Major New Russian Archive for World War II

Historians in the News

Head of Rosarkhiv Andrei Artizov has announced plans to create an enormous new archive to unite all Russian materials relating to the Second World War. Slated for completion by the 70th anniversary of victory, i.e. 2015, the new collection will include 13 million files.

The only English-language coverage I found was from Voice of Russia, and the translation isn’t entirely correct. 13 million files in the Russian original becomes 13 billion documents in English, for example.

Artizov gives no concrete reason for the policy beyond the general Good Thing of bringing together all materials relating to the Great Fatherland War. It’s not difficult to imagine, though, what’s driving this plan. The Putin-Medvedev administration has made World War II a central part of the regime’s project of self-justification, and something grandiose to commemorate the war is a logical step. As seems typical for the current government in Russia, this big idea appears to have come out of nowhere with little public discussion or preparation. Though Artizov says that the necessary legislation is in the works, I searched in vain on Rosarkhiv’s website for any indication of the potential for such a major step. Clearly some preparatory work has been done–Rosarkhiv does feature a compilation of all photographic records of the war under the heading “Pobeda [Victory], 1941-1945.”

The problems in Artizov’s scheme are many, though–practical, scholarly, and political. Many of the practical issues are laid out quite clearly in an article in Vedomosti. Artizov uses the phrase 13 million files, and suggests the intent is to unite ALL materials on the war. But the Ministry of Defense Archives in Podol’sk have ten million files by themselves, to say nothing of the host of archives around Russia with relevant documents. A new complex capable of holding that amount of material, plus its selection and transportation, all within five years, AND at the same time that the regime has a number of other big projects on its plate, seems a trifle ambitious.

From the scholarly point-of-view, the organizing principle of the proposed new archive strikes me as dubious. Archivists (and historians) like the functional principle of organization–keep papers as their creators kept them. There’s a point to preserving materials as far as possible in the organizational scheme used by those who originally created the documents. That’s the best way to get into the flow of paper, which reflects the flow of work and power of the original institution. The proposed new archive violates that by organizing itself around an event (making it the only event-centered archive in the Russian archival system) and eviscerating the institutional and thematic archives which are already well-established. The plan seems to be to take World War II military materials from the Ministry of Defense, partisan staff and State Defense Committee documents from the Party Archive (RGASPI), and so on. This might extend, if we take this to its logical conclusion, to pulling all 1941-1945 documents from Volgograd, say, which would do terrible violence to the integrity of archival collections all over Russia. It just isn’t clear exactly what sort of selection principle Artizov has in mind.

Putting the problem that way–the archives which will be forced to give up their documents–makes the political problem plain. I can’t imagine that the heads of archives within the Rosarkhiv system are happy about having big chunks of their collections taken from them. A number were present at the press conference at which Artizov made his announcement–Sergei Mironenko (State Archive of the Russian Federation), Oleg Naumov (Social-Political History, i.e. the Party Archive), and Elena Tiurina (Economics Archive). They had NOTHING to say about Artizov’s big plan, though they were quite happy to talk about what their archives were doing to commemorate victory. The elephant in the room, of course, is the Ministry of Defense. Artizov says that the Ministry of Defense is perfectly happy to hand over its World War II materials to civilian archivists, but the notorious difficulty of getting materials from the Ministry of Defense’s archive at Podol’sk makes me skeptical of this.

I welcome comments from anyone who has a better sense of the politics behind this.

Read entire article at Dave Stone at the Russian Front

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