Russian History: Is It in the Archives?
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The Politics of Access in Post-Soviet America Those who got their academic training in Russian and Soviet history before the collapse of the Soviet Union worked under a considerable handicap: lack of access to the bulk of primary source materials in the libraries and archives in the Soviet Union. Even medievalists such as myself were routinely denied access to archives, even to those that had already appeared in print. We all dreamed of the day when we would have access—even access to inventories and anding aids seemed some sort of holy grail back then. For a brief period of time in 1991–92, all that promised to change. The question of whether a country’s history is to be found in its archives is not idle speculation or postmodern theorizing in the case of Russia. Constructing the past is not an academic exercise in Russia but serious political activity, and performing semiotic, structural, and formal analysis on sources and their provenance must be done even for what passes in the historiographical traditions of other countries as “ordinary stuff.” It is certainly no coincidence that Russians, in studying their own literary heritage, devised these analytical approaches to texts. I have always wondered why historians of the same culture have been slow to appraise the documentary heritage in a similar vein, though in the aeld of medieval studies, scholars of the present generation tend to bore in on textual formalisms in order to render the abundant but redundant formulaic sources a bit more informative. In June of 1992, Presidents George Bush and Boris Yeltsin met in Washington, DC, for a political summit. To mark the occasion, an exhibition of over three hundred formerly top-secret documents from eleven different Soviet archives was on display in a gallery of the Library of Congress across the street from the US Capitol. The exhibition , portentously called Revelations from the Russian Archives, was a public announcement by the Russian government of a radical change in information policy— open access, in the Western sense, to records of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and its numerous agencies—and was accompanied by a symposium on the signiacance of the event for the historical profession that featured Rudolf Pikhoia, then head of the Russian archival administration (Roskomarkhiv), Dmitrii Volkogonov, head of a presidential commission on the opening of the archives, Ambassador Paul Nitze, Professors Adam Ulam and Robert Tucker, and Librarian of Congress James Billington. The documents were on display for a month and were to be sent back to Moscow for a longer period of public exhibition there. A signiacant sampling of these documents was simultaneously mounted on the Internet—this was before the World Wide Web. And all this took place less than a full year after the spectacular events of 1991 that brought Yeltsin to power and ushered in the death of the Soviet Union. What had happened in that brief span of time? In the 1990s, the politics surrounding the fate of the Soviet-era archives centered around the age-old question of who would control access to the past. That meant, arst and foremost after the events of August 1991, who controlled access to the CPSU and state, military, and intelligence documents dating from the past, as opposed to the interpretation of the past. Archivists and archival administrators suddenly became more important and, in some sense, more powerful than historians. Most of the anxieties of the early years of the last decade were occasioned 451 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ Russian History Is It in the Archives? Abby Smith ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ by who got into the archives arst, who found the best material, and, in the West, whose interpretation of the Soviet Union would be borne out by the evidence revealed in the archives. The politics on the ground in Moscow and St. Petersburg and all the towns that had caches of evidence from the Soviet era is the story that most people were rightly focused on. That was the story about whether the historical actors had been able to get there arst and remove the ales they wanted expunged, whether security ales would be opened as they had been in East Germany, whether intelligence ales would be leaked, whether international relations would be seriously destabilized by any revelations from the CPSU or KGB archives , whether citizens would have access to ales about themselves and their family members, and so on. While the stakes were hardly the same, the politics of access were pretty thick in Washington...