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Closed Minds

A response to Ron Radosh, et al. May 18, 2010

In the latest issue of City Journal, I published a story about a large cache of Soviet-era documents smuggled out of Russia by Pavel Stroilov, a Russian researcher now exiled in London, and a similar collection of smuggled documents held by the former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky. I wrote that the world was incurious about these papers; this, I argued, was symptomatic of a dangerous indifference to the history and horrors of Communism.

The historian Ron Radosh issued a disgruntled response. My piece, he wrote, was overstated, unjust, slanderous, weak, lazy, irresponsible, poorly informed, and misleading. (I assume he otherwise liked it.)

I thank Radosh for taking the time to consider my article. I note that we are in agreement about the key point: particularly since the publication of The Black Book of Communism, there are no excuses for not knowing the truth about Communism. I would go further and say that there have been no excuses since the liquidation of the kulaks.

As for the rest of Radosh’s comments, I wish I could simply ignore them. A vain academic spat is surely as dispiriting to readers as a long-haul flight with nothing but a volume by Joyce Carol Oates in the seat pocket. But if we must make a big display of our small differences, let’s at least get it over with quickly.

I ask readers to go back and read carefully both my article and Ronald Radosh’s reply. Having done so, they will see that the scholars whom he marshals to contradict me are in fact contradicting one another. When they’re not doing that, they’re making incidental points or replying to an article I didn’t write.

Begin with the gravamen of Radosh’s charges. He finds it “most shocking” that I have implicitly “attacked” Jonathan Brent, one of the giants of American publishing. It would be mildly shocking, I suppose, if I had attacked him—but I didn’t. I noted what Pavel Stroilov had said about him, and then did precisely the responsible thing Radosh says I didn’t do: I asked Brent for his side of the story. Here is the e-mail I sent to him:

From: Claire Berlinski ‹
Date: February 11, 2010 1:10:00 PM GMT+02:00
Subject: Question about the Stroilov/Bukowsky archives

Dear Dr. Brent,

I’m a journalist who is writing a piece for City Journal about Pavel Stroilov and the documents that he smuggled out of the Gorbachev Foundation archives. He tells me that he approached you with these documents, and that you were initially enthusiastic about them. He says that you asked him to write a book, based on the documents, about the first Gulf War, to be followed by more. He says that he wrote the first six chapters, sent them off, and never heard from you again. I expect this isn’t quite the whole story. I wonder if I could get your take on it. Is there any chance I could speak to you about this? I can call you at your convenience, or you can reach me on my Vonage phone: [here I gave Brent my telephone number]. I’m in Istanbul now, 7+ hours ahead of EST.

Best regards,

Claire Berlinski

I reported that Brent did not respond to me, and I dismissed the idea that only a conspiracy to suppress the truth could account for this. Brent’s failure to answer my e-mail meant nothing, I said. He was probably just busy, as are we all. Such a surmise is hardly an attack, no less a shocking one. (By comparison, Alexander Litvinenko, whose books Stroilov edited, was assassinated in the heart of London with polonium 210. Now that’s a shocking attack.) Radosh did not contact me to ask whether I had written to Brent before suggesting, more than implicitly, that I hadn’t. Were this a competition in journalistic probity, I believe judges would award me the round.

Likewise, Radosh proposes that I did not take the “easy step” of consulting with experts familiar with the Soviet archives. Is he quite sure? My e-mail records seem to suggest that I did, though I did not consult the same experts he mentions. There are, after all, more than three. If Radosh wants evidence that I, too, spoke with experts, I’ll cough it up, but I must warn him that if we continue this in public, we will both come off as defensive, petty windbags.

Other experts are of the opinion that there are documents in Stroilov’s and Bukovsky’s collections that are not available in other archives, and that there are significant differences between their documents and those that have been officially released. Particularly, Russian archivists claim that Fond 89 does not contain all of Bukovsky’s documents; they say state security has blocked attempts to declassify them all. Bukovsky maintains that fewer than 30 percent of his documents are housed in Fond 89. He suggests that those who doubt this simply compare Fond 89, published in 2001 by the Hoover Institution Press, with his collection. Since 2003, the Gorbachev Foundation has restricted access to many of the documents Stroilov claims to possess in full. According to Sergei Cristo, a translator who recently compared the official versions with Stroilov’s, those published by the Gorbachev Foundation contain major omissions.

To focus on this question is to miss my larger point, however, which is that the contents of the documents, whether or not they may be found in other archives, are largely unknown, undiscussed, and ignored by the media; they have certainly not been translated in full; and their significance is unappreciated by a wider public.

Radosh’s correspondents seem to be responding to his e-mails, rather than any assertions I actually made. For example, Mark Kramer writes:

I’m not sure precisely what Bukovsky approached Jonathan [Brent] about, but I think it was about putting out an English edition of Bukovsky’s “Jugement à Moscou,” which came out in 1995 from Robert Laffont (the same publisher that later put out “Le livre noir du communisme”) . . .

I don’t know what Kramer is talking about; and neither does he, it would seem. It was not Bukovsky who was in negotiations with Brent, but Stroilov; Bukovsky’s quarrel was with Random House. Kramer then adds, of Bukovsky’s book, that “The reason that no English edition has been published is partly . . . [that] the commercial prospects are minimal at best.” Perhaps this is true, but if so, it would confirm what I’m saying. Why would the commercial prospects be poor? Because there is no market for such books. What does this tell us? That no one cares. Obviously, I do not use the words “no one” in the very literal sense; of course there are people who care, among them the scholars to whom Radosh appeals. I mean “no one” in the sense of, “The commercial prospects for a book by Vladimir Bukovsky are minimal at best.”

Kramer notes that all of the documents have been available for more than a decade as scanned images on Bukovsky’s website. So do I. “These documents are available online at,” I wrote, “but most are not translated. They are unorganized; there are no summaries; there is no search or index function.”

I note moreover that they are available for free. This last is important, for Brent seems to be suggesting that Bukovsky is in this for the money. If so, life under Communist rule has perverted Bukovsky’s entrepreneurial instincts more than even I would have thought possible. As for his suggestion that Vladimir Bukovsky (of all men!) is a mendacious opportunist, I salute him for confessing at last what I’m sure we all secretly feel; these men who languished for years in Soviet prisons do tend to whinge on about it and milk it for cash, don’t they?

For what it’s worth, Stroilov is definitely giving these documents away (or trying to), not selling them. As for the charge that I didn’t contact Random House, I wonder if Radosh has read the correspondence between Bukovsky and his editor. I’ve got that here, too. I’m not sure what Random House could say about it, other than that it’s unfortunate. Please, Mr. Radosh, don’t make me produce it. I’m a Random House author, and I’d like to eat lunch in this town again.

I’ve made it clear that I have no ability to assess these documents. For men and women who seem confident in their ability to do so, however, Radosh’s correspondents certainly do contradict one other. The reason the documents were not worth publishing, says Brent, is that “Bukovsky and his young associate won’t show the originals but only their redactions of the copies they have. There’s no way of knowing what is left out—or what may be put in. . . . If Bukovsky would make the originals available for study by qualified historians, then there would be a chance of real results.” Yet Mark Kramer and Anne Applebaum claim the problem is the contrary: the documents are of no interest, they say, because they’re already available in their entirety in archives around the world. So which is it?

Anne Applebaum continues by objecting to a point I never made: “She is also quite wrong in thinking that US publishers are uninterested in publishing books based on ‘unofficial’ KGB document collections either [sic]. The Mitrokhin Archive and the Vassiliev collection, for example, have both been used to produce excellent books.” Where did I say anything to suggest otherwise? Radosh complains that I failed to note that Brent published Yakovlev’s book. He’s right, I didn’t note that. How this amounts to an attack on Brent—or why it is relevant at all—I have no idea. I said only that the book was widely ignored. I’m not blaming Brent for that; I’m blaming an indifferent world.

Brent seems to understand my point better than Radosh does: “As for why American publishers are wary of such a book as Bukovsky and Stroilov have produced,” he writes, “the reason is hardly that they wish to suppress knowledge, but that they don’t think they can make money.” That’s exactly what I said. (I do note, again, some confusion: Bukovsky produced one book, Stroilov the first part of another; the project on which they collaborated was a pamphlet called EUSSR.) “I am less inclined to believe in complex attempts to suppress the truth,” I wrote, “than I am in indifference and preoccupation with other things.” The reason these books don’t sell is that people don’t care enough to buy them. Are not Brent and I in perfect agreement? So where’s the attack?

A few more points. Gerard Batten knows of the documents not because they have been properly archived, translated, or widely described in the press, but because Stroilov has been shoving them into the hands of anyone who will read them. My complaint is that few do. Only people like Batten—fairly marginal figures—seem particularly interested in them. Radosh notes that it’s “not surprising” to discover that then-Senators Joe Biden and Richard Lugar told their Communist interlocutors that “they absolutely do not care for the fate of most so-called dissidents,” and that many other politicians, of both parties, were similarly unconcerned. I agree, but don’t see why this is a criticism of my argument. My very point is that we are not surprised. I argue that we should be. “Perhaps it doesn’t surprise you,” I wrote, “to read that prominent European politicians held these views. But why doesn’t it? It is impossible to imagine that figures who had enjoyed such close ties to the Nazi Party—or, for that matter, to the Ku Klux Klan or to South Africa’s apartheid regime—would enjoy top positions in Europe today.” This goes for prominent politicians in America, too, whatever their political party.

Applebaum does make one suggestion with which I agree completely. I should be denouncing the Russian government, she argues, “which has slowed down the declassification of secret documents, and which continues to hold back material vital to understanding Stalin and Stalinism.” Done. Consider it denounced.

I could go on at considerable length about other points Ronald Radosh seems to misunderstand, but I’m sure readers would have little patience for it. I’d ask them instead to see whether they have better luck than I did in figuring out just why, precisely, he is so incensed with me. I propose that there is no good reason, and that he and I should return to fighting more important battles.

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