The Unknown Gulag
Part II: The Central Archives
Yesterday we presented part 1 in a 5 part series about The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements by Lynn Viola. Today Viola takes us inside the archives in Moscow.
I could not have carried out the research for this book without access to archives, for the entire terrain of Stalin’s special settlements had remained a state secret throughout the Soviet era; even use of the term special resettlement was forbidden. Neither the word, nor the world of the special settlements, existed officially. From the very beginning in 1930, the state decreed that this would be an un-topic, appearing neither in the press nor in published records. All the documentation on the special settlers was subject to the highest order of archival classification and remained “top secret” until the early 1990s.
Soon after the inglorious demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the new government of the Russian Federation under Boris Yeltsin took the first steps toward reforming what had been the Soviet archival system. In 1992 and 1993, a series of new laws eased researchers’ access to the archives and initiated a partial process of declassification. Formerly inaccessible materials like the protocols of Politburo meetings and the personal archives of many top Communist Party leaders stored at the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History (RGASPI), the repository of the Communist Party archives; the Gulag files at the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF); and the secret files of the People’s Commissariat of Agriculture at the Russian State Archive of the Economy (RGAE) were completely or partially opened. These and other files contain an endless variety of previously classified materials, including unpublished legislation, policy commission papers, official protocols, numerous genres of reports, statistical materials, budgets, and communications from all branches of party and government at all regional levels as well as a wealth of materials—letters, petitions, complaints—from the special settlers themselves. Two important central archives remain persistently less accessible: the archives of the Federal Security Bureau (FSB), which stores the greater part of the secret police’s records, and the Presidential or Kremlin archives, the innermost sanctum of archival secrecy for state records of the Soviet period. I was fortunate to have access to documents from these two archives through my participation in two international collaborative research projects which had privileged access; otherwise, these two archives remain nearly inaccessible, especially to foreign researchers.
I spent all or parts of each summer from 1993 to 2004 working in these Moscow archives. During most of those years, especially the early years, the archives were full of researchers—from Russia and from around the world. Teams of German scholars began investigating the fate of German POWs in the Soviet Union after WWII; Polish scholars carried out work on the massacre of Polish military officers at Katyn; Korean scholars looked into the tragic fate of ethnic Koreans subject to internal exile within the Soviet Union in the 1930s; and everyone wanted simply to know more about the Stalin years.
Daily, I traveled by metro to the center of Moscow to work either in the architecturally imposing building that housed the Communist Party archives (sharing its space through the 1990s, alternately with a bank and a printing shop) or in the grand pre-revolutionary complex of buildings that housed the Russian State Archive of the Economy and the State Archive of the Russian Federation. The reading room at the Communist Party archive is airy and full of light with high ceilings and lovely views of Moscow. The state archival complex is an entire “city” of archives, with multiple buildings housing different archives and their administrations and a series of auxiliary buildings with purposes unknown to me. The ordinary police guard the barricades, so to speak, at the Communist Party archives, presenting a relatively friendly face to visitors; a young soldier with a rifle at his side checks passes at the state archives.
I supplemented my work in central archives with work in provincial archives. Here I was able to provide a human face to the victims of Stalin’s first experiments in the Gulag… My work in Vologda and Arkhangel’sk is the subject of the next installment of this blog.