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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Archives Slowly Explain Soviet Mysteries




Past the guard with an automatic rifle at the entrance and behind a vast series of locked and barred doors lie clues to some of the enigmas of the Soviet past.


Here in the dilapidated buildings of the Russian State Archives in downtown Moscow, researchers are beginning to unlock some of the great mysteries of the 20th century.


"History is being completely rewritten," said Moscow historian Vadim Rodinsky. "Many books are being reworked and myths are being destroyed as new pictures are emerging."


But a plodding bureaucracy and official uncertainty about releasing demons of the past have kept many important historical facts buried deep in the dusty files, kept secret even after official time limits on their classification have run out.


"The process of declassifying documents is going very slowly," said Vladimir Kozlov, the State Archives' deputy director. "The very strong Russian bureaucracy is to blame."


Lack of funding is also a problem. "The archives are in economic crisis. This is apparent not only in the maintenance of the facilities and payment of salaries, but also in the measures needed to conserve and protect the documents themselves," said Greg Freeze, who used the archives as editor of "Russia: A History." Poor funding at most Russian archives has inspired some unorthodox ways of raising money, such as photocopying charges of as much as $10 per document.


In some cases, researchers or organizations have got hold of papers by paying a friendly archivist or official, as in the case of University of Cincinnati professor George Hofmann, who researched 1930s Soviet tank technology.


"Hofmann was able to obtain his material by paying the archivist at the Russia State Military Archives $300 in U.S. currency," said university spokeswoman Mary Reilly. "She found everything he wanted, made a copy and apparently didn't delete anything, though this was all still highly classified material."


The Classica Foundation, a joint project by the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Most Group media and banking conglomerate, is now spending $500,000 a year cataloguing parts of the archives, said its director Andrei Kascheyev.


The company says it hopes to emulate Microsoft chairman Bill Gates' firm, Corbis, which sells rights to reprint photographs, art and other images that can be downloaded from the Internet.


"For three to five years this work won't be profitable," Kascheyev said. "But in the future if you wanted to see a document you might have to pay, say, 20 cents."


Critics say the lure of money prompts archivists to squirrel away treasures for publishers and researchers willing to pay.


"In some cases archives withhold materials that they expect to market, or indeed are engaged in doing so," Freeze said.


At other times scholars hit a brick wall because of lingering ambivalence about repudiating the Soviet past, experts say.


Alexander Chubaryan, head of the Moscow Institute of World History, wrote late last year that archivists often still see themselves as the last line of defense.


"They saw themselves as a kind of sentinels, guarding secrets and national interests, defending the state and society from infringements of ideological purity," he wrote for an international conference of archivists in Moscow.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, archives opened up. But by 1993, changes in the law expanded the definition of what remained secret, thus restricting access.


Russia has kept up the vigil against opening up the KGB archives, avoiding the anguish that some Eastern European neighbors underwent in opening up their police files.


Much to the consternation of researchers, the country's presidential archive -- including Soviet Politburo records and Stalin's personal papers -- also remains largely closed. Its director declined comment for this story.