The Unknown Gulag
Part IV: Why did the Soviets Document their Crimes?
Everyday this week we are posting part of a series from author Lynne Viola, The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements. Check out part one and part two and part three.
Luck and serendipity combined to provide unique and rich sources for the book. I was continually amazed at the degree of detail in the documents. Essentially, the Soviet secret police had documented some of its worst atrocities. The Soviet archives were marvelously intact.
Why did the regime preserve these documents, documents which more often than not provide a record of atrocities? Most western scholars had not expected such detailed and preserved records. Many had speculated massive document destruction with an eye to historical cover-up. Yet, with the exception of the burning of some archives when the Nazis were at the gates of Moscow, this didn’t happen.
There are several reasons why the Soviets preserved their history in such minute detail. Within a culture of endless scapegoating, it was no doubt in the interests of individual officials to document thoroughly their activities in order to avoid personal responsibility. The generation, processing, and preservation of papers was then something that Soviet officials in Moscow were generally good at. The regime, after all, was nothing if not an information hunter and gatherer; reality and the actual implementation of policy was another issue entirely. The preservation of documentation on the special settlers was also conditioned by an arrogant official confidence, still apparent even under Khrushchev, that the special settlers had been real enemies, that they in some sense deserved what they got. And once the documents made it into the archives, they became untouchable—so heavily layered in classified status, so closely bound and locked with wax seals that almost no one dared to touch them before 1991.
The documents of the Stalin era are marvelously thorough, if not quite exhaustive (given the closed repositories of the FSB and the Presidential Archive); they are well organized, meeting very high professional standards of archival record keeping; and access, at least to the main reading rooms of the archives, is possible simply with the presentation of one’s scholarly credentials and a letter of introduction from one’s home institution. Through the 1990s, Russian archivists, sometimes in concert with foreign scholars, compiled excellent finding aids, including websites and printed guides.
The preservation of the Stalin-era documents by generations of archivists who served sometimes as the watch dogs of state secrets, sometimes as highly-trained professionals dedicated to maintaining the records of the past, makes it possible to begin the process of excavating the history of the 1930s from layers of lies, propaganda, and “ideologized” conceit on both sides of the Cold War. One hopes that this process can continue. However, current political realities in Russia had made archival research more difficult. Slow declassification of documents, some re-classification of documents earlier declassified, and the return of various Sovietesque obstacles to work in the archives have made the first decade of the twenty-first century less conducive to open research than the 1990s. Fortunately, the archives are not the only game in town. The survivors of Stalin’s repression had made certain that their record of the past does not disappear…