Soviets deny that Hiss spied Russian general says archives show no connection to convicted perjurer

October 29, 1992|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Alger Hiss, the State Department lawyer accused of espionage during the McCarthy era, never spied for the Soviets, says a high-ranking Russian general with access to archives of the former Soviet Union.

In a statement given to an American historian and filmmaker who has studied the case, Gen. Dmitri A. Volkogonov, chairman of Russia's military intelligence archives, calls the espionage allegations against Mr. Hiss "completely groundless."

"Not a single document, and a great amount of materials have been studied, substantiates the allegation that Mr. A. Hiss collaborated with the intelligence services of the Soviet Union," declares the general.

Allen Weinstein, author of "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case," says Mr. Volkogonov's statement "reopened the case."

Scholars of Soviet affairs also say they were struck by the categorical, almost passionate nature of the Russian official's statement. As a respected historian and key adviser to President Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Volkogonov should have his views taken seriously, they say.

They caution, however, that given the labyrinthine nature of the Soviet bureaucracy and the sensitivity of military and foreign intelligence operations, Mr. Volkogonov may have overstated his findings.

"I don't doubt that he's given an honest report on what he saw, but there are a lot of things he might not have seen," says Richard Pipes, a Soviet scholar at Harvard University. "There are archives within archives within archives. To say there is no evidence in any of the archives is not very responsible on his part."

Mr. Volkogonov, the author of a biography of Stalin, delivered the statement this month in Moscow to John Lowenthal, a historian and filmmaker who has long studied the Hiss case. In May, Mr. Hiss, a high-ranking State Department official who was convicted of perjury in 1950 for his denial that he had been a Soviet spy, asked Mr. Volkogonov to inspect all Soviet files pertaining to him, his case, and his accuser, Whittaker Chambers.

It was Mr. Chambers, a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s and later an editor at Time magazine, who charged both that Mr. Hiss belonged to the American Communist Party in the 1930s and that he had provided Mr. Chambers with classified State Department documents for transmission to the Soviet Union. Mr. Chambers called Mr. Hiss "the closest friend I ever had in the Communist Party."

In 1948, Mr. Chambers produced microfilmed documents from a hollowed-out pumpkin on his farm near Westminster, Md., that connected Mr. Hiss to Communist activities a decade earlier.

Mr. Hiss has always denied the charges.

"It's what I've been fighting for for 44 years," said Mr. Hiss, now 87, in an interview this week. "It won't settle things for people I've regarded as prejudiced from the beginning, but I think this is a final verdict on the thing. I can't imagine a more authoritative source than the files of the old Soviet Union.

"Rationally, I realized time was running out, and that the correction of Chambers' charges might not come about in my lifetime. But inside I was sure somehow that I would be vindicated."

Mr. Volkogonov issued his opinion Oct. 14. In a separate videotaped statement made the next day, he elaborated on his findings. He said that, as a State Department official in the 1940s, Mr. Hiss had "normal official working contacts" with Soviet officials and was "never a spy for the Soviet Union." Instead, he called him a victim of the Cold War.

"The fact that he was convicted in the '50s was a result of either false information or judicial error," he continued. "You can tell Alger Hiss that the heavy weight should be lifted from his heart."

Alexander Dallin, a professor of history and political science at Stanford, says it was beyond the powers of even the most highly placed Russian official to reach into every nook and cranny of Soviet intelligence. "Disclosures of this sort gradually fill in the picture, but don't remove the question marks," he says.

"It means that every serious scholar has to take a fresh look," says author Weinstein, president of the Center for Democracy.

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