Timothy Naftali: Admits errors in his new co-authored book on the Soviet Union

Historians in the News

... Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali's "Khrushchev's Cold War" is the latest example of a literary collaboration that became possible only with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fursenko is a prominent Russian historian and a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He has been able to parlay his connections into privileged access to various archives in Moscow, including those of the Soviet military intelligence services. In the mid-1990s he teamed up with Naftali, an American scholar, to research "One Hell of a Gamble," a well-received book about the Cuban missile crisis. Other books in the same genre include "The Haunted Wood" by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, on Soviet espionage against the United States, and "Battleground Berlin," about the KGB and the CIA's Cold War tussles there, by David E. Murphy, Sergei A. Kondrashev and George Bailey. For the most part, these books have been good for the reputations of the American coauthors; Weinstein, for instance, is now the director of the National Archives, and Naftali, who used to run the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia, was recently appointed director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library.

But there are pitfalls as well as opportunities in gaining access to closed archives, and they are clearly on display in "Khrushchev's Cold War." On the one hand, as with "One Hell of a Gamble," the authors have unearthed many interesting details about the Soviet side of the Cold War. On the other, both books are marred by sloppy research, including mistranslations of Russian documents. The errors are so numerous that it becomes difficult to have much confidence in the authors' uncheckable citations from Soviet archival documents that remain closed to other scholars....

... he authors have also misquoted from Presidium records in a way that affects our understanding of what took place. For example, they recount a debate involving Khrushchev and his closest ally on the Presidium, Anastas Mikoyan, over whether to authorize Soviet commanders on Cuba to use nuclear weapons in the event of a U.S. invasion. By Fursenko and Naftali's account, Khrushchev is initially prepared to use the weapons, but Mikoyan restrains him. "Doesn't using these missiles mean the start of a thermonuclear war?" they quote Mikoyan as saying, based on unpublished notes by Mikoyan himself. Without independent access to these notes, it would normally be impossible to check the accuracy of this quote. In this case, however, a transcript of the Mikoyan notes recently was published by Mikoyan's son, Sergo. Among other differences, it is Khrushchev, not Mikoyan, who expresses concern about the possible "start of a thermonuclear war."

Because such errors raise questions about the authors' research methods, I got permission from Marie Arana, the editor of Book World, to ask for their response. (Normally, The Post asks reviewers not to have any contact with authors.) They admitted some mistakes and contested others. Naftali said he was responsible for any errors involving the interception of Soviet submarines by the U.S. Navy. Fursenko (who handled the Russian end of the research) was more defensive. He said that some of the Presidium records were still classified and added that he had not shared his notes even with his co-author. Naftali told me he wished he had seen the Mikoyan notes before writing the book. On the specific question of the "thermonuclear war" quote, Fursenko wrote me that it was up to other researchers "to find out what is true and what is not." He defended the general thrust of "Khrushchev's Cold War" as fully consistent with the unpublished Mikoyan notes. I disagree. The details are all-important. One version is accurate, while the other never happened.

Read entire article at Michael Dobbs in the WaPo

comments powered by Disqus