Here’s a tragic quote about political change, from Dmitri Volkogonov, a man who wrote biographies of Stalin, Lenin, and Trotsky:
“Perhaps the only thing I achieved in this life,” he wrote (when his life was ending), “was to break with the faith I had held for so long.”
That faith was in communism.
Volkogonov died at the age of 67. What happened to change his mind after a lifetime of toiling for the glory of the USSR? It happened in stages:
Long known in Western military circles as one of the hardest of hardliners, Volkogonov began, by the middle of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule, to have serious doubts about the Soviet regime. At first, these concerned only Joseph Stalin, whose purges led to the deaths of both of Volkogonov’s parents. He spent nearly twenty years compiling a revisionist (by Soviet standards) biography. He forthrightly described Stalin’s alleged crimes but remained an admirer of Vladimir Lenin and (following the Nikita Khrushchev line) believed that Stalinism was a perversion of true Leninism. (His views on Lenin changed after he went back into the archives to do his biography of Lenin. It was then that he read that Lenin too had murdered thousands of his opponents.)
Volkogonov’s wife also begged him not to publish the book and he did hold it back for a time, fearful of the consequences. Once the book was published, these consequences were not slow in coming. He was fired in 1991 from his job as director of the Institute of Military History at the Ministry of Defense of the USSR by Mikhail Gorbachev.
Once the Soviet Union’s collapse was complete, Volkogonov combined his historical work with political activity in the newly established Russian state. Following the failed Soviet coup attempt of 1991, Volkogonov was appointed Defense Advisor to Russian leader Boris Yeltsin. By then, he was already afflicted with the cancer that would kill him in 1995. Before he died, he contributed much to the so-called “liberal” strain of Russian thought that was condemned during the Soviet period.
Why was Volkogonov able to change when so many could not? I’m not sure, and really don’t know enough to say, but apparently the turning point involved his going back into the archives to read in great depth the letters and other private papers of Lenin and Trotsky, and finding so many smoking guns (of the rhetorical type) that he could no longer deny the nature and goals of both men.
It must have been an astounding and especially dramatic change experience. But not everyone would have reacted the way Volkogonov did. Some would have shored up and defended their previous views and life work, making excuses and rationalizing away what they had found, in order to preserve their view of the world and their own place in it.
This obituary (Volkogonov died in 1995) from the LA Times offers a bit more information. His death occurred just weeks after he finished his magnum opus Seven Leaders, which ties a great many threads together, examining “every Soviet ruler from Lenin to Mikhail S. Gorbachev–from details of their quirky obsessions to analyses of their momentous decisions.”
The English title of the book seems to actually be Autopsy for an Empire: The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime. The following is from the Publisher’s Weekly review of the book:
Volkogonov cogently argues for a seamless connection between Lenin’s absolutism and Stalin’s merciless dictatorship. Drawing on new material, including declassified documents from state and Party archives, he reveals Lenin’s paranoia toward foreigners as well as Stalin’s pivotal role in egging on his puppet in North Korea, Kim Il-sung, to start a war with the South in 1950. Khrushchev, though he repudiated the Stalinist cult of personality, was out of touch with the masses, in Volkogonov’s estimate, while indecisive, mediocre, suave Brezhnev mistook economic and social stagnation for stability. Both Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko were “political pygmies” who strived to preserve a sclerotic system. Bristling with startling revelations, this scathing panorama of seven decades of Soviet rule brims with much treachery, intrigue, reversals of fortune and personal idiosyncrasies.
As I said, I know very little about Volkogonov. In fact, I’d never heard of him until I encountered his name in Amis’ book. But I have little doubt that a goodly part of what gave Volkogonov the motivation to write this final book—and even, perhaps, the strength to live long enough to finish it—was his remorse at his own nearly-lifelong complicity in the myth of Communism, and his outrage at those who made it possible.