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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Texan Puts Soviet History Online

APAbamedia CEO J. Mitchell Johnson examining archived film at his studio in Fort Worth.
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Cameras were rolling and clicking when the world's first space traveler returned home, when Soviet leaders discussed anti-capitalism propaganda campaigns and when troops invaded Afghanistan.

But the 38,000 films and more than 1 million pictures chronicling significant events of the former Soviet Union have been guarded in vaults, accessible only by government-approved documentary filmmakers and few others.

Now an international media development and production company based in Fort Worth, Texas, is putting Russian archives on the Internet.

"These are images most people have never seen about important events, like the Soviets almost beating us to the moon," said J. Mitchell Johnson, president, founder and chief executive of Abamedia. "The Soviets had bureaus worldwide, so they had coverage of the same events but from a different perspective."

The Texan actually heard some Russian propaganda on his shortwave radio as a youngster in the 1960s.

Fascination about Russia never left Johnson, who has been making documentary films for more than 20 years.

While working on a television project a few years after the Soviet Union's 1991 demise, he stumbled upon the Russian State Film and Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk, a four-block facility containing all the country's nonfiction films.

The guarded compound near Moscow has six-story temperature-controlled buildings and nearly two dozen tunnels connecting underground vaults. The earliest motion picture is the 1896 coronation of Tsar Nicholas II.

"These people are very sophisticated when it comes to photography and filmmaking, but in Soviet times it was controlled," Johnson said.

After convincing Russian officials that an American businessman had the technical expertise and nothing but good intentions, Johnson signed a 20-year contract in 1996 with officials at the Krasnogorsk archives. Abamedia later signed contracts with museums and the Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documents in Moscow, which has 900 pictures of the first space traveler, Yury Gagarin.

But it wasn't until this summer that the Abamedia project was officially endorsed by the Federal Archival Service of Russia and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. "It took a long time to build trust and create a partnership, and it's almost become like a mission for me," Johnson said.

The first step was cataloging the materials and summarizing each film in Russian and in English. Web surfers now can access nearly 25,000 of the films in Russian and about 5,000 films in English.

Thousands of pictures already are online, including a century of Soviet propaganda posters and cartoons, and diary entries written by the Romanovs, the last ruling dynasty of Russia.

Abamedia, a "virtual company" run by Johnson out of his Fort Worth home, focuses on legal issues and business strategies for the project. Johnson travels to Russia several times a year.

About 160 Russian government employees are writing the catalog and summaries and posting the streaming audiovisual clips and low-resolution images, free for viewing.

But filmmakers, ad agencies, publishers and others who want to use the images commercially must pay licensing fees before downloading. That's how the project will keep going and eventually make money, said Johnson, whose $2 million investment is more a labor of love than a get-rich-quick scheme.

"When that moment will come when it will become a profitable venture, I don't know," he said.