August 21, 2015

Russian State Archives Director: “I Am Not Sure the Russian People Want to Know Their History”

Sergei Mironenko
Sergei Mironenko

Sergei Mironenko talks about the first months of the Soviet–German War, the Molotov– Ribbentrop Pact and access to the Russian State Archives

This year, the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Germany, many people in Russia have been upset by statements by Sergei Mironenko, the long-time Director of the State Archives of the Russian Federation, about the criminal nature of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and the fiction of the heroic actions of Panfilov’s 28 guardsmen. Mironenko, 64, who has been managing the State Archive since 1992, spoke to Diplomaatia about his views on history and interesting discoveries during the process of making public a huge number of wartime documents.
A massive quantity of historical documents have been published in recent years in Russia. A lot of material previously regarded as confidential has been made public and handed over to historians. What are the most interesting and important findings in your view?
There are many important things. For example, the three-volume tome General Vlasov: The Story of Betrayal was published recently. General Vlasov and his Russian Liberation Army constitute one of the most complex episodes in the Second World War. [Andrey Vlasov was one of the most successful Soviet military leaders at the beginning of the war, and was captured by the Germans in 1942.—JP] All the material concerning Vlasov’s criminal investigation that was kept in the FSB Archives [Russian Federal Security Service, successor to the Soviet NKVD and KGB.—JP] has now been made public. I thought this was very significant, because there has been a lot of talk about why he and his companions did not have a public trial; it was feared that the documents would say something anti-Soviet.
Why? What was most interesting about the documents on Vlasov?
The Germans had taken two lieutenant generals prisoner: Andrey Vlasov, and Mikhail Lukin, who was seriously wounded during capture and had to have a leg amputated. The Germans interrogated both of them. Lukin’s German-language interrogation records, in which he, like Vlasov, denounces collective farms and repressions, have been preserved. In a word, he was not a supporter of Soviet rule. Two generals, and two fates, because Lukin, unlike Vlasov, did not end up cooperating with the Germans. In the end, Vlasov even met [Heinrich] Himmler [the head of Nazi police and security forces], who supported the idea of forming Russian armed units. By the way, Hitler completely opposed that. And Vlasov went to Lukin to talk about cooperation. Vlasov demanded that Hitler guarantee the integrity of Russia within the borders of the former Russian Empire. Lukin answered: “Andrei Andreyevich, you are naive if you think that Hitler will allow you to create an independent Russian government. Believe me, this will not happen. But if it does not, it is completely pointless to cooperate with the Germans.” Lukin was right in the end. [Unlike Vlasov, who was hanged after the 1946 NKVD investigation, Lukin did not go on trial in the Soviet Union.—JP] In a word, working with this collection persuaded me that Vlasov was a traitor after all. He was, of course, a controversial figure, but the documents show how he gradually started cooperating with the Germans. Collaboration is an interesting topic, because it affected not only Russia, but also many European countries.
It is also very important that recently, this June, for the first time access was granted to the digitally published documents of the State Defence Committee [this coordinated the defence of the Soviet Union and later the attack on Germany—JP]. The “confidential” stamp has not yet been removed from all of these documents, but it is still a massive quantity of material. For example, all of the regulations of the Defence Committee were made public. The Central Archive of the Russian Ministry of Defence has made publicly available a huge number of documents and reports from the time of the Second World War. Historians have a very serious job in going through all of this material.
Has anything new and interesting been discovered about the beginning of the Soviet–German War [the “Great Patriotic War” in Russia] and Stalin’s behaviour at the time?
It has, of course, long been known that Stalin was not expecting Germany to attack the Soviet Union. It happened because suspicious people often believe what they want to believe. Stalin wanted to believe that the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (MRP) would prevent Germany from attacking the Soviet Union. It has been confirmed that what happened on 22 June 1941 [when Germany attacked the Soviet Union] made Stalin deeply depressed. He was not seen in the Kremlin for two days. You can imagine what this meant in a situation in which Minsk fell as early as 28 June and the Germans were moving 60–80 km a day, sometimes even 100 km a day, straight towards Moscow. [Minsk is a little over 700 km from Moscow.—JP] Leading the whole country was entirely in his hands. Then his closest comrades – Voroshilov, Malenkov and Bulganin – decided to drive to Stalin’s Blizhnyaya dacha [Stalin’s favourite summer residence, situated in Kuntsevo relatively close to the Kremlin; its name means “nearby”. Today, it is inside the Moscow city boundary.—JP]. Going there on one’s own initiative was strictly forbidden, even for Molotov or Malenkov [the most important leaders of the Soviet Union after Stalin]. Stalin would invite people there himself when he wished to speak to them. But they went there anyway, and discovered a completely exhausted Stalin. That was the moment when Stalin uttered the famous words: “Lenin left us a great inheritance and we wasted it all” (“Ленин оставил нам великую державу, а мы ее просрали”). Only the words of Voroshilov – “But Koba [Stalin’s nickname from the beginning of his career as a revolutionary], you must lead us, unite us, for we are counting on you” – inspired Stalin so that the decision to create the Defence Committee was made right there. Stalin did not forget this and, in the spring of 1945, at the Victory Day reception where he was making his famous speech, he uttered a sentence to which few have paid attention: “Some other nation might have said that you did not justify our choices, we will put another government in office; but the Russians did not choose this path”. He remembered perfectly well in what kind of situation he found himself in 1941!
Do you conclude from these words that Stalin was afraid in June 1941?
Of course! Stalin thought that these people had come to arrest him. He realised that this catastrophe was the result of his short-sighted policies. Patriots now talk about the great Stalin and so on, but Stalin himself was much smarter than them because he realised that things must be answered for.
This meeting at Stalin’s dacha was briefly mentioned in the memoirs of Anastas Mikoyan [Stalin’s close comrade] who, however, wasn’t there at all. Where else has this occasion been confirmed to have taken place?
The most detailed account is given in the memoir of [Yakov] Chadaev, executive officer of the Council of People’s Commissars and later the executive officer of the State Defence Committee. He was a complete Stalinist. All of his memoirs are composed of glorifying the great and wise Stalin. But he was aware of this episode and wrote about it. It would be silly to think that such an incident did not happen.
Can this be considered one of the key moments at the beginning of the Russian Great Patriotic War?
It was a moment of personal weakness for Stalin. He also made wrong decisions later on. For example, it resulted in several hundred thousand Soviet soldiers being encircled in the Kiev Cauldron; there were many losses in Ukraine.
The 70th anniversary of the defeat of Germany was celebrated in Russia with a spectacular parade this year. Why did Stalin stop organising Victory Day parades in 1947, only two years after the end of the war?
Not only did he put an end to the parades, but he also abolished 9 May as a public holiday—Brezhnev reintroduced it in 1965—and stopped paying remuneration for decorations received in the war. Daniil Granin [at 96, one of the best Russian writers on the war still alive.—JP] told me how all of the people who had taken part in the war regarded both decisions as slaps in the face. It seems to me that it is very easy to understand Stalin’s decision. The Patriotic War of 1812 and the subsequent Russian campaign to Europe in 1813–15 brought the rise of the Decembrist Movement. The soldiers saw that people were living much better lives there [in Europe]. They were building the best society in the world in Russia, but found that living standards in Europe were still much higher. Stalin’s decision was like a lesson to the war veterans so they would not think they could somehow determine the fate of the Soviet Union. Stalin needed to reduce the winners’ pride.
In short, you believe that Stalin’s message was: yes, we won the war, but now we need to carry on with building communism and everyone has to be equal in that?
Exactly – everyone had to know their place!
I was recently looking for Russian archive information about the fate of my grandfather, who fell in the war while serving in the Red Army. How many Red Army soldiers are there whose fate is still unknown, 70 years after the war?
About two million.
So many! Around ten million perished in the Red Army. The fate of roughly every fifth soldier is therefore still unknown.
Many groups of researchers are dealing with this. I honour them but their work is a drop in the ocean. There needs to be a national programme. The war is not over until the very last soldier has been buried.
These research groups are generally the result of civil initiatives. What is the Russian Federation doing to search for the missing persons?
Unfortunately, there is no national programme.
How strange, especially when we compare this to the Americans, who have probably found all of their missing persons.
They have not; four to six are still to be found. [A little over 400,000 American soldiers were killed.—JP]
Why is the fate of so many Red Army soldiers unknown? Were the soldiers badly documented at the beginning of the war or did the Red Army flee so fast that there was simply no overview of who was killed where?
First, there were those terrible cauldrons at the beginning of the war, where hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers lost their lives. The Germans didn’t even stop, but went around these army groups and moved forward quickly. Second, do you remember the words of Marshal Voroshilov [one of the leaders of the Soviet Army during the war, and a member of the USSR Committee for State Security] when Vlasov’s army got lost in the marshes near Myasnoy Bor and only had a narrow corridor through which they could get out? The question arose of what to rescue: the technology or the soldiers. Voroshilov uttered his famous words: “Broads will give birth again, but I’m not so sure when we’ll be receiving new technology”. So, first and foremost, technology!
Enough of Stalin and the war. Has anything interesting been revealed from the published documents apart from about war events? For example, about the MRP?
But what could remain to be revealed?
For example, any interesting assessments about that time, or considerations or justifications?
Nothing. Some people still think that it was Stalin’s most outstanding diplomatic achievement. I, on the other hand, think that it was a tragic mistake. Perhaps even a crime.
Why is that?
For one simple reason—the German army was hugely important in Hitler’s plans to conquer the whole world or at least half of it. Hitler united five million people under arms. Germany did not have the means to feed these five million people. Germany required grain, meat, milk. The MRP allowed Germany to conquer Europe while feeding its army with food from the Soviet Union. In addition, Germany was in great need of oil for its tanks, planes and cars, and Russia supplied this. Hitler’s army was fed and fuelled by the Soviet Union, and Hitler’s tanks were covered with armour made of rare metals from the Soviet Union. All of this was supplied until 22 June 1941. The last deliveries crossed the German border when German planes were already bombing Soviet cities!
Until the MRP, the Soviet Union did not share a border with Germany. I respect the pre-war Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Polish armies, which would have survived at least a couple of weeks in the event of war, which would have meant that Germany could not have carried out a surprise attack on the Soviet Union. If there had been no common border, there would have been no “treacherous attack”, as Soviet propaganda called it.
Stalinists claim that the Baltic States would have let the German army come through freely anyway—I seriously doubt that. Seriously! They would certainly have been drawn into a conflict with Hitler’s Germany. However weak their governments were, to lose their freedom, their independence, this is … You know what I mean. I am certain that if Hitler had invaded the Baltics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, following the lead of Poland, would not simply have let the German forces through.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania allowed themselves to be annexed by the Soviet army without a shot being fired. Why do you think we would have started shooting at the Germans?
This is a very difficult question. The difference is that they [the Baltic States] did not lose their national independence completely. The occupying regime creates its own power structures, but the whole delicate distinction of the Baltic question lies in the fact that, after the Soviet Union reached these countries, Estonia was still governed by Estonians, Latvia by Latvians and Lithuania by Lithuanians.
But you must understand that it was only a symbolic leadership!
Symbolic or not, they had their own local governing bodies. There was no occupying regime. Or if there was, it was different, non-traditional.
Let’s move on. It is clear that, in today’s Russia, declaring the MRP a criminal act requires some courage, especially when you are head of a state office. You first stated this publicly in the spring, prior to the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. Were you criticised and/or even threatened?
No! [shaking his head vigorously]
Something positive, at least. But …
Stop! This is an excellent question because, when Vladimir Putin and the Duma officially admitted that the Polish officers at Katyn were not executed by the Germans but were shot by us, there was a lot of resentment! And part of society does not believe it to this day. And this is precisely the question that should make us all worry: do the people of Russia even want to know their own history?
Who does, then?
I’m not sure. This resentment about clearly unpleasant but obvious matters is … What is the purpose of historians? To search for the truth. This is why history is not trusted that much, because it has been falsified so often for temporary political gain. I am deeply convinced that history is a science and the purpose of science is truth. And saying this truth out loud should not be feared. This requires political will, of course.
Truth is a difficult thing! When you go to bookstores in Moscow, you can see a whole army of clearly pseudohistorical books. In my opinion, books like that outnumber decent history books. How big a problem do you think there is with uncontrolled pseudohistory?
Haven’t you looked at the shelves in bookshops in France, England or the US? Such literature absolutely dominates there as well. I will give you an example. The well-known Marc Ferro [a very popular historian in France, thanks to his TV shows.—JP] published a book a couple of years ago in which he claimed that Czar Nicholas II and his family were not killed in Yekaterinburg in 1918. This is simply ridiculous, but such a book was published by an esteemed French historian – simply to make sales.
Imagine that an average person goes to a bookstore in Moscow or New York and wants to know the truth. Truth is extremely difficult to find among such a vast number of books that are all called history books.
Actually, the best criteria for truth are source documents.
Well, yes, but where would the average citizen search for or find such source documents?
By all means, let them come to our website [State Archive of the Russian Federation—]. If you are truly interested in history, read the source documents! Do not believe the numerous fabrications.
There is a very vivid and recent example on this topic—Panfilov’s guardsmen. You presented the facts and said that this event did not occur in the way we know from history textbooks. There was no political commissar who said: “Russia is vast, but there’s nowhere to retreat—Moscow’s behind us!” but [Vladimir] Medinsky, Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation, claims that this is not true and you are babbling. [One of the best-known legends of the Great Patriotic War is about Panfilov’s 28 poorly-armed guardsmen, who allegedly halted 50 German tanks near Moscow. It was recently announced that the Military Prosecutor’s Office of the USSR knew as early as 1948 that the story had been made up by the war correspondents of the newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda.—JP]
Medinsky is a Minister of a great country, and should be more careful in his assessments. He’s bringing shame not only upon himself, but also upon Russia.
What can be done in such a situation, when the historian argues based on facts, but along comes “the big man” and tells him not to talk tittle-tattle?
You have to think for yourself. You either believe some newcomer or science.
So it turns out that the heroic action of Panfilov’s guardsmen was not quite what we were taught at school. How many of these old stories about heroic deeds are true? I can instantly recall Gastello, Kosmodemyanskaya and Matrossov.
I worked on the subject of Panfilov’s guardsmen. And only an idiot would draw the conclusion that, even if Panfilov’s 28 heroes did not exist, his division as a whole did not perform any heroic deeds at all. Panfilov’s division fell almost to the last man protecting Moscow. Nobody can deny this heroic action by the whole division; that would be madness. But there were no 28 heroes, so what can you do! Instead, there were other heroes. The trouble is that the Soviet authorities did not see a difference between fantasy and reality. Thus, they insulted the true heroes, who nobody cared about. Why was it even necessary to come up with fictitious heroic deeds if there were real ones? This is something I cannot comprehend.
What are the biggest “uncharted areas” in the history of World War II in the Soviet Union?
The first months of the [Soviet–German] War. I don’t know for sure, of course, but I think that there are documents in the archives of the Ministry of Defence that could shed light on the different scenarios that the Soviet General Staff was developing before the war. I am convinced that Mr Suvorov is a false historian. His Icebreaker, which sold ten million copies in Russia, was clearly speculative, a fantasy. [A former KGB officer, Viktor Suvorov claims in his books – which have been translated into Estonian – that Stalin was actually planning on attacking Germany in July 1941, but Hitler beat him to the punch.—JP] He bets on the fact that you have been lied to for 70 years, but he would now appear to tell you the whole truth.
How open are the Russian archives to foreign historians?
To say that they are closed would be wrong. The Russian legislature does not distinguish between access for foreign and Russian historians. The open archives – material that has had the “confidential” stamp removed – are completely accessible. In this sense, at least we [the Russian State Archive] have preserved the same terms of access to foreigners as in the 1990s. Their number has always stayed around ten percent. Look at our reading halls; there are many foreign researchers there. There are seven million files in our archive, with a hundred documents in each file on average. Can you imagine what an ocean of material that is!


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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