Historian Nikita Petrov: Why Documents on the Repressions Are Being Concealed

posted 15 Jan 2017, 13:22 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 15 Jan 2017, 23:57 ]
27 December 2016 

Nikita Petrov, deputy chair of the board of International Memorial Society, in conversation with Elena Shmaraeva (Mediazona)

Source: HRO.org [original source: Mediazona]

Where to look for documents on the Great Terror

The majority of the documentation is kept in the FSB [Federal Security Service] archive. And that archive, unfortunately, is not fully accessible. There are individual documents that may be accessible, but everything is obtained at tremendous effort involving a great many queries and letters.

NKVD [People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs] documents are kept in the Russian State Archive (GARF) and the MVD [Interior Ministry]. Much in GARF has actually been declassified, but almost nothing at the MVD has. No civilized researcher has stepped foot there, basically.

The MVD’s main information center has a combined catalog covering all the Soviet years, everyone arrested and convicted. But you can’t go in there at all. You can only fill out a query, and then they will search that catalog: convicted, not convicted.

There is a database compiled by Memorial from the “Memorial Books” that were published in the regions. This is work that has been summarized on our website.

State agencies are not compiling a full list — for the whole country — of repressed individuals.

That same MVD main information centre could put out a database of everyone who was arrested and convicted—as the Defence Ministry did for its medal recipients, on its website “The Nation’s Heroic Deed.” I would like this very much. But they don’t want that. And they’ll find a thousand explanations for why they don’t want to do that.

For this work to be done, there needs to be a government mandate and government financing. But our government has absolutely no interest in publishing lists of everyone who was repressed during the years of Soviet power.

Let’s not do that, they say, let’s not create a schism in society. As if publishing lists of everyone who was repressed would create a schism in society! After all, everything on this list would be understandable and clear: who, under what article, and for how long. Who for homicide, and who for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda—everything on it would be clear.

For example, the MVD still has lots of materials connected with the corrective labor camp system (ITL). Although GARF has organizational materials on the ITL and the GULAG [Main Prison Camp Directorate], too.

However, there are no operational materials there from the camps, that is, about secret service operations in the camps; these are still being kept at the MVD. Therefore, someone studying the GULAG will get some materials from GARF, but certain materials are essential—and those are in the custody of the MVD.

GARF has data on mortality in the GULAG, but these are general statistics, numbers.

The documents on executions in the camps are exclusively in FSB agencies, which are the heirs of the repressive campaigns conducted in the NKVD; these are the decisions of judicial and extrajudicial agencies and prison camp courts.

All this could be at the FSB and the Justice Ministry.

In order to obtain personal information — who was repressed when — one must appeal to the FSB archive, and they will determine where the file is kept.

Anywhere departments hold their own documents, the situation is catastrophic.

Anywhere department documents have fallen into state keeping, the situation is better: visitors have access to a list of collections and inventories. But in departmental archives you don’t work the way you work in civilized archives. There’s no scholarly query mechanism and you don’t look for information independently: you are dependent on archive workers.

They can give or not give, find or not find. But documents can’t be viewed by outsiders’ eyes or searched for by outsiders’ eyes!

The researcher should be the one to go to the archive and take out the documents. You go to a library and take out a book—and you should be able to go to an archive and take out a file in the same way.

That doesn’t work in departmental archives: not in the MVD, not in the FSB, not in the MID [Foreign Ministry], and especially not in the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service).

It’s not that easy to work in the Defense Ministry archive in Podolsk, where there are a large number of classified materials. The Defense Ministry archive is better than the MVD, FSB, MID, and SVR put together; nonetheless, this is not a path made maximally easy for you as a researcher.

In a certain sense, GARF is the most advanced and civilized archive; of all the archives, the fewest complaints are against RGASPI (Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History) and GARF.

If the general situation in the archives, both state and departmental, were to be described, then it could be stated in a simple sentence: There is a law on archival matters, but all the institutions in the archival sphere have been ignoring it more and more often and to a greater and greater extent.

The departmental archives to a greater degree, but lately this has been observed in state archives as well.

They are starting to be afraid of everything. They are starting to wonder whether, if they give out this document now, some scandal won’t come of it. That is, they are starting to make judgment calls.

The law gives you permission to look at documents—but the archivists don’t want to show them to you, and they’ll find a thousand reasons to limit your right to do so.

They’ll invent these reasons, and it will all be illegal, but it’s already become part of their practice, which is hard to describe as civilized. It’s arrogation. In the archival sphere, we encounter arrogation every step of the way. [Read more in Russian

Translated by Marian Schwartz