The Hiss Case and General Volkogonov: A Comment on Victor Navasky's Article
In his latest article about the Alger Hiss case, "Hiss in History" (Apr. 30), Victor Navasky refers to General Dmitrii Volkogonov, a long- time Soviet military-political officer and military historian, who became a senior military adviser to Russian president Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s. Specifically, Navasky writes that:
"in 1992, the Russian historian general Dmitry A. Volkogonov, after ordering a search of a full range of official Russian government repositories with information about Soviet intelligence operations, including KGB files and military intelligence - or GRU files - told Hiss attorney John Lowenthal and the world, in a videotaped interview that Hiss had not been a spy. . . . Volkogonov subsequently conceded under questioning by Herb Romerstein, formerly a staff consultant to the House Committee on Unamerican Activites, that he could not say with absolute certainty that some files had not been destroyed or that his search had been 100% exhaustive."
The phrasing Navasky uses here implies that Volkogonov's retraction was merely a technicality (i.e., that Volkogonov was unable to "say with absolute certainty that some files had not been destroyed or that his search had been 100% exhaustive") and that the only time the general made such a retraction was during questioning by Herbert Romerstein, whose credibility Navasky obviously doubts.
Fortunately, we have good records of precisely what General Volkogonov said when making his retraction. I have no idea what Volkogonov said to Herbert Romerstein, but I do know what the general said to Serge Schmemann, who was then bureau chief in Moscow for The New York Times, and what Volkogonov said to me. Presumably, Navasky, too, knows what Volkogonov said to Schmemann because it appeared in a news article in The New York Times on 17 December 1992. In that article, titled "Russian General Retreats on Hiss," Schmemann cites Volkogonov at length. If we look at what the general actually, it does not bear out what Navasky implies.
In the interview with Schmemann, Volkogonov said that his initial statement about Hiss in October 1992 had been badly misconstrued: "I was not properly understood. The Ministry of Defense also has an intelligence service, which is totally different, and many documents have been destroyed. I looked only through what the K.G.B. had. All I said was that I saw no evidence."
Volkogonov went on to explain that his motive in making the statement on behalf of Hiss was "primarily humanitarian," to help out an elderly man under pressure from the man's lawyer, John Lowenthal, who came to Moscow to receive the general's written statement. Volkogonov emphasized that he was disconcerted by Lowenthal's insistence on receiving a blanket exoneration of Hiss: "Hiss wrote that he was 88 and would like to die peacefully, that he wanted to prove that he was never a paid, contracted spy. What I saw gives no basis to claim a full clarification. There's no guarantee that it was not destroyed, that it was not in other channels. This was only my personal opinion as a historian. I never met [Hiss], and honestly I was a bit taken aback. His attorney, Lowenthal, pushed me hard to say things of which I was not fully convinced."
In January 1993, a few weeks after The New York Times article appeared, I had dinner with Schmemann in Moscow. A week after that, I met with General Volkogonov for around two hours, a conversation that I recorded. Although I spoke with Volkogonov mostly about things unrelated to the Hiss case (especially about some photocopied documents he had given me), I asked him about Hiss toward the end of our discussion. Volkogonov not only reaffirmed everything he had told Schmemann, but was even firmer in saying that he felt he had been "deceived" by Lowenthal. Volkogonov added: "I am not a specialist on the Hiss case," and "I thought I was just doing a favor for a dying man." Volkogonov confirmed that he had "not seen anything from the GRU archive" and that without going through the files there, there was "no basis for saying anything that would shed greater light on the question of Hiss."
All of this raises serious questions about Navasky's claim that Volkogonov had gone through "a full range of official Russian government repositories with information about Soviet intelligence operations, including KGB files and military intelligence - or GRU files." The reality is that at no point did Volkogonov say that he had gone through any GRU files. On the contrary, he explicitly said several times that he had *not* gone through GRU files. Even his search of KGB/NKVD files was cursory, as he himself later acknowledged. Numerous KGB/NKVD documents that have emerged in subsequent years, including the March 1945 memorandum from Anatoly Gorsky that plays a central role in the paper by Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya (which Navasky praises), contain extensive references to Hiss either by name or through the codename Ales, which seems to fit only Hiss.
Debate about Hiss is bound to continue, but it is time to drop any further reference to Volkogonov's initial statement in October 1992 as somehow a vindication of Hiss. Volkogonov himself firmly disavowed the statement, and evidence that has emerged in subsequent years amply supports his disavowal. I agree with Navasky that "ultimately truth is what history is and ought to be about," and that is why we should stick to what Volkogonov actually said.
Mark Kramer is Director of Cold War Studies at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.
Apr 17 2007 - 1:53pm