An Unfinished Story

My name is Svetlana Chervonnaya. In Ukrainian, ‘chervony’ means ‘red;’ my red-headed father, who came from a Jewish family, assumed the name in the early 1920s, probably to smooth his way in post-revolutionary Ukraine.

I was born in Moscow in 1948, three years after the end of World War II, into the family of two criminal lawyers. With Soviet post-World War II housing shortages, “home” was a tiny room in an apartment shared with my mother’s relatives, and my parents prepared and discussed their cases right in front of my eyes. As a result, I grew up as a sort of “criminal law baby,” and from a very early age my three principal interests were reading, writing and investigating. I am still not sure which is the foremost of the three.

When I was born, my father already had a long history as a criminal investigator, including several years as an “investigator for major cases” at the Procurator General’s Office, under the much-feared Andrei Vyshinsky, architect of the Moscow political trials of the late 1930s. My father had been assigned to non-political cases, handling major “economic” crimes, “gang” crimes and homicides. By the time I started school, however, he had begun his career as one of the most sought-after criminal defense lawyers in the 1950s and 1960s.

So I was raised in a family that knew both sides of the Soviet legal system, and there was a personal shadow hanging over us as well. My mother’s family was a victim of the Stalinist repressions – the Russian term for what the West calls “purges.” In the very first Moscow political trial, in 1936, my mother’s uncle, Efim Dreizer confessed, under duress, that he had received and disseminated Leon Trotsky’s instructions to organize an anti-government conspiracy in the Red Army. After his execution, his relatives were stigmatized as “members of the family of an enemy of the people” and sent to death, prison or exile in Siberia. Although the rest of the family were rehabilitated in 1956-1958, Dreizer himself wasn’t exonerated until 1988.

Given this history, I grew up with powerful memories of the “great fear,” as it was called – the daily reality of life under Stalin. Like many members of my generation, I also grew up with my parents’ warm feelings for the United States and the Russian-American partnership that had defeated the Nazis. Russia lost more than 20 million lives in the war, and during my childhood “Lend Lease” – the great American program of wartime assistance – was still a household word, connoting not just tanks, guns and aircraft for victory, but also canned meat, powdered milk and warm clothes at a time of dire need.

Although I grew up planning to become a lawyer, when I was ready for university, in 1966, high school graduates were no longer being admitted to law schools. So I took my thirst for reading and investigation to the History Department of Moscow State University (MGU), and by the end of my second year won competitive admission to a small group of students who were “majoring” in U.S. history – which has since become a life-long passion. Thanks to MGU’s strong school of New Deal studies, I immersed myself first in the history, legislation and heritage of the New Deal period, and then in that of the post-war New Left. A 240-page thesis on Malcolm X and black nationalism won me a job as a probationer-researcher at Moscow’s prestigious Institute of the USA (later known as the Institute of the USA and Canada) of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. In the West, this Cold War think tank was often thought of as the research and anti-American propaganda arm of the Communist Party and the Soviet government; nevertheless, back in the 1970s, it was the only academic center in the country with adequate facilities for studying current U.S. history, the subject that fascinated me most. Despite my appointment, however, I remained an outsider in many ways. Early on, for instance, I decided not to join the Communist Party, which was then a “must” for foreign travel or career advancement. On top of this, I was a woman and, besides that, Jewish, all of which confirmed that I was hopelessly “nevyezdnaja” – that is, a person “with no exit rights.” (Being Jewish in the Soviet state imposed its own kind of glass ceiling; the only answer, my parents had always said, was to work harder than anyone else so you could stand “vyshe na tseluju golovu,” or “a full head higher” than your peers.)

I joined a section of the Institute that studied American opposition movements. In the end, I spent a full 30 years at the Institute, earning the Russian equivalent of a Ph.D. in History in 1977; becoming the Institute’s youngest Senior Research Fellow; and, eventually, becoming head of the Institute’s department of U.S. domestic policy studies.

Beginning in the late 1970s, my field expanded to include human rights, and that was the beginning of my interest in American landmark court cases. Two cases that attracted my particular interest from the start were the Rosenberg and Hiss cases. Curiously, in the early 1980s, both cases were taboo subjects in the Soviet Union, and any American books about them were hidden in libraries’ special depositories. As I began to study these cases, I started to notice American anomalies as well – manifest omissions of key facts in both cases, for instance, and the absence of any attempt by American authorities to establish whether the physical evidence of espionage produced by two witnesses in each case, David Greenglass and Whittaker Chambers, did in fact have any relevance or usefulness for the Soviet Union as intelligence information. So when in the early 1980s my long-time co-author and boss at the Institute, Igor Geevsky, suggested collaborating on a book of essays about some of the “dark spots” in recent American history, the Hiss and Rosenberg cases were at the top of my list. The first fruits of my interest in these cases were two essays published in 1985; 1 sadly, they remain to this day the only detailed examinations of these cases ever published in Russia.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the dramatic monetary reforms that followed, my work at the Academy of Sciences was reduced to a hobby, as I had to support myself and my family in very creative ways. So since the early 1990s I have been a de facto free-lancer, building a multi-track CV as a writer, consultant, television producer, researcher, translator and editor. In some ways this has been a blessing. As a journalist, I soon found myself talking to people who had once been part of the history of Soviet espionage in the United States – and began to pick up some of the pieces of what had previously seemed insoluble puzzles. In early 1993, for instance, a veteran KGB intelligence colonel, Alexander Feklissov, approached me and told me that he had “run” Julius Rosenberg in New York in 1944 and 1945. We agreed to co-author a book to tell the true story of the Rosenberg case. The interviews we did and the sample chapters I wrote eventually became part of the memoir Feklissov published in the West. 2) I was also part of the team that told Feklissov’s story in a documentary, “The Rosenberg File: Case Closed,” produced for the Discovery Channel in 1997. 3

Sometime in 1999, I received a letter from Tony Hiss, the son of Alger Hiss, who was interested in getting to the bottom of the Hiss case and establishing the truth – whatever that turned out to be. When he discovered that this was exactly my approach as well, he helped introduce me to The Nation Institute, and by 2003, I was enlisted as part of their Cold War Research and Publication Project. I agreed that I would look through available Soviet archives “to develop hitherto unavailable information about Alger Hiss’s own actions, about his accusers’ accuracy, as well as about the actual circumstances and the general context of intelligence gathering in the Soviet Union and in America during the 1930s and throughout World War II.” This research began in early 2003, in the records of the Communist Parties of the USA and the USSR, in Comintern records and in Russian diplomatic records from the 1930s and 1940s. The very first months of research produced a plethora of hitherto unknown information – both from the files I was the first researcher ever to see, and from files that had previously been examined by a few American researchers in the early post-Soviet years.

I took time off in late 2003 and 2004 to produce a Russian TV documentary on Arkady Shevchenko, a top Soviet diplomat and UN under-secretary general who defected in 1978. This was my first chance to produce a documentary on my own; it was quickly followed by a three-part series on the history of Russian-American espionage confrontations in the 20th century. I resumed my work on the Cold War Project and further Hiss research in 2005. The deeper I got into reading Russian archival records from the 1930s and 1940s, the more discrepancies caught my eye in the stories that have been told in both countries. Publicly accessible Russian records have provided some telltale clues – which I have now followed up and crosschecked against U.S. records from the same period. As documentation accumulated, I began trying to reconstruct some of these stories, relying only on verified records and oral histories. Often these reconstructions were akin to archeological excavations, as I dug deeper and deeper to discover what had really happened.

This intensive research has led me to the realization that, in many cases, I may be unable to come up with the kind of final and “definitive” stories that publishers and the public crave – there are just too many records that may not be opened to scrutiny in my lifetime. From this awareness came my desire to file interim reports – “non-definitive” stories – which I could share with scholars, students and writers in the field, and with anyone interested in reading beyond the established “truth” and getting ever closer to the real facts behind it. So mine is, necessarily, an unfinished story thus far, and I invite readers to follow it on this website as it develops from my initial postings into a more full-scale operation.

  1. “Novyj kurs na skamje podsudimyh” (“The New Deal on Trial”) and “Poedinok” (“The Duel”), by Svetlana Chervonnaya. – In I. Geevskij, S. Chervonnaja. Pod kodovym nazvaniem i bez… (Under the Code Name and Without It…). Agency Press “Novosti”, Moscow, 1985.
  2. Alexandre Feklissov avec Serguei Kostine. Confession d’un agent soviétique, Paris: Éditions du Rocher, 1999; The Man Behind The Rosenbergs, by Alexander Feklissov with Sergei Kostin. Enigma Books, New York, 2001.
  3. The Rosenberg File: Case Closed. TV Special. Produced for Discovery Channel by Global American Television, 1997.