D.D. Guttenplan wishes to thank Stewart Cass and Victor Navasky, who read a draft of this essay; Dr. Svetlana Chervonnaya, who pointed to documents not cited in Spies; and Alexander Guttenplan, who patiently translated materials from the Russian.
The last time I saw Alexander Vassiliev he was slumped in a seat at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. A small, fair-haired man wearing a dark suit and a black shirt, Vassiliev was an ex-KGB officer who had helped Allen Weinstein, an American historian whose Perjury (1978) convinced most Americans that Alger Hiss had indeed been a Soviet spy, to write another book. The fruit of their collaboration, The Haunted Wood (1999), was hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “a small arsenal of smoking guns.” In The New York Review of Books, Thomas Powers declared that “anyone who wants to know what Hiss and his friends were up to can find a rich, convincing, and vivid report in The Haunted Wood.” Hiss, who’d died in 1996 still protesting his innocence, was already beyond redemption. For Weinstein, the acclaim merely accelerated his rise from the comparative obscurity of the Smith College history department, via the National Endowment for Democracy, to his appointment by President George W. Bush in April 2004 as archivist of the United States. The project seemed to have brought Vassiliev only grief.
Not only did Weinstein, who couldn’t even read Russian, claim top billing; he used Vassiliev’s findings on Hiss in a 1997 reissue of Perjury without permission. Vassiliev was so angry that he wanted to sue, and turned for advice to The Nation‘s Victor Navasky, well known both as a defender of Alger Hiss and as a critic of Weinstein’s scholarship and ethics. Navasky replied that he was “reluctant to collaborate in any legal actions vis-à-vis Weinstein” but was curious about Vassiliev’s grievance. “In my universe,” Vassiliev replied in an e-mail, “the thing he did to me is called theft, and thieves get punished. I spent 2 years in the KGB archives, doing the research for The Haunted Wood. I gave up my career as a TV presenter and newspaper columnist for it. I smuggled from Russia hundreds of top secret non-declassified KGB documents, and therefore I can’t return there now.” But soon enough, still living in exile in London, beached by the tides of history, Vassiliev would find a new outlet for his anger.
In the fall of 2000 John Lowenthal, a retired Rutgers law professor who had worked as a volunteer on the Hiss defense team, published a lengthy analysis of the latest evidence regarding Hiss in Intelligence and National Security, an obscure British quarterly. After Lowenthal posted on Amazon the portion of his review dealing with The Haunted Wood, Vassiliev decided to sue–not Lowenthal but the quarterly’s British publisher, Frank Cass, and Amazon. British courts are notoriously friendly to libel plaintiffs; for one thing, the burden of proof is on the defendant. (In the United States, Vassiliev would have had to prove that Lowenthal’s criticisms were untrue.) Vassiliev was so confident of an easy victory over Cass–followed by a lucrative settlement from Amazon–that he rejected repeated offers of four-figure sums (but no apology) from Cass’s lawyers. The trial began on June 9, 2003.