Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Secret Police Files and the Vocies of the Dead

Over the past couple of decades we have witnessed a burgeoning of interest in the truth commissions and the records they generate and use. A lot of attention has been given to examining the records of secret police organizations in various nations. It is only fitting that some scholars would turn their attention to investigating earlier police operations in an effort to understand more of their victims.

Hiroaki Kuromiya, The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) is an interesting analysis of the Soviet secret police (the NKVD) piles files pertaining to the 700,000 political prisoners arrested and executed in 1937-1938. Kuromiya achieves this by randomly selecting several dozen case files from the hundreds of thousands and then building the story of the particular prisoner, their “crime,” their fate, and how they are remembered (if they are remembered). However, it is Kuromiya’s analysis of the police files that will interest those interested in archives and recordkeeping.

These police files are filled with evidence challenges, given the extent of falsified information contained in them. As Kuromiya notes, “History speaks to us from the pages of the case files and other police documents, but one simply cannot take their contents at face value” (p. 9). We must learn to read the interrogation documents, comparing the initial documents compiled in longhand capturing the initial versions of the testimonies with the official typed version. “By carefully comparing handwritten original documents against typed documents,” writes Kuromiya, “one can detect the mechanism of terror and recover the silenced voices of the condemned” (p. 10). Kuromiya considers these files to be “treacherous sources”: “Confessions and testimonies were generally invented by interrogators. The police beat confessions out of the arrested in order to confirm their own preconceptions about their ‘enemies.’ Naturally the contents of case files are formulaic, colorless and devoid of individuality. However, even such files, if handed with caution and care, throw up valuable clues through which one can recover the lost voices of the dead. From dull and vapid files emerge concrete, individual and varied lives that have been condemned to oblivion” (p. 12).

Kuromiya also reveals how the interest in history and a perception of the value of archives does not necessarily lessen the need, when one is inclined, to twist and distort the evidence found in archives. Considering Stalin, for example, this historian notes, “Stalin manipulated and fabricated evidence to prove the existence of ‘enemies of the people’ who ‘posed such a serious threat that they had to be destroyed physically.’ This was Stalin’s elaborate trap for the world, including future historians. Stalin was a lover of history. He was conscious of his own historical legacy. He even kept in archives numerous execution orders he had signed. No historian should fall into Stalin’s trap” (p. 254). Neither should any archivist. Sometimes today we hear archivists lament that calls for a focus on keeping public officials accountable may cause these officials to not create or maintain records that future historians will use. However, what is the archivist’s responsibility as a citizen of a nation? Trying to ensure that records are kept, as they ought to be for present accountability is just as critical as the kind of accountability future scholars will bring to bear in tapping into such archival storehouses.