The name Aino Kuusinen is all but unknown in the United States this is unfortunate, for the life story of this undercover agent -- a highly attractive, intelligent, and courageous woman, who spoke her English with an American accent -- is a parable that illuminates an entire age.
In the early 1920s she escaped from the ties of a respectable middle-class Finnish family by marrying a fellow Finn in the new communist nomenklatura in Moscow. She then worked for the Communist International (Comintern) and met virtually everyone who was anyone in that world. For most of the 1930s she traveled as a Soviet agent: to depression-struck New York where for some three years she worked for the Comintern; through Europe as Hitler consolidated his power; to Tokyo where for another three years she worked for the Red Army in collaboration with the Sorge spy ring. In the 1940s and 1950s, by falling back on her original vocation as a nurse, she survived some fifteen years in Stalin's Gulag. In 1966, still vigorous and spirited, the old lady outwitted her minders to escape to Western Europe, where she wrote her memoirs. She subsequently suffered a not uncommon fate for defectors, dying as a lonely recluse in exile. Despite this, in her survival of the camps and her escape from the empire she once served may be found those elements of courage and hope which occasionally alleviate the grim narrative of twentieth-century totalitarianism.
A Non-Person in America
Two decades ago, when her memoirs first appeared in Europe, they were well received.(1) But when a U.S. edition was published in 1975, it was effectively strangled at birth. American academics dismissed Aino Kuusinen as an "adventuress" with a "vivid imagination." Her credibility was destroyed by an outright libel, which has remained undetected, and whose consequences persist. Perhaps the most baleful of these consequences is that today's scholars have been deprived of an important source on the roots of the perestroika movement which ultimately brought down the Soviet empire.
Any American scholar who today picks up a copy of her memoirs will light upon a brief preface written by a reputable scholar, warning that the memoirs are effectively worthless as an historical source. The authority of the man who supplied this preface -- a Professor John Hodgson of Syracuse University -- is supported in a separate foreword to the memoirs by the noted German commentator on Soviet affairs, Wolfgang Leonhard. Leonhard describes how he befriended Kuusinen after her defection, discussed the writing of her memoirs, and accepted responsibility for their posthumous publication. It was he who contacted Hodgson -- as a leading expert" -- to help check the manuscript and he thanks Hodgson fulsomely for his contribution.
The particular significance of Aino Kuusinen's credibility, or lack thereof, is that she was not only a Soviet agent; she was also the wife of Otto Kuusinen, an "old Bolshevik" who survived near the center of power in Moscow from the time of Lenin until his death under Brezhnev. The important role of the shadowy Otto Kuusinen in the genesis of Gorbachev's perestroika is now acknowledged. Professor Charles Fairbanks, Jr. of Johns Hopkins, for example, makes much of his seminal influence: he points out that Kuusinen's proteges included a whole raft of reform-minded young intellectuals within the old Soviet apparat -- and Yuri Andropov.(2) Fairbanks observes that after Kuusinen's death in 1964, Andropov "inherited the subsequently influential intellectuals" from his old mentor. Then, when Andropov selected Gorbachev as his heir apparent before his death in 1984, "this entire heritage came into the hands of Gorbachev and those who influenced him...." Fairbanks quotes one of Gorbachev's perestroika group, Georgi Arbatov, as acknowledging how "indebted" they all were to Kuusinen as a teacher.
Even in 1974, when the Soviet Union seemed a permanent fixture, the historical face value of Aino Kuusinen's memoirs was significant. As Leonhard points out in his foreword, this was the first time the wife of such a high-ranking Soviet official had come over to the West. Her "deeply impressive and absorbing" memoirs covered nearly five decades of Soviet communism, from 1918 to 1965, from "dizzy heights to the utmost depths."
But Leonhard also spices this with some mild disclaimers about Aino Kuusinen's reliability. He writes that her account was colored by the emotional effect of her experiences, particularly in the labor camps. This is the sort of comment that was once routinely made about any memoirist who survived the Gulag. But since Leonhard was the old lady's self-described friend, patron, and editor, the American reader could readily infer that he was actually tempering his criticism through a sense of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, and that it had been left to his esteemed colleague Hodgson to deliver the merciful coup de grace.
Hodgson put forth the allegation that she was an habitual liar. In support of it, he offered just one specific example of a lie that she allegedly told. This was so self-evidently damning, apparently, that no further support was necessary. "With the vivid imagination of a self-centered adventuress," he wrote, "she claims in the face of contradictory evidence that she sought assistance from the U.S. embassy in Moscow on two occasions, in 1947 and 1948, after her release from the Vorkuta camp."
Hodgson did not bother to spell out the "contradictory evidence" to which he claimed to be privy. In any case, the truth, contained in a detailed report to be found in the archives of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, is that she did visit the U.S. embassy in Moscow after her release from Vorkuta, exactly as she described.(3)
The Bukharin Connection
"It seems extraordinary," Aino Kuusinen wrote of her husband, "that this man who so profoundly influenced the policy of a great nation was not a Russian by birth but an outsider, who at heart cared nothing for Soviet interests." Although Leonhard opined in the 1970s that she sometimes portrayed Kuusinen as being "more important than he actually was," Western scholars now generally acknowledge that he had more influence than they previously had realized. He is a key figure in the debate over the roots of Gorbachev's perestroika, and especially over whether those roots may be traced to the relatively liberal approach of the 1920s Soviet New Economic Policy (NEP) and the cultural influence of the NEP's champion, Nikolai Bukharin. Stephen Cohen, Bukharin's biographer, is the scholar most widely identified with this view. On the other side, Charles Fairbanks finds no "concrete historical link" with the NEP or Bukharin. He argues instead for the paradox of "the...