Keeping Archives Secret

Marx, Engels and Lenin blindly stare at passers-by from the pediments of the gray, gloomy building that houses the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Contemporary History. It was hastily given this long and involved name after the putsch of August '91, when Russia took final leave of the communist regime. Before then, the organization bore the more striking and concise name of the Central Committee's Institute of Marxism-Leninism. After the name change, its archives, considered to be among the most important secrets of the Soviet Communist Party, became accessible to the public. And Russian citizens quickly become accustomed to such a new state of affairs.

But fresh flowers are still laid at the foot of the statue of Lenin that stands in the entrance. This is not surprising, since the archivists are the same as those who worked under the Soviet authorities. At that time, they belonged to the lower ranks of the party nomenklatura and thus enjoyed many benefits that were unavailable to ordinary Muscovites, such as luxurious meals in the Central Committee cafeterias, the right to travel abroad in the guise of simple Soviet archivists and a rather decent salary. Today, all this is lost. It's no wonder that they -- the majority of whom are now elderly women -- hope for the return of the former totalitarian order.

Not surprisingly, it is they who have been used by those who dream of a communist rebirth in Russia: secret Communist Party workers in the presidential apparatus and other branches of power, the army and, of course, the Federal Security Service, or FSB. At the end of last year the institute carried out a provocative anti-democratic act: It made part of the records of the Soviet Communist Party secret once again.

Materials on the Executive Committee chairman of the Communist International, Georgy Dimitrov, for example, are now secret. The latest documents are dated 1943, when the international underground terrorist organization, the Comintern, was disbanded by Stalin, which was one of the conditions the Western World War II allies set before opening a second front against Hitler.

What kind of secrets could remain after so long, especially given that under Russian law, the maximum term of classification of secrets is 30 years? All Soviet archival documents after 1966 should have already been made available to scholars. Not only has this not occurred, but access to such documents has even become more difficult.

"Not 30 years, but 70 years!" an elderly worker in the Comintern archive of the former Marxist-Leninist Institute replied in triumph when I asked her for how long the documents would remain classified. "By law, personal secrets of historical figures can be kept for that period of time."

Speaking with the archivists, I was surprised to learn that they widely understand personal secrets to mean any reference to the private life of party leaders. Following this logic, any information on the personal life of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Khrushchev, Andropov -- everyone with the exception of former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev -- should be considered a secret.

"You see," the archivist from the Comintern department continued, lowering her voice, "when our archives were opened in 1991, foreign scholars traveled here like bees to honey, and then drew the wrong conclusions."

And here lies the reason for the secrecy. Those vile secrets about the Soviet Communist Party's crimes, about which the world has already learned, worry the archivists more than anything. Under the mask of strict secrecy, they want to morally rehabilitate the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R. It is telling that the body responsible for uncovering party secrets -- the Presidential Commission of the Declassification of Former Soviet Communist Party Documents -- is doing nothing to stop them. The commission was created in 1991 after the Constitutional Court's decision outlawing the Soviet Communist Party. Aside from the archivists, the commission is made up of representatives from the Interior Ministry and all the other power ministries, including the FSB. Historical documents make it through the commission with great difficulty: It seems no one wants to declassify old secrets. And the favorite weapon Soviet officials use for this purpose: a stamp that says "Secret."

But the biggest irony is that much of the material on the Comintern, for example, has long been transferred abroad. It is held both in the United States and the archives of the former socialist countries, which have made great progress toward disclosing the secrets of their communist parties.

"But that's of no concern to us," the woman at the Comintern department said. "We are responsible only for the secrecy in our institution."

Her statement again revealed yet another old Soviet trait: The main thing is to conceal information from one's own citizens. And so what seemed to be a long forgotten practice of Soviet bureaucratic life has re-emerged: In order to study "secret" archives that date back half a century, a Russian citizen must fill out a form requesting right of access to the information, which is then decided on by the FSB. The FSB checks whether the person has been abroad, whether he is under suspicion of espionage and finally whether he is engaged in human rights activities. In such a case, the FSB can refuse permission, and the unfortunate scholar will never be able to read, for example, Marshall Tito's denunciation of his wife, which I managed to see when the Dimitrov archives were still open.

It is deplorable to see something that was open yesterday become secret. It is even worse when the secrecy has the political goal of raising the prestige of the Soviet Communist Party. It shows that a broad attack by the state apparatus and intelligence services on democratic gains has already begun.

Konstantin Preobrazhensky is a former KGB lieutenant and correspondent for Moskovskiye Novosti. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.