Interpreting Russian Files

In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the possibility that the new Russian regime might open up some Soviet intelligence files, former President Richard M. Nixon wrote to the Russian historian General Dimitry Antonovich Volkogonov, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s military advisor and overseer of all Soviet intelligence archives, to request release of any Soviet files on the Hiss case. In 1992, Alger Hiss made a similar request, and also sent identical letters to several other Russian officials. That October, Volkogonov wrote to Hiss’s friend and lawyer, John Lowenthal, that “Alger Hiss was never an agent of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union.” When this announcement brought angry protests from Hiss’s detractors, Volkogovov softened his original statement, saying he had not seen every document in the archives – but maintained that what he had seen was indisputable. On a subsequent trip to Washington, he firmly restated this conclusion in an interview with Lowenthal.

A decade later, Volkogonov’s findings received further support when retired KGB Major General Julius N. Kobyakov stepped forward to say he personally had been Volkogonov’s investigator in 1992; Kobyakov, who posted vigorously worded comments about his search on the web – see, for instance, his letters of October 10, 2003 and October 16, 2003 – reiterated that there was nothing to implicate Hiss in KGB files, and that colleagues in military intelligence had assured him Hiss had also never been a source for the GRU. The 1996 memoirs of a retired KGB official with World War II experience, Lieutenant General Vitaly G. Pavlov, offered further support for Hiss, asserting that claims he had been a Soviet agent were “the pure fabrication of a traitor.”

By far the most extensive trove of publicly available KGB documents are the Vassiliev Notebooks, originally created by Alexander Vassiliev, a young Russian journalist and KGB officer, in 1994 and 1995 as raw data and background material for a book by Allen Weinstein. Vassiliev’s hand-copied extracts from a huge number of KGB documents filled eight notebooks. All of them can now be found in both Russian and English on the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive.