Obituary: General Dmitri Volkogonov

Dmitri Antonovich Volkogonov, soldier and military historian: born Chita, Eastern Siberia 22 March 1928; married (two daughters); died Moscow 6 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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

European HR Director, London

£80000 - £95000 per annum: Charter Selection: A leading Global organisation Ja...

European Senior HR Manager, London

£80000 - £90000 per annum: Charter Selection: A leading Global organisation is...

Day In a Page

Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
Supersize art

Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
James Dean: Back on the big screen

James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
10 best activity books for children

10 best activity books for children

Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

Politicians urged to find radical solution
Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

Ukraine crisis

How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

A history of the First World War in 100 moments
Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?