Night of the Looters (1996)

Vladimir Bukovsky

The “putsch” of August 1991 had hardly ended, when I was once again in Moscow, trying to prove to the new masters of Russia’s destiny that it was in their interests to open the archives. A wounded beast of prey should be killed before it gets its second wind. It must not be allowed the chance of recovery. It is imperative, I said again and again, to create a commission to investigate all the crimes of Communism, preferably an international commission so there could be no accusations of political bias or cover-ups.

dzerzhinsky-dangling-for-webIt was a unique moment, everything seemed possible. In disarray, the former Soviet elite, fearing kangaroo courts and public lynching, was agreeable to anything. Seeing the statue of the founder of the Cheka “Iron Felix” hanging in a noose above its pedestal on Lubyanka Square made their blood run cold.

Under such circumstances, it would have been quite possible to convene if not a Nuremberg-style tribunal, then at least something similar which, by force of its moral influence on our confused world, could have been even more significant. The most surprising thing is that it almost happened. Intoxicated by its unexpected victory, the Russian leadership did not look very far ahead, and knew nothing of the world outside. The prospect of finishing off the Communist Party, its closest rival, seemed both logical and attractive.

Straight after the putsch Boris Yeltsin signed a decree transferring the KGB archives to the Russian archive administration. Now he seemed to lose any interest in this, as in all matters of importance to the country. An inter-departmental committee was appointed to organise the hand-over, at which KGB personnel gravely discussed the “problems of transfer”, and, not surprisingly, could find no solutions. It was a complex matter, wasn’t it?

Another committee was formed at the Supreme Soviet, and headed by the general and historian Volkogonov. There must be a “legal basis”, when all is said and done: how can anything be done “outside the law”? It was no trifling matter to decide whether to set the seal of secrecy at a 30- or 70-year period.

Meanwhile, mysterious “commercial structures” began to grow up around the archives. A brisk trade ensued, but only in documents whose publication profited the KGB, and only through partners who suited that organisation. Double-dyed disinformation was again turned loose upon the world, this time under the guise of historical truth.

I was neither discouraged nor caught at a disadvantage. I had placed no great hopes on access to the KGB archives but concentrated my attention on the archives of the CPSU Central Committee.

Together with the Central Committee building on the Old Square (Staraya Ploshchad), these archives had been sealed immediately after the putsch. They were already in the hands of the Russian leadership, with which I had at least some contact. I knew, furthermore, that such archives would contain everything, including reports by the KGB which, it was always maintained, was merely “the Party’s sword of retribution”, its “armed detachment”. In the post-Stalin era, at least, the KGB was under the firm control of the Central Committee, and could undertake nothing significant without the Central Committee’s approval.

A few days after arriving in Moscow in August 1991, therefore, thanks to contacts within the Russian leadership, I met the head of the government Archives Committee, Rudolf G. Pikhoya, to establish the principles on which a future international commission would work.

Days later, with a certain degree of elation and trepidation, I entered the huge complex of buildings at 12 Kuibyshev Street (nowadays again known as Ilyinka), where both the archives and the archive administration were housed. Linked by endless corridors and elevated walkways, the buildings formerly occupied by the Central Committee seemed dead. The archive administration occupied only one floor at No 12. The rest was like the labyrinth of the Minotaur, the entrance and exit of which could not be found without Ariadne’s thread. The superb parquet flooring of the corridors seemed to stretch to infinity, past sealed office doors which still bore the nameplates of their former occupants, erstwhile omnipotent apparatchiks.

Here and there, mounds of files and papers marked “Top Secret” lay on the floor. I picked up one at random and glanced at the contents: it was a report by some regional Party committee about youth work. For a second, I felt a pinch of apprehension: what if there was nothing here but endless accounts of plans fulfilled and propagandist activities? Moscow had been full of rumours about the mass destruction of documents and mysterious trucks which removed bales of papers several nights in a row after the putsch…

Pikhoya reassured me. Yes, some papers really were destroyed, but they were, seemingly, instructions issued during the “putsch”. The archives themselves, as far as could be judged, had not suffered. The decree ordering the seizure of the Party archives was signed by Yeltsin on 24 August, and the commission with the new guards entered the Central Committee buildings that same night. At first, the electricity supply was turned off to prevent any use of shredding machines. Then it had to be turned on again – it was impossible to find anything in the dark. The shredding machines were already jammed with hurriedly destroyed documents and no longer in working order.

As experience showed, it was well nigh impossible to engage in the selective destruction or, for that matter, the forgery of any archival material. Closer examination established that there were at least 162 individual archives, totally unconnected to each other by cross-referencing in card indexes or by computer. The Communist regime trusted nobody, not even its own officials.

Just to confirm whether any copies of a document from one archive were to be found in another, or if there was a reference in one archive to a document housed elsewhere, would have taken months of searching. Even if it were established that a copy existed, it would not be that easy to change anything: every archive had its own inventory; the documents were numbered consecutively, and had their own codes; and there were separate registers for all incoming and outgoing papers. The bureaucratic State did not stint on paper for these purposes, which is probably why it was always in short supply elsewhere. The archive listing all Party members, the “consolidated Party membership record”, contained no less than 40 million items. As for the Party archives scattered throughout the country, they numbered billions of documents.

Then, on 14 January 1992, the Russian President signed a decree “On the Protection of State Secrets of the Russian Federation”, reinstating practically all the norms of secrecy of the former USSR.

When I returned to Moscow in March 1992 I encountered an example of typically Soviet window-dressing. There was a triumphant opening at the Archives Committee of a “Centre of Contemporary Documentation”, which supposedly contained the Party archives and made them available for public scrutiny. Thanks to Pikhoya’s efforts, this had been trumpeted in the domestic and foreign press as the latest milestone on the road to the new democracy. After obtaining a pass, it is true, one could go up to the second floor of the former Central Committee building, enter the reading room and even look at the inventory lists of the documents. This was where the democracy of the new Russian authorities came to an abrupt end, however. No actual documents of any interest could be studied. Even before you were allowed to gaze at the inventory lists, you were instructed in the “rules” of the Centre, which meant that in accordance with Yeltsin’s decree, the following documents were inaccessible:

— All documents issued after 1981;

— All materials concerning the post-1961 decisions of the Secretariat of the Central Committee;

— All materials classified “Special File”;

— All post-1961 materials concerning the International, Foreign Cadres, International Information, Administrative Bodies’ and Defence Industry Departments [of the Central Committee] and the documents  issued after that date by the KGB and the GRU.

If you wanted, you could acquaint yourself with plenary sessions of the Central Committee at which agriculture or the fulfilment of five-year plan was discussed. If not, then that was it. I was even denied access to those documents which concerned me personally. They recorded my life and fate but were listed in the inventory as among the now inaccessible decisions of the Secretariat.

So my idea of a Moscow Tribunal died stillborn. Nobody in our immense country was moved by a sense of duty – to history, to truth, to the memory of the Communist regime’s victims. No one evinced any interest, apart from the carrion crows who appeared from nowhere to tear at the fresh corpse. Bureaucratic nonentities, who suddenly found themselves in positions of power, boosted their self-importance by disposing of something to which they had no moral right: our heritage. Insignificant nobodies who had worn out the seats of their pants in Party committees denied us, who had borne the brunt of that struggle, the chance to learn the whole truth about our lives.

But, as they say, it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good. By the spring of 1992 the Communists had become brazen enough to lodge an appeal in Russia’s Constitutional Court against Yeltsin’s decree outlawing the CPSU.

To an impartial observer, it must have seemed a bad joke – one group of Communists taking another group of Communists to court over the constitutionality of the ban on their former party, before judges who were also all former Communists. And this, mark you, in a country without its own Constitution. There was only the old Soviet Constitution, which the law-makers could not agree to replace and, therefore, had amended several hundred times. …

For Yeltsin and his entourage it was no joke. The possibility of the Court accepting the appeal was real (at least seven of the twelve judges were openly sympathetic to the CPSU), and the consequences could be horrendous. Apart from political complications, it would have meant returning the “re-allocated” former “Party property” including the Central Committee complex on the Old Square, newly occupied by the Russian leadership, to say nothing of the Party archives. With good reason Yeltsin cited this court case as one of the most urgent problems facing the country when he addressed the US Congress in the summer of 1992.

Alarm, even panic, seized all the President’s men. And this led to what I had spent almost a year trying to achieve.  Hurriedly summoned to Moscow as an expert witness to the proceedings, I received access to the CPSU archives. That was my categorical condition – payment, if you like, for my appearance in the impending farce.

Foreseeing that I would not be allowed to make any copies – because no photocopier was available, supposedly, or special permission was needed for every scrap of paper, or for God knows what other reason – I took the precaution of acquiring a portable computer with a hand-held scanner.


1999 Polish edition

This piece of high tech, a miracle of Japanese technology, had only just appeared in the West, and was completely unknown to our naïve Russians. I was able to sit and scan piles of documents, page after page, right under their noses, with no worries about curious onlookers, who kept coming up to admire my machine. “Look at that!” exclaimed the leaders of democratic Russia, peering admiringly over my shoulder. “That must have cost a few bucks!”

Nobody realized what I was doing until December 1992 when the Court hearing was almost over. Then, suddenly, one of them saw the light and yelled loudly enough to be heard a block away: “He’s been copying everything!!!”

There was a deathly hush. I kept scanning, as though I had not heard. “He’ll publish everything OVER THERE!!!”

I finished work, packed up my computer and headed calmly for the door, looking neither left nor right. Nobody said a word as I made my way to the door. They were probably busy calculating what untold millions I would make in the West.

And that is how the pile of classified documents marked, with increasing confidentiality, “Secret”, “Top Secret”, “Of Particular Importance” and “Special File” came into my hands. Several thousand priceless pages of our history.


Excerpted from Chapter Two of Judgement in Moscow