What a sad and terrifying story of another political changer: Dmitri Volkogonov. Ultimately it’s also a story of great courage and integrity, although that courage and integrity came late in the game:
Volkogonov entered the military at the age of seventeen in 1945, which was common for many orphans. He studied at the Lenin Military Academy in Moscow in 1961; transferring to the Soviet Army’s propaganda department in 1970. There he wrote propaganda pamphlets and manuals on psychological warfare and gained a reputation as a hardliner…
But even as he was indoctrinating troops in Communist orthodoxy, General Volkogonov was struggling with private doubts based on the horrors he discovered hidden in the archives”. Volkogonov also had the opportunity to view the conditions of various client states during the Cold War. While these countries received military aid, Volkogonov later recalled, “…they all became poorer; their economies were collapsing everywhere. And I came to the conclusion that the Marxist model was a real historic blind alley, and that we, too, were caught in a historic trap.”
For a while Volkogonov did nothing—rather, he continued on his path as a dedicated Communist, while entertaining profound private doubts that grew and grew and finally erupted in a book:
Only with the most impeccable communist credentials did Volkogonov access the most secret Soviet archives. While reading in the archives during the Brezhnev years, Volkogonov “found documents that astounded him — papers that revealed top Communists as cruel, dishonest and inept”. Thus, while Volkogonov was actively writing and editing Soviet propaganda materials for troops, “Volkogonov was engaged in a lengthy, tortured but very private process of re-evaluating Soviet history.”
Volkogonov began writing the biography of Stalin in 1978. He completed it by 1983, but it was banned by the Central Committee. It was published under Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The publication of the book on Stalin within Russia made Volkogonov “a pariah among his fellow senior officers”…
“Volkogonov admitted publicly that, like many senior Soviet officials, he had lived two mental lives, rising higher and higher in his career while burrowing deeper in the archives, as if symbolically undermining the system that had nurtured him.”
Later, Volkogonov wrote biographies of Lenin and Trotsky that exposed their own cooperation in terror and repression, and in devising policies that facilitated even greater terror and repression under Stalin. It was all a seamless whole:
Volkogonov always used to say “that in his own mind, Lenin was the last bastion to fall.” He said that the turning point was when he discovered one of Lenin’s orders calling for the public hanging of Kulak peasants in 1918:
“Hang (hang without fail, so the people see) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers…Do it in such a way that for hundreds of versts around, the people will see, tremble, know, shout: they are strangling and will strangle to death the bloodsucking kulaks.”
Perhaps the most poignant statement Volkogonov ever made—and probably the one that prompted me to write this post—was this [emphasis mine]:
…[I]t was only late in my life, after long and tortuous inner struggle, that I was able to free myself of the chimera of Bolshevik Ideology. I felt enormous relief, and at the same time a sense of deep regret that I had wasted so many years in Utopian captivity. Perhaps the only thing I achieved in this life was to break with the faith I had held for so long…Disillusionment first came to me as an idea, rather like the melancholy of a spiritual hangover. Then, it came as intellectual confusion. Finally, as the determination to confront the truth and understand it.
Late in life Volkogonov drew strength from the fact that he had been baptized as a Christian. He later said:
…that when he would enter the Russian Parliament (where he had held a seat as a liberal since the Gorbachev era), he would be met by Communist legislators who would “line up at the door and shout insults.” Of this Volkogonov commented at the time, “I take these shouts as sounds of historical praise.”
Volkogonov died of cancer in 1995. Despite his illness, in his final years he had picked up the pace of his writing.
You might say of Volkogonov that he lost the requisite Soviet ability to say that 2+2=5. He finally had to shout out that 2+2=4!
[NOTE: One of the most interesting things about this story is how it indicates that many Soviet higher-ups understood their own hypocrisy and cooperation in a system they knew to be corrupt and even evil. Volkogonov was unusual in that he finally was determined to expose it, even at some personal cost. The time was right, or he would never have gotten as far as he did with it; Stalin would have murdered him and all his family in a heartbeat.
Another thing that strikes me is that the incriminating letters and material about Lenin and Trotsky were kept in the archives and never destroyed. Was it because the Soviets knew that only the most hard-line Communists would be looking at them, and that they’d be able to handle the revelations without experiencing remorse? Or were the archive-keepers just lazy and unaware of what was in the papers? Or was it because they didn’t even realize such material would compromise Lenin’s saintly image, because (for example) the only good kulak is a dead kulak?]