NEW HAVEN, Conn.
Documenting the crimes of the Soviet Union has been a project that Jonathan Brent has been preparing for all his life.
Since 1995, Mr. Brent, associate director and editorial director of the Yale University Press, has led the production of 20 books documenting mass murder, espionage, imprisonment of dissidents and other Cold War atrocities by the Kremlin.
Anti-communists trying to rally the West against Moscow long accused the Soviets of such outrages. But with the Soviet Union largely closed to outsiders, foreign-policy conservatives and military hawks had to rely on testimony from dissidents and defectors.
Mr. Brent’s 20-book project, “The Annals of Communism,” provides new and vivid details from documents that have been mined by hundreds of his researchers over the years, combing Soviet archives since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
It documents Soviet espionage in the United States, Russian efforts to manipulate the Spanish Civil War and a history of the gulag slave-labor camps.
The research shows “the dissolution of what anybody would think of as civilization,” Mr. Brent said. “This is why I’m studying it, and why I think it’s so important.”
Among the piles of books and papers in Mr. Brent’s New Haven office is an enlarged copy of a memo to Soviet leader Josef Stalin recommending the execution of 16,000 Polish military officers in 1940. The mass killings were carried out by gunshots to the back of the head, Mr. Brent said.
“The guns got so hot, young officers brought fresh guns,” he added.
Another book in the series details self-portraits by Bolsheviks in the 1920s that began as cartoonish caricatures of each other and evolved into grotesquely vicious and pornographic images that foreshadow the show trials of the 1930s, Communist Party purges and executions of Stalin’s rivals.
“If you want to talk about the banality of evil, this is it,” said Mr. Brent, who is also a professor of history and literature at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. “[Vladimir] Lenin and Stalin gave [Adolf] Hitler the blueprint.”
World War II, which ended shortly before Mr. Brent was born, had a profound impact on him. Mr. Brent, 56, recalls as a youth seeing images of totalitarianism such as the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev histrionically challenging the United Nations by banging his shoe on a table.
“The war was like a smell in the backroom of my house,” Mr. Brent said. “It affected every part of my life.”
Mr. Brent, the son of a bookseller, quickly learned to appreciate books and spent a year reading Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” when he was in eighth grade. He took an early interest in Russia from his grandfather, who was born there and is fluent in the language.
In the mid-1980s, Mr. Brent and his wife, Frances Padorr Brent, published “Formations,” a journal that showcased Eastern European writers, many of whom were dissidents.
At a forum in Prague at about the same time, Mr. Brent said he and Hungarian-born financier George Soros listened to a Hungarian scholar discuss his research in the Eastern European nation’s archives.
“I turned to Soros and said, ‘This is the publishing enterprise of the century,’ ” Mr. Brent recalled. In January 1992, he traveled to Moscow for his first foray into Soviet archives.
Mark von Hagen, who teaches Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian history at Columbia University and is on an advisory committee of the “Annals of Communism,” said the book series will provide primary-source material critical to historians and students for years to come.
The Soviets’ extraordinary detail of their crimes did not surprise Mr. von Hagen. “A lot of them really believed in what they were doing,” he said.
Mr. Brent’s venture is not the only enterprise rooting through Soviet archives. Private companies are microfilming documents, and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University has microfilmed portions of the Soviet Communist Party archives and documents related to the Soviet gulags, said Carol Leadenham, assistant archivist for reference at the Hoover Institution.
Richard Pipes, a Harvard University historian of Russia and communism and an adviser to President Reagan, said the public wrongly thinks the archives contain secrets “that subvert the accepted views of events.”
Mr. Pipes, who contributed to the “Annals of Communism” with a book on Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, said in an e-mail that on the contrary, the Soviet archives “add details and confirm generally accepted views.”
For example, he said his discovery of documents showing Lenin’s “utter disregard for his fellow men … did so explicitly … .”
“This evidence reinforces our judgments and gives them a credibility that is otherwise wanting,” he said.
The “Annals of Communism” project is privately funded. Conservative author William F. Buckley Jr. helped with initial fundraising that has netted $1.3 million since 1992.
Some of the books sell well and are used as texts in university classrooms. “The Secret World of American Communism,” a look at the Soviet Union’s reach into the United States, has sold the most, with 16,000 in hardcover and 3,000 in paperback, Mr. Brent said. Others sell only a few hundred copies, primarily to libraries.
The “Annals of Communism” project has not been completed. Next is digitizing and publishing Stalin’s personal archives, Mr. Brent said.
“I can guarantee it will be absolutely sensational,” he said.