Shortly before Christmas, the National Archives of Latvia presented an unpleasant gift to the country’s ruling elite: a full alphabetical index of some 10,000 people recruited as agents or informants by the Soviet KGB. The publication, which followed two decades of public debate and the passage of a special law, revealed the names, code names, birthplaces and other data on active and former KGB agents as of 1991, the year Latvia regained its independence from the Soviet Union.
Unlike other former Soviet republics, where KGB officials managed to remove or destroy archives before leaving their posts, Latvia preserved many of the documents but has not made them public until now. A quick glance at the lists might explain the strength of opposition to the declassification: The names of purported agents feature some of the country’s most powerful, including parliamentarians, government ministers, judges, clergymen, writers, musicians and journalists.
“This should have been done long ago,” said Leonid Yakobson, a Latvian investigative reporter. “We should have introduced lustration, restricting those on the lists [of agents] from politics, as was done in Germany after the war. But better late than never.” The National Archive is planning to publish more documents relating to KGB activities in Soviet Latvia by May.
Belated as it may be, Latvia’s decision to open up its Soviet vaults represents a momentous step in coming to terms with a totalitarian past. Similar measures were taken by many former Warsaw Pact countries, from Poland to the Czech Republic, after the fall of communist regimes. In Germany alone, nearly 7 million people applied to view their files from the once-feared Stasi, the East German secret police, which are now administered by a specially created federal agency. In some central and eastern European countries, the opening of archives was accompanied by temporary or permanent restrictions on government service for operatives, informants and collaborators of the former regimes and their security services. Such policies were intended to guard young democracies against an authoritarian comeback.
It seemed that Russia, too, would follow this path. In September 1991, shortly after its victory over a hard-line coup attempt, the government of President Boris Yeltsin agreed to an international commission of inquiry that would “objectively and comprehensively” study Soviet archives, with subsequent publication. During the 1992 proceedings in Russia’s Constitutional Court that became known as “the Communist Party case,” hundreds of documents from the Central Committee archive were made available to Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet-era dissident invited as an expert witness by Yeltsin’s legal team.
At the conclusion of the trial, Russia’s highest court ruled that “the governing structures of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had been the initiators of repression … directed at millions.” A nationwide poll the same year showed a majority of Russians backing the idea of excluding former Communist Party apparatchiks from positions of power. The proposal was codified in a bill introduced that December in the Russian parliament by Galina Starovoitova, a prominent liberal lawmaker from St. Petersburg.
The bill never passed; the commission was never formed; the Soviet archives were never fully opened. “Yeltsin categorically refused,” recalled Bukovsky. “On the one hand, I think he understood that if such a process began, it would be difficult for him [as a former communist] to remain in power. … On the other hand, Yeltsin came under tremendous pressure from the West not to open the archives. Western leaders had too many connections to the Soviet regime; they had made too many secret deals with the Kremlin that they did not want to become known.”
One episode illustrates how well-founded those fears were. Among the documents made available to Bukovsky during the trial was a confidential Central Committee memo dated Dec. 11, 1980. It described the leader of Finland’s Social Democrats, Kalevi Sorsa, as a “trusted collaborator” of the Kremlin. Sorsa, a three-time prime minister of Finland, was considered the front-runner for the country’s 1994 presidential election. The publication of the memo spelled the end of Sorsa’s political career; he issued a public apology and withdrew from the race. One wonders how many political careers in the West would have come to a close had the Russian government decided to go ahead with a full declassification.
By refusing to account for the Soviet past, Russia’s democratic leaders also sealed their own fate. “I told members of the Russian government [in 1992]: ‘Be careful, it’s like dealing with a wounded beast. If you don’t finish it off, it will attack you,’” Bukovsky said. The comeback took just seven years: On New Year’s Eve in 1999, a former officer of the Soviet KGB took Yeltsin’s place in the Kremlin. A small reminder of how dramatic the comeback has been came in the same week as Latvia’s publication of its KGB documents, when a Moscow court upheld the Vladimir Putin government’s de facto justification of Soviet state terror by dismissing a lawsuit against FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov. In an interview with the main government newspaper, Bortnikov rationalized the mass Stalin-era purges as “local excesses.”
Russia’s mistake in the 1990s offers a textbook example of how historical truth — or its absence — can impact the present. The post-Putin government in Russia, when it comes, must not repeat that mistake and must fully air all the past secrets — whatever the names of “trusted collaborators” contained in the Kremlin’s files.