Rachel Donadio: The closing of the Russian archives

Since the end of the cold war, historians have mined the Russian archives for insights into the nature of the Soviet empire and its global reach. New documents have shed light on such matters as the Alger Hiss and Rosenberg spy cases and also illuminated the relationships between Moscow and revolutionary movements in other countries — sometimes fueling old debates more than settling them. But after a golden age in the early 1990s, archival access eroded. Today, conversations with nearly two dozen historians point to a worrisome tightening that has kept key archives closed and subjected others to unpredictable “re-secretization.”

Freighted with symbolic import and subject to political pressures, access to archives is a barometer of any government’s commitment to transparency. (In the United States, the House and Senate passed bills last month to counter what Democrats and Repbulicans alike see as an erosion of the Freedom of Information Act.) But the political changes in post-Soviet Russia make it a particularly fraught issue. Boris Yeltsin threw open some archives to help discredit the just-toppled Communist regime. But by the mid-1990s many of those archives had closed, while others — including the foreign and military intelligence archives and the defense ministry archive — were never open to most researchers in the first place. Today’s uncertainty seems to bear out the old joke: In Russia, how can anyone predict the future when it’s so hard to predict the past?

Under Vladimir Putin — a former K.G.B. agent who has been consolidating power since becoming president in 2000 — “the preoccupation with secrecy only increased,” Ilya Gaiduk, a fellow of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow and an expert on Soviet policy in Asia, said in an e-mail message. “Every archival official knows that he or she would be safer” erring on the side of “denying access to documents.” The problems are both bureaucratic and political. The slow-moving federal committee in charge of declassifiying state archive material has been renamed the Commission on State Secrets, and it sees its mandate as protecting them, scholars say. And it has little jurisdiction over some key agencies or ministries, which operate according to their own rules....

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