Investigating the doctored memories of an old Soviet communist

As a young journalist, Tomas Sniegon had fantastic material – more than one hundred hours of interviews with the former KGB chairman Vladimir Semichastny. It was intended for a memoir, but time moved on and the market was suddenly saturated with Soviet confessions. Twenty years later, the winds have changed. There is renewed interest in looking back to understand both Russia and President Putin, who also has roots in the KGB. So there will be a book after all, although not a memoir but an analysis of memory – as the author is now a middle-aged history researcher.

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Former chairman of the Soviet secret police Vladimir Semichastny was repeatedly interviewed during the 1990s by Tomas Sniegon, a young journalist at the time and now a history researcher at Lund University.

Vladimir Semichastny was the head of the dreaded Soviet secret police, the KGB, during the 1960s. Meanwhile, Tomas Sniegon was born in a little town in what was then Czechoslovakia, only three years before Soviet tanks crushed the Prague uprising in 1968.

“I grew up in the Soviet system. The history books were propagandistic, many events were obscured. When the Berlin wall fell, I wanted to get out into the world – to the previously forbidden West but also to the East. I started to look up leading communists, the people who ordered the invasion of Czechoslovakia, ended the Prague Spring and managed to terrify the world for several decades.”

Tomas Sniegon got his first job at the Czech national news agency. He was friends with several international correspondents there and quite often took his backpack and travelled to Moscow. During the nights, he slept under a colleague’s desk at the news agency office, and during the days he interviewed former communist leaders.

“What were they thinking and why? I was driven by curiosity.”

Several of them declined. Others gave limited interviews. Former KGB chairman Vladimir Semichastny wanted to “explain some basic misunderstandings and nonsense” and when Sniegon asked whether they should write a book together, he replied immediately: “Let’s try”.

Tomas Sniegon had 130 hours of recorded interviews from the years 1993–1999. There were many long conversations during walks or in the study in Semichastny’s apartment that had been his office during his time as KGB chairman.

Vladimir Semichastny is not one of the best known heads of the KGB, unlike someone like Berija who worked during Stalin’s reign of terror. But Semichastny had significant power nevertheless. He became a protégé of Nikita Khrushchev, who was Stalin’s successor. With Khrushchev’s help, Semichastny became the secretary of the Communist Party’s youth association Komsomol and, a couple of years later, rose to the top of the KGB at the young age of 37.

Vladimir Semichastny played an important role in the de-Stalinisation of the Soviet Union, but he soon turned against his mentor and took part in staging the “little October revolution” in 1964 which brought down Khrushchev and opened Brezhnev’s path to power. After the coup, Semichastny took part in “de-Khrushchevisation”. But only three years later, he was himself pushed out of his position as KGB chairman. He lost all real power but retained his privileged position as a member of the Party’s nomenklatura.

Acting as a ghostwriter was a moral dilemma for Sniegon.

“I didn’t want to write a heroic story; rather, I was curious about how the contradictory system could survive for so long. Many communists also became victims of their own ideology. Meanwhile, I did not have access to much archive material. I chose to adopt a listening position, but pointed out paradoxes and confronted Semichastny with what I found out from others and what could be studied in other sources.

We never became friends, but we weren’t enemies either. It was a working relationship.”

A manuscript was prepared in Russian and Semichastny largely approved it. He did want to delete certain passages – such as one dealing with the Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Sniegon got him to change his mind:

“I said he would never be perceived as credible if he didn’t address the matter of the dissidents he persecuted himself as chairman of the KGB.”

A Russian publishing house received a copy of the manuscript, but nothing happened – not at the time. A version was published in Czech in 1998, whereas the English publisher Penguin, with whom Tomas Sniegon had had promising discussions, lost interest; the market had tired of Soviet history. Semichastny died in 2001 and Tomas Sniegon saw it as the end of the entire project. But then – barely one year later – the memoir was suddenly published in Russian – albeit with no mention of Sniegon at all.

Tomas Sniegon’s own life had changed during those years. He had been living in Sweden since 1991. He continued to interview both former Soviet politicians and heads of espionage in the West – and earned his living as a Scandinavian correspondent for Czech radio, among other things.

He gradually abandoned journalism in favour of studying history in Lund. Here, he specialised in other repressed elements of history. He was lucky enough to be included in the research project “The Holocaust in European Historical Culture” and his doctoral thesis addressed his own compatriots’ collaboration in the Holocaust – an angle which was also absent from school history books.

There are a couple of reasons why Tomas Sniegon picked up his work on the Semichastny interviews a few years ago.

One was a lecture he heard about the Soviet treatment of author Boris Pasternak. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 but was forced by the communist regime to decline it. However, some pieces were missing in the historiography puzzle and Tomas Sniegon suddenly realised that his interviews were still relevant.

“Semichastny, who was head of the Komsomol at that time, was the first to attack Pasternak for anticommunism, on orders from Khrushchev.”

A second reason was political development. Russia’s unpredictability and increased criticism of the West meant that there was more interest than in the 1990s in looking back to understand the vast country in the East.

With a grant from the Swedish Foundation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Tomas Sniegon is now analysing Semichastny’s arguments. He is mapping the memory strategies his interviewee used to ignore his responsibility for cruelties, to justify his actions and create a coherent – and positive – account of his time at the top of the communist power pyramid. The tapes of Semichastny are just one source among several. Sniegon is also basing his analysis on approximately 200 interviews he conducted with others in positions of power. Furthermore, he can now check his sources against an enormous body of archived Soviet material which was previously classified.

“We know a lot more today about the Soviet Union as a totalitarian state thanks to the archives. One thing which became clear when they were opened was that all the old Soviet heads acted as committed communists. They spoke ‘communist’ and saw themselves as ‘real communists’ despite being barely able to explain what that meant. What united them was a hatred of the ‘West’ about which they really knew very little.”

This strong but paradoxical belief protected someone like Semichastny from seeing and admitting the enormous crimes against humanity of which Soviet communism was guilty, according to Tomas Sniegon.

“He was – more than most – aware of the atrocities to which the population was subjected. He did not deny the terror and was against it happening again. But he was only critical of certain decisions and certain people within the sphere of power, not of the entire structure.”

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, an ideological vacuum has enabled the emergence of old xenophobic tendencies and communist nostalgia in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. For example, images of Stalin appeared on election posters for the Communist Party this autumn.

“Communism as a political power system arose after two world wars. The communists did not start the wars, but they developed a system of organised hatred, above all class hatred. People learned to hate – not only others but also themselves as they became prisoners in their own countries. Of course, not everything that happened in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1991 was bad, but the price for what could be perceived as positive was unreasonable. Ultimately, it is about what a human life is worth.”

Tomas Sniegon fears radical nationalism and the hatred which is a continuous threat.

“There is no Russian state of law which controls and legitimises the regime. The person in power does not know whether he will go down in history as a conqueror or a perpetrator…”

The other post-communist states also struggle with difficulties.

“Of course I don’t know what will happen. But many people have learnt to think and speak freely in Russia. That is why I still dare to be cautiously optimistic.”

Britta Collberg

Vladmir_Semitjastny_Foto_Tomas_SniegonFACTS about Vladimir Semichastny, born 1924 near Dnepropetrovsk in Ukraine, died in Moscow in 2001.

First secretary of the communist youth league Komsomol 1958-1959 and chairman of the Soviet secret police KGB 1961–1967.

Contributed to the fall of his mentor Khrushchev, but also to his life being spared.

Was in charge of the Soviet spy network – for example he welcomed the English spies Kim Philby and George Blake when they emigrated to Moscow.

On Khrushchev’s orders, he was the first to publicly attack Boris Pasternak, author of the novel Dr Zhivago, for anticommunism: “Not even a pig shits in its own sty”. Pasternak was forced to decline the Nobel Prize for literature in 1958.

He was critical of the Russian Federation, which took over after the fall of the Soviet Union, and of its leader Boris Yeltsin: “If Yeltsin is a democrat, I am Picasso’s dove of peace”.

Tomas klassrum 2FACTS about Tomas Sniegon, born 1965 in Czechoslovakia. Resident in Sweden since 1991. Researcher and lecturer in European Studies at the Centre for Languages and Literature.

Sniegon will be publishing an analysis of the memory strategies of former KGB chairman Vladimir Semichastny in autumn 2018. The project is entitled “Making Sense of the ‘Good’ Soviet Communist Dictatorship Through Stalin´s Terror, Khrushchev´s Reforms and Brezhnev´s Period of Stagnation. A historical narrative by the former KGB chairman Vladimir Semichastny” and is funded by the Swedish Foundation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.