From Russia with secrets

April 3, 1998

THE police guards at the gloomy entrance to the Russian State Archives in central Moscow may be armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and protected by bullet-proof vests, but foreign researchers have no qualms about recommending this depository of Czarist and Soviet secrets.

The halcyon days of 1992 - when secret archives were flung open in a frenzy of enthusiasm for Russia's new democratic path - may have gone, but access to millions of once highly-classified documents and records in this and other key archives, such as those of the Soviet Communist Party near Pushkin Square is surprisingly easy, researchers say.

Hari Vasudevan, a history professor from Calcutta University, who has been visiting Russia for the past 15 years to study the development of Indian-Russian relations and orientalism, praises the relative lack of bureaucracy and sensible attitudes to some of the more sensitive deposits.

"These archives are now some of the easiest to use in the world: to gain readership rights all you need is a letter from your university, you don't have to be someone exceptional. I know of English scholars who have come here for just seven days and have got down to work straightaway."

Professor Vasudevan, who specialises in the comparative history of Russian and Indian revolutionary movements, accepts that a clampdown on declassifying KGB, interior ministry and other security service records has restricted access to some records.

But Russian sensitivity is nothing special; in London, Indian scholars studying the politics of independence and the events leading up to 1947 often find their path is barred. "I know of scholars who have been waiting for documents in the Indian Office Library in London only to find that they have for some reason been sent back to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office."

Vladimir Kozlov, archive deputy director and head of publications, is proud of the archive's reputation for free access, but less patient about the slow pace of declassification of sensitive documents.

Most files from Czarist times up to about 1940 are accessible, thanks to a decree issued by President Yeltsin in the early 1990s opening archives over 50 years old. A 30-year rule restricts access to all more recent files, leaving a grey area for those documents dating from the 1940s and 1950s.

Declassification of documents has slowed from a million a year in the early 1990s to about 300,000 now. Security organisations such as the FSB, the KGB's successor, retain control of many archives and are slow to open them.

Archivists are pressing the Kremlin to give them the authority to declassify documents unless there is a reason why they should not be, rather than the current system where ministries merely state that certain files should remain closed.

"If we were delegated to do this, we could do it very fast, but nobody wants to give us this right," said Dr Kozlov. He criticised the fact that Stalin's personal papers and Soviet Politburo records, which are held in the presidential archives, remain largely closed to researchers.

But he and his colleagues have more pressing problems: chronic underfunding means the archive has only enough money to pay staff salaries and when the heating to the dilapidated complex of 1930s buildings was cut off in February, burst pipes flooded a neighbouring institute housing ancient Moscow city legal archives. Fast-working staff saved thousands of irreplaceable documents.

"Our staff are heroes. They work for next to nothing and are dedicated to their jobs. We live in a crazy world where just coming to work in a state archive is a heroic task," Dr Kozlov added.

Overseas publishing deals and licensing the reproduction of archive material, particularly from the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and information from the Romanov family files, helps the archive to top up salaries.

And a microfilm project in partnership with the Hoover Institute for War, Peace and Revolution in Stanford, California, will reap several hundred thousand pounds in the next few years. Some archives are reported to be using less orthodox ways to raise cash, charging up to Pounds 6 to photocopy a document, or restricting access to archives they hope to exploit commercially.

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