Archive for September, 2010

Orlando Figes, back in circulation, pt. II

Monday, September 27th, 2010

Sebastian Shakespeare, columnist for This is London, has news about Orlando Figes in conjunction with the forthcoming UK release of his next book Crimea: The Last Crusade. After a summer on sick leave after his sock puppet reviews scandal, Orlando Figes is back to work at Birkbeck College. Not all are happy. Shakespeare writes:

Birkbeck College has agreed to take him back full-time. “After a period of sick leave, Professor Orlando Figes has been on a phased return to work,” a spokesman tells me in a statement. “Following college procedures, Birkbeck has investigated all aspects of his involvement in the recent events reported in the press. As with any other members of staff, this process is confidential. Professor Figes has apologised to the college, its staff and students for the events. The college supports his return to work full-time.”

Some may applaud Birkbeck for standing by its man, especially as he cited illness as an explanation for his misdeeds. Even so, it is odd how an investigation could have been conducted without consulting Polonsky and Service. Neither of them, it transpires, were asked to give evidence. . . .the college made no attempt to distance itself, or at the very least publicly disapprove of his behaviour. This still rankles with Service and other historians. “I’m surprised it’s taken Birkbeck so long to make a statement,” says Paul Lay, editor of History Today and a former pupil of Birkbeck.

“The fact that it’s taken them such a long time to make a statement and that it had to be wheedled out of them reflects badly on the college. It leaves a bad smell and doesn’t really resolve the issue. There is still a great deal of bitterness there on both sides.”

The Feat of the People

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Several months back, Dave Stone drew attention to the new website, 1941-1945: Chronicle of Victory, recently established by the Russian Ministry of Mass Communications “for the purpose of providing objective information about the Great Patriotic War.” [natch]

The MinMassComm isn’t the only Russian state agency sponsoring a site devoted to the War. The Ministry of Defense also has one of its own. Titled “Feat of the People,” this new(ish) site aims: “to perpetuate the memory of all the Wars’  heroes – irrespective of rank, scale of exploit, or award status; to educate youth concerning the military valor of their forefathers; and to provide a documentary base for counteracting attempts the falsification of World War II history” by creating a digital database of the 30 million military awards given out during the conflict together with archival documents relating to wartime military operations.

As with the “Chronicle of Victory,” non-Russian speakers are a bit out of luck. Although an “English” button is available on the site, it only translates the site’s anchor page and navigational bar.

Stalin and Male Nudes

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

How did I possibly miss this story from December 2009? My thanks to the good people at Cracked for correcting my oversight, though the article mischaracterizes what Stalin was actually doing.

As he got older and moved from his normal paranoid and ruthless to utterly out of touch with reality, Stalin developed a habit of writing scurrilous comments, many aimed at long-dead political opponents (some at his hand) on fine art prints of male nudes. Any comment would be superfluous.

Archival News

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

On 7 September, the Kremlin hosted a joint meeting of two commissions: the Commission to Oppose Attempts at Falsification of History, and the Interinstitutional Commission on Defense of State Secrets. The falsification group last met back in January; for additional background, see here and here.

To the outside observer, this would sound like two opposed organizations. This being Russia, of course, appearances can be deceiving. Only a few of the speeches and statements have been released, but what’s available so far suggests that there was much more about openness and access than there was about secrecy. Being generally bitter and cynical by nature, I was expecting only boilerplate (and there was, to be sure, plenty of that), but there was a remarkable amount of substantive information on offer. In particular, historians of Russia owe it to themselves to read the speech of Rosarkhiv head A. N. Artizov in full.

Chair of the meeting was S. E. Naryshkin, head of Medvedev’s Presidential Administration. His remarks were quite brief, and opened with a very vague set of goals for the meeting: “perspectives on the development of archival affairs, working out and realization of a series of measures directed at supporting a just and objective representation of Russian history.” This is, of course, not especially enlightening.

It did get better though. Naryshkin conceded that the falsification and anti-Russian history that Russian political leaders have been getting so worked up about are largely the result of bad access to documents. In Naryshkin’s words, “lack or inaccessibility of information becomes the condition and reason for falsification.” This makes the most important step “further declassification of archival documents.”

Naryshkin also set priorities for the Russian archival system. His first was electronic access–both the preservation of newly-generated electronic documents (not a big deal for most historians, at least not now) and improving electronic access to existing collections.

Next came access to documents, in which Naryshkin actually referred to the “society’s right of free access to information.” This was immediately followed by a qualification to “strictly provide for the security of the state and respect the rights of citizens,” but the very idea of treating access to archival information as a right, even if phrased in social rather than individual terms, is a major step.

A. N. Artizov’s speech was much heavier on concrete information. He noted the particular problems Russian archives face: finding qualified staff, and coping with the mass of records created by the totalizing nature of the Soviet state. Nonetheless, he touted the achievements of Russian archives in the last few years, including declassification and scholarly publication. Scans of key documents on the Katyn massacre achieved two million hits per day when made available to the public.

Veterans of reading rooms know that many of the people there are seeking to document the work or military service records of themselves or their relatives. Rosarkhiv has a new website where such inquiries can be submitted electronically. Historians of limited time and unlimited funding should note the ability to submit thematic requests for information as a paid service.

Thanks to Artizov, fans of the political use of history can look forward to a document collection that Artizov has promised will be coming soon: “the collaboration of Ukrainian nationalists with the Nazis”

Artizov had quite a bit to say about declassification. He cited 10 million files declassified since 1991, but noted how slow and labor-intensive the process is. He claimed that 1.7 million files remain classified, 1.1 million of those Communist Party or USSR government files. I should note that those numbers sound low to me. They could be true, I suppose, if they exclude some very important archives that are outside the Rosarkhiv system: the military, the foreign ministry, and the security services.

New files come in to the Rosarkhiv system at the rate of 1.5 million per year. Most notably, Artizov says the Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev fonds have all been transferred from the Kremlin’s Presidential Archive to Rosarkhiv. The bulk of the remaining Politburo archive will make the same transfer in 2010-12. Transfer doesn’t mean declassification, of course, but certainly the move from presidential to archivist hands is a good thing for researchers.

Artizov also gave some updated information on the major World War II archive that he discussed back in March. I was skeptical of this on practical and scholarly grounds, and remain so. Artizov is remarkably specific, though, which suggests that efforts proceed apace to make this archive happen. The plan for the new archive is to build it on the grounds of the existing Ministry of Defense Archive in Podol’sk. While this will certainly make the physical transfer of MoD records much simpler, it makes life much tougher for foreign researchers, who will be faced with the unenviable choices of either taking a daily elektrichka trek out from Moscow, or living all the way out in Podol’sk.