SCA Friday Plenary: David E. Hoffman

Happy Friday! First up at Society of California Archivists’ Annual General Meeting: David E. Hoffman, “Inside the Kremlin: Unraveling the papers of Vitaly Katayev and Soviet thinking during the latter stages of the Cold War.”

Talking about how he used an archives for his research for his book (The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy He won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction.) Tried to write a book from his archival research and his own experiences.

Parallels he saw: Cold War Symmetry with shape of bombs, space shuttles, etc. in the thinking and engineering.

Asymmetry after the Cold War was in understanding and making sense of the Cold War. In the United States= triumphant versus in Russia= introspective and reflective, not triumphant

Challenge: how to write a history that reflects both sides and also getting access to archives (lots of stuff still not open) Very difficult to get into archives in Russia

Goal: To tell the Cold War story from both sides and try to figure out what was going on in the Soviet system

Discovered papers of Vitaly Katayev (former professional staff member, Defense Department, Central Committee, 1974-1991). 10 boxes of papers acquired by Hoover Institution Library and Archives prior to 2001. These papers are very important as most information from the Kremlin is not available. (Katayev died in 2001) In November 2004, Hoffman received a Hoover media fellowship and used time to search collection of Katayev papers. No finding aid, not processed collection. Hoffman was a third of the way through his book research when he began with Katayev’s papers.

Found two inventories: one in Russian and one in English. The one in English referenced 79 floppy, but only a few floppy disks found in the collection. The collection was quite raw-not processed and no finding aid.

Found insights into Soviet thinking that never seen before through the records of Kataylev (many bound volumes). Kataylev wrote a manuscript on the reactions of the Kremlin to Regan’s announcement of SDI (aka Star Wars). Ideas for tons of missiles, a Soviet Star Wars program, etc. Very detailed notes and technical details on spreadsheets. A treasure trove of information, not on Kremlin gossip, but on important technical tests and meeting decisions. This collection allowed Hoffman to see into the Soviet thinking during the Cold War that wasn’t understood before using Katayev’s papers.

Hoffman did an index of nine boxes in 2005 and did a survey with Pavel Podvig in 2006. (Lucky archivists to get the help to index the collection!)

The papers have allowed Hoffman, with the help of scientists, to piece together insight about the actual capacity of the Soviet Union in terms of accuracy of missiles and other technologies. A big mystery was how much Gorbachev knew about the Soviet biological weapons program. United States discovered that the Soviets were not following the agreement to not create chemical and biological weapons.

In 2007, when the box was able to be opened in Kataylev’s collection, Hoffman found documents chronicling the Kremlin’s decisions on biological weapons. Shows decisions under Gorbachev began in 1986. Up until this was revealed, we didn’t know who knew in the Soviet Union and when. The Central Committee resolutions means, according to Hoffman, that Gorbachev must have known about the biological weapons program.

Katayev took very good notes (was the official note-taker at many meetings). Because of his great notes, Hoffman has been able to piece together a lot of new insights on the Soviet weapons programs.

In August 2007, Hoffman met Ksenia Kostrova (26) the granddaughter of Katayev. She was very close to Katayev and became the custodian of his records after his death. Discovered in apartment: family photos, additional documents, 79 floppy disks, and a memoir. From August to December, Kostrova made a mast index and Hoffman photographed all of the paper documents. Copied all the disks and sent entire collection via FTP to Washington immediately. Was able to read 40 of the disks. (Talk about a find for a historian–it’s amazing!) But had problems reading the files. Talked with Kostrova about the procedure to open the files she did when she was 11 years old to decode the files. 19 more of the floppy disks had recoverable data, done by a UK specialist.

Didn’t have to use Russian official archives. Much of the collection is still raw with many documents to be examined. No official Russian government reaction to Hoffman’s book. Hopefully Katayev’s memoir will be published sometime next year.

Take Home Message: Archives are exciting and you can find information that is unique and incredibly important for the understanding of past events and reactions to these events. Many times, you have to do a lot of work and sort through a lot of documents, but it is worth it in the end. Nice work, Mr. Hoffman.