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 …