Putin vs. the Truth

Denis Sinyakov/AFP/Getty Images
A pro-Communist demonstration in Moscow, with a portrait of Stalin in the background, May 1, 2005
In 1991, during the last days of the Soviet Union, I was working in the Military History Archive in Moscow. The archive complex was in a crumbling state. There were broken windows and stray cats on the staircase to the reading room. The desk lamps had no lightbulbs and there was no heat. Half the archivists had left because of poor pay. In the courtyard of the complex stood, surreally, a Soviet army tank. The director told me he had bought it very cheaply as an attraction: it was part of his “business plan” for the archive. Last year I returned to the archive. The buildings were not much improved, and the staff were just as rude as I remembered them from Soviet days. The tank had gone, but in its place was a shestyorka, a Mercedes S-600, the standard car of the minor oligarchs, brand new with tinted glass. I was told that it belonged to one of the archive’s directors.

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,1 and even rumors that precious documents were being sold.2

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…

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