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.

Monday, December 29, 2008

From Russia With Love

It is rare that we get an insider’s view of negotiations for previously closed archives or the challenges of using archival materials in former totalitarian regimes. Jonathan Brent, Inside the Stalin Archives: Discovering the New Russia (New York: Atlas and Co., 2008) provides a wonderfully detailed portrait of Yale University Press’s project of publishing from the Soviet archives, leading to permission to publish from Stalin’s own personal archives (the first volume was published in 1995, The Secret World of American Communism). Brent chronicles his efforts since 1992 to start the Annals of Communism project, and his description is almost novel like, recreating scenes, encounters, and conversations to break down barriers for access to the Central Party Archive and other archives in Russia.

We learn about the vast archives, scattered about country, Yale’s idea that it “would sponsor teams of researchers under the direction of both an American and a Russian scholar to go into the archives and find all the materials thought relevant to a particular topic. These would then be sifted through for the most important documents. Of the thousands so chosen, perhaps a hundred would be published in any given volume. Each document would then be carefully annotated and set in its historical context, and the whole would be framed with an essay on Soviet history by a noted scholar” (p. 49). Brent contends that Yale’s project was first and foremost a scholarly one, as they could only guess sales ranging from a few hundred to 10,000 copies for various volumes; he argues that this was always a project more important than any money ultimately gained. The story is an engrossing one as additional competitors from other presses and other nations emerged, and many important documents never before seen came to light.

This book is especially useful for revealing how archivists worked under Soviet regime, often keeping documents under wraps and never talking or writing about them. Even in 1998 when Brent proposed a textbook on Soviet history using the documents, he was told that this would not be possible: “To write a textbook . . . meant to have some kind of unifying narrative with an underlying conception. A point of view. No one. . . would undertake such a daunting and dangerous task at the present time. To offer a unified interpretation of the Soviet period meant, first, that you wished to know the truth, and second, that you had the courage to tell it” (p. 213). Brent also comments on the earlier use of various archives, in one case that of the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute: “Throughout the turmoil of the 1930s and 1940s, the archive was used primarily to change the picture of the past. The archivists, who were intent on protecting an accurate historical record, lost the struggle with the politicians, who wanted to manipulate it. Eventually, all the archivists were chosen by the Central Committee. Much material was kept secret, even from most of the archivists . . . “ (p. 298).

We learn about payments, rituals, rights, negotiating deals, cutting across immense cultural differences, efforts to be both supportive of the university press and archives, and the remarkably complicated issues governing access to the Russian archives. We also learn about the systematic elimination of Russia’s intelligentsia, artists, and political activities, revealing the potential power of archival sources once opened.

Brent’s book also raises considerable questions about the nature of how memory and history function in such a closed society, and even how historical sources manage to survive. Two other recently published books about Russia provide some clues about this. Helen Goscilo and Stephen M. Norris, eds., Preserving Petersburg: History, Memory, Nostalgia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008) describes how this city came to be seen as a museum to be preserved, and how it managed to survive the tumultuous events of the twentieth century. William Craft Brumfield observes that the architecture in this city “remains the clearest statement of purpose that Imperial Russia ever made: to measure, to build, to impose order at any cost” (p. 1), leading one to wonder how it survived through the Soviet era. The city has been constantly reworked, remapped, and reinvented, but it is still there. One of this volume’s essayists (Julie Buckler) also connects together the preservationist efforts with the role of archives: “Petersburg proves the counterintuitive but ancient rule that writing, a seemingly ephemeral medium, offers the most reliable material for building an enduring monument to the past. Still, all of this writing about imperial Petersburg also requires the physical resources of the city for its continued preservation in libraries, museums, and archives” (p. 40). Another recent publication provides some additional insights into the Russian archival tradition. Sean McMeekin, History’s Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008) provides an analysis of how the Bolsheviks, in their five years of civil war, managed to prevail, basically by looting the government and people of art, precious metals, and bank accounts, often leaving behind careful inventories of the art and other objects taken and sold. McMeekin notes how the Nazis looting of Europe is so well-known, but what happened in Russian is not well-known at all, attributing this to the fact that critical archival sources concerning Russia have only been known since 1991, whereas those related to Nazis have been known and used since 1945.