Publication Date

May 1, 1996

In the halcyon days following the fall of the Soviet regime, formerly closed archives in Moscow and other cities of the USSR opened their doors to Western researchers. In the aftermath of the failed coup of 1991, insurgent pro-Eltsin* forces physically occupied the most important political archives to prevent the destruction of documents sensitive or embarrassing to the communists. Conservative archival administrators were replaced by generally younger men and women, many of whom were working scholars rather than archival bureaucrats. Over the years, I had stopped counting the times I had dejectedly walked down Pushkin Street after having been denied access to the Central Party Archive. But in 1991 I was invited to begin my work there and was able to observe the pedestrians on Pushkin Street from the director's office, where I found myself sharing tea with the enthusiastic historians who comprised the new leadership.

The formerly ponderous Soviet archival administration (known as Glav Arkhiv) was replaced by a reform-minded body that came to be known as the Russian Archival Service (RosArkhiv) under the leadership of historian Rudolf Pikhoia. Quickly taking most archives under its jurisdiction, Pikhoia’s administration encouraged a policy of maximum glasnost and desecretization; new archival regulations in 1991 and 1992 mandated scholarly and public access to heretofore secret documentary materials.

Although the opening of archival doors was dramatic, it was not quite the night and day situation that it might seem. Even before the Eltsin victory, Gorbachev-era administrators at the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) and the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Contemporary History (RTsKhIDNI) had done much quietly to improve scholarly access to their collections. Moreover, in the wake of Pikhoia's new order, some restrictions were reapplied to bring the situation in line with world archival practice. The initial post-Soviet impulse had resembled Trotsky's famous remark about his 1917 responsibilities as the first Soviet commissar of foreign affairs: "We will publish the secret treaties and close up shop." Archival administrators in the early Eltsin era soon realized that it was not so simple. Embarrassing scandals connected to documents purporting to show that American prisoners of war were kept in the USSR during the Vietnam War, along with revelations relating to the activities of the Communist International, led to firings of archival administrators and domestic political pressure for a more careful policy. Thus, personal papers were not to be made available without permission of the person's relatives or until expiration of a time limit. Documents relating to Soviet (now Russian) national security and documents whose disclosure was deemed "harmful to the state interests of the Russian Federation" were closed.

Some important collections never came under the control of RosArkhiv. The archives of the Foreign Ministry, the KGB, and the president of the USSR were considered to be working (rather than historical) archives and remain under control of their "originating agencies." These repositories have the right to set their own access policies, and the latter two remain closed to researchers, with only isolated exceptions. The Foreign Ministry archives are technically open, but researchers have found access policies to be idiosyncratic and sometimes arbitrary.

Even in the open archives, scholarly access was and is unpredictable. Russia is still Russia, and there is often a great difference between formal regulations and actual practice. Archivists in reading rooms are sensitive to potential scandal and the perceived direction of political winds and, for reasons of self-protection, sometimes follow procedures more restrictive than the law suggests and decline to give out nonsecret documents. Several sets of mutually contradictory regulations have been issued by RosArkhiv in recent years, and the Russian government has failed to enact a formal law on archives or information policy. Archivists frequently do not know which policies govern their work, and more than once, scholars have secured access to documents (after an initial refusal) by showing to the archivists copies of various published regulations they had not seen. In other cases, the personal connections or reputation of the researcher can decide whether or not he or she actually receives requested materials.

Nevertheless, the evolving situation and various compromises have resulted in a dramatic improvement and in some areas a virtual gold mine for Western scholars of the former USSR. Obviously nonsensitive documents in state archives are now open; such materials do not require formal declassification. Potentially sensitive documents relating to political, military, intelligence, and economic matters, are closed, but a DeSecretization Commission continues to work steadily to declassify documents.

Among the many promising developments for historians has been a willingness on the part of Russian archival officials to participate in international publication projects with Western academic institutions. Such projects include the Russian Archive Series, based at the Russian and East European Studies Center at University of Pittsburgh, which is publishing the first comprehensive catalogs and descriptions of Russian archives. Another important effort is Yale University Press's Anna1s of Communism series, which unites Russian and American scholars as coauthors and coeditors of scholarly monographs and document collections drawn from newly available materials.

The largest collaborative project to date has been the "Hoover Project," organized and sponsored by the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. It actually consists of several discrete projects collectively referred to as the Hoover Project. The effort has involved the microfilming of Russian archives, the exchange of archival holdings between Hoover and Russian archives, the publication and sale of selected Russian materials with the British publisher Chadwyck Healey, and the cataloging of Russian archives on the computerized RLIN system. In December 1995 the Hoover Project was suddenly canceled by the Russian side, sending shock waves through the Western scholarly community and apparently heralding a return to the bad old days of Russian anti-Western suspicion and "nyet-saying."

On its face, the Hoover Project(s) seemed to be good for everyone. Funded by Western grants, Hoover would microfilm virtually the entire collections of the three most important Moscow political archives: GARF, RTsKhIDNI, and TsKhSD (the former top-secret working archive of the Communist Party's Central Committee). Copies of the microfilm would be given to the Russian side (which could not afford such comprehensive preservation efforts) and would be made available to researchers at Hoover. Hoover would also microfilm its entire collection and give it to the Russian side for use in Moscow by Russian scholars. Meanwhile, Chadwyck-Healey would photograph archival inventories and certain archival collections for sale to Western libraries and scholars. The Russian side would share in the profits from these sales, generating badly needed hard currency to support Russian archives.

The project seemed a wonderful way to preserve Russian archives, to make their materials available to scholars unable to journey to Moscow, and to generate financial support for the Russian side. Western foundations, eager to do something to help impoverished Russian cultural institutions and to aid scholarship, saw the Hoover Project as a good basket in which to put their eggs. Hoover officials and scholars made a good case that their project, and not other efforts, promised to return the maximum benefit. The National Endowment for the Humanities and other Western funders accepted this notion and generously supported Hoover, often to the exclusion of the other ongoing Russian-American collaborations.

Now, it seems, the project may have collapsed at the initiative of the Russian side. RosArkhiv has formally rescinded the agreement; RosArkhiv chair Pikhoia has resigned or been fired. Why would the Russians cancel an arrangement that promised them so much for so little outlay on their part? What does this setback mean to Western historians and to the general archival access picture?

One of my colleagues used the metaphor of a haunted house to describe access policies in post-Soviet archives: doors mysteriously fling themselves open and slam themselves shut without any visible agency or reason. Sometimes, however, it is possible to perceive the psychological and political forces behind the sudden and puzzling changes.

Questions of Equity

One explanation for the collapse of the Hoover Project, offered by those close to it, is that the new political situation generated by the rise of Russian communists has re-created an atmosphere of anti-America sentiment in Moscow. Russian archival officials, seeing the electoral resurgence of the communists in December's elections an fearful of retaliation in the event that Communist Party leader Zyuganov wins the presidential elections in June, are hedging their bets by distancing themselves from Americans.

Russian scholars and archivists have a different explanation. There is no doubt that many in the Russian scholarly world view the rise of the communists with fear and trepidation. Those whom Zyuganov would likely appoint positions in the cultural and intellectual world tend to be strong nationalists or representatives of the old school of xenophobic outlook. On the other hand the Hoover Project was under attack in Moscow long before the rise of the communists and from quarters far removed from the former or present communist parties. Indeed, the first Russian criticism came from Yuri Afanas'ev, rector of the Russian State Humanities University and an anticommunist hero of the Gorbachev and early Eltsin days. Afanas'ev argued that the deal was too one-sided. Why, he asked, should Americans scholars reap the benefits of having our, archives in their country? When Russian scholars are so poor, when they must spend so much time trying to earn money simply to live, when they receive no support for their research, when they cannot even afford the new higher prices for photocopying documents, why should Russia conclude a deal that benefits Western scholars so much more than its own? Why should Russia permit foreigners to buy Russia's cultural treasures and thereby have a preferential opportunity to write its history? Sure, Russia will have a photocopy of everything, eventually, maybe. But because of the economic disparity between American and Russian scholars, is it really a fair exchange?

Other Russian critics of the arrangement had long noted what they see as disparities between what the American and Russian sides would receive. Certainly, the collections of the Hoover Institution contain valuable materials, including the archive of Boris Nicolaevsky, the memoirs of emigre Russian generals and politicians, Herbert Hoover’s own collection on American relief during the Russian Civil War, and other unique materials. But Russian scholars have long observed that much of the material is already published in some form and a good part of it consists of books and newspapers already available elsewhere. In terms of volume, it is a small fragment of what the Russian side offered. The nature and size of the Russian collections in the three targeted archives, some Russians argue, make them equivalent to an entire national archival fund. A recent article in the Russian press suggested that the archives of the American embassy in Moscow or of the State Department might constitute a fair exchange. Perhaps without much tongue in cheek, one senior Russian scholar told me that trading these three Russian archives for the entire U.S. National Archives would not be an unfair exchange.

And Questions of Bureaucratic Politics

Such complaints about equity have been circulating around Moscow for many months. Along with the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming elections, they have played a role in derailing the Hoover Project. However, the crisis of last December was provoked by another issue that, according to scholars and archivists in Moscow, played the major role in the break. This issue has to do with budget economics, general institutional realignments, and internal politics that have evolved slowly in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Although its political attitude and policy toward archival access was dramatically different, Pikhoia's RosArkhiv succeeded the Soviet Glav Arkhiv in form and structure. That is, it followed the Soviet model of a top-heavy, centralized administration that dictated almost everything to the units (the individual archives) under its control, from administrative procedures to personnel matters to budgetary allocations. In the Soviet period, bilateral international agreements related to trade, culture, student exchanges, and other issues were routinely concluded from “top to top”—that is, between Western organizations and Soviet official institutions. Agreements were then implemented in the USSR by order of the leading body, which issued the necessary instructions to its subordinate departments and units. The Hoover agreement followed this time-honored practice and was an agreement between the Hoover Institution and RosArkhiv.

But more than the names were changing in the transition from Soviet to Russian administration. Since 1991 we have seen the virtual decomposition of centralized structures in ministries, universities, and other organizations. The winds of democratization, however faint they may be in some spheres, have led administrators of subordinate units to act more independently of their bureaucratic chiefs. More important, the collapse of funding for universities, cultural institutions, libraries, and even the Academy of Sciences has given a strong impetus to this centrifugal tendency. With the central bureaucracies unable to fund their subordinates- even to pay their salaries-those units have achieved considerable independence. Without the budgetary stick to hold over the heads of their departments, central bureaucrats have found it impossible to secure compliance from those departments. One can see this on all fronts in the area of cultural exchange. These days, exchanges of scholars and students are negotiated not with the Academy of Sciences or even with the rectors of the leading universities. Now, such agreements are made with the formally subordinate but actually independent institutes and departments themselves. These departmental units now have the authority to conclude contracts, administer independent funds, issue visas, and generally conduct the functions formerly reserved to the central bodies.

The Hoover Project fell victim to this power shift. From the beginning, the targeted archives resisted Pikhoia's orders to provide scarce space and staff for the Hoover’s work. They complained that the Hoover operations disrupted archival work and the provision of documents to the reading rooms. These archives were already (and continue to be) in desperate financial straits. They have no money for salaries, preservation efforts, or, in some cases, even for utilities for their premises. Pikhoia's RosArkhiv was unable or unwilling to provide the budgets necessary to run the archives. Individual archives concluded agreements with Western universities, publishers, and scholarly organizations on a direct bilateral basis in order to generate operating fund, and even to survive and continue working. In this changed climate, RosArkhiv carried less and less clout and found it harder and harder to push the Hoover work forward. Toward the end, archive administrators were openly defying Pikhoia's instructions and refusing the reo quests of those working on the Hoover projects.

Pikhoia's reputation and the cloudy financial atmosphere surrounding the Hoover Project also led to trouble in Moscow. One archive official told me in December that his archive had received "not one kopek" from Pikhoia, Hoover, or Chadwyck-Healey. Meanwhile, the Americans were busily photographing his entire archive. From the beginning, Pikhoia had not commanded much respect from his directors. His RosArkhiv apparatus was at one point three times the size of the old Soviet Glav Arkhiv. Moscow archivists were not sure what all those salaried officials were doing "over there" at RosArkhiv. Widely viewed as a crony whom Eltsin had dragged along from his former base at Ekaterinburg, Pikhoia's appointment was seen as a by-product of his wife's status as one of Eltsin's secretaries.

Worse, Pikhoia participated in the Hoover Project in old-Soviet style. While the starving archives were ordered to facilitate the project's work, they were treated to the spectacle of Pikhoia and his RosArkhiv supporters' numerous trips to Europe and America at project invitation and expense. There are constant Moscow rumors about Pikhoia's personal bank accounts in America, England, and Germany. Whether accurate or not, the universal perception in Moscow academic circles is that millions of Hoover dollars have disappeared while those doing the project's work have received nothing. An archive official said at one point last year that "Pikhoia and Company are touring Europe and America in high style, but the city is about to shut off our electricity because we cannot pay our bills."

Finally, last December the governing board (collegium) of RosArkhiv rose up in rebellion against Pikhoia and Hoover. All of its members, including some of Pikhoia's former allies, signed a statement denouncing him and the Hoover Project. Pikhoia requested another infusion of Western funding to head off the crisis, and his Western partners tried to mobilize American scholarly support to save his job. Such support was not forthcoming. Many American Russianists were not inclined to stand by Pikhoia. Others felt that given the nationalist overtones of the affair, we "rich Americans" were not in a position to champion one or another Russian bureaucrat, especially in a situation in which American scholars are not seen as disinterested parties. Many felt that the matter was an internal Russian one and role had no proper role to play.

A Change in the Wind?

The Russian press explained the collapse of the Hoover Project in terms of its inequalities, as outlined above and seen from the Russian side. Indeed, there is little doubt that the increasing antiforeigner sentiment in Russia played a role. On the other hand, it is instructive to note that other collaborative projects that made equitable and scholarly agreements with individual departments and archives are moving along at full speed. fu collaboration with Moscow archive directors, the Russian Archive Series has published eight volumes of archival guides with more in press. The Yale Annals of Communism series continues to publish its coedited scholarly books and to conclude new agreements to expand the list.

At this moment, the ultimate fate of the Hoover Project is not clear. Although the contract with RosArkhiv has been canceled some kind of exchange between Hoover and the individual archives may be resurrected. Certainly it is in the interests of American historians and of Russian-American cultural relations in general that this valuable project, or something like it, continue on some. level. It is equally unclear what the Hoover setba.ck means for research access in general. At the same time the Hoover Project was canceled, the Russian De-Secretization Commission moved into high gear to declassify more and more sensitive documents. Every week, documentary collections are being transferred from closed repositories to open archives. The best guess, and given Russian conditions any prognosis can only be a guess, is that bilateral collaborations can continue if they are carefully negotiated and not perceived as exploitative. Similarly, Moscow archivists are not exceedingly frightened about a possible communist or nationalist victory in the upcoming elections. Rightly or wrongly, they believe that the current leaderships of the archives, with their favorable attitudes toward scholarship, are secure and that the process of declassification and improved access may be slowed but will not be reversed. We can only hope that they are right.

*Note: The library of Congress transliteration system, which most historians of Russia use, prefers “Eltsin” to “Yeltsin.”

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