___The Yeltsin Dossier___Vissza
János M. Rainer :

The Yeltsin Dossier: Soviet documents on Hungary, 1956

During a November 1992 visit to Budapest, Russian President Boris Yeltsin handed to Hungarian President Arpad Goncz a dossier of Soviet archival materials related to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The documents contained in the file, consisting of 299 pages, have now been published in Hungarian translation in two volumes,1 and also made available in Russian archives.2

For Hungarians as well as for scholars worldwide, these materials have tremendous significance—quite aside from their political import as a Russian gesture toward creating a new relationship between Moscow and Budapest after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Until the 1990s, Soviet political history could be studied only with the sophisticated analytical tools of Kremlinology and oral history. Now, however, at least a minor, and perhaps a growing, portion of this history can be analyzed using traditional historical methods.

Still, one must acknowledge that although these materials answer many questions posed by historians and the interested public over the years, they have not radically altered the general picture of 1956; none of the documents contains anything that could be called a sensation. The Yeltsin dossier does, however, provide some new information, enhance our understanding of several important aspects of the events, confirm some earlier unverified assumptions or hypotheses, and help to clarify a number of details. Certainly they are significantly more useful than the previously published documentation in providing a window into the minds of key Soviet officials, and insights into how they functioned, in the midst of a serious crisis.

Since the Soviet documents transferred by Yeltsin were chosen in an unclear manner, in the absence of thorough research in and full access to the Moscow archives there is no way of knowing whether the selection contains the most important ones. The quantity is unquestionably considerable—115 documents—as they cover events of only one-and-a-half years, from April 1956 until July 1957, and also high-level, with the majority originating from the top leadership, the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CC CPSU). About one-fifth are resolutions passed by the party Presidium, and about a third are reports, recommendations, and memoranda, made by the members of the Presidium and the Secretariat; more than two-thirds of the documents actually reached the Presidium. Close to 40 percent of the Soviet documents emanated from the Foreign Ministry, and three-fourths of these consist of reports from the Soviet embassy in Budapest.

One striking feature of the documents is that they hint at how conspicuously concentrated power and decision-making were, especially in some key areas, at the highest levels of the Soviet system during the crisis. It is quite characteristic that a discussion between the counselor of the Soviet embassy in Budapest and a vacationing head of department of the Hungarian Communist Party appeared on the agenda of a Presidium meeting in Moscow. (True, it was agenda item 32 only and also, the head of department in question was a personal friend of Kadar’s.)

Among the Soviet documents are eight reports sent by the head of the KGB, General Ivan Serov, to Presidium of the CPSU CC after the revolt erupted on October 23, and 11 accounts on the crushing of the Revolution and the fighting after the Soviet invasion on November 4 transmitted by the Minister of Defense, Marshal Gyorgi Zhukov. Perhaps because of their urgency and because they were prepared for the Presidium on short notice, they are very short.

This review of the types of materials contained in the Yeltsin package points, alas, to one of their shortcomings: the lack of documentation of the process of decision-making at the highest level in Moscow. Two basic features of the documents emerge when one seeks to use them to decipher the Soviet political-military decision making process. Usually, models of decision-making processes distinguish between senior and junior actors: lower-level actors collect information, make recommendations, prepare analyses, implement decisions, while authority rests at the higher level, where decision-makers ostensibly have an overview over often conflicting information and interests.3

The 1956 Soviet documents primarily concern the functioning of the higher level (party presidium, secretariat, government), but rather one- sidedly. Some 80 percent of the documents are inputs: primary, to a large extent “unprocessed” information—local reports, analyses made on the lower level or outside the decision-making mechanism. Consequently, the direct mechanism of higher level decision-making cannot be evaluated. The collections contain the major party Presidium resolutions on Hungary, but these resolutions, unfortunately, are merely authoritative instructions given to subordinate executive organs. Not one document describes the discussions, participants, contributors, and differences of opinion at the Presidium meetings. Instead, one repeatedly encounters such euphemistic phraseology as “V szootvetsztvii sz obmenom mnyenyijami”, “sz ucsotom obmena mnyenyijami”, “na osznove szosztojascsevoszja obmena mnyenyijami” —“in accordance with,” “in regard to,” and “based on” the discussion.4 Yet we have no real data on debates, no minutes of the deliberations of the top Soviet leaders.5

By contrast, among the declassified U.S. government records on the Hungarian crisis, both published and in archives, researchers readily find numerous documents describing policy debates, including detailed minutes of National Security Council discussions, as well as serious analytical papers prepared by the NSC and various intelligence agencies.6 Whether comparable documentation exists on the Soviet side, but remains off-limits, or whether such items of Presidium transcripts on the crisis do not exist, was not clarified in the materials delivered by Yeltsin. In any event, the result is that the crucial factors which determine top-level decision-making can be analyzed only by inference.

An additional problem is that the Soviet documents only treat the Hungarian issue in a very narrow sense—the context of the international situation makes but a dim appearence. Important issues like the Suez crisis, U.S. behavior, the problems of the East-Central European allies, barely receive mention.

Still, while all these issues require further thorough research, even the selected documents permit an illuminating exploration of the thinking, terminology, priorities, and particular style of conduct between the leadership of the Soviet empire and Moscow’s East European satellites at this juncture of the Cold War, as well as of the Soviet style of information gathering and crisis management. In “normal circumstances,” the Soviet leadership gathered information on the satellites through two inner official channels:

a. The higher level, represented by the ambassador, whose scope of authority included keeping in touch with top local party leaders. The Soviet ambassador was at the same time the local representative of the CPSU CC from the mid-’50s. Beside gathering information he occasionally made recommendations too, and in crisis situations his reports reached the party Presidium. Between 29 April 1956 and 14 October 1956 only four out of Ambassador Andropov’s ten known reports got there. At the end of September 1956, Andrei Gromyko, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, had to summarize Andropov’s communications to the Presidium, when the crisis was becoming apparent.7 Otherwise, Andropov prepared his reports for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the “Department” of the Central Committee (meaning the division responsible for contact with the foreign Communist parties).8

b. Other embassy personnel worked on the lower level, gathering information on special areas of interest to the leadership and maintaining personal contacts with other sources (primarily with party figures who had been in Moscow but were not part of the top leadership), and their reports usually reached the medium level only.

In crisis situations intelligence was elevated to a special level, and on such occasions the party Presidium sent its own members as plenipotentiary envoys to the place of crisis to conduct personal inspections, assessments, and, on occasion, negotiations. Usually they attempted to maintain secrecy. The envoys contacted local leaders first and collected information. Then they made recommendations for decision to Moscow and sometimes had the right to take local action, evidently on the basis of consultation with the center. Four such extraordinary delegations visited Hungary between the summer of 1956 and the end of that year: 1. Mikhail Suslov, 7-14 June 1956 (1 report); 2. Anastas Mikoyan, 13-21 July 1956 (6 reports); 3. Mikoyan, Suslov, Serov, and Gen. Mikhail Malinin (Deputy Chief of Staff of the Soviet Army, who might have arrived earlier), 24-31 October 1956 (10 reports); 4. Suslov, Boris Aristov, Georgi Malenkov and Serov (who was probably on location continuously from October 24), and Marshal I.S. Koniev (Commander-in-Chief of the Warsaw Pact, who commanded the invasion force from November 1) (11 reports).

These are the most important of the Soviet documents: 28 reports in which the members of the party’s top leadership or their “special subordinates” observe, analyze, act, and negotiate. True, they did so “only” in Budapest, but at least they are shown in action. Moreover, some key aspects of the second and third missions can be cross-checked with the wealth of Hungarian party and state documents released in recent years.9

The normal and extraordinary political decision-making levels of the party leadership received supplementary information from other parts of the intertwined party-state organs, most importantly autonomous organs of force such as the army and KGB.

The reports of the extraordinary level contain numerous errors, mistakes, and faults, especially during and immediately after the Revolution. Persons and locations cropped up which remained in obscurity for the Soviet leaders. They received the biased and/or panic stricken information above all on street atrocities written by the usual Hungarian informants, especially Hungarian state security officers.10 On the other hand the Soviets also manipulated the news, Andropov, Serov, and Zhukov in particular. The last-named, for example, made no distinction between the fighting civilian insurgents and the Hungarian army—which never fought in mass—when describing resistance to the second Soviet intervention after November 4. This exaggeration of the true proportions of resistance was used to justify the immense scale of the Soviet intervention.

Thus, the Soviet documents must be handled with great circumspection as far as facts are concerned. Contemporary readers will be astounded by the raw, coarse nature of the reports, which were frequently written in primitive party jargon. Hardly camouflaged orders and instructions are confusingly intermingled with niceties, “comradely” good advice, and partylike statements. Mikoyan obviously differed in this sense from Malenkov and Serov, not to mention Andropov. One finds hardly any trace of contrary opinions from the Hungarian side concerning important questions, with the exception of Imre Nagy during the Revolution. While differing Hungarian views were noted in the phase of Soviet information gathering, once decisons were taken Moscow’s representatives paid little attention to them.

The above caveats and limitations notwithstanding, the following observations can be offered regarding Soviet decisions and the Hungarian Revolution, based on the documents provided by Yeltsin:

  1. Since the summer of 1956, as the anti-Stalinist opposition gained strength, the Soviet leadership observed the Hungarian crisis with great worry. They saw the solution to the crisis in leadership changes (Rakosi’s dismissal) and reserved forceful oppressive measures as a last resort only. In July 1956, Soviet representative Mikoyan reported that “as a result of the Hungarian situation there is an atmosphere of uneasiness prevailing in our Central Committee and in the ranks of the Socialist camp, which is due to the fact, that it cannot be permitted for something unexpected, unpleasant to happen in Hungary. If the Hungarian comrades need it, our Central Committee is ready to give them a helping hand by giving advice or else, in order to put things right.”11
  2. Although the Soviet leaders received serious signals about the further exacerbation of tensions in Hungary, they were distracted by crises in other locations (Poland, Suez). Evidently, in assessing the Hungarian situation, they did not think in terms of social movements, but only in the context of more or less narrow political factions (party leadership vs. enemy/opposition). A Political Committee, authorized on the highest level, was functioning in Budapest, and it was expected to “resist” any threat to communist rule. Khrushchev’s comments on the Hungarian events at the October 24 Presidium meeting in Moscow reflect this attitude. The day before, there had been a mass demonstration of hundreds of thousands in the streets of Budapest and an armed uprising had broken out. But Khrushchev said he “does not understand what comrade Gero, comrade Hegedus and the others are doing.”12
  3. The first extraordinary Soviet on-site report during the decisive stage of the crisis gave a remarkably optimistic evaluation of the situation, judging that the size of the October 23 demonstration and the armed uprising which erupted that night had been “overestimated” by the Hungarians. In Moscow, where attention was still focused on resolving the Polish party crisis, the situation initially appeared manageable. It was obvious from the Mikoyan group’s report that Erno Gero, the Stalinist Hungarian party leader, was at odds with the reformer Imre Nagy, who had been recently included in the leadership. Yet on October 24, Khruschev informed the leaders of other Warsaw Pact allies in Eastern Europe that there was a “total unity of opinion” within the Hungarian leadership.13
  4. The Soviets looked upon the Hungarian leadership, especially Imre Nagy, with distrust from the very beginning of the crisis. The Hungarian party leaders simply did not wait for Moscow when they reshuffled personnel on October 23, even though there was an expressed demand for this. This is how Imre Nagy became prime minister. Later, party leader Gero was dismissed by the Soviets, but the new government list was compiled by the Nagy group, although Suslov and Mikoyan were present. The Soviets demanded adherence to the “norms of the empire” even in crisis situations.
  5. The Soviet documents suggest that October 26 was a turning point. On one hand, this is when Imre Nagy’s policy of searching for a political solution was formulated. Earlier, it was thought that Nagy “hesitated” right until October 28, when he declared the armistice. He decided that a new political, conciliatory line was needed by October 26. He gained support for this from popular pressure coming from below and the actions of the party opposition. This change was supported by Kadar with some reservations.14
  6. Mikoyan and Suslov recommended that the Presidium accept the Imre Nagy line. Instead of military measures, they thought that concessions were needed to “win over the workers’ masses” and approved reshuffling the government by including “a certain number of petty bourgois democrat” ministers (meaning persons from the previous coalition parties). The only thing they reported on the Hungarian leadership was that the “majority” of it was solid and “non-capitulationist.” However, they reported on “Imre Nagy’s vacillations who because of his opportunistic nature doesn’t know where to stop in giving concessions.”15

Although there is no direct evidence for this conclusion, it is conceivable that this analysis might have triggered the preparations in Moscow for a second military intervention. A final, unambiguous political decision however, could hardly have been made by this point. Yet, Mikoyan signaled the limits of compromise: “From our part we warned them that no further concessions can be made, otherwise it will lead to the fall of the system...the withdrawal of Soviet army will lead inevitably to the American troops marching in. Just like earlier we still think it possible that the Soviet soldiers will return to their bases shortly after law and order will have been restored.”16

7. The Soviets’ short-term interest was to quell the exceedingly tense Hungarian situation. So long as they saw a hope for this, they countenanced political concessions which were earlier considered to be serious right wing deviations. Perhaps they feared unintended or unclear consequences of an outright invasion, or an escalation of fighting that might lead to the involvement of American troops. On October 28, the Soviets agreed to an armistice and the withdrawal of their military units from Budapest without the military elimination of the centers of armed insurgents. They accepted a sentence in Imre Nagy’s draft program which proposed negotiations for the later withdrawal of Soviet troops, contingent upon “the Soviet Union’s exclusive decision.”17 Yet, no far-reaching formal agreement was concluded with Imre Nagy. At the most, there was an informal accord along the lines of the October 26 “principles.” There was no mention in them about a multi- party system (only the inclusion of politicians from other parties in the government), no mention about the troop withdrawal or about Hungary’s renunciation of the Warsaw Pact.

8. The Soviet Union’s readiness for compromise was related to long-term interests as well. After 1945, and particularly after the outbreak of Cold War tensions, it was Moscow’s fundamental interest to have politically and militarily loyal and stable leaderships in the neighboring countries. The limits of these alignments were sometimes wider, sometimes tighter. In 1956, at the time of de-Stalinization, they momentarily seemed to expand. The Soviets saw their long-range interests secured in three institutions: First, an undivided, potent Communist party leadership or other political centre; second, a strong and firm state security service; and third, a loyal and disciplined military leadership. The shaking of even one of the three could provoke Soviet political meddling, and if the symptoms appeared simultaneously this could produce Moscow’s radical military intervention. The October 26-28 compromise did not directly contradict Moscow’s long- range interests (only the initiation of negotiations was mentioned rather than actual Soviet troop withdrawal), which could momentarily reinforce structures in charge of securing Soviet interests (especially the most important one from the Soviet perspective, the party leadership).

9. Nagy probably well understood this. But he could not and did not want to think entirely in the terms of the neighboring superpower. Thus he tried to consolidate the aforementioned institutions on the basis of popular demands, but the pressure of the revolutionary masses and his own personality made him transgress this boundary. On October 29 and 30 the Soviet envoys saw a Hungarian party leadership which appeared to be falling apart and losing control of events. The other functioning center, the government, did not interest them. Nagy had a key position there and he was not trusted unconditionally, and the inclusion (on October 27) of “petty bourgeois elements” (i.e., a multiparty coalition) in the government only strengthened this impression.18

Though popular demands and sentiments were of basic interest for Nagy, they did not fit into the thinking of the empire. On October 29 and 30, the reports of Moscow’s observers implied the collapse of the institutional system in Hungary vital to Soviet interests.19 Simultaneously, the outbreak of the Suez war and the fact that the Americans gave clear signals of non- intervention20 gave the preparation of a second intervention an external green light. On October 30, the Mikoyan group explicitly referred to a political and military decision to be taken soon, in relation to which “comrade Konev”—the Soviet Marshal who commanded the Warsaw Pact unified forces—“will have to proceed to Hungary without delay.”21 The following day Mikoyan and Suslov returned to Moscow.

10. The Moscow evaluation is shown clearly by the CPSU CC Presidium’s telegram to the Italian communist party leader, Palmiro Togliatti, on October 31: “We agree with your assessment that the Hungarian situation is moving towards a reactionary direction. We are informed that Nagy is playing a double game and is under the increasing influence of reactionary forces. For the time being we shall not make an open move against Nagy, but the reactionary turn will not receive our acquiescence.”22

11. Although the CPSU CC Presidium’s resolutions are very terse, the three-fold method of implementing the basic political decision is clearly outlined.23 Military measures were above all Zhukov’s responsibility, and then the task of Marshal Konev, who came to Hungary after November 1. International preparation, such as informing the allies was undertaken by Khrushchev himself, as well as by Malenkov and Molotov (the details of these consultations, including the negotiations with the Chinese in Moscow, with the Poles in Brest, and with Tito in Brioni, are available24).

And finally, the establishment of a new political center in Hungary required the most participants. Four members of the Secretariat began to draft and assemble the necessary documents on October 31, most importantly, a declaration of the new Hungarian government (prepared in Moscow).25 Only Brezhnev remained of this team at the November 1 meeting of the Presidium, but there is a mention of Serov, who stayed in Budapest.26 It was his job (along with Andropov) to secure the personnel for the new local political center and to deliver the key people to Moscow. The key person was Janos Kadar, but this is an entirely different story. 1. The following two volumes published the Soviet documents related to 1956: Eva Gal, Andras B. Hegedus, Gyorgy Litvan, and Janos M. Rainer, eds., A “Jelcin dosszie.” Szovjet dokumentumok 1956-rol. (Budapest: Szazadveg Kiado-1956-os Intezet, 1993). [“The Yeltsin Dossier”. Soviet documents on 1956; hereafter: The Yeltsin Dossier]; and Vjacseszlav Szereda and Alekszandr Sztikalin, eds., Hianyzo lapok 1956 tortenetebol: Dokumentumok a volt SZKP KB Leveltarabol (Budapest: Mora Ferenc Konyvkiado, 1993). (Zenit konyvek) [Missing pages from the history of 1956. Documents from the archives of the old Central Committee of the Communist Party; hereafter: Missing pages]. See also Janos M. Rainer, “1956—The Other Side of the Story. Five Documents From the Yeltsin File,” The Hungarian Quarterly 34:129 (Spring 1993), 100-114. The Bulletin thanks Rainer for granting permission to draw on that article.

For further information on new publications and sources related to the events in question, contact the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which publishes an annual compendium/yearbook (1956: Evkonyv) and serves as a center for scholarly research activities in Budapest:

As 1956-os Magyar Forradalom

Tortenetenek Dokumentacios es Kutatointezete

H-1074 Budapest, Dohany u. 74.


Tel.: 322-3620, 322-4026, 322-5228

Fax: 322-3084 2. [Ed. note: See documents in Fond 89 in the Tsentr Khranenia Sovremennoi Dokumentatsii (TsKhSD) [Center for the Preservation of Contemporary Documents] and Fund 059a in the Arkhiv Vneshnei Politiki Rossiiskoi Federatsii (AVP RF) [Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation] in Moscow.] 3. Arthur J. Alexander, “Modeling Soviet Decisionmaking,” in Jiri Valenta and William Potter, eds., Soviet Decisionmaking for National Security (London: Allen & Unwin, 1984), 9-22. 4. E.g., the 31 October 1956 Resolution of the CC CPSU, document no. II/12., The Yeltsin Dossier, 70, 72. 5. Based on the experience and documents of the Hungarian leadership it is possible that records like minutes were not made. According to Soviet experts, the head of Department of the General Department of the CC CPSU prepared short summaries about the participants, contributors and the opinion voiced at Presidium meetings. 6. For a representative collection of declassified U.S. government documents on the 1956 crisis, see U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1955-1957, vol. 25, Eastern Europe (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1990), esp. 259-581. 7. Gromyko summary of 17 September 1956, attached to CPSU CC protocol P43 of 27 September 1956, The Yeltsin Dossier, 42-44. 8. Missing pages, 28-29, n. 7. 9. From the time of the second mission, see Mikoyan’s speech at the meeting of the Hungarian Workers’ Party (HWP) Central Committee, 18 July 1956. Magyar Orszagos Leveltar (Hungarian National Archives - Mol) MDP- MSZMP Iratok Gyujtemenye (Collection of Papers of the HWP and the HSWP) 276/52/35 o.e. pp. 17-28; and Mikoyan’s report, 18 July 1956, Missing pages, 59-65. From the time of the third mission see the records of the October 26 meeting of the HWP Central Committee (excerpt) and the record of the October 27-28 meeting of the HWP Political Committee, “From the documents of the leading organs of the party and the government 23 October 1956-4 November 1956,” published by Ferenc Glatz, Historia 4-5 (1989), 32-40. Mikoyan and Suslov were not present at the Central Committee meeting, but reported about it. See Mikoyan to CC CPSU, n.d., and Mikoyan and Suslov to CC CPSU, 26 October 1956, Missing pages, 106-113. Mikoyan took part in the Political Committee meeting, but there are no such documents among those we received. 10. See, e.g., Serov’s reports of 28 and 29 October 1956, The Yeltsin Dossier, 54-55, 62-64, or the discussion of lieutenant-colonel Strarovtoi with AV (State Security) Major Vig, report dated 31 October 1956, The Yeltsin Dossier, 76-81. 11. See Mikoyan to CC CPSU, 14 July 1956, Missing pages, 40. 12. The 24 October 1956 Moscow meeting, published by Tibor Hajdu in Az 1956-os Magyar Forradalom Tortenetenek Akademiai Dokumentacios es Kutatointezete Evkonyv I. 1992. [The Yearbook of the Documentation and History Institute of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution] (Budapest: 1956-os Intezet, 1992), 153. [Ed. note: See the English translation by Mark Kramer in this issue of the CWIHP Bulletin.] 13. The 24 October 1956 Moscow meeting, ibid., 155. 14. Mikoyan-Suslov to CC CPSU, 26 October 1956, Missing pages, 109- 110. 15. Ibid., 112-13. 16. Ibid., 112. 17. Historia 4-5 (1989), 37. 18. Mikoyan-Suslov report, 29 October 1956, The Yeltsin Dossier, 60-61; Mikoyan-Suslov report, 30 October 1956, Missing pages, 125-126. 19. Serov to Mikoyan and Suslov, 29 October 1956, The Yeltsin Dossier, 62-64. 20. See telegram from State Department to U.S. Embassy in Moscow, 29 October 1956, FRUS, 1955-57, vol 25, 328. 21. Mikoyan-Suslov report, 30 October 1956, Missing pages, 126. 22. Telegram to Soviet ambassador in Rome for Togliatti, 31 October 1956, The Yeltsin Dossier, 69. 23. 31 October 1956 resolution, CC CPSU, The Yeltsin Dossier, 70, 72. 24. See Janos Tischler, “Reports by the Polish Ambassador and the telegrams to the Polish Embassy in Budapest during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution,” in Tortenelmi Szemle 10 (1992), 73; Khrushchev Remembers, trans. and ed. by Strobe Talbott (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970), 461-64; see also Veljko Micunovic, Tito kovete voltam, Moszkva 1956-58 [I was Tito’s Ambassador. Moscow, 1956-1958] (Budapest: Interart, 1990), 128-37. 25. Kadar government declaration, 4 November 1956, The Yeltsin Dossier, 87-93, esp. editor’s note on 92-93. 26. CPSU CC resolution, protocol P50/I, 1 November 1956, The Yeltsin Dossier, 76

CWIHP Bulletin, Issue 5, Spring 1995. pp. 22-27.

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