Soviet Archives and Dark Truths: A historian's story

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Olga Velikanova, an assistant professor at the University of North Texas, where she teaches Soviet history. Dr. Velikanova was among the first scholars to work with declassified Communist Party and secret police archives. Her research about everyday Stalinism, the cult of Lenin and Russian popular opinion has been broadcast by the BBC, Finnish and Russian radio and TV as well as the History Channel in Canada. She is the author of “Making of an Idol: On Uses of Lenin,” “The Public Perception of the Cult of Lenin Based on the Archival Materials” and “The Myth of the Besieged Fortress. Soviet Mass Perception in the 1920s-1930s.” She is a recipient of many awards from different international research.

FP: Olga Velikanova, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Velikanova: Thank you for invitation. I am glad to contribute to the journal that I read.

FP: I would like to talk to you today about your experience with and discoveries in the Russian archives. Let’s begin with what's new.

Velikanova: Research in the Russian archives continues and new documents are uncovered every day. At the very beginning, the major research question was “What”? What had happened in the years of building socialism? But now, after the accumulation of some primary knowledge, historians are going deeper and further. The major question that they put to the past now is “Why”? Why did it happen? We have now turned to the stage of analysis and interpretation. The result is historical knowledge on a new level, grounded not only on the documents themselves, but on the contemporary theories and achievements of sociology, cultural studies, social anthropology and psychology. And so, we now have a much better understanding of the origins and nature of Stalinism.

FP: It appears that a plan had been circulating after the 1991 Revolution to put the Communist Party on trial – like a parallel to the Nuremberg Trials. Correct? Who was behind this? Why didn’t it happen?

Velikanova: The end of communist power in 1991 resulted in the Archival Revolution as a part of Glasnost - an abrupt and radical transformation of the universe of sources and the conditions of access to information. Historians and society were eager to know the secrets of the Communist party and its instrument – the political police. Relatives of people who vanished in Stalin’s camps wanted access to the personal files of their beloved ones.

The major pathos of the Revolution of 1991 was anti-communist. The Nuremberg-like trial was planned by the Supreme Court of the new Russia -- with the goal to determine whether the Communist Party had been a criminal organization. The legality of the Communist Party in new Russia was also up for question.

The work in the de-classified archives started. However, it did not achieve what it set out to accomplish. In the end, the new Russian governing elite, and members of the Supreme Court too, comprised almost exclusively of former Communist Party members, including Yeltsin himself, decided against washing the dirty linen of the Party in front of the whole world. The new governing elite feared that doing so would threaten its own power and destabilize the society.

Yeltsin, who signed the order to ban the activities of the Communist Party in August 1991, was afraid that the trial would turn into a trial on himself. Also, unlike in Germany in 1945, Russia had no third party (i.e. an American administration) to help pursue such a trial.

FP: What happened with the materials of the court?

Velikanova: They formed the collection number 89 in the Russian State Archives of Contemporary History (RGANI) in Moscow. But before that, the documents collected in the archives of the head organs of the Communist Party and Soviet state and submitted to the court were studied and secretly copied by Vladimir Bukovsky, the former dissident appointed as an expert at the Constitutional Court. had already written about that. (To visit the Bukovsky archive, click here.) Later the collection of copies of this fond was formally purchased by the Hoover Institute and now available there. A very detailed description of the documents from this fond in English was published by the Hoover Press in 2001 and now available online.

FP: What were the possible charges against the Communist Party?

Velikanova: Well, charges for the Great Terror were definitely a priority. This was followed by the invasion of Hungary in 1956, the shooting of the hungry workers in Novocherkassk in 1962, the persecution of dissidents in the 1970s, and the financing of undermining activities in foreign countries and so on.

The selection of the documents in fond 89 is quite chaotic: it reflects the specter of charges that society was ready to blame on the Communist Party in 1992. Now, after 16 years of research, we know that the specter of crimes was much wider. But in 1992 the research and interpretative work of historians was at the very beginning. We had not yet known many things at that time, including the number of the victims of the Soviet regime, who was personally responsible for mass murders and deportations, the motives of the rulers and what was the goal or at least the justification of it.

FP: What are the recent developments in terms of the discoveries in declassified Soviet documents, the major archival findings since 1991?

Velikanova: Studies that focused on mass terror showed such magnitude of tragedy that even now we can’t give an exact total numbers of victims. But now they are more realistic than in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s or Robert Conquest’s books. 681,692 people were executed in 1937-38; 3,778,234 were sentenced for counter-revolutionary activities from 1930 to 1953. We learned from the archival sources that mass repressions started in the 1920s and Lenin personally SIGNED cruel orders to kill innocent hostages and priests. The leading Russian archivist and scholar Oleg Khlevniuk summarized recently that up to 50 million people suffered from Stalinist politics and its consequences.

This total estimate embraces another number that became re-examined: the cost of World War II for Russia, 26.6 million people. Studies in famines brought documented numbers of losses: 1921- 6 million, 1932-33 - 4-5 million in Ukraine and 1 million in Kazakhstan, 1947 – about 2 million. But of course not only statistics were revised. Newly available documents of the Politburo and other high organs, which involve the correspondence of the party leaders, dissect the mechanism of power, motivations and priorities in decision making. We know these people who ruled Russia much better now. While reading these transcripts, I was impressed by the primitive language, poor vocabulary and grammar, and disrespect to the opponent.

Economic historians can study the contribution of slave labor in the Gulag to the socialist economy. Social historians study the cases of mass resistance. De-classified statistical and economical information allows to promote not only political and economic history, but everyday studies. Archives of Comintern and on foreign relations add new knowledge not only to the history of Russia, but to the history of other countries. In fact, the archival revolution has changed the agenda of problems that structured Soviet studies after the WWII. New directions and venues of research became available.

But the archival revolution had not only academic but also a human dimension. One of the important engines in the archival rush in the 1990s was natural human desire to know about fathers and grandfathers who vanished in the Stalin’s prisons and camps. Relatives up to the 1990s did not know where and when their beloved ended their lives and where they were buried. In the 1990s, the ritual spontaneously emerged in St. Petersburg, when people placed the mourning wreaths on the water of the Neva river near the building of the Big House – nickname of the city headquarters of the security organs. Behind this ritual is the city old horrible legend that in the 1930s the water there often became bloody red. According to persisting rumors, many executions were conducted in the basement of the building and the corpses of the victims were processed by the stonebreaker machine established there and connected by the sewage with the Neva. This legend is found in the archives and paralleled by oral folklore.

The “archival rush” resulted in mass judicial re-habilitation and publications of local Books of Memory – lists of the victims names. Many places of secret burials of the victims were identified and commemorated now.

FP: What is something you found in the archives that startled you or that you found very significant?

Velikanova: All historians were in state of euphoria after the opening of the archives. I remember my own feelings. It was September 1991 when, after the failure of the anti-Gorbachev coup and the dissolution of the Communist party, I was sitting day after day in the St. Petersburg Party archive. The country was in chaos, heating did not work. Hungry and cold, I was working on my dissertation on Lenin cult. Official campaigns documents were available, but I was mostly interested in how ordinary people perceived the leader. For years I could not find materials on that. Routinely, I continued ordering file by file, following the catalogue which lacked both description and titles. And suddenly, materials that I had been so vigorously seeking, started to arrive: summaries of the secret police about public reactions on Lenin’s death; hundreds of Party summaries on popular moods.

The archivists, without waiting for instructions from above, had started to release materials that had been classified for decades. You can imagine my delight. I was among the first historians who discovered that the state policy of surveillance over the population in the USSR had resulted in a huge body of documents on public moods, comparable only with similar documentation by the Nazis. They are unique as they allow us to hear authentic human voices from the past. Our reflections about the mentality of peasants, or popular opinions of urbanites received finally formal documented foundation. My three books are based on these materials.

Moreover, serial sources – not only reviews of the police, but also party reviews, scanning of private correspondence, letters to the newspapers and to the authorities - show that Stalinism was not simply inculcated from above, but had deep social roots and to a large extent support amongst the masses. Access to such documents opens new vistas and perspectives for research and in fact has stimulated the shift in Soviet studies – a cultural turn which focuses on Stalinism as a culture. As a scholar, I consider myself to be a product of this archival revolution, which finally gave me the opportunity to study what I desired – popular values, beliefs, imagery of Soviet people.

FP: Tell us how what we discover in the Soviet archives is important for the modern world and understanding Russia.

Velikanova: To understand and - through such understanding – to be able to predict Russian politics is crucial in our small world. The gas conflict showed it again. It was just the most recent example. During the last decade, Russia climbed down from the chaos of the 1990s with a strong promise for democratic development (as expected by the world and liberals at home) to authoritarianism and oligarchy.

This development as well as Perestroika itself was not expected by the international and Russian political and academic community. Such a "surprise," in my opinion, was partly a result of our poor knowledge and understanding about the history of the Soviet Union. Why had the socialist experiment happened in this way? Why had it collapsed? The ideological constraints of the Cold War (outside) and Marxism-Leninism (inside), together with the closeness of the archives, contributed significantly to the gaps in historical knowledge about the rulers and people of Soviet Russia.

In my perception, the most significant questions that we might ask the primary sources in the archives is not only about Stalin’s and Soviet politics, but why and how did people accept, tolerate, and produce such politics. Studies of the social base of Stalinism, by the way initiated by American social historians in the 1970s and developing on the new archival basis now, equip politicians and reading public with insights into modern Russian politics. Social and cultural history, spurred by new massive documentation, brings important understanding of why Russian people at the historical intersection in the 1990s had chosen KGB man to be their leader and why democratic liberalism is not among the popular values in contemporary Russia.

Russian area studies contribute to global studies. For example, personal documents revealing the inner world of Soviet people (for example, diaries and letters) help to study the universe of true-believer (whatever is ideology – communism, or nationalism, or religion), or strategies of survival - how people cope with catastrophes.

FP: We know that many historians desperately seek to get access to Soviet archives. But let me ask this: are the Russian people themselves interested? Do they hunger to know the truth about their nation’s past?

Velikanova: Public consciousness lives according to its own laws. We can trace dynamics in popular representations since the 1990s, when people eagerly consumed sensational findings in the document files. But since 2000, the saga of Stalinism recedes to the margins of collective memory. In the 1990s, traumatic truth about millions of lives sacrificed to socialist illusion combined with economic and status decline of many individuals and the country itself - led to acute crisis of identity. To restore self-esteem and a reliable worldview, the majority of people tended to avoid painful information -- and the media responded to that. Officials also discouraged any touching of a troubled past. The gap between the scholar and popular knowledge about the Soviet past widened.

From school programs and media the young generation in Russia can’t get an adequate picture of recent history. The television, which is almost all now controlled by the state, entertains people, glorifies the past (including the Soviet police) and ignores the traumatic points in history. In recent school textbooks, the excessive victims of Soviet politics are justified and Stalin is called an “effective manager.” Sociological polls show that more than 50% of respondents evaluate Stalin’s role positively. By the way, the ritual on the bank of the Neva near the Big House ceased recently.

To withstand this process of forgetting and embellishing, historians, scholars, teachers, local enthusiasts and public organizations like “Memorial” and “Recovered Names” continue their research and commemoration activities. In December, the international conference “The History of Stalinism” was held in Moscow as part of larger project, including radio-discussions and scholarly and popular publications. The conference, with leading scholars from Russia, USA, Europe and Japan, met a huge response from society. Some people wrote to the organizers saying: “It’s enough.” and “You are lying and exaggerating.” But the majority supported the initiative; many shared their family memoirs about the tragic past. It’s important that there are forces in Russia that promote truth about history, despite the trauma and pain of memory. Among the organizers are the Yeltsin foundation, “Memorial” and the publishing house Rosspen, which focuses on publications from the archives and academic books.

FP: So what is the current situation with the access to the archives in Russia?

Velikanova: Historians can call this situation an “archival counter-revolution.” With Vladimir Putin coming to tenure in 2000, historians noticed a gradual imposition of limitations to access to archives. For example, many files were stalled in “de-classification commissions” and were not given to scholars. I got refusals to my requests to see even those files that I had studied in the 1990s. A "Re-secretizing" process got momentum after 2001 when Putin signed a Presidential decree substituting de-classification commissions with "the Interagency Commission to Defend State Secrets.” Even in the Hoover guide to the CPSS archives, we can see this reverse process - some documents became unavailable and probably were re-classified again. I know the student who had to change the subject of his dissertation because the sources became unavailable again.

This archival “counter-revolution” is a part of general restrictions of freedom in Russia under Putin. The most recent fact from December 4, 2008 is the confiscation of the data base of “Memorial” society in St. Petersburg containing the information on the victims of Stalin’s repressions. Despite requests from international historical organizations to return this electronic archive to “Memorial” – security organs still keep archive without any explanation. Any document that might cast predecessors of FSB in an “unfavorable” light are considered undesirable. Commemoration of victims might be also dangerous for the heirs of OGPU. It inevitably raises the question about the perpetrators. And documents point to the VChK/OGPU/NKVD/MGB/KGB and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

FP: Is there a difference between pre-revolutionary Russian people and the Soviet people? The Bolsheviks wanted to create a new Soviet man. They failed in that, obviously, but at the same time communism did change the society.

Velikanova: There is no simple answer to this question. On the one hand, Bolsheviks in their modernization drive were aiming to enlighten the people in society. And they actually succeeded in the education of previously illiterate peasants as well as in spreading atheism around the country. On the other hand, society experienced several social catastrophes. Collectivization eliminated the stratum of most industrious, independent, business-like peasants labeled as "kulaks" (two million people in 1930) and enslaved the others. The Stalinist "cultural revolution" in the end of the 1920s?1930s promoted loyal communists, while suppressing professionals and independent-thinking people in all strata of society.

Such politics of the selection of cadres, together with waves of terror and surveillance, "decapitated" (R. Stites) Russian culture, but it did manage to create a new Soviet person, who was imbued with the general atmosphere of the peasantization of cities, as well as with the archaization (M. Lewin) of society in the 1930s. Cataclysmic history also has a profound effect in this new formation: it resulted in the atomization of society, characterized by lack of solidarity, violent solutions, respecting force rather than human life, and belief in the reality of one single truth. However, one of the historical mysteries of Russia is her ability to revive after catastrophes.

FP: Why are you in this field and why your interest in the archives? What inspires and motivates you?

Velikanova: The history of the 1920s-1950s fascinated me from my university years because the official version of history as it was taught there provoked so many questions without answers. My family was lucky to avoid repressions. (I thought that until last summer, when I discovered finally the fact that my relative disappeared in 1937. Very typical story – Soviet tradition of silencing). So then mostly scientific curiosity guided me. When I worked as a guide at the Museum of Political History in St. Petersburg, I discovered that these inconvenient questions disturbed not only me, but many ordinary people who visited the museum – the public from small towns, soldiers, schoolchildren. They asked their questions in whispers - about Trotsky, why the Tsar’s children were killed, and so on. Other questions – about the Katyn massacre and the Comintern I heard from foreign visitors to the museum.

These questions stimulated my interest in the Soviet period and also my interest in the functioning of public consciousness. I turned to the archives and was captivated by almost detective specifics of the search. As soon as I uncovered in the documents the people’s tragedy of enormous dimensions, my fellow citizens’ emotions also played a role in my research and civil activities. Even living abroad, I try to contribute to the memory of innocent victims of political repressions in the USSR. Besides my research and publications, I organized commemoration events in the Toronto Russian community and at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. I cooperate with the public organization “Recovered Names.” I see it as my human duty to reveal the truth about historical tragedy and to bring it to people.

FP: Olga Velikanova, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

Velikanova: Thank you for your thoughtful questions.

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