The Vassiliev Notebooks

The following article, “Anatoly Gorsky’s Lessons, or In Search of a Path Through The Haunted Wood,” is by Dr. Svetlana A. Chervonnaya, who holds a Ph.D. in American history; she is a Russian freelance writer, researcher, and TV documentary producer, and maintains an extensive Cold War website,

The genesis for this article was the 2002 London libel action that Alexander Vassiliev brought against John Lowenthal on the basis that “Venona and Alger Hiss,” Lowenthal’s 2000 article in Intelligence and National Security magazine, had accused him (and Allen Weinstein, co-author of The Haunted Wood, the first book based on the Vassiliev Notebooks) of shoddy research for claiming that the Venona releases proved that Alger Hiss had been a spy. To prove his case – this was years before the Vassiliev Notebooks were publicly posted at the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive – Vassiliev brought into court some of the KGB documents he had copied, papers which at that point became what the court called a “jury bundle.” After Lowenthal’s death, his brother found these then still-secret documents, prominent among which were “Gorsky’s List,” supposedly a list of Americans who had cooperated with Soviet intelligence between 1938 and 1945; the “Perlo List,” a second list of Americans said to have worked with the Soviets; and a previously unknown cable that Anatoly Gorsky, then the KGB rezident in Washington, sent to Moscow on March 5, 1945, giving details about the Russian agent “ALES” – a cable that is not part of the Venona archive of intercepted Russian cables. Dr. Chervonnaya subjects each of these “jury bundle” items to careful scrutiny as a way of demonstrating some of the shortcomings of the Vassiliev Notebooks.


I remember it as if it had happened yesterday. A newly fledged Moscow State University history student – all of 17, minis and waist-long hair – I stormed into the office of a Russian history professor, bursting with “cloak and dagger” stories for my first annual paper. No way. The professor had in store for me a thin, faded, yellowish book with some cryptic text in illegible ancient Slavic letters. My “cloak and dagger” dream turned into backbreaking months at the stately Moscow History Library pondering over the hidden meaning behind the ancient Slavic words, syllables, and letters of Russia’s most mysterious medieval source.

Anatoly Gorsky

Russian intelligence agent Anatoly Gorsky

Known as “Supplication of Daniil the Recluse,” and allegedly tracing back to early 13th or even the late 12th century, this text had survived in 19 records made at later dates, each having textual variations of its own. The document is mute about its origin; nothing is known of its author, and very little of the prince it was addressed to. Over the years, some fragments of the text had been distorted in the copying process, while others were entirely lost. My professor made me learn the tradecraft of analyzing historical sources the harsh way. The professor’s name was Anatoly Gorsky.

Fast-forward almost four decades to 2005, when the crowning wonder of the Information Revolution, the World Wide Web, brought me three documents originating with quite another Anatoly Gorsky that made me go back to the lessons once learned from his academic namesake.

The history of these documents, two of which, under the titles of “Gorsky’s List” and “March 5, 1945 cable,” have since 2005 ignited something of an academic furor, looks no less murky than the subject of my early sojourn into Russian medieval history.

Discovered by Dr. David Lowenthal, professor emeritus of the University College of London, among the papers of his late brother, the lawyer, author, and filmmaker John Lowenthal, they turned up among photocopies of hand-written Russian notes of KGB foreign intelligence archival documents that had been entered as evidence by their creator, ex-KGB officer Alexander Vassiliev, in the course of a libel case, Vassiliev v Frank Cass & Co Ltd (John Lowenthal’s publisher) in London in 2002 (High Court of Justice Queen’s Bench Division). This libel case centered around Alexander Vassiliev’s assertion that he had seen the name of Alger Hiss written “in clear” in the files released to him in 1994-1995 as the SVR-designated Russian co-author for Allen Weinstein in a collaborative book project that later became The Haunted Wood (1999).

According to the account Vassiliev gave in his pretrial hearings in 2002, these notes were among many others he had originally handwritten in his notebooks and later copied to floppy disks, which he smuggled out of Russia in May 1996 for use in a draft manuscript of the book he was writing for his American co-author, Allen Weinstein. In early 2002, when Vassiliev supplied his handwritten notes on “Gorsky’s List,” by his own account, he did not have his original notebooks with him in London. The notebooks themselves would be, according to Vassiliev’s 2005 account to Dr. John Earl Haynes, “smuggled out of Russia for him by the time of the British trial,” which began only in June 2003.

Even more intriguing is the question of why Vassiliev’s American co-author, Allen Weinstein, who had made his name by asserting Alger Hiss’s “guilt” in his book Perjury (1978), chose to ignore two documents where the names of Alger Hiss and his brother, Donald, appear “in clear.” In asking this question, we are opening a Pandora’s Box, since the issue of what The Haunted Wood chose not to tell is not limited to Vassiliev’s notes.

Unaware at the time of these intricacies, Dr. David Lowenthal shared one of his findings with Dr. Eduard Mark, a historian with the United States Air Force, who, in turn, brought it to the attention of Dr. John Earl Haynes at the Library of Congress. This process produced a Russian transcription of the notes in question; a Cyrillic-to-Latin alphabet transliteration of the Russian text; and an English translation of the notes. This English translation was then posted on H-HOAC (an online forum for discussing the history of American Communism) in 2005. The posting was followed by a heated H-HOAC discussion of what came to be called the “Gorsky 1948 List.” This same Library of Congress-annotated translation of the “Gorsky List” is also now posted on John Earl Haynes’s website.

The copy of the Vassiliev notes sent by Dr. David Lowenthal to Dr. Eduard Mark, however, turned out to be troubling: to a Russian eye, it was clear that the first page of the notes obviously lacked the first few lines of the document they had been taken from. Following my insistent requests, Dr. Lowenthal produced a carefully made scan from the photocopy he had of the first page of Alexander Vassiliev’s notes. The new scan displayed the missing lines, which included a carefully dated title on top: “Report of Anatoly Gorsky to Savchenko S.R., 23 December, (19)49.” This resolved the mystery of the notation – “Dec. 1948” – placed (or written) at the bottom of the document. It was a probable mistake, contradicting quite a few things in the text that could not have been written at such an early date.

Moreover, the problems did not end there. To a Russian reader, the Library of Congress-prepared transcription, transliteration and translation had a number of problems and inconsistencies, which suggested a need to restart the process and produce a more accurate transcription and translation of the document. On top of this, to a Russian reader, the document’s lists of groups of Soviet assets compromised by defections from 1938 to 1948 look anything but coherent, despite recent allegations to the contrary. In particular, the most troubled lists are those of groups that existed long before Anatoly Gorsky’s own time as an intelligence resident in Washington, D.C. (1944-1945), a period that was immediately followed by his service in Moscow as an intelligence operative on the American line.

And “Gorsky’s List” was only the first item in Allen Weinstein’s Pandora’s Box.

The second item in the box that has Alger and Donald Hiss’s names “in clear” is a still obscure memo Anatoly Gorsky sent to Moscow in mid-March 1945 – a document which Weinstein mentioned only in passing on page 229 of The Haunted Wood, citing it merely as an illustration of Anatoly Gorsky’s concern for security: “[Victor Perlo] gave us a list including fourteen men definitely connected with the groups….” A verbatim translation of the title of this document reads, “A list of persons who according to ‘Raid’ have been cooperating with intelligence except for those he is working with regularly at present. Dated 15.03.45” – and it remains an enigma why Weinstein ignored a list of alleged Soviet intelligence assets, several of whom had never previously been claimed as members of any known group of Soviet intelligence assets.

The third item in the box is a Washington-to-Moscow cable written by “Vadim” (the codename of Anatoly Gorsky) on March 5, 1945, describing some of the background of an agent codenamed “Ales” – the agent who was also the subject of the famous Venona No. 1822 cable, written by the same “Vadim,” on March 30, 1945. Dr. David Lowenthal shared this document with me in early 2005 for my translation and comments; these became data he later relied upon when drafting his article, “Did Allen Weinstein Get the Alger Hiss Story Wrong?” (posted on HNN on May 2, 2005). Gorsky’s March 5 cable had more luck with Allen Weinstein than the “Perlo List,” since it was excerpted in both the updated edition of “Perjury” (1998) and later in The Haunted Wood. However, Weinstein chose to ignore the part of the cable important for understanding the identity of the agent “Ales,” whom Allen Weinstein had already identified as Alger Hiss.

The London trial testimony reveals that although Vassiliev was “sure that ‘Ales’ is Hiss and Hiss is ‘Ales,’” he was against the idea of putting “the real names in the brackets, because this is not what the document said.” Importantly, Vassiliev said that he “never saw that Hiss was Ales or Ales was Hiss,” adding, “I didn’t see the document saying directly that Hiss is Ales.” [Vassiliev v. Frank Cass & Co., trial record, tapes seven and three. Transcript by Anna Kuprina, 2009]

If my Moscow State University professor Anatoly Dmitrievich Gorsky were still alive, he would have been puzzled at the virtual obliteration of the ABC’s of historical tradecraft he used to coach his freshmen history students in. He would particularly have been puzzled during one of the presentations at the “Cryptology and the Cold War” symposium of the Center for Cryptologic History in October 2005, which advised, “Historians must work with what is available” – no matter how murky the origin, questionable the dating, mixed-up the contents, incomplete the transcription, and controversial the translation. In memory of Professor Gorsky’s lessons, I invite the readers on a journey into the puzzle world of Professor Gorsky’s “cloak and dagger” namesake.

Svetlana Chervonnaya completed this collection of essays and papers by composing the four documents available here: her own annotated translation of “Gorsky’s List”; an essay evaluating “Gorsky’s List” and its claims; an essay focused on the “Perlo List”; and her own annotated translation of Anatoly Gorsky’s March 5, 1945 cable to Moscow, with information about “ALES” that does not appear in the Venona cables.