Alexander Vassiliev’s Notebooks: What’s In a Name?

For a professional historian, one of the problems in using Vassiliev’s notes as a historical source is the absence of any description of the documents behind his notes – often including the absence of any specific titles of the documents. This problem may not be apparent at first sight, since in the notebooks many documents have some titles. However, on scrutiny, these titles often turn to be not the original titles, but Vassiliev’s own descriptions.     

This problem surfaced during Vassiliev’s civil litigation in London in 2002-2003 after he had filed a libel suit against Frank Cass & Co. Ltd. – the publisher of an article by John Lowenthal, a lawyer, writer and Alger Hiss long time defender. 1 During the pre-trial proceedings, Vassiliev himself acknowledged the problem with the titles of the documents at least twice – when questioned about the copies of some of his hand-written notes that he submitted in proof of his claim that in the course of his research in the intelligence files from the 1930s and 1940s, he had seen “documents mentioning Alger Hiss by his real name in his capacity as a Soviet agent.” 2

For instance, on February 1, 2002, when questioned about the documents from the files of “Nigel” (Michael Straight) and “Prince” (Laurence Duggan) that appeared in The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America – the Stalin Era (1999) that Vassiliev co-authored with an American writer, Allen Weinstein, Vassiliev said, “My notes do not mention specific titles of the documents.” As an explanation, he added that “in the 1930’s, operational cables and letters usually had no titles.” 3 

Without access to the original files, it is difficult to check if this was, indeed, so. Among a few Xerox copies of the declassified NKVD intelligence documents from the 1930s in my possession, there is a single page from a file the notes on which appear in Vassiliev’s Black Notebook. 4  On top of page 27 of the Black Notebook (translation) we see Vassiliev’s excerpted notes under what appears to be the document’s title:    

 p 29 Questions that require special attention (draft of “Omega’s” combined assignment for 1937):  

          1. Aviation: high-speed airplanes with powerful weapons and controlling devices for them; 

           2. Naval fleet: high-speed battleships and cruisers, armor, weapons, controlling and steering devices, submarine batteries;  

           3. Tanks: engines, armor, weapons, devices.  

           4. Chemistry: new war poison gasses.  

           5. Stopping airplane engines mid-flight; remote control; night vision.

However, according to my Xerox copy of the original file page, Vassiliev’s notes turn to be made on the second part of the third (under No 98) of the three points (Nos 96, 97 and 98) that appear on this page. The page itself looks like a part of some early 1937 or late 1936 letter from the Moscow Center to its U.S. outpost. The copy clearly displays the title of the 98th point – with the text to follow:  

     98. On the draft of the “Omega” integral assignment for 1937.  

     Sending to you as a separate attachment on the film the draft of the integral assignment “Omega” for 1937 that has been developed by the center’s operatives.  

     This draft has not yet been approved and we are sending it only for your orientation.  

      Some of the points of the integral assignment you will, probably, consider as already realized. We ask you to approach this issue in all objectivity and with full responsibility and to send us your considerations concerning the project as a whole.  

      In a nutshell, the questions that will, from now on, basically require all your attention may be formulated as follows:  

      1. Aviation: high-speed airplanes with large-yield weaponry as well as control instruments for them;  

      2. The fleet: fast-sailing battleships and cruisers, armor plating, weaponry, control and navigation instruments, submarine batteries;  

      3. Tanks: engines, armor, weaponry, [control] instruments.  

      4. Chemistry: new chemical warfare agents.  

      5. Air engine stoppage; teleautomatics; night vision.  

      It is possible and necessary to develop other aspects of military equipment, but only so that it does not hurt the procurement of materials on the main group. 5 

The comparison between the two texts makes it clear that Vassiliev’s title “Questions that require special attention” was his own description of his sketchy extraction from the document.  Two other points – 96 and 97 – appear on the same page of my Xerox copy under their specific titles:  

     96. About Sandus. Re the letter No 9 from 2.XII.36 paragraph 31.  

     97. On obtaining materials on the stratosphere plane through Ganzaker. 6 

CLICK HERE to have an idea of an original document from the 1930s  

In many cases, the absence of a title simply makes any correct attribution of a particular document difficult or even impossible (as in the case cited above.) However, in some cases this deficiency may result in misreading of the document itself. This problem became apparent in the course of Vassiliev’s London libel case.  

Late in the pre-trial proceedings, Vassiliev produced a copy of his notes of a list with 14 names – including those of Alger Hiss and his brother Donald Hiss, which a Soviet agent code-named “Raid” drafted in mid-March 1945, at the request of the NKGB resident in Washington, D.C., Anatoly Gorsky. “Raid” was identified by Venona translators as the cover name for Victor Perlo, a Marxist economist and New Deal official. Here is how these notes look in the so-called “court bundle.” 7  

Click here to see the scans of the notes that Alexander Vassilev produced in court   

Vassiliev’s  typed notes that he produced in London appeared under the following title:  

A List of people who according to”Raid” have been cooperating with the Soviet intelligence service, apart from those he is working regularly at present. Dated 15 March 1945. 

Answering in an open court a question about the title of his notes on the “Raid”’s list, Vassiliev said:  

What you have on page 309 above the table – it is my explanation of the meaning of the table. It is very close to text I have in my notebook, but I just put here the Soviet intelligence service; but this is not the direct translation of what I have in the notebook. 8 

Vassiliev’s explanation to the court was puzzling, since, answering an additional question, he said that the “table” was “a copy” from his notebook, but he did not “remember how it looked like exactly – probably a photocopy of a document written by Victor Perlo.”

 With Vassiliev’s notebooks finally posted in 2009 at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s website, one would expect to find a solution to this puzzle. However, the Russian title of the list that appeared in Vassiliev’s White Notebook #3, turned to be a carbon copy of the Russian title in the London court bundle:

 s.91 Spisok lits kotorye po svedeniyam “Rejda” sotrudnichajut s razvedkoi, krome tekh, s kem on v nastoyaschee vremya regulyarno rabotaet. Ot 15.03.45. 9      

Its English re-translation, made in 2007, had a slight difference from the translation in the London court bundle – the change of the verb “cooperate” to “work”, although the verbatim translation of the Russian verb “sotrudnichajut” is “collaborate” and “cooperate”, but not “work”, which in Russian would be “rabotajut”:

List of people who, according to “Raid’s” information, work with intelligence, except for those with whom he currently works on a regular basis. From 15.03.45 10

 The plot gets thicker when we find apparently the same document referred to in quite different words in Vassiliev’s notes on a the cable sent to Moscow by “Vadim,” the NKGB station chief in Washington, D.C. Anatoly Gorsky, to which the Perlo’s list was likely attached: 

“Raid’ gave us a list that includes 14 people with ties to groups led by some people named Blumberg and Schimmel (from Congress) and ‘Bill’ (‘Albert’). 11

Vassiliev’s notes give no clues to explain the obvious disconnect between this description of the Perlo’s list and its title on the next page in the same White Notebook #3. Vassiliev himself shed some light on this discrepancy in one of his draft chapters that he wrote for his first Russian co-author, Allen Weinstein, in mid-1990s. In his Russian manuscript, entitled “Istochniki v Vashingtone” (“The Sources in Washington”) that Vassiliev provided to Weinstein in 1996, he added two footnotes – apparently to explain to his co-author the nature of  the groups led by the obscure Blumberg and Schimmel:  

(71) “Bill” and “Albert” – pseudonyms of Akhmerov. On the work of this group see further, as well as the chapter “Itskhak Akhmerov and the “Pal”’s group.”  

(75) Herbert Schimmel – an employee of Senatore Kilgore apparatus. Everywhere (in particular, in the materials on the “Mole”) he is mentioned under his own name; there is no information about [his] cooperation with intelligence. 12 

(74) Blumberg used to head the party group in Washington and gathered information for CP USA leadership. [See further section on the “Mole” [“Krot”];  

When quoting “Vadim”’s cable in The Haunted Wood, Allen Weinstein used only the first half of the Perlo list’s description provided by “Vadim”: 

… [Victor Perlo] gave us a list including fourteen men definitely connected with the groups. …” 13 

Weinstein’s archival citation (to Arch No 45100, v. 1, pp. 100-102) leaves no doubt that he cited from Vassiliev’s Sources in Washington manuscript. Given Weinstein’s omission, the readers of The Haunted Wood were left to guess what kind of groups these 14 men were linked to. 14  

If Weinstein had omitted and blurred the description in Vassiliev’s draft manuscript, ten years later, Vassiliev’s second co-authors, historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, ignored it altogether – preferring the description that Vassiliev provided in London in 2003:  

 “List of people who, according to “Raid’s” [Perlo’s] information, work with intelligence, except for those with whom he currently works on a regular basis. From 15.03.45.” 15 

CLICK HERE to read more about the “Perlo List.”

  1. John Lowenthal, “Venona and Alger Hiss,” The Intelligence and National Security, vol. 15, 2000, pp. 98-130; Alexander Vassiliev v Frank Cass & Co Ltd, High Court of Justice Queen’s Bench Division Claim No. HQ1X03222.
  2. Alexander Vassiliev Papers, The Library of Congress, the Manuscript Division, box 6, “Vassiliev v. Frank Cass & Co. Ltd.”
  3. Alexander Vassiliev v. Frank Cass & Co Ltd., Information from the Claimant requested by the Defendant, February 1, 2002. – Ibid., folder “Court records, 2003, May.”
  4. Xerox copy made in 1994 of Arch. No 3464, vol. 1, p. 29, Courtesy of Theodore Gladkov, 2006.
  5. Xerox copy of Arch. No 3464, vol. 1, p. 29, translation by Svetlana Chervonnaya, 2010; the differences in translation due to my use of the standard military and naval terms.
  6. Phonetic spelling from Russian. A Xerox copy of page 29 from a Russian foreign intelligence archival No 3464, vol. 1
  7. Alexander Vassiliev v. Frank Cass & Co Ltd., Court Bundle 3, p. 309A, Courtesy of David Lowenthal, May 2005. The title appears in Russian, but the chart is in English.
  8. Alexander Vassiliev v. Frank Cass & Co Ltd., Trial Record, tape 10, Courtesy of Amy Knight, July 2009.
  9. Alexander Vassiliev, White Notebook #3 (Transcribed), p. 78.
  10. Alexander Vassiliev White Notebook #3 (Translation), p. 78, ref. to Arch. 45100, v. 1, p. 91. (In White Notebook #3, p. 77, the notes on the Perlo’s list are preceded by notes on page 102 and succeeded by notes on page 104 of the same file.
  11. Cipher cable from “Vadim” dated 20 and 21, March 1945, Ibid., p. 76; cited to Arch. No 45100, v. 1, p. 100.
  12. Alexander Vassiliev, “Istochniki v Vashingtone” (“The Sources in Washington”), p. 96; Russian manuscript discovered by Jeff Kisseloff in May 2007 in Allen Weinstein Papers at the Hoover Institution Archives. (Translation by Svetlana Chervonnaya, 2007.)
  13. The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America – the Stalin Era, by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, New York: Random House, 1999, p. 229.
  14. The reasons behind Allen Weinstein’s omitting the “Perlo List” itself (after blurring its meaning) are obscure, given that Alger and Donald Hiss are among the 14 people named.
  15. Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev, Yale University Press, 2009, p. 14.