Theft in Russia’s Archives

The theft of 221 exhibits worth over $200 million from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has proven embarrassing for Russian authorities and has raised questions about museum security. Some of the stolen icons have been found and returned to the museum. A few arrests have been made of the perpetrators. The thefts appear to be an inside job.

There is no indication that the thefts are over. It was reported today that over 274 drawings by the Constructivist artist and architect Yakov Chernikhov from the Russian State Archive for Literature and Art (Rossisskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv literatury i iskusstva, RGALI). The drawings are priced around $1.3 million. The theft was discovered when the Constructivist’s grandson, Andei Chernikhov, was asked to verify the origin of nine drawings on auction at Christie’s London. Chernikhov demanded that the sale be cancelled and returned to the archive.

Like the Hermitage thefts, those of RGALI appear to be an inside job according to the archive director Tatyana Goryayeva. “Unfortunately, I have to state that employees of the archive were involved. Because the main task of the archivist is to ensure the safety of documents,” she stated on Russian television. Now, Sergei Stephasin, head of the Audit Chamber is calling for “a complete inventory of all state museums in our country” and a tightening of control over art auctions. Such an inventory would be a nightmare for researchers.

Since their opening to foreign researchers in 1991, Russian archives have experienced a string of thefts. Harvard University professor, Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, who is an expert in Russian archives, wrote that in the summer of 1995 over 12,000 documents were stolen from the State Historical Archive in St. Petersburg. In 2000, eighteen documents, which included sketches by Repin were stolen from RGALI. The Literature and Art archive was hit again last summer. Four pages of Aleksandr Blok’s poem ‘Vozmezdie” and four files of Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilev, and Osip Mandelstam were pinched from the archive. Researchers were believed to be the culprits and after a brief closure were told that they would only get microfilmed copies of documents. The RGALI incident was followed by a theft of Nazi documents and medals from an archival exhibit at the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF). Both thefts were found to be inside jobs. Now many large Moscow State archives, which include RGALI, GARF, and the State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI), only give out microfilmed documents out of concerns for preservation, but also to prevent illegal copying and theft.

The reason for robbing archives are simply, yet numerous. Archivists are paid very little for their work and the archives themselves have few resources to keep operating. This has resulted in a number of abuses by archival workers and researchers alike. Many researchers remember the conditions of the archives in the 1990s when the institutions didn’t have funds to pay for utilities, preservation, and supplies. Economic destitution drove many archives into the commercial market, making legal and illegal deals with foreign scholars, publishers, and universities for Russia’s “paper gold.”

Russian archive “commercialization” only worsened the situation even though they have produced some interesting document collections. Many sensational tales about archival and researcher abuse that have since entered scholarly lore. In one case, a researcher was said to have bought the exclusive publishing rights for documents. Another told of how Western journalists and researchers arrived with large sums of western currency to purchase documents, and how Russian archivists were happy to respond and take advantage of their salivating buyers. One American researcher was told, “Why should I bother to talk to you, when German television will offer us $20,000 for one file?” This “archival commercial bubble” only hampered the ability for less fortunate researchers to do their work. As UCLA professor J. Arch Getty described the situation in the Slavic Review in 1993:

The economic collapse has made fertile ground for the activities of unscrupulous (or just plain desperate) people on all sides. Some western publishers waive handfuls of dollars at archives and demand that their documentary “purchases” be closed to others. Panicky of greedy officials demand bribes or ridiculous “user fees” for provision of routine services. In the second half of 1992, I personally witnessed several disturbing and even sickening manifestations of the economic disaster. One archive demanded five dollars per page for photocopying (because another American has paid it); elsewhere an archival employee wanted payment in dollars to provide documents to an American in the reading room. At another archive, a representative of a European publisher was carrying documents out of the building in his shirt, while a low-level employee in a stairwell offered to sell original archival materials for an airline ticket. (Slavic Review, 52:1, 1993, 102)

Such activities made some scholars call for the adoption of a code of ethics for dealing with Russian archives and archivists. To my knowledge it was never done. Even more sadly, despite scholars hopes that the Russian archival revolution would tell us the truth about the many horrors of the Soviet regime, archival research has only colored or corroborated what was already known. No scholar using archival materials has yet to produce an earth shattering study of Russian/Soviet history.

Much has changed since the 1990s. It is now more difficult to take advantage of the economic conditions of archives since there are now more controls and legal penalties concerning archival materials. Many formerly declassified holdings have been reclassified to control their dissemination. However, as the continued thefts suggest, this doesn’t mean that archives are out of the economic hole. Many archival buildings are in desperate need of renovation and modernization. There is little money for office supplies. Last summer, I had to personally buy the toner for the copy machine at one of the archives I worked at because of the long wait the lack of funds for supplies created. The archive compensated me with copies.

One of the main problems facing Russian archives is low pay and as a result de-professionalization. Most archive staff are well trained in their craft, but they are quite elderly. Once they are gone there will be few competent specialists to replace them since fewer young people are getting archival administration degrees. Besides the few professional archivists, most archives employ dedicated elderly women, or in some cases the mentally ill, because they are the only ones willing to work for such low wages. One could see an increase in theft and abuse as this older, Soviet generation of archivists are replaced by their less experienced and trained younger colleagues.

The only hope is that the thefts will make the Russian government take its archives more seriously. More reclassifications and restrictions on researchers is not the answer. They only mask the very real economic problems facing these institutions. More funding for security, modernization, and supplies as well as providing a competent well-paid staff is desperately needed if such thefts are to cease. Recognizing archivists with a holiday like Den’ arkhivistov is simply no longer enough.