Mark Kramer Vs. Victor Navasky: Hiss & History

Roundup: Talking About History

Mark Kramer 4/17/07

Mark Kramer is Director of Cold War Studies at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

In his commentary on the Alger Hiss case, “Hiss in History” (Apr. 16), Victor Navasky refers to General Dmitrii Volkogonov, a long-time Soviet military-political officer and military historian, who became a senior military adviser to Russian president Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s. Specifically, Navasky writes that:

in 1992, the Russian historian general Dmitry A. Volkogonov, after ordering a search of a full range of official Russian government repositories with information about Soviet intelligence operations, including KGB files and military intelligence - or GRU files - told Hiss attorney John Lowenthal and the world, in a videotaped interview that Hiss had not been a spy. . . . Volkogonov subsequently conceded under questioning by Herb Romerstein, formerly a staff consultant to the House Committee on Unamerican Activities, that he could not say with absolute certainty that some files had not been destroyed or that his search had been 100% exhaustive.

The phrasing Navasky uses here implies that Volkogonov’s retraction was merely a technicality (i.e., that Volkogonov was unable to “say with absolute certainty that some files had not been destroyed or that his search had been 100% exhaustive”) and that the only time the general made such a retraction was during questioning by Herbert Romerstein, whose credibility Navasky obviously doubts.

Fortunately, we have good records of precisely what General Volkogonov said when making his retraction. I have no idea what Volkogonov said to Herbert Romerstein, but I do know what the general said to Serge Schmemann, who was then bureau chief in Moscow for The New York Times, and what Volkogonov said to me. Presumably, Navasky, too, knows what Volkogonov said to Schmemann because it appeared in a news article in The New York Times on 17 December 1992. In that article, titled “Russian General Retreats on Hiss,” Schmemann cites Volkogonov at length. If we look at what the general actually said, it does not bear out what Navasky implies.

In the interview with Schmemann, Volkogonov stressed that his initial statement about Hiss in October 1992 had been badly misconstrued: “I was not properly understood. The Ministry of Defense also has an intelligence service, which is totally different, and many documents have been destroyed. I looked only through what the K.G.B. had. All I said was that I saw no evidence.”

Volkogonov went on to explain that his motive in making the statement on behalf of Hiss was “primarily humanitarian,” to help out an elderly man, and that he issued the specific statement only under pressure from Hiss’s lawyer, John Lowenthal, who came to Moscow to receive it in person. Volkogonov emphasized that he was disconcerted by Lowenthal’s insistence on getting a blanket exoneration of Hiss: “Hiss wrote that he was 88 and would like to die peacefully, that he wanted to prove that he was never a paid, contracted spy. What I saw gives no basis to claim a full clarification. There’s no guarantee that it was not destroyed, that it was not in other channels. This was only my personal opinion as a historian. I never met [Hiss], and honestly I was a bit taken aback. His attorney, Lowenthal, pushed me hard to say things of which I was not fully convinced.”

In January 1993, a few weeks after The New York Times article appeared, I had dinner with Schmemann in Moscow. A week after that, I met with General Volkogonov for around two hours, a conversation that I recorded. Although I spoke with Volkogonov mostly about things unrelated to the Hiss case (especially about some photocopied documents he had given me), I asked him about Hiss toward the end of our discussion. Volkogonov not only reaffirmed everything he had told Schmemann, but was even firmer in saying that he felt he had been “deceived.” Volkogonov added: “I am not a specialist on the Hiss case,” and “I thought I was just doing a favor for a dying man.” Volkogonov confirmed that he had “not seen anything from the GRU archive” and that without going through the files there, there was “no basis for saying anything that would shed greater light on the question of Hiss.”

All of this raises doubts about Navasky’s claim that Volkogonov had gone through “a full range of official Russian government repositories with information about Soviet intelligence operations, including KGB files and military intelligence - or GRU files.” The reality is that at no point did Volkogonov say that he had gone through any GRU files. On the contrary, he explicitly said several times that he had *not* gone through GRU files. Even his search of KGB/NKVD files was cursory, as he himself later acknowledged. Numerous KGB/NKVD documents that have emerged in subsequent years, including the March 1945 memorandum from Anatoly Gorsky that plays a central role in the paper by Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya (which Navasky praises), contain extensive references to Hiss either by name or through the codename Ales, which seems to fit only Hiss.

Debate about Hiss is bound to continue, but it is time to drop any further reference to Volkogonov’s initial statement in October 1992 as somehow a vindication of Hiss. Volkogonov himself firmly disavowed the statement, and evidence that has emerged in subsequent years amply supports his disavowal. I agree with Navasky that “ultimately truth is what history is and ought to be about,” and that is why we should stick to what Volkogonov actually said.

Victor Navasky 4/17/07

Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation, was the magazine's editor from 1978 to 1995 and publisher and editorial director from 1995 to 2005. He is currently the director of the George Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism at Columbia University. His books include Kennedy Justice, the American Book Award winner Naming Names and, most recently, A Matter of Opinion.

Thanks to Mark Kramer for reminding us what Volkogonov told Serge Schemann and for adding what he told Kramer himself.

Now let me remind you of what Volkogonov told John Lowenthal before he talked with Schemann/Kramer and add what he told Loewenthal after he talked with Schemann/Kramer:

On 14 October 1992, he wrote Lowenthal in response to his and Alger Hiss's request: "...On the basis of a very careful analysis of all the informatfion available, I can inform you that Alger Hiss was never an agent of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union...Not a single document, and a great amount of materials has been studied, substantiates the allegation that Mr. A. Hiss collaborated with the intelligence services of the Soviet Union. Probably, such old allegations are based on a misunderstanding or incorrect misinformation. I believe that public opinion should have long since cleared Mister Hiss of the old suspicions, which are completely groundless."

After various people including Romerstein, Schemann, and Kramer met with Volkogonov Lowenthal reinterviewed him in Washington and a transcript of that reinterivew may be found on the Hiss website (at http://homepages.nyu.edu/th15/volk2.html):

John Lowenthal: General, which archives did you examine in the Alger Hiss case?

Dmitry A. Volkogonov: When I was approached about the Alger Hiss case, I tried to examine all the archives of the Foreign Intelligence Department. This department used to be part of the KGB. I was interested in the '30s and '40s, and with the kind permission of the Chief of Russian Intelligence, Mr. Primakov [Yevgeny Primakov was subsequently Prime Minister of Russia], I had been able to examine a large number of materials on intelligence services in the '30s and '40s. I've had the assistance of some of the staff of the Foreign Intelligence archive. And as a result of this work, I have been able to determine that Alger Hiss, according to those documents, had never been listed as a paid or recruited agent of the Soviet ¨Union....

JL: Did you examine also the military intelligence GRU files?

V: Yes, we also asked to examine the military intelligence files and there, too, no traces of Alger Hiss have been found. Sometimes I'm told that I could look through not all of them, and naturally I can't say that I've seen all existing documents, but the intelligence documents pertaining to agents, personnel matters I did see...

JL: In your opinion, if Alger Hiss had been a spy, would you have found some documents saying that?

V: Positively, if he was a spy then I believe positively I would have found a reflection in various files. I know this from numerous documents and on many spies, many agents, I have been able to see documents.

JL...How do we know nothing was destroyed or removed on Alger Hiss?

V: ...naturally I can not give a one hundred percent guarantee that something wasn't destroyed, but as far as I know...these documents were not touched.

Now of course I do not and did not cite Volkogonov to prove anything one way or the other about Alger Hiss's guilt or innocence, merely to set the record straight on what he did and didn't say. And for what it's worth, Major General Julius N. Kobyakov, who did some of the research on behalf of Volkonov, subsequently said publicly that if and when the GRU files are opened, it turns out that Alger Hiss was a spy he would "take a bite of my hat."

Mark Kramer 4-19-07

In replying to me, Victor Navasky cites John Lowenthal's transcript of a conversation with General Volkogonov in Washington, DC and says that the conversation occurred after Serge Schmemann and I spoke with Volkogonov. The chronology is actually the reverse. The website on which the transcript of the Lowenthal-Volkogonov conversation is posted says that the conversation occurred on 11 November 1992. Volkogonov was indeed in Washington in November 1992 to testify about the work of the joint U.S.-Russian POW-MIA commission. The date listed for the conversation is several weeks before, not after, Serge Schmemann and I spoke with General Volkogonov (in December 1992 and January 1993, respectively). The date of 11 November 1992 is also nearly two weeks before Volkogonov published an article in the Russian newspaper"Nezavisimaya gazeta" (Independent Newspaper) -- on 24 November 1992 -- retracting his written statement about Hiss.

Victor Navasky 4-20-07

I stand corrected on sequence but the substance remains. I had wrongly assumed that Schmemann and Kramer were among those (Weinstein and Tanenhaus among them)‚ whose questions and reports on Volkogonov's"retraction" prompted John Lowenthal to reinterview Volkogonov. But the questions he asked in his 11 November 1992 re-interview were the same questions Schmemann and Kramer also raised. How could Volkogonov be sure relevant files hadn't been destroyed? How could he be sure he saw everything relevant? How could he pronounce Hiss innocent based on KGB files, when Hiss was a GRU agent and Volkogonov hadn't examined GRU files? Volkogonov's response:"Yes, I also searched through the GRU files and nothing pertinent was found...Of course I can not look through all the archives but those pertinent to this case in military intelligence files I did look through them...If he was a spy then I believe positively I would have found a reflection in various files. I know this from numerous documents and on many spies, many agents I have been able to see documents."

Whether Volkogonov's statements to Schmemann and Kramer were recanting or a diplomatic massaging of his original claims and qualifications, I leave to cold war deconstructionists. But whatever they were, a year later, starting 16 October 2003, Major General Julius Kobyakov, who was perhaps the most important one of those assigned the task of searching and collecting material from the various archives, sent no fewer than eight messages to the website H-DIPLO in the course of which he made clear that he corresponded with the GRU, and received"the relevant answer", based upon which he said he would eat his hat if it turned out that Hiss had been a spy.

Once again, I emphasize that my point is not guilt or innocence. In my keynote address to NYU's Conference on"Hiss and History" I cited the Volkogonov episode as one of ten instances to show why despite all the"final" nails in Hiss's coffin, the case will not die. This exchange, if I may say so, seems to prove my point.

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More Comments:

Grif Fariello - 5/22/2007

Like Mr. Hamby, I too have read Weinstein's "Perjury," and came to it believing that it had to be the final word on Hiss as, after all, so many had claimed it so. Within the first 50 pages I was extremely puzzled - How did Weinstein uncover such detailed information on Hiss's activities? A look to the footnotes - ah yes, Chambers. Overwhelmingly, Chambers is used to prove Chambers. I then went to the library and in looking over the reviews came across the running debate between Navasky in Nation Magazine and Weinstein in, I believe it was, the National Review. I suggest Mr. Hamby should as well for Navasky holds the upper hand throughout and effectively demolishes Weinstein, his book, and his methods. I went on to read everything I could find on the case. Far from "overwhelming," I found the evidence against Hiss remarkably thin. I've also found the pro-Hiss crowd to deal head-on and far more honestly with the charges and evidence leveled against Hiss than the anti-Hiss bunch does with evidence that exonerates Hiss, which they meet with airy dismissals and sneers when not ignoring it altogether.

Arnold Shcherban - 4/23/2007

So WE have to believe Americans because they are ... American anti-communist, but not contemporary Russians, since they are ... presumably pro-communist and, therefore, liers.
I'm sure that's an <overwhelming> legal and factual argument.

Alonzo Hamby - 4/20/2007

I met Alger Hiss in the mid- to late-1970s when he did a university speaking tour after Richard Nixon's resignation.

He spoke to my class, and I had lunch and dinner with him. I have no doubt that he had come to believe that he was entirely innocent of any and all charges against him. I also think he was probably the most charming man I have ever met. I had by then read Allen Weinstein's book, "Perjury" and had been convinced that Hiss was indeed guilty as charged. At the end of the day, however, I found myself, whatever my intellectual conviction, not much caring whether Hiss was guilty or not. Of course, after a day or two reality set in.

Perhaps we should not blame Mr. Navasky, who probably had considerably more personal contact with Hiss than I, for his protracted act of denial. The evidence, however, is overwhelming.