Archive for November, 2009

Suprun update

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

Some more information has become available about the case of Mikhail Suprun, the historian arrested along with a police official for allegedly obtaining access to unauthorized historical documents. (I’m relying here on the Interfax story in Johnson’s Russia List # 205; I can’t track down a public version of the original Interfax report)

What struck me originally about this case appears to be borne out: this is about local issues more than President Dmitrii Medvedev’s general effort to steer Soviet history in a particular direction. The Investigations Committee of the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office has gone out of its way to stress that this is not about a crackdown on history per se, but claims instead that the question is whether Suprun obtained access to restricted personal information about private individuals–Germans deported to the Archangel region.

Here’s why I think this cannot help having a serious chilling effect on research, despite the prosecutors’ claims to the contrary. First, Russian archives are working under a 75-year rule for personal information, which seems quite extreme. What is personal information? Name, age, and nationality of those deported to Archangel? That’s the sort of information that Suprun might quite legitimately have been interested in, but that a prosecutor could regard as personal and private. What about discussions in archival records of private activities and family life? That would put, I imagine, forced confessions obtained in the Great Purges under seal. They’re rife with references to family and personal life. I myself read confessions from wrecking investigations in the late 1920s and early 1930s which discussed private parties. We’re now past seventy-five years, but we weren’t when I read them. Did I break Russian Federation law by taking notes and publishing my conclusions? At least I didn’t suborn any officials: I filled out a request slip, and the archivists brought me the file.

Second, the Investigations Committee goes out of its way to stress that Suprun was doing this for the benefit of some unnamed foreign organization (presumably the German Red Cross) for some nefarious purpose. This nefarious purpose is not specified, probably because it’s impossible to come up with one. I can again testify from personal experience to an inclination of some Russian officials to believe that there is big money in mundane archival documents, and that researcher interest in those documents is driven by mercenary goals. I’d like to invite them to be laughed out of Western publishers’ offices when they raise the prospect of huge profits from primary source documents. But raising the spectre of foreign entanglements plays a populist and xenophobic chord that I expect the prosecutors believe will resound nicely.

As I suggested before, foreign historians have thus far been protected by their foreign passports. My guess is we’re not far from a test case stirred up by a zealous local official.