Alexander Vassiliev

The so-called Vassiliev Notebooks (actually a series of eight notebooks and some loose pages) contain excerpts from original Russian NKVD/NKGB/MGB documents made by Alexander Vassiliev, a Russian journalist and former KGB officer in 1994 and 1995. In his own handwriting, Vassiliev either summarized or copied excerpts in Russian from these KGB archival documents for The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America – the Stalin Era (New York: Random House, 1999), a book he would later co-author with American historian Allen Weinstein. After Vassiliev left Russia for London, where he now lives, he managed to have his notes and notebooks taken out of the country, and in 2009 they also became the basis for a second book, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (New Haven: Yale University Press), which he co-authored with John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. That same year, scans of the original notes, along with a Russian transcription and an English translation, were posted on the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive. The notebooks themselves are now on deposit at the Library of Congress.

The Vassiliev Notebooks, which have relatively little to say about the Hiss case, are both an important documentary resource – and a somewhat unreliable one. As one historian of Soviet intelligence has written, they “should be used with caution,” pointing out that, as an untrained researcher, Vassiliev was unsystematic in his work, often copying only those documents in a file that caught his eye. In many cases what he did copy was merely an extract from a document or a précis of it. In addition, there are mistranslations and misinterpretations in the posted English translation of the Notebooks. An early analysis of some of the pitfalls encountered by users of the Notebooks,  a series of essays by Dr. Svetlana Chervonnaya, a Russian historian, is included here. (In a separate analysis of a specific archival document, Vitaly Pavlov’s April 1942 “Orientation,” Dr. Chervonnaya was able to demonstrate that, in this instance, Vassiliev’s notetaking not only distorted the meaning of the document in question, but led directly to still-uncorrected misinterpretations of this text by historians who, without access to the original document, mistakenly trusted the accuracy of the notes.)

We also revisit another Vassiliev controversy, one he initiated himself: A libel suit he brought in an English court against John Lowenthal, an American lawyer who was a frequent defender of Alger Hiss. In a peer-reviewed article, Lowenthal had written that Vassiliev, if he is honest, “will surely tell you that [in his research] he never met the name of Alger Hiss in the context of some cooperation with some special services of the Soviet Union.” In 2003, a London jury ruled against Vassiliev, saying that Lowenthal’s assertion amounted to “fair comment.” The judge’s summing up and the verdict, along with his subsequent ruling in the case, a judgment in which the celebrated Sir David Eady linked the verdict to new and broader standards for academic freedom and civil liberties, are included here.