infuriated him; marshals who were military chiefs were not usually subjected to a search, since their verbal assurance that they did not have any weapons on their person was considered sufficient. Beria could not have penetrated Stalin's Kremlin study to destroy the contents of a locked safe before Stalin's death, and he would not have dared try.

After Stalin's death Beria and Georgii Malenkov formed the first duumvirate to run the country. Once in power, they could have taken any decisions they wished about Stalin's archives. However, I believe that what happened was far more complicated. Aleksandr Sergeevich Snegov and Olga Grigor'evna Shatunovkaya, two people with whom my brother Roy and I were acquainted in the 1960s, have another explanation for how Stalin's personal archive came to be destroyed. Snegov had been Khrushchev's friend since the 1920s. In the 1930s, when he was a party official in the Transcaucasus, he was arrested and sent to Kolyma. Since he also knew Beria, he was freed in the summer of 1953, taken to Moscow and included as a witness in the investigation and case against Beria. In 1954 Khrushchev appointed him political director of the labour camps and afterwards he involved him in the preparation of his secret speech to the 20th Party Congress about Stalin's crimes. By the time we met him, Snegov was retired and he willingly shared his reminiscences with us.

Based on the accounts of Khrushchev and Mukoyan, Snegov and Shatunovskaya asserted that the decision to destroy Stalin's papers was taken collectively by all Stalin's close associates (Beria, Malenkov, Viacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan, Lasar Kaganovich, Khrushchev, Klimentii Voroshilov and Nikolai Bulganin) immediately after a meeting of the small "leadership" of the party and the government in the Kremlin on the evening of March 5 1953. At that meeting they divided the most important positions in the country between themselves and abolished the Presidium which had been enlarged to 25 members at the 19th Party Congress in 1952. This decision was put into effect on the night of March 5. They also decided to burn the papers in Stalin's safe without reading or sorting them. All of them had an interest in doing this. Even without studying the papers, they knew what they could contain. By acting together they could keep their role, if any, in Stalin's crimes secret. The papers were burnt immediately in the old Dutch oven in Stalin's study.

In the Kremlin building in which Stalin's study was located on the second floor the new leaders could act jointly without witnesses. It was far harder, however, to get rid of the papers at Stalin's Kuntsevo dacha without anyone noticing. It had a large guard and many attendants. This is why they had to order the removal of all the furniture. Since the people working at Stalin's dachas were formally employed by the MVD, the order to remove the furniture and all Stalin's possessions could only be given in Beria's name. After Beria's arrest in July 1953 Stalin's furniture and books were returned to the dacha and put back in place. Soon afterwards, however, plans to turn the dacha into a museum were abandoned. The library was removed but it is still intact somewhere. Stalin was a voracious reader and, like Lenin, he made notes in the margins and underlined particular paragraphs. The only western historian who has been allowed to see the library is Professor Robert Tucker of Princeton University.

Stalin was a cruel despot. His colleagues gradually disappeared from his immediate entourage to be replaced by others who became his accomplices. In destroying the personal archives of their leader his successors were first and foremost destroying documents which proved their own participation in his crimes. The process of eliminating and falsifying archival documents took place at various levels during his lifetime, and it continued in the following years and decades. This should certainly be borne in mind by those who attempt to make generalisations on the basis of the Soviet archival material which is now becoming accessible.

Zhores Medvedev is the author of Gorbachev (1986), Soviet Agriculture (1987) and The Legacy of Chernobyl (1990).

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