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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Archive Law Opens Doors on the Past

Russia has taken a step away from its tradition of secrecy with a new law that streamlines the rules governing public access to government archives, the director of the former Communist Party archive said Thursday.


For researchers, the immediate payoff is that more documents will now be available. But according to Kirill Anderson, director of the former Communist Party archive, it is perhaps more significant that the new law lays out explicitly the rules regarding public access to information in Russia.


"Before the new law, all our operations were regulated by different orders from President, Government or Supreme Soviet", said Anderson. "These orders usually contradicted each other and we felt like we were walking a mine-field".


The new regulations will govern: fixed secrecy periods for certified documents, who has the right to classify a document and the archive's relationship with state powers. It also will legalize private and non-governmental archives.


Researchers at the archives frequently complain of missing documents, and whether the new law, which has not yet been published, will improve this situation is not clear.


"You read a stenogram of some party meeting", said Roberta Manning, a Soviet-history professor at the Boston College, who has been doing research in the former Communist Party archive since 1990, "And find that the key speech by Nikolai Yezhov (Stalin's aide and minister) is missing. A note says that the pages had been moved to the Presidential archive".


Under the new regulations defining time periods for document secrecy, documents carrying state secrets will be guarded for 30 years while private papers will be restricted for 75 years, said Anderson, whose archive are currently called the Center for Storage and Studies on the Newest History Documents.


To extend the secrecy period, parliamentary approval will now be required. In the past, a letter from a government official was sufficient.


The new law is also expected to organize the federal archive network and systemize relations between the Russian Federal Archive Service and the archive users, according to Vladimir Tarasov, head of Service's foreign relations department. The law effects more than 2, 000 state archives in Russia.


Manning, of Boston University, said that even prior to the new law, she had observed that access to information was becoming easier.


"To get in here in 1990 I had to bribe my way in", she said, noting that, while doing research on Stalin's terror, she had to present her topic as "cattle livestock in Smolensk district" to obtain the necessary papers.


Manning said she was restricted from an archive in Smolensk in 1991, but will be allowed to attend the NKVD (KGB's forerunner) archive in Moscow this summer. "I'll go there as soon as they finish constructing a reading room", she said.


Anderson said that many documents would be de-classified under the new law because the orders of the officials who made them secret no longer were sufficient.


But it is not clear yet if the withheld documents would be returned to the CPSU archive.


Article 20 of the new law reads: "The regime of access to the documents stored in executive power's archives (President, Government, ministries) is defined by the executive powers in coordination with the Federal archive service". This gives latitude to government officials to refuse to declassify the documents.