Dmitri Volkogonov is the type of Russian historian the West needs more of. His writings reflect a culmination of events closely tied to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the nation his life was spent in the service to; he contributed significantly to the delegitimization of the Soviet regime in the eyes of ordinary Russians by debunking myths around its national heroes and exposing the naked terror which underpinned the USSR. What’s more, his own life reveals as much about the Soviet Union as those of the communist leaders he wrote about.
For most of his life, Volkogonov was the furthest thing from a dissident historian. In fact, only in his last few years of life, after having spent most of his career as a Soviet general, did he come to disavow his life-long held beliefs.
He was born in 1928 to a schoolteacher/farmer and his wife in Siberia. At the age of eight he was orphaned when his father was arrested for possessing a pamphlet written by the recently purged Nikolai Bukharin, a first-generation Bolshevik revolutionary and close Stalin ally who, nevertheless, had recently been executed in the Great Purge of 1937. His father was similarly shot and his mother was sent to labor camp where she too perished. The young Volkogonov joined the army in 1945 and rapidly rose through the ranks.
He established himself as a hardline Communist and Marxist-Leninist, eventually leading the USSR’s Department of Special Propaganda. There, he traveled widely across the Second World, touring the Soviet client states and working to improve their state propaganda apparatuses. He devoted himself to vigorously spreading communist ideology within the Soviet Military. Eventually, he reached the rank of Colonel-General and was charged with the Soviet Psychological Warfare Division.
In the late 1970’s he began to question his earlier beliefs. He had had doubts earlier, such as after reading Khrushchev’s 1956 secret speech criticizing Stalinism, but his travels abroad demonstrated the economic calamities that Communism brought to every nation it infected. At this time, Volkogonov still believed the system was reformable, even if it had serious flaws. The 3-star general was demoted to direct the Institute of Military History after calling for the removal of the communist party commissars from the military.
Ironically, this turned out to be the best possible outcome for the budding amateur historian because it was at the Institute of Military History where he gained access to the Soviet secret archives: classified records only available to those government officials with the most exemplary Marxist credentials. There, as he read the writings of the earliest Bolsheviks, Volkogonov saw that the oppression and terror that marked the worst of Stalin was not an aberration of Stalin’s personal megalomania (as many Soviet historians at the time were apt to do), but a key feature of Marxism-Leninism.
Volkogonov wrote his first biography of Stalin in 1983, but it was not allowed to be published until 1988 after Glasnost. Upon its release, Volkogonov was blacklisted from Soviet society. He began circulating a draft of comprehensive history of WWII which caused further outrage. While Khrushchev’s secret speech had allowed some criticism of Stalinism, Volkogonov’s detailed documentation of Soviet ineptitude during the Great Patriotic War and the massacre of nearly 20,000 Polish officers Katyn Forest were seen as a disgrace to the whole Soviet military. Soon after, Volkogonov was asked to resign from the Institute of Military History by Minister of Defense Dmitri Yazov.
Three months later, Yazov along with Vice President Gennady Yanayev, would lead a group of communist hardliners in the coup attempt to revive the ailing Soviet state. Volkogonov, recovering from cancer surgery in a hospital in the UK at time, held interviews on the BBC urging the Soviet military to oppose the coup leaders and support Yeltsin.
It must be noted that in 1988 Volkogonov converted to Orthodox Christianity, which could be seen as the culmination of his experiences during the late 1970s and early 1980s. After years of doubt, he finally completely broke with Marxism-Leninism as the system and its beliefs were irreconcilable with his new faith.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Volkogonov was chosen as Yeltsin’s Military Advisor and oversaw the release of the old Soviet archives, though his relationship with Yeltsin ultimately soured over the Invasion of Chechnya in 1994. Volkogonov would soon thereafter finally succumb to his long battle with cancer a year later in 1995.
It was in the last few years of his life that Volkogonov was most prolific, completing three volumes in just three years (Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary, 1992, Lenin: A New Biography, 1994, and Autopsy for an Empire: The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime, 1995).
What’s perhaps most radical about Volkogonov’s style is that he chose to write biographies instead of traditional histories. The strict Marxist lens in which Soviet history was viewed till then taught that history must be understood in terms of historical trends. The material determinism that underlined the intellectual foundation of the state left no room for the agency of individuals in history.
In biography however, there is only men and their actions. It is history devoid of theory. Leaders act, and those actions affect people. Once the Soviet leaders are robbed of the justification of merely acting out the inevitable transformation of the system into its next iteration, their murderous actions become all the more indefensible.
Ultimately, Volkogonov concludes that the October Revolution is best understood as counter revolution, the reasserting of an autocratic policy state, this time with a General Secretary instead of a Tsar and a much more fanatical philosophy at its core. Only in the brief Provisional Government in 1917 did Russia have any hope of becoming a free society.
At the time of his death, Volkogonov received some praise in the West, but he has since been largely forgotten. This is a loss for Western readers of Russian history; his ideological conversion is so complete, so extraordinary, that his life and works demand our recognition. As Neil McInnes wrote in 1996:
“Volkogonov, a Stalinist prodigy, a professor of dialectical materialism, a general who was active from Angola to Afghanistan, becomes baptized into the Russian Orthodox faith in 1988 at age sixty and sets out to write huge rambling lives of the Soviet leaders, giving chapter and verse for the awful truth that for seventy years a sixth of the earth was ruled by irresponsible tyrants”
He uncovered the lies told by soviet leadership about themselves and gave ordinarily Russians the first unsuppressed accounts of their history. His life and legacy deserve a larger role in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union.