Publication Date

October 1, 1999



By early winter 1988, the Central State Historical Archive in Leningrad had already been stonewalling me for months. The USSR's Ministry of Education in Moscow had approved my topic—imperial Russia's only colony at Harbin in China—despite the triple taboo on foreign affairs, border questions, and Russian émigrés, but the archival administration still had not felt comfortable handing over the central collections for my proposed doctoral dissertation.1 And then, almost magically, glasnost freed the materials from the vaults where they had lain sealed since the 1920s. Since those heady days, significant declassifications in thousands of archives across the former Soviet Union have opened the door to historiographical re-evaluations in almost every subfield of Russian history. The mentality of secrecy, however, was not discarded overnight and certain areas still remain, in large part, under lock and key. In 1997–98, as director of the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) at the Woodrow Wilson Center, I had an excellent opportunity to review the progress made to date in one of the most sensitive areas of both Russian and American history. As coordinator for the research and dissemination of the work being carried out by scholars worldwide in their efforts to excavate the archival record of the “other side(s)” of the Cold War, I also had a clear view from which to observe the myriad and various impediments to this endeavor.

The rationale for the project was simple. What war, conflict, or indeed relationship could possibly be described accurately from only one side's perspective? And yet, until glasnost, the thousands of studies written by Western scholars working with Western archives were matched by only a handful of East-bloc publications with archival references, and even these were not subject to archival verification. To facilitate the righting of this historiographic imbalance, the MacArthur Foundation underwrote the establishment of CWIHP in 1991. Since then, a series of publications, conferences, and fellowships has brought together hundreds of researchers from dozens of countries trying to rewrite the history of the second half of the 20th century. CWIHP’s Bulletin and web site (https://cwihp. testify to the energy and breadth of these efforts. In addition, the CWIHP book series, together with series at the University of North Carolina, Harvard, and Yale presses, have begun to publish the work of the first generation to carry out research in Cold War archives.

Although "other side" archives have been defined broadly to include material of more than 20 countries and former countries, the Russian sources remain central to the task. Not only was the Soviet Union widely regarded as the "main enemy" (as the Russians referred to the Americans), but the global pretensions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) meant that its archives hold information on virtually every significant international relations event of the last 50 years, as seen by interested observers or direct participants. Only the Americans can boast as much. This essay will, therefore, focus on the Russian collections, only branching out to other holdings to make specific points about the interactions among "other side" countries, interactions that, quite naturally, also need to be viewed from both perspectives to have any validity. A discussion of significant findings and persistent lacunae will be used to illustrate the methodologies and diplomacies of promoting archival openness.

Archives on Soviet Foreign Policy during the Cold War

Four Moscow archives are the most important for the study of Russia's Cold War.2 The Archive of the President of the Russian Federation (Arkhiv Prezidenta Rossiiskoi Federatsii) is the working archive of the presidential apparat with materials going almost to the present. At its core, however, is J. V. Stalin’s archive, often read and re-read by the vozhd (paramount leader) late into the night. Not surprisingly, it also contains the largest collection in the world of Stalin’s memoranda of conversations with foreign leaders. As one of the most powerful men in history, Stalin was of key importance in setting the patterns of confrontation that would last for decades to come, many until this day. He directed all major aspects of Soviet foreign policy during World War II and until his death on March 5, 1953. And yet his voice is rarely heard. He did not have to explain his policy to anyone. All he had to do was ordain it and monitor execution. He did not like his subordinates to record his words, but for conversations with international visitors, verbatim records were often kept. All of this material is over 45 years old and in the normal course of things would be open to researchers by now, but Stalin was not a normal phenomenon and possession of the Stalin archive filled with genuine secrets is, at some symbolic level, a potent touchstone.3

Just as important, and more recently, the Presidential Archive contains the transcripts of Politburo/Presidium meetings.4 Although much of even Politburo meetings was of a rubber-stamp nature, especially during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years, the sporadic declassifications and releases from this collection have contained much of interest. Unfortunately, the Presidential Archive is largely off-limits to all but the best-connected scholars. Most Russians with research access are senior figures in the academic, archival, and diplomatic spheres. Many have a security clearance. A few publications have privileged access to materials. Although several foreigners with high-level connections in the Russian government have been able to do research, the archive is for most intents and purposes closed.

This leaves the two Communist Party archives, Rossiiskii tsentr khraneniia i izucheniia dokumentov noveishei istorii (RTsKhIDNI), Russian Center for the Storage and Study of Documents of Recent History, housing documents from the period 1917–52 and Tsentr khraneniia sovremennoi dokumentatsii (TsKhSD), Center for the Storage of Contemporary Documentation, that covers largely 1952–91, and the Foreign Ministry archive, Arkhiv vneshnei politiki Rossiiskoi Federatsii. Here the crucial caveat is that influence over the foreign policy decision-making process alternated between the CPSU’s International Department and the Foreign Ministry. So sometimes one archive’s documents detail the real development of a decision, and sometimes the other’s do. Both, however, are essential for the study of almost all aspects of Soviet Cold War policy. TsKhSD, once the repository for the working files of the Central Committee of the CPSU (CC CPSU), has the added attraction of containing one collection that compensates, in part, for the closed status of the Politburo archives. V. N. Malin, the head of the General Department of the CC CPSU under Khrushchev, kept detailed notes of both Presidium discussions and decisions from 1953 to 1964. His hasty, handwritten scribbles have landed in TsKhSD, where—no surprise here—they are for the most part closed. The few portions that have been declassified and released suggest that the “Malin notes” are a gold mine. In addition to the previously mentioned International Department, TsKhSD holds the “uncorrected” verbatim versions of the CC CPSU Plenum meetings. Although it would be an exaggeration to say that the Plenum ever held decision-making power, conflicting points of view on key issues were sometimes aired and vicious attacks revealed who was in and who was out.

Although, in principle, files should be released after 30 years, many that are much older (the Malin notes, for example) are still sealed. However, the special collection of top-grade material culled and declassified from a wide range of archives and deposited in TsKhSD as Fond 89 extends into the 1980s. This is a godsend, but it must be kept in mind that, although the documents are probably genuine and untouched, they were tendentiously selected to embarrass Gorbachev and the Communists. And no document can be fully understood without an examination of its archival location and circumstances of origin.

The TsKhSD holds most party documents from 1952 onward, but A. I. Mikoian's memoirs have ended up in RTsKhIDNI. As the longest-serving Politburo member (1926–66), he saw Stalin's regime from start to finish and as Khrushchev's loyal diplomatic troubleshooter and global emissary, he knew things no one else did. His (supposedly soon-to-be-released) remembrances could thus be richly detailed. On the other hand, Mikoian lasted so long precisely because he was very careful what he said and wrote. A revealing anecdote describes him leaving home without an umbrella. When warned of ominous clouds, Mikoian stated, "Don't worry. If it rains, I'll walk between the raindrops." The evasive, survivalist qualities hinted at here bode ill for the candor of the memoirs.

The Foreign Ministry archive was the object of special attention after the fall of the Soviet Union. An international advisory committee assembled by the Norwegian Nobel Committee helped organize and fund a declassification program, carried out by retired diplomats. Although millions of pages have been declassified since then, complaints about shifting rules, reclassification of documents, and the continuing ban on the release of ciphered cable traffic have also been heard. In addition to collections for each of the foreign ministers and for each set of treaty negotiations, holdings for each country have both "secret" and "not secret" sections.

The Central State Archive of the Soviet Army(Tsentral'nyi gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Sovetskoi Armii) at Podolsk, which contains the papers of the General Staff, is closed. Likewise, KGB materials are, as a rule, only accessible through connections or contributions, although a number of joint research projects between Russian and American scholars have recently produced pathbreaking books based on KGB archives. Here, however, independent verification has been a problem. The State Archive of the Russian Federation (Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii) has limited holdings that bear on foreign policy, although the social history of Russia’s Cold War will someday be written from its files.

Local archives and those of the former Soviet republics, now again in sovereign capitals, contain important materials on specific moments of the Cold War. Kiev is strong on the Ukrainian resistance movement after World War II, the 1968 events in neighboring Czechoslovakia, and Chernobyl. The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have a wealth of abandoned KGB materials, especially welcome since Moscow is so unforthcoming. The Khabarovsk archive, located in Siberia, not far from the Chinese border, has a particular slant on the Chinese question. But none of these speak to a global variety of issues as do the Moscow archives. Nonetheless, these multiple perspectives are crucial for providing complementary information, highlighting misperceptions, and offering a check against forgeries and alterations.

Research Strategies That Open Archives

The best coverage is obtained when multiple archives are used. For example, CWIHP Bulletin #10 combines documents from the presidential, foreign ministry, and general staff archives to create a multifaceted view of the 1953 uprising in East Germany (GDR). German and Hungarian perspectives add even more angles. Even with all the new details available (at the height of the action, army reports reached Moscow every hour) on this key Cold War crisis, “white spots,” as the Russians say, persist. In particular, the tie between the Kremlin succession struggle and the deteriorating situation in Berlin remains opaque. The transcript of the May 27, 1953, Presidium meeting, at which L. P. Beria—who was subsequently blamed by enemies for being ready to betray “socialist” Germany—spoke on the German question is still classified.

Comparison of archives is especially fruitful when documents contradict each other. Since its 1987 publication in the multivolume, internal-use only Mao's Manuscripts since the Founding of the PRC, Mao Zedong’s purported telegram to Stalin about the decision to send volunteers to Korea had dominated scholarly discourse. In this document, dated October 2, 1950, Mao indicates that despite fears of a direct attack on China by the Americans, the unpreparedness of the Chinese army, and the burning need for China to concentrate on economic development, China had nonetheless, in the name of socialist internationalism, “decided to send some of our troops to Korea under the name of volunteers.”5 Mao’s supposed response to Stalin’s October 1 telegram requesting troops is thus presented as a shining example of Communist unity.

But this interpretation did not reign for long. Russian President Boris Yeltsin gave South Korean President Kim Young Sam, during his June 1994 visit to Moscow, copies of 548 pages of Korean War documents from the presidential and foreign ministry archives. These had been chosen from a larger group of materials declassified in the course of compiling the collection for Kim. Eventually, these residual copies became available and there, among the photocopies, was the October 2 telegram from Mao to Stalin (photostat in CWIHP Bulletin #6–7, p. 115) with a slant totally different from the Chinese version. Here Mao invoked the dangers of American aggression, the weakness of his army, and the necessity of immediate attention to the economy to announce a reversal of the earlier implied willingness to send forces to rescue Kim Il Song—"volunteerswould not be sent.

When this contradiction in the evidence had been bruited about long enough and loud enough, the validity of the whole Mao's Manuscripts project, an investment of millions of intellectual hours, was called into question. Finally, scholars were allowed to inspect the document itself. It was real and in Mao’s unmistakable handwriting. However, there was no countersigning or time stamp to show that the telegram had been sent. The Chinese-version “telegram” was only a draft.

We, of course, know the end of this story. Many Chinese "volunteers" died in Korea. But for a few days in early October, negotiations went on as the Chinese questioned the terms under which Stalin was prepared to fight the Korean war to the last Chinese soldier, preventing China from carrying through the already-scheduled fall 1950 "liberation" of Taiwan. Suddenly, the cooperative aspects of "fraternal assistance" shine less brightly and the Communist monolith seems less unified.

Since the "October 2 Incident" three years ago, both the Chinese academy and government have shown a greater interest in cooperating to write a shared international history of the Cold War. However, the document release process is both ponderous and fickle and especially in 1999—the much-heralded 50th anniversary of Communist victory—only an official party-approved narrative is to be heard. Nonetheless, it becomes clear that no state, even one with traditions of secrecy, wants to see its history written out of someone else's archive, since that archive will by its very nature produce an alien, if not necessarily hostile, perspective. Similar comparative approaches that include a hidden appeal to nationalism have produced archival releases elsewhere. For surviving "other side" leaders, this is often a matter of personal pride, since it is their past activities that are being reported, often in a less than flattering manner.

The "October 2 Incident" points to two other methods that are helpful in promoting archival openness. As the Kim visit to Moscow shows, high-level political intervention by either former or present leaders can produce results. The participation of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Cyrus Vance, Harold Brown, and Stansfield Turner in the Carter-Brezhnev conference series on the end of détente—as well as a personal letter from Carter to Yeltsin—helped prompt the Russian side to bring an impressive collection of documentation to the table. On the other hand, Kim did not receive some of the most important documents necessary for understanding Stalin's actions: (1) the record of his talks with Kim Il Song in April 1950, at which Stalin gave a green light to attack South Korea and (2) the record of Stalin's talks with Zhou Enlai on October 9–10, 1950, at which the terms of Chinese intervention were hammered out.

Just as the declassification of Russian documents prodded Chinese authorities toward greater openness, an exhibit of U.S. documents can produce similar results. For this reason, among others, the CWIHP works closely with the National Security Archive (NSA), a nongovernmental, nonprofit repository and publisher of declassified documents located at George Washington University.

By assiduous use of the Freedom of Information Act, the NSA has built up the world's largest nongovernmental repository of declassified records on U.S. foreign and national security policy. With concrete examples drawn from the NSA collections, it becomes easier to demonstrate to archivists elsewhere the Western standard of openness to which they should aspire. Only when comparable materials are available on both sides can the international history of the conflict be written. Often a presentation of this nature, with its implication that the target country is lagging behind a global process, can galvanize a response. The road, however, between convincing an individual and the actual release of documents can be long and studded with bureaucratic hurdles. On the other hand, in some cases the appropriate individual can make things happen very quickly.

Although in the United States archival openness is generally more advanced than in the countries of the "other side," this is not always the case. The resounding impact of the end of the Cold War and the generally more erratic nature of declassification on the "other side" have produced material releases on matters that will not see the light of day in American archives for years to come. Thus, for example, the American and Cuban versions of Secretary of State Alexander Haig's secret 1981 meeting in Mexico City with Cuban Vice President Carlos Rafael Rodriguez remain hidden from view, but the transcript provided by the Cubans to the Russians has already been published in CWIHP Bulletin #8–9.

Findings: 10 Years After?

Chronology and periodization are the bread and butter of the historical profession, so it is no surprise to see the proper dating of the beginning and the end of the Cold War under discussion. A beginning date of 1945 is often favored, for how could a cold war be an age's dominant feature while a hot war was still going on? Churchill's Fulton speech is also mentioned as an important turning point, but so is the Marshall Plan, the Cominform, the Truman Doctrine, the Soviet bomb, NSC-68, the Lublin Poles, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Clearly, this discussion will go on for a long time, new documentation adding empirical strength to contending interpretations of the complex web of events.

Similar disagreements are also evident regarding the end date of the Cold War. As we approach the 1999 activities commemorating the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, we will certainly hear more on this topic. Although 1989, like 1945, has many commonsensical advantages to recommend it, different causal emphases in analyzing the end of the Cold War will produce different chronologies. If Gorbachev's appointment as General Secretary of the CPSU was the beginning of the end, then 1985 looms large. If President Reagan's defense build-up and Star Wars program drove the Soviets to bankruptcy and despair, then the early 1980s grow in importance. Specialists who give primacy in their analytical priorities to either the fall of Leninism or the rise of nationalism are likely to pick the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union.

Many conferences will meet this year to evaluate how the scholarship of the last 10 years has changed the way we think about the Cold War. Much will be written on this, so I will limit myself to a very few comments. The major substantive change is the looming importance of the Sino-Soviet split as played out in a worldwide competitive quest for influence and acted out in thousands of local clashes along the planet's longest land border, almost a cold war within the Cold War. Thus ended the bipolar phase of the Cold War, a critical turning point. And when Mao decided to play the American card against the Soviets, the "strategic triangle" was born. Enduring sensitivities, habits of secrecy, and linguistic hurdles will, however, continue to make this a difficult research topic.

The detail provided by the newly released documents has also made possible an increasing appreciation of variety within the "other side," in their foreign policies and the interplay between foreign and domestic factors. The "October 2 Incident" shows a variety of ideas within the Chinese leadership and also the difference between Stalin's and Mao's views. The ties between the Presidium leadership struggle and the 1953 GDR uprising are a classic example of domestic-foreign policy linkage.

Finally, because the Cold War was global in nature, it seems reasonable that it would have different dynamics and divergent endpoints in widely separated regions. A corollary of this statement is that for some places and some issues, the Cold War is not yet over. In East Asia, this can be most clearly seen in the divided status of Korea and China, states with ruling Communist parties, and the mindset of leaders who, although trained on Leninist principles, have just made the jump to capitalist economics. Because of these continuities, researchers must keep in mind that wherever the documents are least accessible, some strain of ongoing Cold War mentality has not yet come in from the cold. In this sense, archival openness work, through relations with scholars and archival authorities in many countries, indirectly measures the Cold War's lasting legacy. Success in obtaining documentation on a given topic is the ultimate proof that that moment of the Cold War can finally be handed over to the historians to be made into history, one more thread in the new international history of the 20th century.


1. "To the Harbin Station: City-building in Russian Manchuria, 1898–1914," PhD dissertation, University of California at Berkeley, 1991.

2. For much more detail and information about other archives, see Mark Kramer, "Russia" New Opportunities in Archival Research, ed. Paul Cicanek (London, 1999).

3. Recently, however, the decision was made to evaluate the Stalin collection for partial declassification and publication. It is still too early to predict how long this process will take and how much will come out.

4. From 1952 until 1964, the Politburo, the highest deliberative organ in the CPSU hierarchy, was renamed the Presidium.

5. Jiefang yilai Mao Zedong wengao vol. 1 (Beijing, 1987), 539–41 and in English in Goncharov, Lewis and Xue, Uncertain Partners (Stanford, 1993), 275–6 or CWIHP Bulletin, # 6–7, 106–7.

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