In December last year a team of men from the Russian prosecutor’s office confiscated a large part of human rights campaign group Memorial's digital catalogue of material on victims of Communist-era repression, kept in its St Petersburg office. Here, Memorial's Arseny Roginsky talks about the difficulty of accessing historical documents on repression from Russia’s state archives, and about a new flowering of admiration for Joseph Stalin, which is encouraged by the Kremlin
In the 1980s and 90s there was what you might call an archive revolution. Until then the huge majority of documents from the Soviet period had been closed, except to researchers working with special permission from the Party or other high state organs.
Then in the late Mikhail Gorbachev period they began to open up a little. And with the start of the Boris Yeltsin era [1991-1999] there was a powerful wave of declassification. Documents became available to historians, and to private individuals. There was a great leap forward. And that leap had a huge, positive significance.
Of course, not all of these were documents connected with repressions. Most of those that were opened up were internal Party documents, because every official decision was recorded on paper. Documents about the running of the Gulag [government agency that administered the penal labour camps], for example, were opened. But the situation with documents about political terror was, and is, much more complicated. And it has become even more complicated with time.
Many of these documents – about 90% of which are held by the FSB (the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB) – have remained closed. Or, to be precise, there was a period when they were more available in the early Yeltsin times. But from the second half of the Yeltsin period, through the Vladimir Putin era [2000-2008], the tendency has been towards keeping them closed: more and more circulars and legal clarifications are issued, making access tougher. In the early 1990s members of Memorial [a Russian NGO which investigates Stalin’s Great Terror and campaigns for the defence of human rights] were able to take down biographical details of the repressed, without examining the details of the investigative case in question. Now that’s impossible.
Let me explain. For us as researchers, what is interesting is the mechanism of terror and repression. This is extremely important for the understanding of Stalinism. But how to find out about these methods? The Chekists [secret police] and high party officials did not write memoirs. Everything was top secret. All we have to reconstruct events is the documents. But here is a problem. Frequently the executors who shot thousands of people during the Great Terror in the 1930s were themselves later arrested on false charges. Very often in 1939 and 1940 these NKVD officers were accused of having carried out repressions in order to provoke the hatred of the Soviet people against the Communist Party, or as a provocation organised by German intelligence, or some such. And in the process of such prosecutions on trumped-up charges, in an attempt to defend themselves, these executioners began to describe how they had received orders to exterminate people, how Joseph Stalin himself had called from Moscow, and so on. All the details.
And, of course, for historians this is terribly interesting stuff. But the point is that all these documents remain secret. Because the authorities thought up something very sly. They created a law that the archives are only open on people who were later rehabilitated. And, of course, these executioners were not rehabilitated. No one can inspect the case files, not even their relatives. So we are talking about documents on several thousands of very important prosecutions – an extremely useful source for scholars of Stalinism – and access to them today is completely closed.
There is another obstacle. When the new law was adopted in 1991 – and I took part in drawing it up – we named immediate relatives of victims as one group that should unquestionably have access to the archives (that did not mean that other groups should not also have access). But in the following years the authorities changed the law a little, the prosecutor’s office issued a special document giving its interpretation and the result was that only relatives of the victims were to be allowed access.
So if, as a historian, you want to look at documents on the investigations into the great Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam or the spaceship constructor Sergei Koralyov, or Marshal Tukhachevsky, then the archivists will tell you: “Very sorry, we can’t help. Bring us an affidavit from Koralyov’s children giving their permission, and then we’ll let you see this investigation, which as you will have noticed, is 70 years old.” And sometimes these children still exist and you can agree something, but in 90% of cases you can’t find them, they’re already dead or there never were any in the first place.
As often happens in Russia, ways around the law can be found if one tries very hard. Some researchers manage to agree joint projects with archives. Others resort to corruption. But mostly this enormous category of cases, this basic source of information – records of several million prosecutions – is closed to historians, journalists, school teachers and researchers. By the way, another category of documents that is completely off limits is the dossiers on people who were under surveillance.
Why such secrecy? Archivists often pretend that they are protecting people’s personal details, their memories, so that the information is not used against the descendants of these people. They are, of course, preserving the details of people who were repressed and died many years ago, and who were later rehabilitated. It’s one thing obliging researchers to sign a statement saying they will not use information to harm people and quite another when the state suspects the researcher of intending to do that, and therefore refuses access.
Here there are two tendencies. The first is the total distrust of the authorities towards society and the wish that people do not dig in the past and as a result make some kind of “incorrect” conclusion. The second is “archive egoism”, when archivists think the records belong to them and do everything they can to hinder access, despite using them freely themselves.
I hesitate to say that the lack of access to archives is part of an intentional state ideology on “historical politics”. But it is certainly part of the atmosphere of the epoch. It’s the wind that blows down from above and says that consolidation and identity are built on the basis of a glorious past. That’s the root of it all.
People in power must bear some responsibility. They want to create a heroic image of Russia steeped in glorious victories, while forgetting the painful or shameful episodes. And archivists, historians, begin to reflect that trend. This national-patriotic formation of an idea of Russia as a 'Great Power' is a great hindrance to our work with history, at all levels. It’s a trend that began before Putin, but under him it became incomparably stronger. And the rehabilitation of Stalin as a strong and pragmatic leader is part of it.
Why were our offices in St Petersburg raided? Formally, it’s part of some criminal investigation into a newspaper there. But really it’s because we opened our mouths. It was done to frighten us. The reason is this: recently, Memorial became something more than just an NGO. We began holding seminars on politics and economics; we organised a huge conference on Stalinism. We publish books on history. And we have begun to attract support from many different quarters. There is a certain type of person now – what used to be called a member of the intelligentsia – who is disaffected with party politics, who sees little use in running to protest meetings but who sees Stalin popping up all over the place and finds it annoying. This sort of person wants to make some positive contribution to society, so supports us. That’s how Memorial became a symbolic point of consolidation for these new intellectuals. And that’s what the Kremlin doesn’t like. That we human rights campaigners climbed out of our little cage and starting making a noise.
• Arseny Roginsky is director of Memorial.
See also: St. Petersburg Memorial returned illegally removed disks