About This Site

Letting Documents Talk: A “Non-Definitive” History

My name is Svetlana Chervonnaya. I live in Moscow, Russia, and by education and professional experience I am what we here call an “Americanist”- a scholar whose occupation is the study of the United States of America. At this point, an American visitor to this website might naturally have several questions:

  • Why is a Russian writing in English for a U.S. audience, instead of writing in her native Russian, for Russian consumption?
  • Why would anyone be interested in material the writer herself describes as “non-definitive,” when everybody today craves definitive stories and judgments?
  • Why the choice of such a strange name for the site – DocumentsTalk.com – and how can documents speak for themselves when a scholar or writer is usually needed to interpret and summarize their content for the general reader?
  • Why launch a website doing what sane scholars or writers seldom do – posting documentation in the public domain instead of publishing it in an article or book?
  • And finally, how do I learn more about the author of this site and her own story?

First, why a Russian?

It is difficult to answer this question in brief, but I’ll try.

The word that best describes my reasons for writing in English – autarky – may sound strange to some Americans. Consulting a dictionary to check its meaning, you will see that it derives from the Greek word autarkeia (self-sufficiency) and denotes a region, country or enclave that is self-sufficient economically. By extension, the word is used to describe a person who is self-sufficient intellectually and maintains no exchange with the outside world. Marc Bloch, the great French maitre of the tribe of historians, warned against the creation of an autarky in historical scholarship. “Isolated,” he wrote, “no [historian] will ever understand more than half [of historical research], even if it is in his own field of study; the only true history, which can be accomplished solely through mutual cooperation, is universal history.” 1

During the Cold War years, historical autarky existed on both sides of the Iron Curtain – and actually survived its fall. In fact, the Cold War was waged on two levels – both internationally, on transatlantic battlegrounds, and domestically, with battle lines drawn along domestic ideological and cultural divides. And the kind of historical autarky Bloch decried was present at both levels.

The best example of domestic autarky is found in American post-Cold War writing about U.S. Communism and Stalin-era Soviet espionage. Although ostensibly based on Soviet records gleaned from the Russian archives in the 1990s, many of these accounts still revolve around stories told by two famous early-Cold War defectors from the Soviet cause – Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley. Too often, no sustained effort is made to reconcile these stories with new and frequently conflicting evidence. This narrow focus inevitably results in misreading and misrepresentation of the new evidence, as the author tries to make it fit with an existing narrative.

Clearly, no one-woman effort can aspire to overcome an autarky which has taken many decades to build. My much more modest purpose is to make some breach in the walls of this autarky by amassing records of Soviet-American interactions during the Stalin era from both sides of the divide – and then crosschecking stories and interpretations against all available records.

Second, why define this site as “non-definitive” history?

Answering this question requires some background on the research and documentation project that has made the site possible.

The opening of formerly secret Soviet and other Eastern and Central European archives in the early 1990s – along with the release in 1995-1996 of Soviet World War II-era intelligence cables partially decrypted in the course of the Venona operation – have “mapped new terrain” in American discourse on the 1930s-1940s period. Since the mid-1990s, new findings have been used to corroborate alleged complicity in Soviet espionage by many New Deal and World War II-era officials – charges made by defectors from the Soviet cause such as Chambers, Bentley and a few others in order to build their credibility.

However, the findings that emerged from early 1990s files of the Communist Party of the USA, the Comintern and certain Russian Communist Party collections, were odd and inconclusive. Above all, these revelations have not produced a single reference to Whittaker Chambers or Elizabeth Bentley, nor any definitive record of espionage by any of the accused. Venona documents do provide an important glimpse into the day-to-day operations of Soviet intelligence networks, but in view of their mathematically insignificant share of the overall cable traffic (about one percent), they must be interpreted with great caution. Approaching Venona decrypts, a professionally trained historian should always keep in mind the strong possibility that an exculpating cable, a correction of a previously erroneous message or a groundbreaking revelation could be lurking in the remaining unbroken traffic.

Equal caution is required in approaching another addition to the corps of documentation about Stalin-era espionage in the United States – documentation that became available on an exclusive-access basis in the early 1990s for a book undertaken as part of a joint Russian-American publishing project. Though this book was never written, that research would later become the basis for a book named The Haunted Wood, co-authored by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev. Not only was the access to these documents exclusive, offering other historians no chance to check the veracity of quotes or interpretations, but the records themselves were too incomplete for any conclusions to be considered final. Moreover, the American writer of the book, Allen Weinstein, had never seen the released records himself and had to rely completely on the handwritten notes, chapter drafts – and judgment – of his Russian co-author (a journalist and former K.G.B. intelligence officer who lacked both experience in archival research and knowledge of the complicated history behind the project).

Professional calls for caution notwithstanding, the writers who are often referred to as “consensus historians” seized the opportunity to produce “definitive” stories of New Dealers’ complicity in Soviet espionage – and hurried to pronounce their case closed.

However, history is not written in stone – particularly given the discrepancies and lacunas in American writing about Communism and Soviet espionage since the Russian archives were opened in the 1990s. It was precisely because “the case” appeared to be wide open that in 2003 I accepted the invitation of The Nation Institute to join its new historical project. The goal was to go back to the Russian archives and check the veracity of consensus scholarship – and of the stories told by the major “witnesses” of the late 1940s that were at its core. Gradually, this research has turned into a full-time undertaking – and has produced a considerable body of documentation since 2003. The new material has made it possible for the first time to crosscheck the stories told by the witnesses – as well as the consensus historians’ interpretations of the sources behind those stories.

My research is an ongoing process, since what has emerged thus far on the Russian side, however voluminous, is still only the tip of the iceberg. There are continually developing leads to follow up and more records to scour, not only in Russia and the United States but also in the United Kingdom and several other European countries. Given the volume of documentation still hidden in Russian archival vaults, and the records awaiting researchers’ attention in the United States and Europe, it is too early to close the chapter on many of the alleged Soviet espionage cases, or to pronounce any particular case closed. The solution, in the meantime, is to write what can only be called a “non-definitive” history.

Third, why choose DocumentsTalk.com as the site’s name?

Reading historical records, particularly those that come from institutional monoliths in a totalitarian society, is sometimes akin to deciphering a cuneiform inscription. Among the many temptations along this path is the application of a legal rule in statute or contract interpretation known as the “plain meaning rule” for reading historical archival records. Controversial in itself in the realm of statute or contract interpretation, this rule has no place in historical research. It is a basic of the historian’s craft that the “plain meaning of documents” may be deceitful, and that no historical source should be taken at face value, but rather scrutinized and duly crosschecked to establish the degree of its veracity and its true meaning. Hence my puzzlement when I found – at an early stage in this project – two American historians denouncing their antagonists in the history profession precisely for being “in denial” about “the plain meaning of documents.” 2

It is particularly puzzling that these historians, sometimes referred to as “authorities on the history of Soviet espionage,” were discussing documents of the most controversial and elusive type. Too often, these documents are circumstantial or from second-hand sources, and they are mostly translations from the Russian (which these historians themselves and many other American scholars do not know). Moreover, many of the Venona documents have undergone a complicated, two-tier process of decoding and then decrypting intercepted Soviet intelligence cables from the World War II period. Applying “plain meaning” to the reading of such records inevitably results in jumping to conclusions – and skipping over the no man’s land where painstaking crosschecking of the document itself, and what it says, takes place.

Fourth, why post documentation in the public domain instead of in article or book format?

This site is unusual, as it allows a visitor to wander along investigative paths in that no man’s land which commonly remains hidden from the public eye. Walking this trail has often been a thrill akin to finding one’s way out of a labyrinth or untangling a convoluted criminal case – a thrill I am pleased to share with my readers. Here the documents are allowed to speak for themselves, so that interested scholars, authors, journalists, students or chance visitors may listen.

Fifth, how do I learn more about the author of this site?

For more about the author, try the following links:

Funding for this project was provided by The Nation Institute.  Text edited by Margot Witty.  Site design by Bruno Navasky.  Click here for Photo Credits.

  1. Marc Bloch. Apologie pour l’histoire ou métier d’historien. Paris: Armand Colin, 1949, p. 29.
  2. John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr. In Denial. Historians, Communism and Espionage. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003, p. 231.