Monday, June 1, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Why More Russian Archives are Likely to Close

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 1 – A quirk in Russian law means that an official President Dmitry Medvedev has charged with combating historical falsifications has a decisive voice in determining whether the archives of the CPSU are open or not – an arrangement that one rights activist says could mean the archives needed to fight falsification may become less accessible.
In an article in the current issue of Moscow’s “New Times,” Nikita Petrov, the deputy head of the Memorial Center, says that this is one manifestation of what he describes as the “serious illness” Russia’s archives now suffer from, “the unconstitutional prohibition on access to information” (
Russian laws call for “systematic and regular” declassification of documents, he points out, “but this work is not being carried out” consistently and across the board. Archives belonging to state institutions that continue to exist are being declassified by their own officials, who often find reasons not to release information.
But the situation is especially serious in cases when like those of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, there is no direct “heir.” In such circumstance, decisions on declassification and access are made by an inter-agency commission on state secrets, a body that since the start of 2009 has been led by Sergey Naryshkin, who is also charged with fighting historical falsification.
The Russian law on state secrets, Petrov notes, “establishes a maximum period of secrecy of 30 years, with a longer period – 50 years – only for documents of intelligence services and materials relating to the Soviet nuclear program.” If the latter exception can be justified, the former is more problematic, as recent events showed, the Memorial official says.
Not long ago, Vladimir Kozlov, the head of Russian State Archives, said that “Russian archivists have irrefutable documents which supposedly show that the famine in Ukraine in 1932-33 cannot be considered a genocide, but they cannot publish them because they are secret.” Such an assertion, Petrov suggests, is “a shame.”
There would seem to be only two possible justifications, the Memorial researcher says. On the one hand, some of the data to which Kozlov referred may include personal information of the kind which can legally remain classified for up to 75 years, but even then, the archives about what happened up to June 1934 should be open.
And on the other, there is yet another quirk in the law. If an archival document includes information about someone who has not been rehabilitated, then their case is considered still open and “access to [archival materials about it] can be obtained only by lawful representations of the repressed, their lawyers and relatives.”
But the most important reason that Russian archives remain closed despite the law is that none of the agencies of the Russian government have lived up to the 1992 decree of President Boris Yeltsin who called for the declassification “of all without exception cases involving the violation of human rights and political repressions” regardless of date.
Unfortunately, Petrov continues, the FSB “froze this process in its enormous archive under the pretext that in these documents were data about sources and methods. But the law about [that] establishes a 30-year limit on classification,” meaning that any case before 1979 should now be open but often is not.
This is creating “an absurd” situation, Petrov says, because Ukrainian and Baltic officials have declassified copies of KGB documents that were left behind when the Soviet Union fell apart. As a result, many “Russian secrets” are now in circulation as a result of the “declassification” of documents “from the archives of republic KGBs.”
Indeed, although Petrov does not speculate on this, it is entirely possible that Moscow might seek to use new legislation on punishing those who deny the official Russian version of World War II as a way of putting pressure on the governments of neighboring countries to restrict access to such archives.
But there is an additional “absurdity” in this situation. In the age of the Internet, once information is released from whatever archive, it acquires a permanent life of its own on the World Wide Web, as three extraordinarily interesting and important reports in the Russian electronic and print media show.
First, one blogger posted information from the KGB archives on mass disorders in the USSR between 1957 and 1986 ( Second, another blogger provided materials showing that this first listing, which was prepared for the Politburo in Gorbachev’s time was incomplete (
And third, “Novaya gazeta” published an article recounting the testimony of someone who saw documents before they were destroyed showing beyond doubt that Stalin was behind the December 1934 murder of Sergey Kirov that the Soviet dictator used to start the purges (
As Memorial’s Petrov notes, the situation regarding Russian archives is bad and is likely to get worse, but as in so many other areas, the Moscow regime is playing defense against the truth. And while it may succeed in hiding some things for a time, even an extended one, new generations and new technologies make its final victory extremely unlikely.

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