Russian (Civilian) Foreign Intelligence Lets its Standards Drop

The conflict with the West is not entirely unproductive; for historians, at least. The Russian Foreign Ministry and the Defence Ministry archivists recently pooled their efforts to publish photocopies of formerly secret documents on the evolution and conclusion of the crisis over the fate of Czechoslovakia in 1938-39. These appeared on 20 September on the website of Rosarkhiv: The known facts from the latest historical research in the West already put the democracies, Britain and France, in the worst possible light: instead of joining with the Soviet Union to block Hitler’s path eastward, the two leading democracies of Europe not only left the Czechs vulnerable to attack, they actually conspired to force Prague to disgorge the disputed Sudetenland to Germany so Hitler did not even have to attack. They offered the Czechs a guarantee for the rump of Czechoslovakia in return but not only made no effort whatsoever to protect it – London even decided not to increase the pace of rearmament – they merely shrugged their shoulders cynically when the Germans marched in barely six months later.

The documents illustrate conclusively that when pushed to it, Stalin and the Politburo, however reluctantly, did commit themselves to come in against Germany if the French did so in September 1938. So the stories hitherto propagated by Czech-American historians, based on hearsay, that the Russians refused to commit, which had been Czech Prime Minister Dr Benes’ ultimate alibi for caving to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s demands, are complete hogwash. The Russians could not of course come by land as neither the Poles nor the Romanians were prepared to see the Red Army march in – who would? – and probably remain. The Russians claimed Romanian territory (Bessarabia) and backed both the Polish and Romanian Communist Parties in undermining those in power. The alternative, which was feared by the German High Command, was that the massive Soviet air force, even if only partly effective as a result of Stalin’s terror, could come in and play havoc with the Wehrmacht’s plans. King Carol of Romania had told the Russians that were the Red Air Force to come over, the Romanians would not look up.

The inclusion of Ministry of Defence intelligence material along with Foreign Ministry and Politburo material in the collection published online is gratifying and most unusual. At least openness is dawning somewhere on the horizon in Moscow, albeit for all the wrong reasons (showing up both the British and the French to have been horrendously unreliable.)

However, and this is odd, the SVR (formerly the KGB’s foreign directorate) failed to contribute one iota to the collection. And, in the latest documentary – “Kod dostupa”, about the Inotdel (foreign department/directorate) training academy – that goes out on Zvezda TV channel in Moscow tonight (4 October), the SVR press office has managed to get wrong the name of a leading Soviet diplomat, Boris Shtein, an old friend of former Commissar Maxim Litvinov (they call him Shtern.)

It was said that when Litvinov died, the secret police, on coming in to clear up after him at the datcha, found a picture of Franklin Roosevelt proudly displayed on Litvinov’s desk; but that, when they went in to clear up after Shtein, they found a picture of Stalin. Probably apocryphal, it none the less says a lot about the real difference of character between the two. I have never before seen such an obvious error of fact on the website. They were informed but Ivanov took no notice. The dogs bark and the caravan moves on.

That, of course, had nothing to do with why the head of the press section gets wrong the name of such a leading figure in Soviet diplomacy. But it does suggest that lack of real openness goes hand in hand with a careless attitude to the facts.