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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Archive Saves Bittersweet History

The film footage shows a skier falling in the snow and being put on a sled. The man is Alexander Rybakov, a member of an ill-fated 1989 expedition to the North Pole. Bad weather held the explorers back, food ran short, and exhaustion set in.

The expedition reached its destination - but Rybakov, suffering from heart and kidney failure, died at age 37 one day after the expedition's camera operator recorded his collapse.

"We cried very hard" on seeing the film, said Rybakov's widow, Tatyana Rybakova, who obtained film of her husband's final hours seven years later from the Russian State Archive of Film and Photographic Documents.

"It was very important for me to get the film because my son was only 9 when his dad died," she said. So she turned to the archive, which provided her with a copy on videocassette, now one of her and her 19-year-old son's most precious possessions.

The film archive, which celebrated its 72nd anniversary last month, attracts historians, documentary film producers and ordinary people searching for footage that often is as dramatic as the coronation of Nicholas II or sometimes simply nostalgic and touching.

Located in a mansion built by German and Japanese prisoners of war, the archive houses Russia's biggest collection of documentary film, stored in more than 164,000 boxes. There are more than 645,000 still-photo negatives, 90,000 photographs and 10,360 photo albums - beginning with pictures of the Crimean War taken in 1855.

Like most Russian cultural organizations, the archive is struggling for money, a problem it partly solves by selling video copies. The subjects people come looking for have changed with the times.

At first, in the perestroika era of the late 1980s, film of Soviet leaders Stalin, Khrushchev and secret police chief Lavrenty Beria were in great demand, says the archive's deputy director, Julia Safonenko. Then there were two periods in which footage of Tsar Nicholas II was much sought after - during the perestroika years and again this year because of the burial of the last tsar and his family.

Then came interest in the Cold War and in World War II as the 50th anniversary of its end approached in 1995. Now, Russia's ethnic minorities are attracting attention, said Safonenko.

The oldest Russian documentary film in the archive is footage of the 1896 coronation of Nicholas, shot by a camera operator sent by Auguste and Louis Lumi?re, the French brothers credited with making the first motion picture.

But even those who are not royalty wind up on film, and later they come to the archive to see themselves. It costs 25 rubles a minute for film made after 1949 and 30 rubles for earlier films, with additional charges for viewing and use of the archive's equipment to search for material.

Two 1956 graduates of Moscow State University's chemistry department, Nadezhda Shvedova, 68, and Alexandra Stepanova, 64, thought a trip back to their youth was worth it. For their 40th alumni reunion they wanted to get everyone something special and turned to the archive.

Newsreel photographers descended on MGU in 1953, the year its new buildings opened on Vorobyovye Gory in southwest Moscow. Cameras captured students, among them Shvedova and Stepanova, listening to lectures and performing lab experiments.

"It was very touching to see what we all looked like 40 years ago," Shvedova said.

She was especially thrilled because there were quite a few close-ups of her. "We knew that we were filmed because the cameramen often told us where they were going to shoot," Stepanova said. "So we tried to get a closer seat."