On the Paper Trail of Cold War Secrets Five Years Ago This Week, a Failed Coup in Moscow Triggered the End of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. since Then, Historians Have Dug into Communist Archives. the Monitor Reveals a Few of the Secrets Revealed about 74 Years of Soviet Rule

Article excerpt

Hot Peace

The day after Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko met President Kennedy on Oct. 18, 1962, he cabled a thumbs-up to Moscow: Kennedy didn't know about Soviet missiles in Cuba. The message - one of several recently declassified diplomatic cables sent during the Cuban missile crisis - said the situation was "completely satisfactory."

He didn't know that Kennedy had reconnaissance photos of the missiles in his desk as Gromyko sat across from him.

Gromyko, however, kept secrets of his own that wouldn't be revealed until scholars and players in the crisis got together in Havana in 1992: Gen. Alexander Gribkov, who helped plan the Soviet operation, disclosed that the Soviets had not only medium-range nuclear missiles, but also short-range tactical nuclear weapons for use against an American attack on Cuba.

But if the Americans thought 1962 was the brink of war, 1983 saw the Soviets reaching for the panic button. When NATO was conducting military exercises in Germany, "The Politburo thought the exercises were a pretense for launching a major nuclear attack," says Vladislav Zubok, a fellow at the National Security Archives in Washington. The KGB went on high worldwide alert. Memoirs tell of KGB agents anxiously counting the lights burning in the Pentagon at night and checking NATO blood reserves to gauge the Western allies' war-readiness.

Lost Spies

The United States lost dozens of aircraft and 252 crew members on spy missions over Russia's frontiers; 138 airmen are still unaccounted for.

Paul Cole, an independent American researcher, searched the archives of the Soviet military and KGB intelligence agency and found the names of "eight or nine" US airmen who died in Soviet custody.

But he estimates that upwards of a hundred disappeared into the gulag, along with up to 400 American POWs from World War II and 35 from the Korean War. "I don't think you'll ever find their names written down. I did, however, find eyewitnesses who could identify people by name," Dr. Cole says.

Nuclear Tragedy At Chelyabinsk

When Soviet scientist Zhores Medvedev, living in Britain, wrote in 1976 that a tank containing 70 to 80 metric tons of radioactive waste had exploded in Russia's southern Urals in 1957, Western scientists vilified him in the press.

The explosion at Chelyabinsk-65, a secret city where nuclear material was produced for weapons, is one of the world's worst nuclear accidents, almost comparable in sheer damage to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. It shot radioactive debris more than 1,000 feet into the sky and polluted 9,000 square miles. Not only did the Soviet government keep the accident secret from its people, but the United States government never revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) knew the details as early as 1959.

Information on the human and environmental consequences of the disaster is still out of reach, says Natalya Mironova of the Movement for Nuclear Safety in Chelyabinsk.

JFK's Assassin Was Not KGB

Many of the conspiracy theories that swirl around the 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy focus suspicion on the KGB. The spy agency's files on assassin Lee Harvey Oswald came to be regarded as something of a Holy Grail within the Western research community ever since it was learned that Oswald once defected to the Soviet Union.

Now, after looking at the files, American researchers have found no link. "What has been released is not conclusive," says Harvard University researcher Mark Kramer. "It doesn't show that Oswald was anything but what the Soviets have always told us about him - that he was an unstable loser they were glad to get rid of."

The Soviets evidently shared America's shock after Kennedy's murder and initially suspected Cuban leader Fidel Castro was involved. "The first reaction was 'Wow, do you think the Cubans had anything to do with it? …