Johnson's Russia List
1 May 2003
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A CDI Project
April 30-May 6, 2003
Russian Archives, Forbidden Ground
A recent Duma hearing highlighted the "acute problem of Russian archives
use." Scholars, academics, and inquisitive ordinary folks are concerned by
the fact that great chunks of archival information are off limits. The
problem did not originate yesterday, but it is still here today
Academician Fursenko, secretary of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN)
History Department is outraged: Researchers cannot get from a Russian archive
what is readily available at any archive abroad.
Several collections of articles on the Cold War, published in the U.S., are
compiled from our documents which are off limits at home. So you will have to
fly overseas for the material and then translate it from English back into
Abstracts of 6,000 documents on the "CPSU case," collected in 1992 for the
Constitutional Court, were published in 1995. The Kremlin and Staraya
Ploshchad Archives catalogue, aimed at "a broad readership," was available in
the public domain. Copies of it were of course also bought by foreigners. A
law that was adopted later on restricted the use of a number of documents in
There are various ways documents leak out. Information is a valuable product
while some of the archivists, largely selfless people devoted to the cause of
science, happen to be venal. A report by the Intelligence Directorate of the
General Staff indicating the number of U.S. POWs in Vietnam as substantially
differing from the information Vietnam had presented to the United States,
ended up in the West, creating a political uproar.
A research center across the ocean boasts a collection of top-secret
documents whose copies were obtained from a prominent Russian military
Ten years ago basic legislation on the RF State Archive and other archives
was adopted, laying down new, democratic principles for the storage and use
of the domestic historical heritage. Throughout the lifetime of several
generations the historical truth had been excluded from the ideology imposed
on society. CPSU archives are enormous: millions upon millions of cases and
files classified secret.
Soon after the August putsch, as part of a group of journalists, I got into
the holy of holies of the CPSU Central Committee: the archives of its General
Department. We looked on as Storage No.9, with Secretariat and Politburo
documents, was opened. Another storage facility contained the archives of the
Personnel Department with dossiers on the entire party and state nomenklatura
since the 1917 Revolution. Meanwhile, the corridors and offices were packed
with boxes and cases of current documents and paperwork as well as bagfuls of
I was allowed to open a few files. Dangerous Trends in the CPSU's Ideological
Work (an article declaring Marxism-Leninism a utopia), Assessment of the
Democratic Russia Movement complete with dossiers on Starovoitova, Popov,
Burbulis, Boldyrev, and so on and so forth. Later on, samples of CPSU
resolutions were displayed at an exhibition mounted on Staraya Ploshchad. In
my note pad they come under the heading "ON": On Hostile Moves at a Party
Conference of the Heat-Engineering Laboratory of the Academy of Sciences; On
F. Chaliapin's Daughter's Trip to Italy to Meet with her Mother; On Procedure
for Burial at the Novodevichye Cemetery, to name but a few.
These scads of documents were to be sorted out and brought in line with
common sense, i.e. internationally accepted "presumption of openness" with
regard to the most reliable type of information - the archives. There were no
laws. There was only the romantic zeal to put an end to propaganda myths. An
ad hoc commission was set up including, among others, archivists. The
archives took on the most difficult part of the job. Within two years they
had identified and prepared for declassification five million documents.
Secrets of Secret Services
The fundamental legislation was followed up by the Law on State Secrets that
came into conflict with this legislation (which is still in force).
Archivists were denied the right to declassify documents at their own
discretion: This became the prerogative of the government agency or
department where a particular document had originated and been classified. If
this agency or department or its successor has been abolished, the decision
rests with the Interdepartmental Commission, or MVK.
The power - i.e. state security, foreign intelligence, law enforcement, and
military - agencies had a special set of rules written for them. The
situation here is arcane. Their archival services do not answer to the
Russian State Archive Administration although the contents of their archives
are part of RF national assets.
The Security Agencies Law says that documents will be moved to state archives
"when they have lost their operational value" and "become a source of
historical information." When is this supposed to happen? Documents of the
Cheka, or the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission for Combating
Counterrevolution and Sabotage, have been under lock and key since 1919. Do
you know what the Russian State Archive received from the Central Archive of
the Federal Security Service, or the FSB? Police field reports on Emperor
Nicholas II's trips across the country and dossiers on White Guard officers.
The Law on Operational-Investigative Activities classifies all information
about agents provocateurs and informers who operated during the Stalin-era
Quite a few official archives ended up in the legal vacuum. Consider the
Religious Affairs Council, the Main Administration for Safeguarding State
Secrets in the Press, or Glavlit, and hundreds of other organizations that
were abolished. None of them could match the CPSU that had no legal
successors and 90 percent of whose documents were classified secret. A
special commission was set up for the party. Two years later it died a quiet
death when its chairman quit. No action was taken in the following five years
despite recurring appeals from the Russian State Archive Administration and
individual scholars to the Presidential Staff. Was there some ulterior motive
behind this sluggishness by the ruling authorities? Communist intrigues? Or
the usual, thoughtless disdain for the past and lessons of history?
What is the procedure in countries with strong democratic traditions and
straightforward laws? It would probably be inappropriate to draw analogies
here - what with Russia's obsession with secrecy, including classification of
lists of state secrets: There is no way of knowing whether or not a
particular piece of information is secret because this is a secret.
In a democratic society, a researcher looking for a particular document will
be told that the document is there, but, as the case may be, is classified,
and why: Otherwise the clerk will have violated the law and run the risk of
losing his job. Declassification is under public control. It proceeds in
accordance with a public or individual need or by presidential decree, which
fact is widely reported in the media. Individuals take legal action to obtain
particular information, and often win, as was the case with "opening" the
Vietnam war. Public institutions help while independent lawyers, politicians
and historians look into the legitimacy of withholding particular documents.
Our laws also provide for legal recourse if no satisfactory explanation has
been given. Russian Start Archive officials, however, could not recall a
single such case.
It seems that in this setup hopes should be pinned on the archivists
themselves: After all they are also an aggrieved party. Society, and
prominent scholars should exert pressure on the ruling establishment,
enforcing a review and implementation of laws. But this will take time.
Meanwhile, the Federal Archive Service, duly authorized by the MVK,
declassified within a single year the entire archive of the Soviet military
administration in Germany. Hopefully, the same procedure could be used in
declassifying whole areas of CPSU Central Committee activities: culture,
sports, the mass media, education, and trade, where lurking behind each
document is a Party, not state, secret.