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COLUMN ONE : Sifting for Soviet Clues to Cold War : Russian and U.S. scholars are mining a mother lode of declassified Communist Party archives in Moscow and Eastern Europe. A new postwar history is emerging.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was the mid-1960s, and U.S. B-52s were pummeling North Vietnam. In the port of Haiphong, a prime bombing target, the Vietnamese devised a novel means of defense: the bodies of Soviet sailors.

Transforming citizens of their main ally into unwitting human shields, the Vietnamese intentionally stalled the unloading of Soviet freighters in the belief that as long as the Russians were in port, the U.S. Air Force would be loath to attack.

What’s more, the Vietnamese moored the vessels in the riskiest waters, including those near antiaircraft batteries. During air raids, Vietnamese gunboats lurked in the lee of the freighters, blasting away at the B-52s--and inviting a retaliatory bomb lobbed onto Soviet seamen’s heads.

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That historical tidbit, illustrating the ruthlessly self-serving nature of relations between two members of the so-called “fraternal socialist camp,” was unearthed recently by two Russian researchers, Ilya V. Gaiduk of the Institute of Universal History and Documentation Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Oganez V. Marinin of the Center for the Preservation of Contemporary Documentation.

The Moscow scholars, along with a swarm of their Russian and foreign colleagues, are sifting through a mother lode of documentation on our times: declassified Communist Party archives in Moscow and troves of formerly secret files in Eastern Europe.

There are still plenty of frustrations, gaps and unsolved mysteries. But historians speak of what they are finding with the same astonishment that British Egyptologist Howard Carter voiced when he found the lost burial chamber of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen.

“If five years ago someone had said I could look at some of these top-secret documents on Poland, for example, I’d never have believed it,” marveled Mark Kramer, a research associate at Harvard University’s Russian Research Center and the Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University.

What is emerging is nothing less than a new history, one still being written, of the great and only partially understood processes that have shaped the lives of every Russian and American, and almost everyone else on the planet, since the end of World War II.

“Ninety-nine percent of Cold War history is written on the basis of Western sources, especially from American and British declassified documents,” explained Jim Hershberg, coordinator of the Cold War International History Project, co-sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and Moscow’s Institute of Universal History and Documentation Center.

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“With this project, we wanted to start presenting the Soviet side of the Cold War--their motives, intentions and insights into their decision-making process--in order to complete the picture of what happened.”

The chroniclers’ findings, which were discussed in part when three dozen Russian and American scholars met this month in a cavernous conference hall overlooking Moscow’s largest sports stadium, make anything but dry history. In fact, some assumptions that were the bedrock of American diplomacy or U.S. domestic politics have now been discredited, or in some cases exploded.

“It’s a big myth that Moscow directed a unified monolith of socialist states,” Deborah A. Kaple of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute said, summing up the consensus of what is called the “revisionist” school of Cold War historiography. “This myth gave rise to the ‘Red Scare’ and McCarthyism in the States, since it purported that the Kremlin was running the show in China, just as it had done in Eastern Europe.”

As conclusive proof, take the findings of Kathryn Weathersby of Florida State University, who has focused on Soviet aims in Korea, 1945-50, and the background to the June 25, 1950, invasion of South Korea by forces of North Korea’s Democratic People’s Republic.

The consequences of North Korea’s attack, as Weathersby notes, were indeed awesome: The Harry S. Truman Administration implemented a massive rearmament plan, moved to help the embattled French in Indochina (thus laying the groundwork for the U.S. debacle in Vietnam), solidified NATO, rearmed Germany and concluded a separate peace with Japan.

Tens of thousands of American reservists were called up, and anti-Communist outrage and panic in the United States were given another excellent raison d’etre. More than 33,000 Americans died in battle. Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected President in part for his pledge to “go to Korea” and end the fighting.

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But what had happened along the 38th Parallel? President Truman and America as a whole concluded that it was the opening salvo of a broader Soviet onslaught on the exposed points of the Free World and that West Germany was the probable next target.

But in the now-declassified Soviet Communist Party Central Committee Archives as well as in previously published accounts, Weathersby found proof that a wary Josef Stalin was dragged into reluctantly giving the green light to North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s invasion plan, largely because the Soviet chief feared losing his position as head of the Communist camp to China’s Mao Tse-tung.

And when U.S. forces intervened, the surprised Soviets immediately took steps to avoid engaging them, including recalling ships that had already sailed for Korea, Weathersby says.

“Stalin was not interested in extending Soviet control into southern Korea, (but) the highly nationalistic Korean Communists whom Soviet occupation officials placed in power in North Korea were quite determined to do so,” she concludes.

It may shock U.S. soldiers who risked their lives in two wars to check the advance of communism, but the “Communist world” wasn’t at all the colossus it seemed, the revisionists argue. What looked for decades like a great and expanding red blob on the globe was in fact seething with rival leaders, ambitions and strategies, they assert.

As for the redoubtable Soviet bear, it feared America’s military and economic power and usually erred on the side of caution. Moscow was regularly ripped off by its “allies,” fed biased information or disinformation, goaded into action and sometimes ignored.

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Hope M. Harrison, an associate of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, nicknames this the “tail-wagging-the-dog” phenomenon. Using documents now available in Moscow and Berlin (East Berlin was the capital of the former East Germany), Harrison researched the causes of the 1958-61 Berlin crisis and the building of the most hated symbol of Communist totalitarianism, the Berlin Wall.

In the records of East Germany’s Socialist Unity (Communist) Party, she found proof of East German leader Walter Ulbricht’s “actually bossing” Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev around, she says.

Harrison admits turning up evidence that it was indeed the Soviets’ idea to erect the belt of concrete and barbed wire around West Berlin, as a way of stanching East Germany’s massive brain drain and salvaging a client state’s economy.

But, the Harvard researcher has concluded, it was Ulbricht’s brinkmanship and extremism that forced the more reluctant Khrushchev--who didn’t want to upset relations and trade ties with the West, and President John F. Kennedy in particular--into acting.

The Soviets were pouring money into East Berlin to make “the first workers’ and peasants’ state on German soil” the showcase of Eastern Europe, and Ulbricht effectively gave Khrushchev a choice: Continue the lavish aid, an impossibility for the war-ravaged Soviet economy, or find another way to keep East Germans from fleeing.

“In other words,” Harrison said, “the bloc wasn’t as monolithic as we thought. . . . In almost every arena of the Cold War--in China, Vietnam, Eastern Europe--the influence of the smaller allies on Soviet decision-making was greater than previously imagined.”

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The Chinese Communist takeover in 1949 “came as an unpleasant surprise not only to the U.S.A. but also to the U.S.S.R.,” two researchers from the Moscow documentation center have found. Far from desiring a spread of workers’ democracy, Stalin was keenly worried about the world’s most populous country demanding a commensurate voice in the worldwide Marxist movement.

Until breaking with Moscow in the early ‘60s, Chinese Communists regarded the Soviet Union as something akin to an inexhaustible shopping center. Mao told the Soviet ambassador in Beijing that as a rule, “on their way to Moscow, the Chinese carried a maximum application (for assistance) in their pockets, and if it had not been fulfilled, they drew a minimum application from another pocket.”

Not surprisingly, the Soviets, like millions of U.S. taxpayers who must foot the bill for foreign aid, found the recipients exasperatingly ungrateful.

Many times, documents show, Soviets in the Defense Ministry and the Hanoi embassy complained in cables of “the Vietnamese friends’ insincere attitude,” the obstacles put in their way when they wanted to examine captured U.S. military equipment and general “mistrust and suspicion.”

And what did the SAM missiles, tanks and the rest of it buy for Moscow? Precious little, in the Russians’ view. In a conversation with a correspondent from Izvestia that went into the files in Moscow, a Vietnamese journalist slyly observed that although the Soviet Union was supplying “75% to 80%” of the foreign assistance received by Hanoi, its share of political influence was a mere “4% to 8%.”

There is a symmetry here that Gaiduk, a baby-faced young historian now serving a stint at the Wilson Center in Washington, finds ironic. “Both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had strained relations with their Vietnamese allies,” he notes. “While going through the archives, I was struck with the similarity of their problems. . . . I thought, you could just change the names here--’U.S.’ for ‘U.S.S.R.’ and vice versa--and it’d be the same.”

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Manifestly, Moscow’s aims during the war were not the same as Hanoi’s, Gaiduk found. The Viet Cong wanted to take power in South Vietnam. The Soviets, fearing that an escalating conflict could eventually drag them into head-on confrontation with the United States, wanted a negotiated settlement.

The danger of the revisionist brand of Cold War history, its critics caution, is to transform the Soviets into a big, bumbling sort of teddy bear, pushed into reckless acts by devious foreigners.

However, the declassified documents make clear that the Soviets could be ruthlessly, even murderously, effective on their own.

A trio of Russian researchers, for example, pored over 200 documents relating to the Kremlin’s crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and found one especially chilling item. Signed by Presidium members Georgy M. Malenkov and Mikhail A. Suslov and a third leader of the Soviet Communist hierarchy, Averky B. Aristov, the communique mentions advice given to Janos Kadar, the puppet leader installed in Budapest, to pick out half a dozen arrested Hungarian insurgents for trial, then have them “shot down as a stern warning to the counterrevolutionary forces and in order to restore law and order at the earliest date.”

Likewise, during Czechoslovakia’s short-lived “Prague Spring” reforms in 1968--which were also snuffed out by Soviet tanks--Moscow’s stooges on the Presidium, the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s ruling body, sent the agenda of future meetings to the Soviet Embassy, and Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev would call or telegraph his “recommendations.”

Recognizing the dangers of a pendulum swing in the chronicling of the Cold War, Weathersby says it would be just as wrong to attribute everything once blamed on “the hand of Moscow” to the Kremlin’s client states.

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“That the North Koreans had their own goals and were not simply ‘puppets’ of Moscow in the Cold War sense of the phrase does not mean the Soviet Union did not attempt to direct events in Korea,” the soft-spoken assistant professor of history from Tallahassee says.

Historians cite other caveats in evaluating the newly accessible information, notably its incompleteness. Having a seamless record can be vital, as the latest controversy over Alger Hiss has shown.

Last October, in remarks that provoked a sensation in the United States, Russian Gen. Dmitri A. Volkogonov acknowledged that he had found no evidence that Hiss, a former State Department employee, had spied for the Soviet Union.

Hiss, who was convicted of perjury in 1950, happily claimed that he had been exonerated. But last month, Volkogonov objected that he had not been “properly understood.” The adviser to President Boris N. Yeltsin said he meant only that he had not found anything incriminating in those files that he had searched.

“The Ministry of Defense also has an intelligence service, which is totally different, and many documents have been destroyed,” Volkogonov cautioned. “I only looked through what the KGB had. All I said was that I saw no evidence. . . . “

Kramer, an American historian trying to get to the bottom of the 1980-81 Polish crisis (the emergence of the independent trade union Solidarity and the imposition of martial law by Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski), has run up against a different sort of brick wall: Although he can enter three declassified Soviet archives, others, including the KGB archives, the central military archives of the Ministry of Defense and the “holy of holies,” the Presidential Archive, are still basically closed.

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Consequently, Kramer still can’t answer a question of particular concern to him, as well as to the entire Polish nation: Did the Soviets tell Jaruzelski they would invade Poland if he did not crush Solidarity (and was he therefore acting like a patriot in declaring martial law as a “tragic necessity” to keep the Red Army out, as Jaruzelski himself maintains)? Or did Jaruzelski act on his own to impose a militarized form of communism on Poland?

“I’m 99.9% sure that the conclusive documents do exist that show who ordered martial law--Jaruzelski’s own initiative or the Soviets,” Kramer declares. For the moment, the intense, wire-thin scholar has little choice but to keep hunting for his own particular Holy Grail.

Many researchers have become interested in following the trail of information as it flowed from Soviet embassies, Pravda correspondents, KGB operatives and other sources back to Moscow.

Kramer found that in a number of East European crises, “the KGB, for one reason or another, failed to provide Soviet leaders with accurate information.”

Kramer even quotes one unnamed general as determining that Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, chief of the KGB’s Foreign Intelligence Directorate in 1981 (and now in jail as one of the hard-liners who plotted the August, 1991, coup) deliberately sent distorted, alarming reports on the Polish situation to Moscow because he knew that was what his masters wanted to hear.

After scanning documents at Prague’s Government Commission for the Study of the 1967-70 Events, historian Mikhail V. Latysh concluded that Moscow’s informants were mainly hidebound ideologues who were loyal to ousted Stalinist leader Antonin Novotny and for whom Communist reformers were “Zionists,” “Italian-type Marxists” or spies working for the West.

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The information that filtered back to Moscow, which described Czechoslovak Communist Party leader Alexander Dubcek’s reforms as counterrevolutionary and a threat to the entire East Bloc, was based almost exclusively on reactions within Prague party circles and failed to reflect the mood of the Czechoslovak public.

“The erroneous interpretation of the developments in Czechoslovakia and their overdramatization were largely determined by the distorted information sent from the Soviet Embassy,” said Latysh, a researcher at Moscow’s Institute of Slavic and Balkan Studies.

The thick ideological film clouding the Kremlin’s vision of the facts began at the very onset of the Cold War--and, indeed, helps explain its genesis. Among reading materials once squirreled away in Soviet Foreign Ministry vaults, Scott D. Parrish, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harriman Institute, found that the paranoia-filled Soviets turned the rationale of the Marshall Plan on its head.

In particular, the Russians, with their country left in ruins by World War II and millions of their citizens dead, feared that U.S. economic might could be used to undermine their recent but still shaky gains in Eastern European countries.

“Conceived by American policy-makers primarily as a defensive measure to stave off economic collapse in Western Europe, (the Marshall Plan) proved indistinguishable to the Soviet leadership from an offensive attempt to subvert the security interests of the Soviet Union,” Parrish said. “The upshot was the Cold War. . . . “

The women and men sifting through the once-secret Soviet and Eastern European documents note that they have only begun and have little idea where their work might take them. The scope of their task beggars comparison. In Moscow’s Central Party Archives alone, there are 30 million documents.

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As Hershberg of the Wilson center put it, “It’s like chipping away at the Berlin Wall--the first hammer blows didn’t destroy the Wall, but they began the process that brought the Wall down.”

Cindy Scharf, a researcher in The Times’ Moscow bureau, contributed to this story.

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