Letting Documents Talk: A “Non-Definitive” History.

On this website, Russian scholar Svetlana Chervonnaya re-examines the evidence on early Cold War spy cases, sharing her research into matters that have been the subject of heated controversy in the United States for more than half a century. Are these cases really closed, or can we learn something new from an unbiased look at the original documents in question? To find out more about the process and rationale behind this site, read Letting Documents Talk: A “Non-Definitive” History.

Opening Pandora’s Box

This website will eventually discuss many items in the “evidence box” pertaining to the history of Soviet espionage in America – as well as their use in post-Cold War American accounts of that history. The latest contribution to this box are the voluminous notes on KGB foreign intelligence records from the 1920s to the early 1950s taken during 1994-1995 by Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB officer turned journalist. In 1999, Vassiliev’s research became the basis for The Haunted Wood, a highly acclaimed history of Stalin-era Soviet espionage in America, which Vassiliev co-authored with Allen Weinstein. Recently, Vassiliev’s notes became the basis for a new rewrite of the same history, this time co-authored with historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. Entitled SPIES: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, the new book was published by Yale University Press in May 2009.

In 2002-2003, Vassiliev entered into evidence some of his notes and a few chapter drafts he had written for Weinstein, in the course of a libel suit he brought in London. The case centered around the question of whether Vassiliev had seen the name Alger Hiss discussed in the KGB files in an espionage context. Soon afterwards, copies of these same notes and chapters by Vassiliev became available for research. In May 2007, this resource was considerably expanded with the discovery of Vassiliev’s 240-page typed manuscript, entitled “The Sources in Washington,” among Allen Weinstein’s papers in the Hoover Institution Archives. Reading these records gave a keen sense of opening a Pandora’s box, which Vassiliev’s first American co-author, Weinstein, had chosen to keep tightly shut.

Read Opening a Pandora’s Box – an overview of what is to come on this page of the website – to get an idea of the process behind the writing of The Haunted Wood and what its American writer, Allen Weinstein, had hidden from public view.

For a preview of new items in the Pandora’s box discovered in SPIES, the 2009 re-write based upon Vassiliev’s corpus of documentation, see the biography of Ludwig Lore, a former American Communist turned mercenary Soviet spy, and the accompanying Lore dossier.

For more fascinating details, read the biography of David Salmon — a distinguished U.S. civil servant who was misidentified by historians Haynes and Klehr, Vassiliev’s second American co-authors, as a Soviet mercenary source at the U.S. Department of State.

And read the biography of Guenther Reinhardt for further insight into the story of Ludwig Lore and Whittaker Chambers.

Dossiers on Alexander Vassiliev’s Notes

In April 2009, Alexander Vassiliev’s notes finally came to public view for the first time. Simultaneously, a new rewrite of the history of Soviet espionage in America during the Stalin era, based on these notes, was published: SPIES. The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev (Yale University Press, 2009). Early comparisons of certain accounts by the SPIES authors with Vassiliev’s actual notes have revealed problems with this new rewrite. To identify these problems, I have begun compiling biographical and subject dossiers based on Vassiliev’s notes, which I have been posting on this website since May, 2009.

Here you have a unique chance to compare Vassiliev’s notes to a copy of an actual full-length document – Moscow April 1942 “Orientation” on “Political and diplomatical line of work” in the United States.

Read the dossiers that shed light on some of the landmark – and controversial – early Cold War espionage stories:

You may start with the dossier based on the appearances in Vassiliev’s notes of Harry Dexter White, an American Keynesian economist and U.S. Department of Treasury official. White was the architect of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreements, which established both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He died of a heart attack in August 1948, after he testified at HUAC hearings. Look up Harry Dexter White dossier to crosscheck the evidence in Vassiliev’s notes with White’s appearances in Venona decryptions and, probably, to make your own judgement whether White was or was not a knowing source for Soviet intelligence in the 1930s and during World War II.

Here you may  see what the documentation in Vassiliev’s notes, Venona decryptions and Russian records say about another controversial early Cold War story – that of Laurence Duggan, a U.S. State Department official prominent in the making of the U.S. South American policy in 1930s and early 1940s, who jumped or fell to his death in December 1948, faced with accusations of espionage.

A group of dossiers was posted to test the contentions by the SPIES co-authors that the first book based on Vassiliev’s notes – The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America – the Stalin Era (1999) that Vassiliev authored with American writer, Allen Weinstein, was based on “sanitized summaries of major topics and themes” which Vassiliev prepared for Weinstein in 1995 and 1996.

Look up the the dossier on Vassiliev’s notes on Jacob Golos file (an American Communist Party functionary and long-time agent of Soviet intelligence) to compare the appearance of Vassiliev notes on Jacob Golos case-file in Vassiliev’s so-called White Notebook No 1 – and in Vassiliev’s own translation of his draft chapter he wrote for Weinstein likely in late 1994-early 1995. Click here to get a clearer idea of the correlation between the evidence in Vassiliev’s notes and Venona decryptions – and the importance of the context.

To continue the comparison between Vassiliev’s notes and his draft chapters written at about the same time he was taking his notes, look up the dossier on the so-called “dinner party at the Fields” – the earliest dated episode in Vassiliev’s corpus of evidence in the landmark Hiss case –  to check its appearances in Vassiliev’s notes on Laurence Duggan  file and in Vassiliev’s 1996 Russian draft manuscript, The Sources in Washington. Here you may take a look at the same comparative chart as it appears in the original Russian.

This dossier may also become your starting point in exploring the controversial corpus of evidence known as the “dinner party at the Fields” – shorthand for a much-contested story about a meeting between Alger Hiss and a Comintern and Soviet intelligence agent Hede Gumperz (later known as Massing) that allegedly took place in the Washington, D.C. apartment of Noel and Herta Field sometime in the mid-1930s. Three dossiers compile and crosscheck what different sources have said about this story. Click here to see the story as it appeared from 1939 to 1949 in the accounts of  Hede Massing and Whittaker Chambers. Proceed here to examine what Noel Field, a former U.S. State Department official who found himself trapped in the East European purge trials of late 1940s-early 1950s, had to say between 1948 and 1954 about both Hede Massing and Alger Hiss – and what they said about him. And here you may look at how different interpreters in the last two decades have sifted the evidence and handled the story, including Alexander Vassiliev and his American co-authors.

To facilitate the use of Alexander Vassiliev’s notes as sources by interested authors and students, I have begun posting dossiers on some of the problems I have spotted in the notes themselves and in their interpretation by Vassiliev’s American co-authors:

Click here to get some understanding of potential pitfalls in relying on some of the titles of the documents that appear in Alexander Vassiliev’s notes.

Click here to see my work in progress on some cases of misidentification of cover names in Alexander Vassiliev’s notebooks by his second American co-authors, historians John earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr.

Soon coming: more dossiers to facilitate the use of  Alexander Vassiliev’s notes

A 2009 Chambers Primer

Much about the life of Whittaker Chambers remains confusing, puzzling and unclear. Important new information that is only now coming to light solves certain riddles, but also makes things that had been considered well-established seem less reliable. Read A 2009 Chambers Primer for a first-ever glimpse of some of the actual circumstances surrounding Chambers’s espionage career. Click to the biographical reference on Vladimir Gorev to learn the identity of Chambers’s first Soviet contact – a man whom he knew only as Herbert. Check the biographical reference on Robert Zelms – an American Communist Party functionary and agent of Soviet military intelligence — whose name was one of Chambers’s hitherto unknown aliases.

Click here to a first ever glimpse into the documentary record from Chambers’s Communist party past.

Click here to see some documentation shedding light on Chambers’s years in the underground.

More dossiers with documentation on Chambers’s underground past to follow.

The “Colonel Bykov” Story

The history of Stalin-era Soviet espionage in America still relies heavily on the stories told by two major defectors from the Soviet cause: Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley. Read The “Colonel Bykov” Story - the first in a series of stories from “the little chocolate house,” which was the headquarters of Soviet military intelligence from the 1920s to the early 1940s. Take a first look at what is to come on this website as we crosscheck American stories of Soviet espionage. And read about some of the characters whose stories have escaped the eyes of American scholars of Soviet espionage:

  • Boris Bukov, the real man behind the mythical “Colonel Bykov,” whom the Soviet defector Walter Krivitsky identified to Whittaker Chambers as his Soviet contact in the late 1930s – a man known to Chambers at that time only as “Peter”
  • Arthur Adams, who had been a resident of Soviet military intelligence in the United States from December 1935 to the spring of 1938, and who was recalled to Moscow in the aftermath of Chambers’s defection
  • Zalman Litvin, known to Americans until now only as “Ignacy Witczak” – and in 2007 misrepresented by American espionage historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr as a sleeper-agent
  • George Koval, whose cover was originally blown more than 30 years ago, but whose outing by Russian President Vladimir Putin in November 2007 was a total surprise to the above-mentioned authorities on Soviet espionage

The Baltimore Documents: A Legal Issue

One of the most important elements in the Alger Hiss Case was the so-called “Baltimore Documents,” which have been considered unassailable evidence of Hiss’s espionage for the Soviet Union. However, this evidence has never been investigated according to routine procedures for espionage cases. Read The Baltimore Documents: A Legal Issue to see for the first time an analysis that was missing from both of Hiss’s perjury trials – and judge for yourself whether these papers were really so damning and the case should really be considered closed. In this posting, you will also learn that:

  • When producing the famous envelope containing the Baltimore Documents in November 1948, Chambers had no idea of its contents, except for a few specimens of Hiss’s handwriting
  • It was Hiss’s habit, throughout his diplomatic career, to make handwritten notes of incoming cables on slips of paper
  • When testifying before the grand jury in late 1948 and 1949, Chambers had only a very vague idea about the Russian end of his alleged espionage enterprise – and he got that idea second-hand and after the fact

You can take a close look at some of the records of the Hiss grand jury, which were unsealed almost 10 years ago but are seldom, if ever, consulted in debates about the controversies surrounding the Hiss case.

The “Mary Martin” Note in Alger Hiss’s Handwriting

There has been a historical consensus that a tiny, early 1938 note in Alger Hiss’s handwriting – an almost verbatim copy of a January 28, 1938 State Department cable relating to a mysterious woman called “Mary Martin” – was one of “the most damning” pieces of physical evidence against Hiss. Read The “Mary Martin” Note in Alger Hiss’s Handwriting to see for yourself whether that note was indeed compelling evidence that Hiss betrayed his country by passing U.S. government secrets to Soviet military intelligence. In this story, you will also learn:

  • Who the mysterious “Mary Martin” was – as revealed by CP USA, FBI and Venona files
  • What the FBI failed to ascertain about the background of the “Mary Martin” note
  • How Allen Weinstein misinterpreted this note in Perjury, his 1978 Hiss case book, the scholarship for which has been pronounced unassailable
  • What the once famous Rubens-Robinson case was really about – as shown by American and Russian diplomatic files of the period
  • What the Soviets really knew about the Rubens-Robinson case, and why the information in the “Mary Martin” note was irrelevant for them
  • The real sources of Chambers’s knowledge about the State Department cables in the Rubens-Robinson case

The “Potez-63″ Note in Alger Hiss’s Handwriting

Another of Hiss’s handwritten notes that turned up among the Baltimore Documents was his summary of a small portion of a State Department cable dated March 2, 1938, which reported on a Chinese order for 30 French-made Potez-63 light bomber-pursuit planes. Read The “Potez-63″ Note in Alger Hiss’s Handwriting to see for yourself if there were any grounds for the Hiss prosecution’s assertion that the note was “immutable” evidence that Hiss had passed “military information” to the Soviet government. You will also read:

  • That the Soviets already had first-hand, advance knowledge about the military situation in China and its military supplies and orders, as well as about the state of French aviation in general and the Potez-63 plane in particular
  • That Hiss did not take notes on portions of the same cable which would have been of real interest to the Soviet military
  • That Hiss’s note could, in fact, have been made in connection with contemporary French requests to purchase American aircraft
  • A fascinating, recently declassified Soviet report from December 1936 on the Potez-63 plane, its creator, Henri Potez, and the French Minister for Air and Soviet friend, Pierre Cot
  • Equally fascinating early 1938 correspondence between the Soviet Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Maxim Litvinov, and Josef Stalin, which sheds light on the background of Hiss’s “Potez-63″ note