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New Soviet history - revised and uncovered

Post-cold-war scholarship looks at Lenin, the atomic bomb, and KGB espionage

LENIN: A NEW BIOGRAPHY. By Dmitri Volkogonov. Translated by Harold Shukman; The Free Press, 529 pp. $30 THE LIVING & THE DEAD: THE RISE & FALL OF THE CULT OF WORLD WAR II IN RUSSIA. By Nina Tumarkin; BasicBooks, 242 pp., $25 THE DREAM THAT FAILED: REFLECTIONS ON THE SOVIET UNION. By Walter Laqueur; Oxford University Press, 231 pp., $25 STALIN AND THE BOMB: THE SOVIET UNION AND ATOMIC ENERGY 1939-1956. By David Holloway; Yale University Press, 464 pp., $30 IMPERIUM. By Ryszard Kapuscinski. Translated by Klara Glowczewska; Alfred A. Knopf, 331 pp., $24 THE FIRST DIRECTORATE: MY 32 YEARS IN INTELLIGENCE AND ESPIONAGE AGAINST THE WEST. By Oleg Kalugin with Fen Montaigne; St. Martin's Press, 375 pp., $23.95 THE STATE WITHIN A STATE: THE KGB AND ITS HOLD ON RUSSIA - PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE. By Yevgenia Albats. Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 401 pp., $25

HISTORIANS of the former Communist lands of the cold war face an exciting prospect: The archives of those countries are opening; the cry of ``national security'' no longer dominates Washington; and the subtle pressures to excuse one side or another are diminishing. And only an honest, realistic understanding of the past will help an informed citizenry develop in democratizing societies.

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The very symbol of the Russian ``new history'' is Dimitri Volkogonov, the former general and professional historian who gained public renown and Gorbachev's support while battling the Stalinists in the 1980s. Following his harsh biography of Stalin, Volkogonov now presents Lenin: A New Biography, a well-documented response to the wishful thinking that all would have been well ``if only'' this ``kinder, gentler'' leader had survived, rather than dying in 1924.

This Volkogonov rejects: Lenin, with his brutality, duplicity, and lust for power, was no alternative to Stalin, but simply his predecessor. The two represented not change, but a continuity of horrors inflicted on the peoples of Russia.

In demystifying Lenin, Volkogonov is generous with details from the archives regarding his comfortable life in exile, German financing of the Bolsheviks during World War I, and the ruthlessness with which he attacked his enemies after 1917. What underlay Lenin's behavior, his insistence that ends justify means, is a vital question left unconsidered, but Volkogonov already has gone far in denying the legitimacy of Bolshevism.

Another attack on Soviet mythology is Nina Tumarkin's The Living and the Dead: The Rise and Fall of the Cult of World War II In Russia, a poignant, beautifully written account of the complex Soviet attitude toward World War II.

Tumarkin comes from a Russian emigre family; her vision of Soviet history is subtle, nuanced, rich with personal insights and autobiographical details. She is deeply saddened by the grim effect on the Russian psyche of the dictatorship's manipulation of mass emotions. Only since Gorbachev has truth begun to emerge in the art and literature that Tumarkin analyzes so perceptively.

In The Dream That Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union, the learned Walter Laqueur also is concerned with a kind of myth, the theories that Western scholars and writers have developed for decades to explain the Soviet system. Yet its collapse caught them by surprise: Why? Laqueur looks to the self-deception of experts.

For an example of ideologically free narrative, consider David Holloway's Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy 1939-1956. This is a rich, imposing account, thick with a specialist's detail on how, when, and why Stalin achieved the atomic bomb.

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Two issues are central. First, Stalin treated World War II as a preamble to an inevitable conflict with the capitalists; only the bomb could ensure Soviet survival. Revisionist historians are naive in arguing that the cold war was avoidable ``if only'' Truman had gained Stalin's confidence by giving this ally the secret. Not so, Holloway tacitly argues. Stalin's state was too paranoid ever to trust the West.

The other issue is: Did Soviet spies steal the secret or did the Soviets succeed on their own? The theft scenario delights those who define the Western scientific community as ``soft'' on communism, and Soviet science and technology as backward, primitive.

Holloway disagrees. Basically, Soviet scientists won the secret on their own, though Klaus Fuchs's espionage probably gained them a year; such spies as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg contributed little.

From prose to poetry - so we move from Holloway to Ryszard Kapuscinski's Imperium, a deft, episodic account of a fragmenting Soviet Union. This famous Polish journalist wandered through Siberia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, observing, chronicling, and speculating about life. As a Pole, he had felt the Soviet boot. Is he not a trifle satisfied to watch the empire collapse?

After the beautifully crafted books by Holloway and Kapuscinski, there is a letdown in The First Directorate: My 32 Years In Intelligence and Espionage Against the West, the bureaucratic memoirs of Oleg Kalugin, a retired KGB major-general whose authoritative visage has graced American television. His book - written with Fen Montaigne - is filled with lively tidbits about operating in the United States, recruiting agents, roaming the world on this or that mission - and enjoying the perks.

The ideological disillusionment that Kalugin insists began in the 1980s is unconvincing in this ambitious career-minded official, who now presents himself as a liberal, democratic political figure.

If Kalugin is too smooth and plausible, then Yevgenia Albats, a young Russian journalist, is too ready to define the KGB as the dominant force in Russian life, in The State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia - Past, Present, and Future.

Here are conspiratorial visions writ large, the simplistic notion that the KGB knows all, sees all, and controls all, including the 1991 coup that, nevertheless, failed. This is not political analysis, but the reduction of vast events into gross simplifications. That an experienced international journalist should present this vision of history suggests how far Soviet historians have to go.

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