The New York Times
Printer Friendly Format Sponsored By

April 22, 2007

The Iron Archives


Since the end of the cold war, historians have mined the Russian archives for insights into the nature of the Soviet empire and its global reach. New documents have shed light on such matters as the Alger Hiss and Rosenberg spy cases and also illuminated the relationships between Moscow and revolutionary movements in other countries — sometimes fueling old debates more than settling them. But after a golden age in the early 1990s, archival access eroded. Today, conversations with nearly two dozen historians point to a worrisome tightening that has kept key archives closed and subjected others to unpredictable “re-secretization.”

Freighted with symbolic import and subject to political pressures, access to archives is a barometer of any government’s commitment to transparency. (In the United States, the House and Senate passed bills last month to counter what Democrats and Republicans alike see as an erosion of the Freedom of Information Act.) But the political changes in post-Soviet Russia make it a particularly fraught issue. Boris Yeltsin threw open some archives to help discredit the just-toppled Communist regime. But by the mid-1990s many of those archives had closed, while others — including the foreign and military intelligence archives and the defense ministry archive — were never open to most researchers in the first place. Today’s uncertainty seems to bear out the old joke: In Russia, how can anyone predict the future when it’s so hard to predict the past?

Under Vladimir Putin — a former K.G.B. agent who has been consolidating power since becoming president in 2000 — “the preoccupation with secrecy only increased,” Ilya Gaiduk, a fellow of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow and an expert on Soviet policy in Asia, said in an e-mail message. “Every archival official knows that he or she would be safer” erring on the side of “denying access to documents.” The problems are both bureaucratic and political. The slow-moving federal committee in charge of declassifiying state archive material has been renamed the Commission on State Secrets, and it sees its mandate as protecting them, scholars say. And it has little jurisdiction over some key agencies or ministries, which operate according to their own rules.

Kyrill Anderson, the director of the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History (formerly the Communist Party archive), acknowledged in a telephone interview that declassification is not going as quickly as many would like. But the picture isn’t entirely negative. Last year, Anderson said, his archive declassified 20,000 documents, while the archive of the Communist International is partly available on the Internet. In the past five years, other scholars say, significant new material has become available, including documents about Stalin-era Politburo meetings, Khrushchev-era Presidium meetings, Central Committee plenum transcripts and associated documents from 1967 through 1990, and the complete Communist Party Congress records.

This spring, Yale University Press and the Hoover Institution at Stanford hope to finalize an arrangement to digitize and publish rarely seen material from Stalin’s personal archive, including correspondence about the purges of the ’30s and the immediate postwar period. “It’s like the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Stalin period,” said Jonathan Brent, the editorial director of Yale University Press, who is negotiating the arrangement, as he has many others for Yale’s Annals of American Communism series, which has published some of the most important recent books drawing on Russian archives. The new material, Brent says, provides “a sense of Stalin the individual, his psychology, his growth as a leader.”

The British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore was granted access to some of that material for his book “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” (2004) and the forthcoming “Young Stalin.” But like so much else in Russia, that was a matter of connections. After his “Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin” (2001) appeared, Montefiore said, a Putin adviser invited him for a drink in a London hotel to discuss whether Potemkin, as “an authoritarian but enlightened ruler,” might make a good model for Putin. “After that, I got the green light to have access to Stalin’s papers,” Montefiore said. “The whole of Russian life is as patronage- and personality-based as it was in Catherine the Great’s time.”

Indeed, since the fall of the Soviet Union, archives, like natural resources, have often been at the center of complicated multinational deals. Andrew Meier, author of “Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall” and a forthcoming biography of an American spy for the Soviets, recalled a conversation with an archivist who pointed at a locked safe and asked, “Why should we sell crude oil when we can refine our own oil and sell it abroad?” To some, collaborations between Western publishers and Russian archives aren’t necessarily signs of a broader openness. “There’s no notion that there’s a public domain,” said Vlad Zubok, a cold war historian at Temple University. Material often becomes the “property of the archivists,” he said. “They sit on this and wait for some people who can come offer them some combination of good money and attractive trips abroad.”

In 1992, Crown signed a deal with the K.G.B. to publish a series of books co-written by Western historians and Russian authors. (Crown’s parent company, Random House, reportedly paid $1 million in advances and contributed to a fund for retired K.G.B. agents.) For “The Haunted Wood” (1998), about Soviet espionage in America during the Stalin era, Allen Weinstein, now the national archivist of the United States, was one of the few people granted access to Russian military intelligence archives. His co-author, Alexander Vassiliev, a former K.G.B. agent, did the legwork and “provided the inside research,” Weinstein said.

But few scholars can retrace their steps, since the intelligence archives were subsequently resealed. So were some materials made available to the historians Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes for “The Secret World of American Communism” (1995), another book that emerged from the Crown deal (and was eventually published by Yale). Aided by their co-author, Fridrikh Firsov, a Comintern expert at the former Party archive, they relied on security communications about the recruitment of American agents. “Now you can’t get access even though we had access and published them,” Klehr said. “Even then ... every time somebody found something significant and embarrassing, the screws tightened.”

Others scholars offer tales of more recent closures. Mark Kramer, the director of cold war studies at Harvard, cites the abrupt closing, in September 2003, of material on Stalin’s postwar foreign policy that had been available since the early ’90s. “One day I was able to order files ... and a couple of days later I was told that the whole opis” — or batch of material — “had been sealed and would need to be re-declassified,” Kramer said in an e-mail message. “I was no longer permitted to see even the files I had pored over in the past.” Similarly, James Person, an associate at the Cold War International History Project, which publishes material from former Communist countries, said that five years ago he consulted documents from 1956 concerning the Soviet relationship with North Korea; when he returned in March 2006, they had been reclassified.

But many researchers find imaginative side doors. “You don’t give up because you can’t get into the presidential archive in Moscow, which is still the holy of holies,” James Hershberg, a historian at George Washington University, said of the former Politburo archive that contains the most sensitive material. Documents off limits in Moscow, he said, can often be found in the archives of former Warsaw Pact allies. According to Christian Ostermann, the director of the Cold War International History Project, “China is starting to catch up if not surpass Moscow in terms of archival access.”

But for the most part, historians say there’s no going back to the bad old days. Constantine Pleshakov, a military historian at Mount Holyoke College, recalls requesting material in the ’80s on the meeting between Kennedy and Khrushchev. “What I got was a list of furniture of the Soviet Embassy in Vienna,” Pleshakov said. “I’m not kidding.”

“There’s a drive of sorts toward the truth,” said Robert Conquest, the venerable cold warrior and author of “The Great Terror.” “After all, they didn’t really manage to totally suppress it the whole Soviet period, in spite of destroying the intelligentsia and ruining the country.”

Rachel Donadio is a writer and editor at the Book Review.