Rusted Archives

Anyone interested in the status of Russian archives should read the NY Times article, “Iron Archives.” However, some of its claims about the shrinking access to Russian archives should be put in context. For example, anything that is located in the infamous Presidential Archive is off limits, except if you have connections. I know a few scholars who’ve gotten special dispensation to work there. The Foreign Policy and Military archives (19th century materials are available) are also closed.

It is also true that the declassification process has been slowed. As the article points out and honest archivists will attest, this is mostly because the process has been formalized. The body in charge of declassification, the Commission on State Secrets, is under funded and understaffed. Add the lack of incentive to make documents open and the process slows to a crawl. But scholars shouldn’t take this as a sign that archival research on “sensitive subjects” is impossible. Sure military and foreign policy are out. Postwar Communist Party materials are also difficult to get your hands on. Russia also has a policy concerning personal files. They are only accessible after 75 years unless you have permission from the family. However, historians of some of the darkest moments in Soviet history will tell you that documentation about the Terror, Collectivization, deportation, and the GULAG are abundant. A lot of documentation in the Presidential Archive will only spice up footnotes and pad bibliographies. The new information they contain will mostly further confirm already existing materials. Also, in most archives a researcher with good connections can get classified material even if it is classified. But despite what anyone thinks, there is little left to know that the archives can tell us. I personally doubt that there are any smoking guns buried deep in even the most secret Russian archives. Access to them will only satisfy historians’ own archival fetish.

Still, each Russian archive has its own rules and culture. State and Provincial Archives like the ones cited in the article fall under the laws and policies of Rosarkhiv, the State Archival Administration. Their rules specifically make statements about researchers’ rights to open materials. If all else fails, embarrassing archivist by citing these rules can sometimes works. Going straight to the director does too. The most difficult archives are the ones that are under city administrations. The Moscow City Archive for Social Movements is notoriously difficult. I think I was able to work there by charm alone.

The real problem with Russian archives is not reclassification or access. It is funding. The Komsomol archive where I work has had a staff reduction from 8 to 4 people. Many archives are housed in crumbling buildings or worse are considered prime real estate. Some, like the State Historical Archive in St. Petersburg, have been forced to move. As the main state archive for the 19th century, this is a huge blow to the history of the Imperial period. The lack of funding has also prevented archives from modernizing their reading rooms, purchasing copiers, microfilm readers, etc. The most modern archives are the ones like the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History and others who have signed publishing deals with Western publishers like Yale University Press.

Lastly, Russian archives are beginning to suffer from a lack in training. Pay is incredibly low—about $100 a month. Most of the staff is either old, mentally deranged or both. Recent rules have reduced archival training to simply a certificate rather than a degree. The next generation of archivists will be poorly trained, paid, and therefore disinterested.

So put in this perspective the status of Russian archives is direr than the Western historians’ obsession with classification.

All this said, my favorite part of the whole article was the final quote from Robert Conquest. I quote the Times quoting him:

“There’s a drive of sorts toward the truth,” said Robert Conquest, the venerable cold warrior and author of “The Great Terror.” “After all, they didn’t really manage to totally suppress it the whole Soviet period, in spite of destroying the intelligentsia and ruining the country.”

It’s funny for a historian like him to speak about the truth. Especially coming from a guy who once declared that rumor was one of the best sources for understanding the Soviet Union. Plus how would he know about suppressing the truth? To my knowledge, none of his books contain a single archival citation. There is some speculation around the field whether the man has ever stepped into a Russian archive at all.