NEW YORK -- In the latest chapter of a case that catapulted Richard M. Nixon to national prominence and has divided Americans for more than 40 years, a high-ranking Russian official says a review of newly opened archives clears Alger Hiss of accusations that he ever spied for the Soviet Union.
"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," declared Gen. Dmitri A. Volkogonov, chairman of the Russian Government's military intelligence archives. He called the espionage accusations against Mr. Hiss "completely groundless."
Scholars of Soviet affairs said 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 N. Yeltsin, they said, General Volkogonov's views should be taken seriously.
But some warned that given the labyrinthine nature of the Soviet bureaucracy and the sensitivity of military and foreign intelligence operations, General Volkogonov may have overstated his findings.
General Volkogonov 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, asked General 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 -- born and raised in Baltimore and a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University -- belonged to the 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."
Mr. Hiss has always denied the charges.
"It's what I've been fighting for for 44 years," Mr. Hiss, now 87, said 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. Hiss said his detractors would accept Soviet documents only if they were incriminating.
"I assume someone will say the real documents were shredded," he said. "They're so committed to their point of view that it's psychologically impossible for them to be open-minded."
As for Mr. Chambers, the Russian official said that files confirmed his membership in the U.S. Communist Party, but not that he had any contact with Soviet intelligence.
Mr. Chambers died in 1961. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom.
General 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 1950s 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."
"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," said 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."
Alexander Dallin, a professor of history and political science at Stanford, said 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 said.
But Mr. Lowenthal insisted that General Volkogonov's search was comprehensive -- so much so that he was apparently willing to stake his reputation as a general, historian and politician on it.
"This man is a professional historian who has spent decades in the archives," Mr. Lowenthal said. "He would not lightly render an official opinion without being sure of his research. He was not born yesterday."
Allen Weinstein, author of "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case," said General Volkogonov's statement "reopened the case."
"It means that every serious scholar has to take a fresh look," said Mr. Weinstein, president of the Center for Democracy in Washington. "But we can't take Volkogonov's word alone. We really have to see all the documents on Soviet espionage."
Mr. Hiss was never charged with espionage. But he was tried and convicted of lying to a grand jury. He spent nearly four years in prison, then emerged to find his legal career and marriage in shambles.
For many years he sought vindication through the courts. The Supreme Court refused three times to hear his case.
Whether through headlines, newsreels or early television broadcasts of the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, millions of citizens developed indelible images of the principal players in the drama:
Mr. Hiss, who once clerked for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and accompanied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Yalta; Mr. Chambers, an apparently contrite former Communist who asserted he was sacrificing himself for the sake of his country, and Mr. Nixon, a young congressman from California who vigilantly pursued the case when others faltered.
The public also became versed in the peculiar accoutrements of the controversy: the typewriter with which Mr. Hiss' wife purportedly retyped the purloined documents; the pumpkin in which Mr. Chambers hid on his Carroll County farm the microfilm he said Mr. Hiss had given him, and even the prothonotary warbler that Mr. Hiss, an amateur ornithologist, spotted in the early 1930s.
Mr. Chambers' claim to remember a conversation with Hiss about the bird strengthened his argument that he knew Mr. Hiss at the time.
In August, Mr. Hiss wrote to a number of Russian officials including General Volkogonov, seeking his records. He informed them that Mr. Lowenthal would seek appointments with them when he visited Moscow.
Working under the auspices of the Nation Institute, Mr. Lowenthal, a former professor at Rutgers Law School and the City University of New York Law School at Queens College, went to Moscow at the end of August, where he encountered researchers investigating a host of other Cold War-era personalities, including Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and Klaus Fuchs. He met for 30 minutes with General Volkogonov, who peppered him with questions about the Hiss case.
The Russian official pledged to search for and inspect the Hiss files personally. He said he also asked Yevgeny Primakov, director of the foreign intelligence service, to instruct his staff to find all materials on the case.
On Sept. 25, General Volkogonov notified Mr. Lowenthal in New York that his investigation was complete. In mid-October Mr. Lowenthal returned to Moscow, where the Russian official handed him a one-page opinion, typed on Russian Federation letterhead.
The polarization, Mr. Weinstein said, is unlikely ever to end. "Given the role of Nixon and the passions the case aroused, which led to an unyielding iconography of guilt or innocence on both sides, the hardest thing that anyone can do is remain open to new evidence," he said. "There ought to be a statute of limitations on historical anger in this case, whether at Nixon or at Hiss."