Pandora’s Box: 2003-09

Opening Pandora’s Box: 2003-2009

One of the most important contributions to the American post-Cold War “evidence box” pertaining to the history of Soviet espionage in America resulted from an early 1990s book-publishing project known at the time as the “Crown Publishing Group deal.” This agreement gave Crown exclusive access to KGB intelligence records, in line with its goal of publishing an authentic story about some of the agency’s operations from the 1930s to the early Cold War years. On the U.S. side, the parties in the project were American author Allen Weinstein and a former KGB foreign intelligence officer and journalist named Alexander Vassiliev. Vassiliev’s research in the Russian archives during 1994 and 1995 became the basis for The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America – The Stalin Era (1999), co-authored by Weinstein and Vassiliev — and also for much subsequent writing on the same subject.

In the early 2000s, it became clear that the process behind the writing of The Haunted Wood had been cumbersome. Vassiliev was not allowed to make photocopies of most of the archival records he saw – and instead made handwritten notes or almost verbatim transcripts in his notebooks. At the same time, he was also drafting chapters of the book, in Russian, based on his reading of the files, and adding extensive quotes from the documents or their almost verbatim transcripts. In early 1996, Vassiliev copied his draft chapters and at least some of his notes onto floppy disks and, as he would later recount, “smuggled them through Russian customs” when he left Moscow for good in early May of that year.

In early 2002, some of Vassiliev’s handwritten notes surfaced in London during pre-trial proceedings in a libel suit he had filed in July 2001. To support his lawsuit, Vassiliev introduced more notes much later in these proceedings, as well as English translations of a few of his draft chapters. I happened to see six of Vassiliev’s draft chapters in the spring of 2003. Reading them gave me a keen sense that I was opening a Pandora’s box, which, it quickly became apparent, Vassiliev’s American co-author, Allen Weinstein, had chosen to keep tightly shut. Since 2003, this Pandora’s box has kept gradually filling with new items, which have surfaced mostly on the U.S. but also on the Russian side. This process has turned out to be continuous – particularly in view of the publication by Yale University Press in the spring of 2009 of a new book on the history of early KGB espionage in America, based on a complete set of Vassiliev’s archival notes (SPIES: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev).



Watch for alerts on this website to read more stories based on Vassiliev’s notes and draft chapters.