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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- When Documents Destroy A Myth

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 25 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A just-published collection of Soviet-era archival documents appears likely to dispel the still widespread notion that the Soviet Union fought for democracy against fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

The documents have been published in book form, entitled: "Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War." It is part of the Annals of Communism series issued by Yale University Press. And as the editors of the volume make clear, they demonstrate that the Soviet presence in Spain had no interest in defending democracy but only in establishing a communist dictatorship.

In the often dry language of such archival materials, these documents show that Soviet involvement from beginning to end in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s was directed at gaining control of the antifascist forces and then transforming Spain into a satellite of the Soviet Union.

Even while the Spanish Civil War was going on, there were reports from there that pointed to this conclusion. And they reached a broader audience as the result of the publication of George Orwell's study "Homage to Catalonia" a half century ago.

But for much of the intervening period, Soviet ideologists and those idealists on the democratic left in many Western countries have sought to put a more positive spin on Soviet behavior in Spain as part of an effort to create the myth that the Soviet Union and the Communist Party were the only forces willing to stand up against fascism and for democracy.

Soviet support for the antifascist forces against Francisco Franco, who was backed by Germany's Adolf Hitler, has been invoked by Soviet writers and some in the West to burnish the image of the Soviet Union as a defender of democracy and to condemn Western democracies for their failure to oppose fascism.

More recently, Soviet involvement in Spain has been invoked by some historians to downplay the similarities between Hitler's fascism and Stalin's system -- similarities that ultimately led the two dictators to cooperate in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

The newly published documents will make such assertions impossible for all but the most ideologically driven. They show, in the words of Soviet operatives themselves, that Moscow viewed its support for the anti-Franco forces not as support for democracy but rather as a means to establishing a communist dictatorship.

One early document in the collection demonstrates this. Saying it would be "a fatal mistake" to "try to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat" immediately, the directive nonetheless says that "when our positions have been strengthened, then we can go further."

The documents show that Soviet agents were involved in provoking and then exploiting the crisis in Barcelona in 1937 which resulted in the destruction of the powerful Spanish anarchism and allowed the fascists to defeat what remained of the democratic movement.

Specifically, one Soviet directive to its intelligence operatives in Spain ordered them "not to wait passively for a 'natural' unleashing of the hidden government crisis, but to hasten it and, if necessary to provoke it."

And the documents from Soviet archives show that Moscow not only had this goal in mind at every stage of the conflict but actively worked to pursue it, generating crises that the communists could exploit even if such crises weakened democracy and made it more likely that fascism would triumph as it ultimately did.

For much of the Soviet era, both supporters and opponents of communism regularly argued that the opening of the archives would prove their point and disprove that of their opponents.

Now, most but not all Soviet archives have been opened. Many have proved a disappointment either because no records were kept of some of the more interesting events or because these records were subsequently destroyed.

But the archives mined by the compilers of "Spain Betrayed" are likely to convince most readers that one of the most cherished beliefs of the Soviet Union and the Western left, the notion that Stalin alone stood up to fascism in the name of democracy, was a myth.

And consequently, as they have done so often in other cases, the archives almost certainly will have the last word in this controversy.