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Stalin's orders, the Politburo’s decisions, and the Social Revolutionaries Historians discuss the archival documents still off limits for research

Source: Meduza
Photo: Nikolai Malyshev / TASS

Earlier this year, the magazine Ogonyek published an article about the newly declassified documents on Marshal Georgii Zhukov. The decision to declassify the marshal’s personal files was only made in 2011, but the materials didn’t enter the public domain for another four years. The article’s author, the historian Leonid Maksimenkov, wrote that in specialist circles this event is still seen as a miracle: sometimes the process to declassify Soviet secret documents takes much longer than four years. Writing for Meduza, journalist Evgeny Buntman met with Russian historians awaiting the opening of secret archives for their research.

Archive directors note that most documents have long been declassified. Andrei Artizov, the head of Rosarkhiv, talked about the ongoing work in this area in April 2016. But historians claim that this in fact isn’t true: There are many obstacles in working with documents, even if they’ve been declassified. The inventories of institutional archives aren’t open, and researchers are unable to use reference materials. An archive employee decides what documents to give and not to give. Many employees are prohibited from giving NKVD personal files because of the law on personal data. And historians are faced with different challenges even in more accessible archives unrelated to security agencies.

Religious Persecution

Igor Kurlyandskii

Senior researcher at the Institute of Russian History at the Academy of Sciences. Author of the book “Stalin, Power, and Religion.’

In RGASPI [the Archive for Social and Political History], there are important depositories for Party organs: the Central Committee, Stalin, and other leaders. And part of it is closed. Important for me are the inventories of Depository 17 of the Central Committee: there is a special folder of the Secretariat of the Central Committee, which, in contrast to the Politburo folders, are classified. There are a lot of important documents for the history of our country in it.

The ones I need are stored in the documentary complex connected to the Central Committee’s anti-religious decrees in February 1929, which define religious persecution during collectivization. I can’t get these documents. They were previously open, but now they’re closed.

Moscow. The demolition of Christ Our Savior Cathedral, December 5, 1931.
Photo: TASS

Also closed are the inventories for the commission on trials for the Politburo TsK headed by Kalinin. The Commission examined part of the files in 1930, and many of them ended with death sentences. There are hundreds of files, and now researchers don’t have access to them.

High-up archival directors say, "Oh, we’ve closed only a little bit." [Rosarkhiv director Andrei] Artizov says, and talks about four percent [of secret files]. There’s an immense number of documents in this four percent, many of which relate to the Stalinist period. The decision-making process and key historical moments can be hidden in such a small percentage. It’s untenable when the numbers are revealed. The State Commission reports about the discovery of tens of thousands of files. And hundreds of thousands more remain closed, and it is only in the state archives. The situation in institutional archives are much worse.

The Falsification of the Katyn Massacre. The Korean War.

Nikita Petrov

Deputy Chairman of Memorial’s Scientific Information and Education Centre Council (NIPTS). He defended his doctoral thesis on "Stalin and the NKVD-MGB in the Sovietization of Central and Eastern Europe, 1945-1953.”

There’s the shining example of Stalin's personal depository stored in RGASPI. In it there are documents associated with Stalin’s direction of the state security organs. A number of them talk about his directives on the Katyn Massacre. [The mass execution of Polish prisoners by the NKVD in the spring of 1940 in the Katyn forest near Smolensk. Soviet propaganda propagated the story that the German military carried out the executions in 1941.]

Excerpt from Protocol No. 13 from a Politburo TsK meeting where the decision was adopted to execution Poles in Katyn

The decision [on March 5, 1940 the Politburo TsK VKP(b) ruled to execute 14,700 Polish officers, government officials, landowners, policemen, intelligence agents, gendarmes, emigres, and prison guards in prisoners of war camps"] is available. But there is information related to the falsification of the Katyn Massacre in 1944 in the [Nikolai] Burdenko Commission report. The documents are partially in the FSB archive and Stalin’s personal depository has a small part, but all of them—including materials related to the Soviet falsification of the affair—are closed to researchers.

There are also documents related to the Korean War (1950-1953) about the USSR’s role, how it encouraged North Korea to attack the South, and how it laid the groundwork this war’s origins. They talk about Stalin’s directives and interpretations. Also closed is the correspondence between Stalin and [the Chinese leader] Mao Zedong. Part of it is public, part of it is closed, like, for example, important encrypted telegrams in which Stalin sent his instructions and suggestions to Mao.

The SRs in exile, prison, and exile. The possessions of the arrested.

Konstantin Morozov

Professor in the Department of Humanities of ION RANKhGS and deputy chairman of Memorial’s NIPTS council. He is the author of “The Socialist Revolutionary Party, 1907-1914” and “The Trial of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Jailing of the Opposition (1922-1926): Ethics and Tactics of Opposition.”

Much of the masses of information from the 1920s and 1930s in the institutional archives are inaccessible. There is a whole body of documents that are very difficult for researchers to access, even if there’s nothing particularly secret in them now. For example, the reports of the GPU Foreign Department in the 1920s and 1930s on exiled SRs in Paris, Prague, and other cities. These materials are now under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Intelligence Service, and it’s not very clear to me, for example, how to get access to them or whether it’s even possible.

Materials from various structures of the GPU-NKVD are also not readily available, including the surveillance of political prisoner detention and political exile. Also important are the letters of political prisoners and exiles that were censored or confiscated during searches. Surveillance of prisoners was done with the help of informants, censorship, and searches when they confiscated all sorts of [agitation] leaflets and so on. It’s important to make all this more accessible to the historian and archival-research affairs.

Without all of these documents, historians frequently can’t find out about the fate of these people, what they thought, to whom and what they wrote, and what they argued about. After all there were heated debates and discussion in political prisons and in exile. The Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries continued a very active party life in prison and even party factions existed. The location of valuable materials detailing discussions about collectivization and the party program is unknown.

Irkutsk province. One of the camp processing centers of the Ozernyi labor camp No. 7.
Photo: TASS

Researchers need other materials not currently available to the public, too. This, for example, includes what was confiscated during arrests and searches. Many packets of letters and even memoirs were seized. For example: a person is arrested and searched in 1936-1937, and over the years he writes a memoir and accumulates many letters from friends. That's how the situation unfolds with the Gots Affair [Abram Gots, a member of the Central Committee of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and one of its most prominent leaders, stayed in Soviet Russia and was arrested three times—in 1922, in 1925 and in 1937], where memoirs were found during searches. And it’s unknown where these memoirs and letters are now. Some of these materials could have been sewn into the files [documents in Soviet archival files are literally stitched together], but they were often stored separately. In some cases, we can expect to find some interesting recollections or letters from various prominent people. Perhaps these materials were destroyed in the 1940s and 1950s. [It’s important to note that many archives lost materials during the war because several were evacuated out of Moscow. Also many of the present collections in Russian archives were reassembled as they were returned to Moscow in the 1950s and 1960s contributing to the loss and in some cases purging of materials]. But in the end, it’s not clear whether this is the case. There are also prisoners’ so-called personal files. As far as I understand, they are in the Interior Ministry archives, including provincial archives. And historians don’t really have access to them.

Restrictions on copying materials seriously hampers researchers’ work in the archives. A limited number of copies a year are allowed in the state archives, and in the FSB Central Archive, as a rule, a researcher’s right to copy is restricted and often can only take notes on a computer. This greatly reduces the efficiency of the historian’s work. However, it should be noted that without the documents from the FSB’s Central Archive reconstructing the history of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and socialist opposition to the Bolsheviks would have been impossible, and I want to thank the staff of the FSB’s Central Archive, as well as staff from other archives for their help and assistance.

The Harbin Operation

Sergei Prudovskii


I study the Harbin Operation [the repression of the former employees of the Chinese-Eastern Railroad, the KVZhD, in 1937-1938] because my grandfather worked on the KVZhD. The first thing I found was a secret letter from Ezhov that accompanied Order № 593 on the beginning of the Harbin Operations. I asked for the accompanying letter but I was denied. Central and regional FSB archives store a large number of files on repressed NKVD agents who weren’t rehabilitated, and there isn’t access to these files at all. I sued the Moscow and Moscow regional FSB Directorate. But they refused access citing the Russian Constitution on protecting citizens’ right to privacy. The second case is against the FSB Central Archive, which doesn’t give access to similar files.

The construction of the Chinese-Eastern Railroad (KVZhD)
Photo: TASS

There is no public access to the file inventories. You have to specify a particular person when you need a file from the FSB regional archives, and the person’s file can be located in any region, and you do not know where to find it. All this makes it very difficult to find. When I'm looking for people I appeal to Vladivostok, they send me to the Altai Territory, or somewhere else, and you only find the file there. It can take up to three or four, even six months.

The Moscow FSB doesn’t give files on the un-rehabilitated chekists Wolfson, Postel, and Sorokin. And the FSB Central Archive of the FSB doesn’t give files on Radzivilovskii and Yakubovich. They are all ex-NKVD officers who carried out massive repressions in Harbin. Afterwards, they were arrested and tried for using illegal investigative methods. It would be possible to understand from these files the NKVD’s internal workings, who gave what order to who from the leadership in Moscow down to the last participant.

“The Anarchist Underground.” The Spanish Civil War.

Aleksandr Shubin

Head of the Center for the History of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus in the Institute of World History, RAN. He is the author of “The Life and Times of Nestor Makhno and Great Spanish Revolution.”

The problem with our archival system is there is a very poor justification for the discrepancies in access to documents. There are good archives with decent accessibility like the RGVA [the military archive], for example. Other archives like Russia’s Foreign Policy Archive don’t even give out inventories. It’s hard to work when everything happens like you’re in the joke: "What do you have?" "What are you interested in?" "I’m interested in this, what do you have on it?" And this is when you can not even look at the index. At RGVA, you can sometimes find the same documents that you asked for [in the foreign policy archive], that you’ve beat your head against the wall to get. The question is why an institution can exclusively control whole aspects of our history that no longer have any relevance to actual policy.

When I worked in the foreign policy archive [with documents on the Spanish Civil War], I took advantage of the fact that a Spanish researcher seemed to have some kind of pull. He had cited references to a number of files, and I simply ordered these files and they turned out to have a lot of materials important for me. But when I tried to go beyond these files and order something else, they told me: "No, we don’t know." And who knows if they're telling the truth.

Volunteers in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War.
Photo: Topham Picturepoint / Scanpix / LETA

The situation in the FSB archive is even more outrageous. Even if you know there are materials, the staff can decide not to give them to you. They trot out some incredible demand that you need to prearrange your work with a decision from Academic Council of Archives and include it in an annual plan. But researchers don’t work like this. They find out what they need, not once every five years and not once a year. All this is a disgrace of the archives.

I tried to inquire about the "Anarchist Underground." Now, from the Cheka's perspective, this probably isn't the most promising avenue for research. But the Cheka’s fight against terrorism must be researched by more than just [Director of the FSB Department of registration and Russian archives Vasily] Khristoforov. He's a practicing historian, who has a soft spot for the work, but, unfortunately, not all members of the professional community can rub this soft spot.

RGVA, RGASPI, and RGANI all have excellent working conditions. But part of the materials is closed because of the archaic declassification procedure. But this isn’t the fault of the archives and its employees. You need to ask the government questions about this.

This text was translated from Russian by Sean Guillory.

Evgeny Buntman


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