Obituary: General Dmitri Volkogonov
Thursday 07 December 1995
Perestroika and its intellectual twin, glasnost, represented a relatively short-lived moment when the idea of deep reform of the system seemed inextricably bound up with an urgent need to dispel the lies and myths of Soviet everyday life and history, a recognition of the belief that it was impossible to move forward before shedding the burdens of the past. Paradoxically, it was a three-star general, a former head of the army's Political Administration and latterly Director of the Institute of Military History, who mounted the first full-scale, fully documented Soviet historiographical assault on the Stalinist system.
Dmitri Volkogonov started to write his book Stalin: triumph and tragedy in 1978, and it was almost complete by 1985 when Gorbachev came to power. By the time it was published in the Soviet Union in 1990, virtually every principle and axiom of the previous 70 years had been challenged and rejected. Volkogonov followed his Stalin with an even more iconoclastic study of Trotsky (to be published in English as Trotsky: the eternal revolutionary in spring 1996), and in 1994 published Lenin: life and legacy, his root- and-branch intellectual demolition of Lenin and the system he created. As Chairman of the Russian Archives Declassifying Commission from the time of the abortive coup attempt in August 1991, he was in a unique position to shed light on the dark corners of the Soviet past.
Born in 1928 in Chita, Eastern Siberia, Dmitri Antonovich Volkogonov was the son of a collective farm-manager father and a schoolteacher mother. In 1937 his father was arrested and shot for possessing a pamphlet by Bukharin, as the son later learned from his own archival research. The family were then exiled to Krasnoyarsk in Western Siberia: Volkogonov quipped that, as they were already in the Far East and Stalin was not in the habit of sending his political prisoners to Hawaii, they had to be sent west.
In 1945, he joined the army and revealed an aptitude for the theoretical side of military affairs. Despite his politically dubious background (and the constant surveillance he was under at military school), he quickly rose in rank, entering the Lenin Military Academy in Moscow in 1961, where he attained a PhD and a professorship. Transferred in 1970 to the propaganda department of the army, he wrote numerous books on defence issues, ranging from Cold War propaganda tracts to manuals on psychological warfare. He gained a well-deserved reputation as a hard-liner.
Having taken a big knock in 1956, when Khrushchev made his famous "secret speech" to the Party's Twentieth Congress, Stalin's image was left virtually untouched throughout the Brezhnev era, when Volkogonov was making his career. Throughout this time, however, he was gathering material for a book on Stalin. In this he intended to show how the dictator and his minions actually operated, concentrating on the central role of terror as an instrument of political control. By the time he was writing the latter part of the book, in the early 1980s, however, he had arrived at the view that Soviet history had been a lethal combination of Lenin's authoritarian Communism, Stalin's ruthless drive for personal omnipotence and his criminal manipulation of internal party rivalries and inertia, the passive character of the Russians and their love of a strong leader, their ignorance of both democracy and personal autonomy.
Volkonogov admitted publicly that he no longer believed in the dogmas and myths he had once accepted, not that he would claim ever to have been a dissident of the open kind he came to admire, such as Sakharov or Solzhenitsyn. He recognised that, like so many of the old Soviet nomenklatura, he had lived two mental lives, pursuing a successful career in the army, while assembling material to reinterpret Soviet history as assiduously as any underground writer of samizdat. Such a high degree of disaffection could not continue for long without consequences. In 1985 he was warned that his historical research was incompatible with his work in the army's Main Political Administration, and that he must choose one or the other. He opted to become Director of the Institute of Military History, where he completed his book on Stalin.
Alone among the senior military, Volkogonov, as People's Deputy for the Orenburg region in the Russian parliament, openly espoused the political philosophy of liberal democracy, market economics, and a new, freely negotiated charter of union for the republics, or their independence, if that was what they wanted. And he called for official condemnation of Stalin's crimes. In July 1990, addressing the Twenty-eighth Party Congress, he warned that, if the Party did not reconcile itself to the twin principles of the rule of law and the primacy of democracy, it would suffer the same fate as that of the Communist Parties of Eastern Europe in 1989.
In June 1991, the draft of a new history of the Second World War, prepared under Volkogonov's editorship at the Institute, was reviewed by all the senior staff, including the then Defence Minister, Marshal Yazov. The Soviet failure in 1941 was ascribed in the book to the central weakness of the system itself, namely the paralysis of individual will and initiative caused by the weight of a bureaucracy immobilised by terror. He was practically jumped on by the entire "generalitet" and forced to resign his job.
He was in Oxford undergoing surgery for cancer when the attempted coup took place in Moscow in August 1991. From his hospital bed, for a general who was still on the active list he took an enormous risk in broadcasting through the BBC an appeal to the Soviet army not to obey the illegal orders of the conspirators. He returned to Moscow in early September and was appointed special defence adviser to President Yeltsin.
Volkogonov earned a reputation as one of the most approachable senior figures in the new establishment. He rarely refused an interview, received countless petitioners, whether from the provinces or the army, and was widely perceived as humane and considerate. From summer 1991 to late 1993, he was also head of the commission for the declassification of state and party papers. During his tenure, 78 million files were released into the public domain.
Another of his jobs at this time was as chairman of a commission set up to discover what had happened to the crews of some 40 Nato aircraft, about 100 American airmen, shot down by Soviet air defences - mostly but not all over Soviet territory - in the course of the Cold War. The US military had been trying in vain for three years to get an answer. The new government's goodwill was being undermined by the KGB and Russian military intelligence who, like most of the top brass, saw Volkogonov as one of the gang that had sold the Soviet army down the river, humiliated and disgraced it by their eager surrender of Eastern Europe to the capitalists, and now, they claimed, he was giving away secrets to the Americans. It enhanced Volkogonov's reputation with the US government, but made him a hated man among his former friends and colleagues.
Castigated by the historical profession for allegedly monopolising the archives for his own advantage, he was to come under attack by the democrats when Yeltsin brought his confrontation with parliament to a violent and bloody close.
In December 1993, as the deputy chairman of the commission charged with putting down the insurrection, Volkogonov was unapologetic about the government's use of force. He claimed to have spoken many times by telephone to the insurgents, guaranteeing their safety if they would lay down their arms. "The choice was simple," he argued. "We either had to suppress the rebellion or have the start of a new civil war." While lamenting the use of force, he believed that a victory for the anti-reformers would have led Russia back to the Gulag. It was an acute moral dilemma for a historian who had recently denounced the Soviet system precisely because it had been founded on the use of physical violence.
An even more difficult phase opened with the decision by the Yeltsin administration to invade Chechnya in the Caucasus in an effort to end its self- proclaimed independence and restore Russian rule. As a member of the President's Analytical Council, Volkogonov issued public warnings against the use of force to settle ethnic conflict, although he also accepted Yeltsin's argument that the regime in Chechnya was criminal and must be removed. He was sometimes accused of political trimming, of publishing books to suit the current leadership and changing course to remain favoured. It was a false accusation. He was quickly out of favour with the Gorbachev regime and its military leadership, and he was a far from obedient servant of the Yeltsin administration. In the bloodbath that followed the decision to invade, Volkogonov, in Russian and Western media, criticised the Russian leader for having taken the advice of wrong-headed counsellors.
Throughout the time of this post-Soviet career, Volkogonov fought against cancer. It had been successfully treated by surgery on Oxford in 1991, but recurred in early 1993. Siberian by birth, temperament and physical endurance, he subjected himself to a wide range of the latest methods of chemotherapy, while continuing to work as a presidential adviser, as chairman of several commissions, as a member of the Russian parliament, and writer of big, historical studies.
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