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Declassified Materials from CPSU Central Committee

Plenums: Sources, Context, Highlights

by Mark Kramer

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n October 1995 the Center for Storage of Contempo- adding to the RTsKhIDNI materials. Opis 3 includes
rary Documentation (TsKhSD) in Moscow, which documents from Central Committee plenums ranging from

houses the former archive of the Central Committee 1966 to 1986. Opis 4 includes protocols from Central
(CC) of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU), received Committee plenums held between 1966 and 1990. Opis' 5
materials from the Russian Presidential Archive for a comprises documents from plenums held between 1986
newly opened section known as Fond 2. The new fond (an and 1990, the core of the period when Mikhail Gorbachev
archival term roughly translated in English as "collection") was CPSU General Secretary.
includes different versions of CPSU Central Committee

Opis 1 of Fond 2 consists of 822 separate dela, with plenum transcripts from 1918 to 1990 as well as secret materials arranged in the order in which they were documents that were used at the plenums. Some 845 produced. The files include transcripts and other docuvoluminous files (dela) of declassified plenum materials ments from Central Committee plenums held between from 1918 to 1941 had been available since the early 1941 and 1966. In principle, the plenum materials from 1990s at another repository in Moscow, the former Central before 1953 should be housed at RTsKhIDNI rather than at Party Archive (now known as the Russian Center for TsKhSD. However, to maintain the integrity of the fond, Storage and Study of Documents of Recent History, or the earlier materials will be kept together with the more RTSKIDNI); but the newly-opened Fond 2 at TsKhSD is recent documents. All told, Opis' 1 covers 51 plenums.

5 many times larger and much more comprehensive. Not In many cases, two or more versions of the same only does Fond 2 add to the RTsKhIDNI collection of pre- plenum exist. The closest thing to a verbatim transcript, 1941 materials; it also provides full documentary coverage known as an "uncorrected stenogram" (nepravlennaya for the dozens of Central Committee plenums after 1941. stenogramma), was compiled by a team of stenographers

This article will briefly discuss the structure of Fond during the plenum. Excerpts from this raw text were sent 2, the problems that arise when using the documents, and a by the head of the CPSU CC General Department to all few highlights from plenary sessions held in the 1950s and those who spoke at the plenum. The speakers were 1960s.

permitted to see and edit only their own remarks. 6 The


full text then underwent further editing by one or two Structure Of Fond 2

senior party officials. The corrected version, known as the Fond 2 of TsKhSD is divided among five opisi

"author's copy" (avtorskii ekzemplyar), contains the full (roughly translated as "inventories” or, in this context, verbatim text marked up in handwriting as well as newly "record groups").2 Initially, only Opis' 1 of Fond 2 was 2

drafted pages and paragraphs to be inserted into the released. In early 1996 the Russian government's “Com- transcript. (Often the insertions were in handwriting, too.) mission on Declassification of Documents Created by the The revised version was then retyped to produce a CPSU” announced that the other four opisi of Fond 2 had "corrected copy" (korrektorskii ekzemplyar), which was been declassified in 1995 and would be transferred to given to a few senior Presidium/Politburo members to TsKhSD. Unfortunately, this announcement turned out to review. Usually, one of the officials (e.g., Mikhail

7 be misleading. As of late 1997, none of the other four Suslov) would approve the corrected copy as the final opisi had yet been transferred from the Presidential

version, but in a few cases each official would make Archive. Thus, even though Opisi 2, 3, 4, and 5 were additional changes, resulting in an “edited copy" nominally “declassified,” researchers had no access to (redaktsionnyi ekzemplyar). A few last-minute revisions them. In response to complaints from visiting scholars, the might then be made in the edited copy before a final director of TsKhSD conceded that the commission's "stenographic account” (stenograficheskii otchet) was announcement had been “premature.94

typeset. The whole process of editing and revision could The four additional opisi of Fond 2 are due to be sometimes take several months or longer. The final

8 transferred to TsKhSD in the first half of 1998. However, stenographic account was disseminated to all members of officials at TsKhSD have no direct say in the Presidential the CPSU Presidium/Politburo, CPSU Secretariat, and Archive's actions and therefore can offer no guarantees. CPSU Central Committee, to other senior employees of Once the transfer is completed, these new opisi will the central party apparatus, to leading officials in the provide an invaluable complement to the existing Opis' 1. fourteen union-republic Communist parties, and to the first Opis' 2 includes the protocols and stenograms from secretaries of the CPSU's territorial, regional, provincial, Central Committee plenums held between 1918 and 1966, municipal, and local committees.

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The different versions of the proceedings were preserved for most, but not all, of the 51 plenums. The status of each version is specified clearly both in the opis' and on the cover of each delo. The dela for a particular version are grouped consecutively, which makes it relatively easy to distinguish them from other versions.

In addition to the transcripts of plenum proceedings, Opis' 1 includes many files of documents that were used or distributed at the plenums. These documents in some cases were publicly available after the plenums, but in other cases they were classified “secret” or “top secret" and issued on a highly restricted basis. For certain plenums, a separate delo contains the resolutions and theses (or drafts) approved by the Central Committee as well as any final comments by senior party officials.

Although Opis' 1, like all the other opisi of Fond 2, is officially described as "declassified," selected materials in Opis' 1 (and in the other four opisi of Fond 2) are in fact still classified and are marked as such (ne rassekrecheno) in the opis'. The fact that some materials in Fond 2 have not yet been declassified is one of the reasons that TsKhSD has been allowing researchers to use the original, bound transcripts and documents, rather than microfilms of them. The listing of sequential numbers for microfilm reels in the opisi leaves no doubt that all the dela in Fond 2 have been filmed, but the reels mix classified with declassified materials. Hence, only the hard copies are being loaned out. Although the continued classification of some materials in Fond 2 is vexing and unwarranted, the opportunity for scholars to use the original documents (rather than the more cumbersome and, in certain cases, barely legible microfilms) is a welcome, if perverse, benefit of this obsessive secretiveness.


successors, Yurii Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko (and even during the first few years of the Gorbachev era), were brief announcements (informatsionnye soobshcheniya) that Central Committee plenums had been held, lists of those who had spoken, and the resolutions (postanovleniya) and theses (tezisy) adopted by the plenums, which revealed nothing about the tenor of the meetings. 10 The opening of Fond 2 thus fills an important gap in the historical record.

Nevertheless, scholars who use the newly declassified plenum materials should bear in mind a number of caveats. First, it is important to recognize that the Central Committee was not a decision-making body 11 The list of plenums in Opis' 1, provided in Note 5 below, underscores just how limited the Central Committee's role was in Soviet policy-making, especially during the Stalin era, when the Central Committee almost never met. During the final twelve years of Stalin's life, the Central Committee convened only six times, for a total of ten days. The extremely infrequent and perfunctory nature of Central Committee plenums was part of Stalin's general policy of weakening subordinate structures that might in some way infringe on his immense personal power. Under Khrushchev, the frequency of plenums increased, but the Central Committee still convened no more than a total of fifteen days in a given year, and usually far less. Moreover, the timing of plenums did not settle into a particular pattern. All members of the Central Committee had fulltime jobs elsewhere, which consumed the vast bulk of their energies and attention.

Even on the rare occasions when the Central Committee met, it usually functioned as little more than a rubber stamp for the Presidium/Politburo's decisions. As interesting and valuable as the plenum documents are, they clearly show that, with the exception of the June 1957 plenum, all key decisions had been arranged in advance by the Presidium/Politburo, which met shortly before the plenums to iron out any differences and approve the plenum agenda and resolutions. It is telling that in some instances the drafts of resolutions, prepared several days before the Central Committee convened, would already say that the resolutions had been “adopted unanimously”—a result that clearly was not in doubt. 12

The June 1957 plenum was a special case because Khrushchev had been outvoted on the Presidium by what became known as the “Anti-Party Group.” During a session of the Presidium from 18 to 21 June 1957, only three of the ten other full Presidium members—Anastas Mikoyan, Mikhail Suslov, and Aleksei Kirichenko_had supported Khrushchev. Through last-ditch maneuvers, Khrushchev was able to stave off his dismissal by forcing the convocation on June 22 of a Central Committee plenum, which he knew would take his side in the dispute. That session marked the only time from the mid-1920s onward when the top leaders had failed to reach a consensus beforehand about the results they hoped to achieve at the plenum.

The Context of the Plenum Materials

Through almost the whole of the Soviet era, very little information about CPSU Central Committee plenums was released to the public. During the long reign of Josif Stalin (1929-1953), virtually nothing about Central Committee plenums was disclosed. That pattern continued for several years after Stalin's death. Transcripts of key plenums during Nikita Khrushchev's consolidation of power (e.g., the sessions in July 1953, January 1955, July 1955, February 1956, June 1957, and October 1957) were not publicly disseminated at all. This policy of strict secrecy was eased during the final years of Khrushchev's tenure, when edited “stenographic accounts" of some plenums were published. Although the appearance of these transcripts was a major step forward, the accounts did not always enable readers to determine precisely what went on at the plenums. Moreover, the publication of stenographic accounts ceased in March 1965, five months after Leonid Brezhnev displaced Khrushchev; and from that point until the end of the 1980s information about Central Committee plenums was as exiguous as it had been in Stalin's time. The only materials released during the two decades under Brezhnev and his immediate

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The fact that the general outcomes of the plenums Verbatim transcripts were kept for Politburo meetings were arranged in advance does not mean that the discus- during the Brezhnev era and afterwards, but only a sions were dull and lacking in substance. On the contrary, minuscule portion of these have been released so far. In in many cases the debates were very lively and the top late 1991 and 1992, some Politburo transcripts (or portions leaders provided important information to the rank-and- of transcripts) were declassified for a short-lived trial of file Central Committee members about salient issues and the Soviet Communist Party at the Russian Constitutional controversies. Even so, it is clear from the transcripts and

Court. 16 The bulk of the selected transcripts were from other materials that the Presidium/Politburo carefully the Gorbachev era (mainly because Russian president stage-managed and orchestrated the plenums to produce a Boris Yeltsin hoped they would embarrass Gorbachev), but desired result. The plenums were extremely useful for the even these materials represented only a small fraction of top leaders in many ways-by giving ordinary Central the sessions held between 1985 and 1991. Although a few Committee members a sense of involvement in the policy- additional Politburo transcripts from the Gorbachev era making process, by ensuring wide support within the party have been published since the early 1990s—some were put for the top leaders' policies and objectives, and by confer- out by the Gorbachev Foundation to offset the impact of ring a formal stamp of legitimacy on the Presidium/ the materials released by the Yeltsin administration, and Politburo's actions—but this does not change the basic fact others were featured in the Russian archival service's that key decisions were actually made by the Presidium/ journal Istochnik—these scattered documents are no Politburo, not by the Central Committee.

substitute for access to the full collection. 17 Moreover, The highly circumscribed nature of the Central only a handful of transcripts have been released for Committee's role was broadly understood even before any Politburo meetings from the Brezhnev, Andropov, and of the plenum materials were declassified. It is not at all Chernenko periods (though a few well-placed Russian surprising that the plenum transcripts would confirm that officials have been given access to the full collection of the Central Committee routinely complied with the

transcripts). The unavailability of most of the Politburo Presidium/Politburo's wishes. The notion of a "circular notes and transcripts may create at least some temptation flow of power"—whereby the top party leader and his to ascribe too large a role to the Central Committee and allies chose (and had the power to dismiss) lower-ranking other agencies whose records are now available. personnel, who in turn were empowered to vote for

The dominance of the CPSU Presidium/Politburo in delegates to the party congress, who in turn elected the the Soviet policymaking process was necessarily reflected members of the Central Committee, who in turn were in the Central Committee plenums. The context of each responsible for electing the highest party organs—had long plenum can be understood only by answering several enabled Western scholars to understand why the Central questions: What was the Presidium/Politburo hoping to Committee, despite nominally being empowered to

derive from the plenum? Why did the Presidium/Politburo countermand the Presidium/Politburo, instead was

decide to convene the Central Committee? What steps staunchly supportive of the top leaders' preferences.


were taken to ensure that the plenum bolstered the The members of the Central Committee had an in-built Presidium/Politburo's aims? So long as the Politburo's incentive to be loyal, resting on self-interest.

records remain largely sealed, definitive answers to these The thing that researchers need to bear in mind, then, questions may not always be possible; but the transcripts is that the sudden availability of the plenum materials of the plenums and other documents often permit wellshould not lead to an exaggeration of the Central

founded conclusions. For example, it is now clear that the Committee's role. The documents must be seen in context. plenum in early July 1953 which denounced the “criminal Some of the plenum transcripts and supplementary

anti-party and anti-state activities of [Lavrentii] Beria" was materials contain valuable information that is not readily convened by Beria's rivals to reassure the Central Comavailable from other declassified documents, and this will mittee that Beria's arrest had been a matter of high be of great benefit. But unless the plenums are evaluated principle, and not simply part of a power struggle. The against the wider backdrop of Soviet politics (in which the Presidium members who had ordered Beria's arrest outdid Presidium/Politburo was the dominant organ), there is a one another at the plenum in recounting the alleged danger that some scholars will end up looking for their iniquities of their deposed colleague, accusing him of keys where the streetlight is."14

actions that they themselves had initiated (or at least This temptation may be particularly strong because strongly backed) during the previous few months. the vast majority of records of Presidium/Politburo

Khrushchev, Vyacheslav Molotov, Georgii Malenkov, meetings from the post-Stalin era have not yet been

Nikolai Bulganin, and their allies orchestrated the plenum released. Detailed notes from Presidium meetings during to cover up their own roles in promoting policies for which the Khrushchev era, compiled by the head of the CPSU they were now holding Beria solely accountable. So CC General Department, Vladimir Malin, exist in Fond 3 egregious was their abrupt disavowal of their own actions at TsKhSD, but only a tiny fraction of these had been and views that the plenum often took on a surreal qualreleased as of late 1997, despite earlier promises that the ity. 18 The rank-and-file members of the Central Commitfull collection would be declassified by the end of 1996.15 tee, having long been accustomed to accept whatever they

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four powers."22 (Molotov conveniently neglected to mention that this was precisely the position he himself had long supported.) To be on the safe side, the words “and under the control of the four powers” were omitted from the stenographic account, thus implying that Beria had wanted the Soviet Union simply to abandon East Germany. Numerous other changes of this sort were made, including some of much greater length. All of them were designed to bring even greater discredit upon Beria.

For most of the other plenums as well, extensive changes were made in the transcripts before stenographic accounts were issued. In some cases lengthy portions were rewritten, and several new paragraphs or even new pages were added. On occasion, entirely new speeches were inserted.23 The finished product is valuable, indeed essential, for scholars to consult, but it can be highly misleading unless it is compared with the verbatim transcript. Only the “author's copy” permits researchers to examine simultaneously the original proceedings and the subsequent editing. 24 if that version is not available, it is important to look at both the "uncorrected stenogram" and the “stenographic account.” In a few cases (e.g., the December 1959 plenum) these two versions do not differ markedly, but in the large majority of cases the differences can be of great importance.

were told by the highest party authorities, went along obediently this time as well.

The stenographic account of the July 1953 plenum was declassified and published in early 1991, and it has been cited by many Western and Russian scholars since then.


Unfortunately, most of these scholars have failed to take due account of the context of the plenum. Rather than seeing the plenum for what it was-namely, an attempt by Beria's rivals to rationalize their actions by blaming the ousted security chief for a host of purported “crimes" many researchers have taken at face value the allegations made against Beria. This has been especially true of the claims about Beria's supposed effort to "destroy the people's democratic regime in (East Germany)." Beria's real views about Germany in the spring of 1953 bore little resemblance to the accusations lodged against him. It was Molotov, not Beria, who had taken the lead in forging the new Soviet policy toward Germany after Stalin's death, and all the other top Soviet officials, including Beria, had supported him.20 The views attrib

, uted to Beria were contrived by Molotov to gloss over his own responsibility for having drastically reshaped Soviet Deutschlandpolitik just before the June 1953 uprising in East Germany. Numerous Western and Russian scholars who have used the published stenographic account of the July 1953 plenum have been far too accepting of Molotov's tendentious portrayal of Beria and Germany.21

The misunderstandings that have arisen from the declassified account of the July 1953 Central Committee plenum underscore the need for circumspection when drawing on the materials in Fond 2. Unless scholars constantly bear in mind the purpose and context of each plenum, they risk going astray in their interpretations of substantive issues as well as of the dynamics of Soviet policy-making.

One additional problem that researchers may encounter when using the new plenum materials is the distortions that sometimes crept in during the editing of the Central Committee transcripts. As noted above, Fond 2 contains two or more versions of most of the plenums. For research purposes, the most useful version is the "author's copy," which contains a verbatim transcript with handwritten changes and handwritten or typed insertions. This version of the transcript enables scholars to see both the original proceedings and the changes that senior officials wanted to make. If scholars consult only the "corrected copy" or the "stenographic account," they are likely to miss some important nuances in the original proceedings. For example, by the time a stenographic account was issued for the July 1953 plenum, numerous modifications had been made to cast as sinister a light as possible on Beria's actions. A comparison with the verbatim transcript shows that, among other things, Beria's views about Germany

, were depicted in far more extreme terms in the edited account. At one point in the verbatim transcript, Molotov claimed that Beria had supported a united Germany "which will be peaceloving and under the control of the

Selected Plenum Highlights

Most of the Central Committee plenums between 1941 and 1966 had no direct bearing on foreign policy. Instead they focused on agricultural policy, economic problems, local party management, and the like. A number of the plenums, however, dealt at length with foreign policy issues. Some plenums covered two or more topics, both external and internal, whereas other plenums focused exclusively on important foreign developments. Plenums that approved changes (or impending changes) in the leadership, as in March 1953, July 1953, January 1955, June 1957, October 1957, and October 1964, also are of great importance for studies of the Cold War. In a brief article of this sort it would be impossible to give an exhaustive overview of the many issues covered by the plenums, but a few highlights will suffice to indicate how rich some of the material is.

Intensity of the Post-Stalin Leadership Struggle

One of the most intriguing aspects of the plenums from 1953 through 1957 is what they reveal about the leadership struggle. Western observers had long surmised that a fierce struggle was under way behind the scenes, but the only direct evidence for this at the time was the occasional announcement that a senior official had been dismissed or demoted. The declassified transcripts of Central Committee plenums, as well as other new documents and first-hand accounts, reveal that the leadership struggle was even more intense than most analysts had suspected. At some plenums, notably those in July 1953, when the Central Committee denounced Beria, in January

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played a huge and decisive role in bringing about the split with Yugoslavia." Malenkov noted that Molotov had "blatantly disregarded the instructions of the CC Presidium" during the preparations for the rapprochement with Yugoslavia, adding that “this is typical of him." Molotov's views, according to Malenkov, were “weakening the forces of the camp of socialism and strengthening the forces of the imperialist camp.” Malenkov “demanded from (Molotov] a full-fledged explanation and a statement about his obligation to rectify his behavior and to disavow his erroneous views in an unequivocal manner."28

Some of the other condemnations of Molotov during the sessions on Yugoslavia extended far beyond the Yugoslav question alone. Maksim Saburov argued that Molotov's “ridiculous” position on Yugoslavia was "one in a long series of issues on which Com. Molotov does not agree with the CC Presidium.” Saburov cited the virgin lands scheme (which, he said, Molotov believed would be a "largely ineffective and dubious pursuit"), the new planning system for agriculture, the negotiations on the Austrian State Treaty, and the appointment of a new prime minister as issues “on which Com. Molotov disagreed with the principled and correct stance adopted by the CC Presidium.':29 Saburov claimed that Molotov's “deviations” on these matters were far from innocent, being "directed against Com. Khrushchev. ... I personally believe that Com. Molotov regards Com. Khrushchev as an unsuitable official.” Saburov then likened Molotov to Beria and implied that Khrushchev should deal with Molotov in the same way they had treated Beria:

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1955, when Malenkov came under sharp criticism prior to his dismissal as prime minister, in February 1956, when preparations were under way for Khrushchev's “secret speech" condemning Stalin, in June 1957, when Khrushchev ousted the Anti-Party Group, and in October 1957, when Khrushchev removed his erstwhile ally and defense minister, Marshal Georgii Zhukov, the leadership struggle dominated the sessions. Yet even at plenums that were ostensibly convened for other reasons, the ferocity of the leadership struggle often affected the entire proceedings.

One of the best examples came at the lengthy plenum in July 1955, which focused on several topics, including the recent rapprochement with Yugoslavia. [Ed. Note: For extensive excerpts, see below in this Bulletin.) During the debate about Yugoslavia, one of Khrushchev's chief rivals, Vyacheslav Molotov, came under fierce attack. At this juncture, barely a year-and-a-half after Beria had been executed, the prospect of losing out in the power struggle still implied potentially grave risks. Even so, Molotov largely held his ground and only grudgingly, at the very end of the plenum, sought to propitiate his attackers. The segment of the plenum that dealt with Yugoslavia featured a lengthy (138-page) opening speech by Khrushchev, which provided a detailed, highly informative (albeit selective and tendentious) overview of the reasons for the Soviet-Yugoslav split under Stalin.25 (Much of the blame was laid on the provocative role of Beria and Abakumov.") Toward the end of the speech, Khrushchev revealed to the Central Committee that the Presidium had "unanimously" decided to report that Molotov had “consistently adopted an incorrect position" on the Yugoslav question and had “refused to disavow his incorrect views.”26 Khrushchev read aloud the Presidium's conclusion that “Com. Molotov's position on the Yugoslav matter does not serve the interests of the Soviet state and the socialist camp and does not conform with the principles of Leninist policy.”

Khrushchev's comments touched off a spate of denunciations of Molotov's views on Yugoslavia. One such attack came from Georgii Malenkov, who, despite having lost his post as prime minister four months earlier, was still a key figure on the CPSU Presidium:

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I don't want to say that Com. Molotov is simply repeating what Beria said; I'm not equating him with Beria, but this is indeed like what we heard from Beria. Com. Molotov, by the logic of his struggle, objected to any question considered by the CC that had been proposed—coincidentally or not so coincidentally—by Com. Khrushchev. I believe that one might draw the conclusion that Com. Molotov would not be objecting to these proposals if Com. Khrushchev did not enjoy the level of trust and support that everyone has in him.


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If we speak about Com. Molotov's main mistake, I would say it is that, contrary to new facts and contrary to everything that has happened over the past two years—and contrary to the overwhelmingly positive results that the CC Presidium has achieved from the steps it has taken to develop friendly relations with Yugoslavia-contrary to all this, he persists in embracing the position laid out by him and by Comrade Stalin in 1948-1949 in their letters to the Yugoslav leadership.27

Coming so soon after the execution of Beria, Saburov's statements clearly were intended as a threat, which may well have been coordinated with Khrushchev. On some matters, Saburov certainly was acting at Khrushchev's behest, and the whole speech was designed not only to deprecate Molotov, but to bolster Khrushchev's standing. Saburov insisted that he was not trying “to give undue glory to Com. Khrushchev; he doesn't need that sort of glorification. We know that he commands trust not only in the Presidium, but in our whole party,” a line that drew sustained applause.

By the end of the plenum, when sharp exchanges ensued between Khrushchev and Molotov just before Khrushchev's closing speech (which “condemned the line

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