The collapse of the Soviet regime gave the heads of Russia’s archives new commercial opportunities. In the first chaotic years of the Yeltsin government, when they were allowed to run their archives as their personal fiefdoms, there was money to be made from the journalists and publishers who flocked to Moscow (and very rarely to St. Petersburg) in search of secrets and sensations from the vaults. There were tales of Western publishers buying up exclusive rights to the archives, of deals being made to reserve parts of them for certain Western researchers,
For scholars too there were real gains. Intellectually, the end of communism was a liberation for historians. They could travel to Russia, work in the archives freely, and publish what they liked, without fear of retribution from the Soviet authorities.
To understand this liberation, one has to appreciate what it was like to work in the Soviet archives as a foreigner. From 1984 to 1987, I worked in the Central State Archive of the October Revolution (TsGAOR), now the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), for my first book, on the peasantry in the Russian Revolution and the Civil War. There were no more than a handful of foreign historians working in the archive at that time. We had no access to the catalogs (it was only in 1986 that they began to be made available) so our only information about the contents of the archive came from the footnotes of Soviet publications. The system worked on the principle of preserving everything but admitting the existence of only those materials cleared for publication by Soviet historians.
All our requests for documents were vetted by a woman from the KGB. As foreigners we had to work in a separate reading room, without access to the canteen, so that we would not come into contact with Soviet historians or archivists, who might help us with our work. There was just one flaw in the system: the reading room for Soviet researchers shared a toilet with the room for foreigners. In those days I was a smoker, so I’d go there frequently and chat with Soviet historians and archivists, who liked my Western cigarettes and were happy to find out for me the numbers of the files I needed for my work.
Jonathan Brent is the editorial director of Yale University Press. In January 1992, he arrived in Moscow for the first time, and with the help of a young American scholar, Jeffrey Burds, he tried to persuade the heads of Russia’s most important central archives to do business with him. Brent’s plan was to publish a series of volumes of selected documents from the newly opened Soviet archives, employing American scholars and Russian archivists as editors—a project that became the Annals of …