Sep 09 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.