Inside Enemy Archives: The Cold War Reopened

Courtesy Reuters

Only three or four years ago, historians of the Cold War worked without knowing what was in Soviet archives. They relied heavily on Western records, inferring the motivations and goals of Soviet foreign policy. But the Russians and their former Warsaw Pact allies have begun to open their records for research. The Chinese, too, have opened selected materials, especially ones that illuminate the duplicity and depravity of the men in the Kremlin. Regime changes and liberalization in many countries have made former officials more reflective and more willing to write about their years in power.

Pondering the archival documents, memoirs, and new assessments, one asks how they might affect debate about the origins and evolution of the Cold War. They reveal a Soviet system as revolting as its worst critics charged long ago. Some scholars go further, asserting that the archives confirm not only the genocidal actions and fundamental brutality of the regime but also its ideological underpinnings and hegemonic aspirations. The highly publicized 1994 television documentary Messengers from Moscow resuscitated the old claim that Stalin planned to conquer the globe for Marxism-Leninism, declaring that interviews and documents prove the Soviet leader sent hundreds of agents abroad after 1945 to foment revolution. The historian Steven Merritt Miner cautions readers to be wary of the memoirs and sensitive to the selectivity of the newly released documents, but announces, -Ideology is once again central [to the study of the Soviets’ conduct of the Cold War], after having been played down by scholars for two decades. John Lewis Gaddis, the leading U.S. expert on the Cold War, maintains that America’s containment policy was indispensable in thwarting the march of the Soviet behemoth, and America itself a beacon of hope to a world menaced by Stalinist totalitarianism. Other scholars share Gaddis’ view that the new evidence affirms the most traditional interpretations of Cold War events.

A close reading of the books and articles based on the archival materials suggests more nuanced conclusions. The Cold War

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