Oct 16 2009
Latest news–Mikhail Suprun, an historian from Archangel, arrested in Russia for research on sensitive topics. (And let me note–the Guardian continues to do an excellent job of monitoring the politics of history in Russia).
There doesn’t appear to be much whiff of falsification or President Medvedev’s Truth Commission about this. This involves state interference in history, but this seems more local than central, and the issue that set it off doesn’t appear to be among those things that have Medvedev upset. Three things jump out at me on the supposed grounds for this arrest.
One is that an official of the Interior Ministry was arrested as well, presumably for handing over documents that weren’t supposed to be handed over. This gives a real “there but for the grace of God go I” feeling. The rules and procedures for what’s classified and what’s not are byzantine and opaque. Any researcher has to trust that archivists and officials are handing over documents that are permissible to use. I’ve never been on the archivist side of that relationship, but I have to imagine navigating the rules for Russian officialdom is quite difficult.
Two is that the ostensible grounds for this arrest seem to be Suprun’s alleged violation of the personal privacy of either Germans sent to labor camps in the Soviet far north or of Soviet officials running those labor camps. In each case, talking about privacy seems a little ludicrous. I’ve run into this particular standard for closing documents before–back in the late 1990s folders at the Party Archive in Moscow had pages that I wasn’t supposed to look at because they contained personal information. Security wasn’t exactly tight–the bound volume had a paper loop slipped around the pages I wasn’t supposed to read. Again, the line here seems rather arbitrary. What materials in an archive don’t contain some kind of personal information?
Three is that the real reason for the arrest, not the ostensible one, seems to be embarrassment over the treatment of Soviet citizens of German ancestry and German prisoners-of-war at the hands of the Soviet government.
This illustrates the big problem with suppressing history–getting your story straight. In the kerfluffle this summer over Colonel Kovalyov and his attempt to blame World War II on the Poles, it seemed clear to me that the bigger goal was being nice to Germany (Russia’s best friend in Europe) and jabbing at Poland. A similar but short-sighted motivation may be at work here: i.e., “don’t let anybody know about bad things that happened to the Germans.” This has backfired spectacularly; anyone who’s interested already knew very well that bad things happened to Germans in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, and Suprun’s arrest has ticked off the Germans, including the German Red Cross.
The line that has not been crossed yet (to the best of my knowledge) is the arrest of a foreign historian or confiscation of the research materials of a foreign historian. Anyone knows differently, I’d like to hear.