The Annals of Jonathan Brent

by John J. Miller on June 30, 2009 · 3 comments

in Politics

  • SumoMe

May 22, 2006

One man and a great publishing project


For those who are wearily familiar with the Left’s control of higher education, it will come as no surprise to learn that Bard College in New York is home to the Visiting Alger Hiss Professor of History and Literature — an endowed chair named after one of the most notorious traitors in American history. “Every year we get some crank letters from fringe groups about it,” complains Leon Botstein, Bard’s president and one of the few remaining agnostics on the question of whether Hiss, while serving in FDR’s State Department, spied for the Soviet Union. “It really isn’t a political appointment.”

That claim would be laugh-out-loud funny — except that it appears to be true. Amazingly, the current occupant of the Hiss professorship may be as responsible as anyone in the United States for exposing the crimes of Communism. Jonathan Brent is not only the holder of the Hiss chair at Bard, where he teaches a weekly class, but also editorial director of the Yale University Press, where he oversees the publication of a series of books that meticulously chronicle the evils of Soviet totalitarianism. “What Jonathan Brent and the Yale press have done for Soviet history is unprecedented: Their work has put previously unknown and inaccessible documents in libraries where students and historians will be able to use them forever,” raves Anne Applebaum, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for Gulag. It is perhaps not too much to say that Brent’s Annals of Communism series, which was launched more than a decade ago, is one of the most important publishing projects in the world.

The 56-year-old Brent occupies a first-floor corner office at Yale University Press, in a building near the New Haven Green. With his salt-and-pepper hair, he looks vaguely like Paul Wolfowitz. Newspaper clippings and reviews of books he has edited cover his walls, along with a calendar that, in the great tradition of the absent-minded professor, hangs open to last August. Manuscripts clutter his desk and books are piled everywhere.

The books are no surprise — not only is Brent the editorial director of a non-profit publishing enterprise, but literature has been a part of his life from the very start. His father was the owner of Stuart Brent Books, a Chicago shop frequented by the likes of Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom. When he was in the eighth grade, Brent made it his ambition to read a really long book, and so he searched his grandmother’s house for the one with the thickest spine. He found Anna Karenina. “It took about a year to read,” he says. “I fell in love with that book.” Then he moved on to an even thicker Tolstoy volume: War and Peace. When Brent’s grandfather, who was born in Lvov, spotted him reading it, he showed the boy how to spell “Tolstoy” with Cyrillic letters. “From that moment,” says Brent, “I knew I wanted to study Russian literature.”

That’s what he did as an undergraduate at Columbia, becoming fluent in a language for which he figured he would have no professional use. He eventually went to the University of Chicago for his Ph.D. in English and did some translating on the side, including a few of the first translations of the Russian-born poet Joseph Brodsky (who won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature). Around this time, Brent got his first taste of Solzhenitsyn by reading The Gulag Archipelago. “My father managed to get 100 copies of the original book in Russian,” says Brent. “There were people lined up outside the store to buy it, but he saved one for me. It really opened my eyes to what was going on in the Soviet Union.” Even so, Brent was hardly a Cold Warrior — he had protested the Vietnam War at Columbia, and his attraction to Solzhenitsyn had more to do with literature than politics.

These were hectic years, as Brent tried to balance the demands of fatherhood with graduate school, teaching, translating, reviewing books for the local papers, working part time in his father’s store, and searching for a regular job. He finally found employment at Northwestern University Press (where he would eventually rise to director), but he always stayed busy with side projects. In 1984, he and his wife started Formations, a quarterly journal that took an interest in Eastern European writers. “Formations didn’t start out as anti-Communist, but it became that way over time,” he says. “A lot of our writers were critiquing Communism.” He also began publishing material on dissidents.

Before long, several bookstores refused to carry Formations. “They just wouldn’t stock it,” says Brent. “It taught me about a sickness in a certain kind of left-wing politics — the notion that someone could accuse me of retrograde views simply because I was trying to defend the civil liberties of artists who were being oppressed by the state.” He may have made some enemies, but he also made friends on both sides of the Iron Curtain. One of his patrons was George Soros, the Hungarian-born financial speculator.

In the spring of 1991, Brent attended a conference in Prague, where he heard a Hungarian historian talk about his research into the newly opened archives of his government. “Having access to these documents sounded like a great publishing opportunity,” says Brent. Yet he was not sure how to take advantage of it. He thought about moving to Europe, but instead took a job at Yale’s imprint, where his assignment was to edit books on the humanities. As he was making this personal transition, the Soviet Union collapsed — Gorbachev was out and Yeltsin was in. Brent began thinking about the possibility of a multi-volume project that drew from Soviet archives. He asked his boss, the now-retired John Ryden, to let him fly to Moscow. Recalling Brent’s enthusiasm, Ryden says, “No one else on the staff had his interest in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. I told him to go and see what he could find.”

It was the first of Brent’s many excursions for Yale. In January of 1992, he began negotiating with Soviet archivists who embraced the spirit of openness that was then sweeping Russia — and who also craved the packs of Marlboros that Brent made a habit of dropping on their desks. Over the course of many months, Brent hammered out a contract whereby Yale University Press would publish scholarship that used documents from Soviet archives. Not everything was open to Brent, as some archives placed restrictions on their material and others remained completely off-limits. Yet an enormous amount of information was made available for the first time, and Brent agreed to print this information in books in both the United States and Russia. He planned to reproduce the Soviet documents both in Russian and in English translation, and then to publish them in volumes containing commentary from American and Russian scholars.

It was a promising start for the Annals of Communism, but there is a big difference between signing a contract and actually producing finished books. For one thing, Brent needed to begin locating the scholars who would comb the archives, study thousands of documents, make judgments about their importance, and then write the manuscripts. The project was daunting on many levels. “At the time, I didn’t really even know what the Comintern was,” says Brent, referring to the international wing of the Soviet Communist Party.

As Brent was striking his deal, the New York Times published a short item on his arrangement. This caught the eye of Harvey Klehr, a political scientist at Emory University. He had been poking around in the Soviet archives on his own and was thinking about co-authoring a narrative history of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) with John Earl Haynes, a researcher at the Library of Congress. So Klehr called Brent and told him about what he was finding. “The information was incredible,” says Klehr. “An employee at the archive later told me that everyone had assumed I was a Communist, because who else would be interested in the CPUSA?”

For serious students of American politics, the CPUSA was a highly charged topic. Conservatives maintained that the organization was a pawn of the Kremlin. The left-wingers who dominated the academy insisted that it was simply a political party of patriots who had some doubts about capitalism. Klehr and Haynes, along with their Russian partner Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, suddenly found themselves able to set aside the claims and counterclaims of grizzled antagonists and look at actual evidence from the Soviet archives.

Their book, The Secret World of American Communism, came out in 1995 — and it generated headlines around the world. The book’s 92 documents contained smoking-gun evidence that the CPUSA was deeply involved in espionage against the United States. Furthermore, it buttressed the controversial claim by Whittaker Chambers, the man who originally accused Hiss of spying, that Washington, D.C., was home to an elaborate network of clandestine agents in the 1930s. Other revelations included proof that billionaire Armand Hammer laundered money for the Soviets and that Edmund Stevens, a prominent Moscow-based reporter, was on the Soviet payroll. Vitally, The Secret World of American Communism reproduced documents rather than merely summarizing them. “It was hard for anybody to argue with what we were able to display on the printed page,” says Haynes. Reviews in the popular press were overwhelmingly positive. The academic response was predictably more grudging, but even writers such as left-wing historian James R. Barrett, who reviewed the book for the Journal of American History, had to admit that “recent studies have perhaps neglected this darker side of the international context and underestimated Soviet influence.”

More books in the Annals of Communism series followed. There are currently 18 in print, with at least eight others in various stages of preparation. Each has broadened our understanding of Soviet history. The Unknown Lenin, by Richard Pipes, showed that, contrary to claims that Stalin had corrupted a purer form of Communism, Lenin could be just as violent and cruel as his successor. Several other books provided new insights into Stalin’s own depravity, unearthing letters that ordered murders as well as new information on the 1939 secret pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany. One of the most controversial volumes in the series was Spain Betrayed, by Ronald Radosh, Mary Habeck, and Grigory Sevostianov, which demolished left-wing mythmaking about the Spanish Civil War by revealing the extent to which the Soviet Union controlled Republican forces. “If Spain were Vietnam these would be its Pentagon Papers,” wrote Sam Tanenhaus in Vanity Fair.

These books were expensive propositions. None has sold as many as 20,000 copies, and many have sold considerably fewer. Because of this, the series has required philanthropic support. “You can’t just send one birddog into the archives,” says Brent. “For each book, you have to send in teams of researchers.” For one title, The History of the Gulag, Brent says he hired a dozen Russians to scour for documents for two years. Although Yale University Press has its own endowment, Brent had to search for outside sources of funding, mainly from conservative foundations. “I tried to go to some of the really big foundations, like Ford and MacArthur, but they turned us down,” says Brent. “After a while I just gave up asking.” In 1996, an acquaintance encouraged Brent to make a cold call to National Review’s William F. Buckley Jr., who reported on Brent’s efforts in his newspaper column and encouraged readers to send checks. A car dealer from Dallas mailed in $50,000. A lady in Maryland began her practice of donating $5 per year. Brent credits Buckley’s public notice, in addition to several private appeals, with generating gifts worth about a half-million dollars.

Brent’s work at Yale University Press has involved far more than the Annals. Serving as editorial director since 1997, he currently oversees the publication of about 180 books per year. (He also co-authored his own book, Stalin’s Last Crime, for HarperCollins.) Although Brent isn’t sure how to describe his own politics — he says he’s a registered independent and has never voted for a Republican in a presidential election — he has made Yale one of the few academic presses in the country that welcome conservatives as authors. This spring, Yale printed works by John Lukacs, Harvey Mansfield, and Thomas Sowell. “I don’t care about a writer’s politics,” says Brent, who has also published liberals such as Reed Hundt and Gore Vidal. “I’m constantly on the lookout for excellent pieces of well-written scholarship that tell the truth.” Everything is peer-reviewed, as is the convention for a university press.

In the coming months, Brent expects to publish several more volumes in the Annals series, including a definitive treatment of the Katyn massacres, an analysis of how the Soviets tried to manipulate Russian writers, and a collection of caricatures. There will be plenty of other books as well, especially if Brent can finish negotiating a contract that will give his press complete access to the Stalin archives, whose contents have barely been tapped. He operates with a sense of urgency, never sure when his permission to use Soviet documents might be tightened or shut off. “The Secret World of American Communism could not be written today,” says Klehr, because some of its information has been reclassified as secret. For now, however, the Soviet archives remain a treasure trove of information — and Brent can only imagine what might be learned if he and his scholars could search through them all, including the ones that have never been opened. “We’d be able to see the full range of Soviet penetration of our government,” he says. “We’re 99 percent certain that Hiss was a spy — I personally believe he was, based on the evidence I’ve seen, but some of it is still circumstantial. I think we could learn more from documents that are currently unknown.”

If Brent were to become responsible for discovering them, then perhaps he could prevail upon Bard College to change the name of his chair: Rather than the Visiting Alger Hiss Professor, he could be the Permanent Whittaker Chambers Professor.

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