I still kick myself for not having saved the short story I wrote for composition class in seventh grade in which I described how the Russians took over my small suburban community. The story ended with a knock on the door and the secret police dragging my father out of the house, chanting, “NKVD, NKVD…” For a child acculturated in the cold war liberalism of the early fifties, the acronym of the KGB’s predecessor was the scariest thing in the world. Nothing, therefore, symbolizes the end of the cold war as much as the discovery that those fearsome Russian agents bumbled as often as they killed or stole state secrets. Such, in part, is the message about Soviet espionage in the United States that emerges from Allen Weinstein’s limited excursion into the KGB’s archives.
In 1993 Weinstein’s publisher paid an organization of former KGB agents an unknown sum of money to grant Weinstein and his collaborator Alexander Vassiliev “substantial and exclusive access to Stalin-era operational files” of the KGB and its predecessors (to avoid confusion, referred to here simply as the KGB). Vassiliev, a former KGB man himself, then hunkered down in the reading room of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the KGB’s successor organization, to analyze and take notes on whatever tidbits his ex-colleagues decided to proffer. After two years, the Russians had second thoughts, stopped releasing materials and shut down the operation.
This sort of research is not the kind that inspires confidence within the scholarly community (especially given Weinstein’s refusal to let other historians see the material he collected for an earlier book on Alger Hiss). Besides the ethical questions that buying exclusive access to official archives raises, it will be impossible to replicate–and thus check up on–the authors’ research. Since they were not allowed to see the finding aids for the files, they were (and we are) completely at the mercy of the KGB’s gatekeepers, whose principles of selection are unknown. In addition, because no photocopying was permitted, other scholars cannot verify how accurately the documents were transcribed and interpreted. Nor will they be able to identify those materials elsewhere, for the notes do not contain such basic information about the documents as who wrote them, for whom and when.
We must, therefore, take Weinstein’s account of Soviet spying in the United States on faith. Perhaps he is purveying the product of a massive disinformation scheme involving thousands of forged documents created by a seamless, leakless network of Russian and American agents dedicated to historical fabrication; but it is hard to imagine why such a project would have been undertaken and much easier to assume that Weinstein’s material is probably the real thing. As such, it corroborates information that has come from the admittedly contradictory testimony of such ex-Communist informants as Elizabeth Bentley as well as from the files of the former Communist International, or Comintern, and the Venona decrypts, the texts of wartime cables between KGB headquarters and its US representatives that were intercepted and deciphered by the FBI and National Security Agency.
Neither the Venona decrypts nor Weinstein’s KGB files settle every case or prove that all the Americans they implicate knowingly sent secrets to Moscow. The charges against Alger Hiss, for example, still rest primarily on the stories of Whittaker Chambers. Until the former Soviet military intelligence agency that Hiss supposedly spied for opens its archives, we will have no direct corroboration of Chambers’s allegations. Nonetheless, the growing accumulation of indirect evidence does seem to indicate that Hiss was up to something, even if the case is by no means closed.