An interview about the Hiss case with Russian Historian Dmitri A. Volkogonov by John Lowenthal, Washington, DC, November 11, 1992.
Dmitry Volkogonov’s October 14, 1992 statement to Lowenthal that accusations that Alger Hiss had been a Soviet agent were “completely groundless” caused something of a firestorm, when supporters of former President Richard Nixon and of Whittaker Chambers called his search incomplete (“Either he has divulged only a fraction of what he knows or he has not learned much at all”) and even complained about his language (“His statement, with its warm personal greeting to Mr. Hiss, had a tone more ceremonial than scholarly”) (The Hiss Case Isn’t Over Yet, The New York Times, October 31,1992). Taken aback, Volkogonov told The New York Times (on December 17, 1992) that “I was not properly understood,” and that “this was only my personal opinion as a historian” – although reaffirming that “I saw no evidence” and “I did spend two days swallowing dust” in the archives during his search.
In the midst of this controversy, Volkogonov visited Washington, D.C., where he sat down with John Lowenthal and reiterated his firm belief that “Positively, if he [Hiss] was a spy then I believe positively I would have found a reflection in various files.” This previously unpublished interview is presented here in full.
John Lowenthal: General, which archives did you examine on 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 for the Soviet Union.
JL: And was he ever an unpaid agent?
V: I have been able to determine that Alger Hiss in his official capacity did meet with Soviet officials, diplomats in New York, at the United Nations and other places, but only in his official capacity. In the files that I’ve seen, Alger Hiss has never been listed as a paid agent of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union.
JL: But was he an unpaid agent? He was accused of being a volunteer for ideology, not for money.
V: The Americans could think what they wanted about him, but only could think what they wanted about him because he had some contacts, but in the Soviet sources, the Soviet files in the Soviet hierarchy, he wasn’t listed as an agent, either paid agent or an agent out of convictions.
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. And it is also possible that he had some regular working information in the course of normal contacts he might have said something, but it was not intelligence information. It’s like simply when two representatives of different states meet and conduct normal business. You also had McCarthy times and witch-hunt times, and I know that this could happen.
JL: Did you see the Presidential archives?
V: Yes, I also work in the Presidential archive. I have looked at many documents there. I have not finished yet, but I have found no mention of Alger Hiss in those documents, either.
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: What is the condition of the files from the 1930s? How do we know nothing was destroyed or removed on Alger Hiss?
V: These documents are in the process of being opened to the general public. And naturally I can not give a one hundred percent guarantee that something wasn’t destroyed, but as far as I know during the putsch [the 1991 attempt by hard-line communists to wrest power from Mikhail Gorbachev], these documents were not touched.
JL: When the case broke publicly in 1948, would the Soviets have opened a file on the case, and did you find any from 1948, ’49, and ’50? [This question was misunderstood by the interpreter and therefore mistranslated, to mean opening an already existing file on the case, whereas the question was intended to mean opening, in the sense of starting, a new file. The interview was terminated before the matter could be cleared up.]
V: No, these documents couldn’t be opened. Even two years ago, it only happened after the putsch, after August 1991. Before August 1991 there was no chance to look at those documents. For example, when I was working on a book about Trotsky and had to find documents from 1940 related to Trotsky’s murder, I had to exert fantastic efforts to obtain some documents and, only thanks to my name, to the fact that many people knew me, I managed to obtain something. But that required enormous effort.
JL: Georgi Arbatov explained to me that the Soviets would not have opened a file in 1948, he believes because the case was of no interest to them but was risky for anybody to comment on during Stalin’s years. The Soviets told me that in 1948 the Soviets would not have opened the archives in any case because it would have been risky in the Stalin times, not because it was not useful but because it was risky in the Stalin times to talk about it.
V: I believe that the person who would even raise the question that he needs to not even open, but simply look at this document in the archive, would be considered a spy, an enemy and he would be shot. If he were even to think about trying and doing it, it would cost him his life. In these times in our country, a person could be imprisoned for having an accidental occasional contact with an American. It was enough to be thrown into the camp. Therefore I would say again in conclusion that Alger Hiss was apparently a victim of the Cold War and may God help us that those times never come back.
JL: Thank you very much.