THE writing of Soviet history has always been as perilous as the events themselves. Soviet scholars discovered early on that it was a dangerous proposition to offer any explanation other than the revealed religion of official Marxism-Leninism.
The truth received a reprieve from its life-sentence in the gulag when Nikita Khrushchev delivered his famous "secret speech" in 1956 to the 20th Communist Party Congress, condemning Stalin for the vast purges of the 1930s.
A few years later, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was able to publish "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," his first account of life in the camps. But the "thaw" proved agonizingly brief, followed by the reestablishment of orthodoxy under Leonid Brezhnev and his two aged successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.
Only when the first member of the "thaw" generation came to power in 1985 - the relatively young Mikhail Gorbachev - was the examination of the Stalinist past and its origins reopened again. In the new Moscow Spring, unpublished novels of the Stalin era appeared. The works of Stalin's Bolshevik victims such as Nikolai Bukharin and Leon Trotsky were printed, some of them for the first time inside the Soviet Union.
But interestingly, in all of this intellectual turmoil, let alone at any time in the past, no Soviet scholar attempted a comprehensive study of Stalin and his era. The first - and so far only - historian to do so is Dmitri Volkogonov, whose two-volume biography of Stalin was published in Russian in 1989 and later in translation in many languages, including the English edition published in 1991 ("Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy," Grove Weidenfield). His Stalin work is only the first part of an ambitious trilo gy - a two-volume work on Trotsky was published in Moscow this spring and a final book on Lenin is in preparation.
Volkogonov's work is unique not only for being the first by a Russian author but also for his unprecedented access to the secret archives of the Communist Party, the Red Army, and the Communist International, as well as his direct interviews with surviving leading personalities of that time. From Stalin's margin notes in books in his library to the minutes of Central Committee meetings, Volkogonov was able to see things Western historians could even dream of.
Mr. Volkogonov owes this opportunity to an unusual background. The round-faced historian is a colonel general in the former Soviet army. A scholar-soldier with a double degree in history and philosophy, he rose to become deputy head of the army's political department, the corp of Communist political commissars who ensured the ideological rectitude of the ranks.
But like so many people in this society, Volkogonov was both a believer and a victim of Stalinism. "I was a son of an 'enemy of the people,' " he recalls, using the Stalinist term for purge victims. "My father was just a common peasant, but they found Bukharin's writings with him, and he was shot in 1937," a fact Volkogonov himself did not find out till later in life. With his schoolteacher mother, he and his siblings were sent into internal exile in Siberia.
Still, Volkogonov, who joined the army at the end of World War II, was a faithful follower of "the Leader," as some called Stalin. "When I was a lieutenant, I was a Stalinist. For many years, I was an orthodox Marxist. But 20 years ago, I arrived at the conclusion that we had reached a historical dead-end. Of course, I wasn't a dissident, and I didn't say these things publicly. But I ceased to glorify our party and our leaders. In the books I wrote during the last 20 years, you won't find any reference t o Brezhnev or Khrushchev."
The decision to write a biography of the three leaders of the Bolshevik revolution proved to be a turning point for Volkogonov. "I decided to write a book on Stalin 14 years ago and even in my family, only my wife supported me.
"My friends said to me, 'Look, you won't be able to publish this. You aren't a dissident, you won't smuggle the manuscript to the West.' But still I decided to write it. I thought maybe sometime in the future it will be published. Fortunately perestroika helped me, and the book was published."
Even with his establishment credentials, Volkogonov had to depend on the courage of friends, the directors of archives, to allow him into the secret files. There he found even more than he bargained for - "It was an in-depth look into the cellars of power" - emerging more disillusioned than ever with Soviet communism.
When Volkogonov finished the first volume in 1985, his commanders ousted him from his post as a top political officer. He became head of the Institute of Military History where he got into more trouble by overseeing a 10-volume history of World War II that just last year was denounced as anti-Soviet and remains unpublished.
The Stalin biography finally made it into print after four years, but even Volkogonov admits he made serious compromises in order to get it published (a revised Russian version has just been issued). In essence Volkogonov had to bow to the Gorbachevian vision of a "good Lenin" and a "bad Stalin."
"I thought I would sacrifice the truth about the revolution, but I would say some truth about Stalin," Volkogonov says of his writing. While his extensive biography makes frequent references to the origins of Stalinism in the Leninist denial of democratic rights, Volkogonov hews close to the party line in portraying Stalin as a deviator from Lenin's vision.
Today Volkogonov openly expresses a different view, reflected in his Trotsky biography, and he promises even more so in his work on Lenin. "Stalin would never have appeared but for Lenin," he says. "All the roots of Stalinism were present in Leninism. Stalin actually invented nothing.... For example, the initiator of terror was Lenin, and Stalin just used the concept and practiced it."
The soft-spoken historian, reflecting on the three Bolsheviks, sums up their roles in revolutionary history. "Lenin was the inspirer, Trotsky was the instigator, and Stalin was the executor.... Bolshevism always rejected democracy and democratic principles. It worshiped the dictatorship of the proletariat, it relied on violence, rejected 'bourgeois parliamentarianism,' and even in its genesis, at its inception, it was a party of the totalitarian type. This party couldn't exist except in the system create d by Lenin and Stalin."
But even in its conceptually flawed form, Volkogonov's "Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy," is a compelling and revealing portrait of that dark personality. Written with the fluidity of a work of fiction, the biography is an intimate picture of Stalin, the man. Volkogonov makes a clear case that Stalin's vicious elimination of his political opponents was driven in part by the need to assert his claim to be Lenin's inheritor. He systematically eliminated all those who knew his true history, from boyhood friends
in Georgia to Trotsky and all the Old Bolsheviks, until hardly anyone was left to challenge the myth.
The book sketches with painful detail, drawn from the inner Party archives, the tragic manner in which Stalin's Bolshevik contemporaries, with the exception of Trotsky, allowed themselves to be manipulated and then discarded.In these moments, Volkogonov reveals more than enough truth about the system he spent his life serving. Once freed from the prison of hiding his inner mental life, Volkogonov embarked on a broader crusade. He became, and remains, a prominent member of the Russian democratic movement that brought Boris Yeltsin to power and successfully resisted the attempted hardline Communist coup last August. He is Yeltsin's military advisor and a member of parliament currently heading a commission to forge a new Russian defense policy and form a Russian army.
But Volkogonov's heart remains dedicated to history. He works with a discipline he credits to his military training. The study in his spacious central Moscow apartment - a perk of his elevated status - is crowded with archives carefully kept in red and green file folders. He keeps file cards with quotes culled from the archives in long boxes. On a separate set of file cards the veteran military officer has notes kept for 25 years of conversations and meetings with people such as Fidel Castro and Gorbache v, a personal history that he plans to convert into what will undoubtedly be a fascinating memoir.
Volkogonov writes as he always has, by hand, standing up at the lectern in his study, sometimes for five hours a day. Despite a hectic pace dictated by his political responsibilities, he works frantically to finish what he says will be his most important work - the biography of Lenin.
This work has acquired fresh impetus from the anti-Communist revolution that followed the failed putsch. Those events opened up all the secret KGB and Party archives to historians for the first time.
AS irony would have it, Volkogonov is the head of the commission in charge of those archives he once struggled so hard to penetrate. "All the secrets of the state are in my hands," he says with an unsuppressed smile. "Tens of millions of documents - the archives of the KGB, Communist International, the CPSU. For me, as a historian and a philosopher, it is an exceptional chance."
Among the archives are more than 3,000 unpublished works of Lenin - letters, documents, notes, and so on. Some of them will make their way into his Lenin book, he says, including some perhaps spectacular revelations. He hints, reading a quote from an August 1918 note from Lenin to a foreign ministry official, that there is evidence to support the long-voiced, and much-denied, charge that Lenin received backing from the Germans for the Bolshevik revolution.
Then he says with a sigh, "Now I just feel that I am the only man who has the richness of these materials in his hands. I lack only one thing: time, to write and to use all these materials."