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FSB Archive Sheds Light on Darkness

The past week has been big on the archive news. First the United States returned 80 stolen documents to the Russian Government. Now the FSB announces that it is making public documents relating to repression dating back to 1920-1950. Formerly a decree issued in 1992 made the documents only available to relatives who made formal requests. As Interfax explains:

The Law on the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Reprisals (1992) says that rehabilitated citizens, as well as their relatives and other authorized persons, have the right to read the records of declassified criminal cases.

To prevent incursions into convicted persons’ private life, applicants – researchers or journalists – are requested to produce a notarized permit, provided by the convicted person’s relatives.

Last year, says Vasily Khristoforov, the head of the FSB’s Registers and Archives Department, 3500 persons made requests to view documents. 1500 were given permission.

The FSB archive reclassified the documents again in 2000 “without any explanation” says human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeuyeva to the Associated Press. My guess is that the “reclassification” was simply a way for a declassification commission to actually go through the documents in preparation for their full declassification to the public.

Getting access to the these declassified FSB documents is not without overcoming some bureaucratic hurdles. A interested person must file “a request with the archives, indicating what materials he needs to read and for what purpose,” Khristoforov told Interfax. “The request will be processed and if the materials requested are declassified, they will be made available to the applicant.” The only question I have is how long will this process will take, especially for foreign researchers who have limited time to wait for archives to grant access to materials. But be that as it may, getting around such a process when it concerns declassified documents is a whole lot easier than when they are classified.

The documents may prove to be a treasure trove for researchers. In interview Khristoforov did with Interfax, he said that a batch of the declassified documents deal with NKVD units that operated in occupied territory during the war. The force number around 15,000 agents who “liquidated 157,000 “Hitlerites” and 87 high level Nazi officials and unmasked and neutralized more than 2000 agents of these enemy groups.” My suspicion is that included in the number of 157,000 “Hitlerites” were a whole bunch of people the NKVD indiscriminately labeled Nazi sympathizers. In addition, the documents dealing with the war also includes information to identify Russian prisoners who died in Nazi camps, surrendered or were taken by force.

There is no doubt that the declassification will spark a series of new document collections. There are already many great ones. And Khristofornov mentions many examples of them. Already in the works is a collection of documents relating to F. E. Dzerzhinskii, the famed head of the Cheka. This year marks Dzerzhinskii’s 130th birthday and in commemoration a document collection titled “Dzerzhinskii –VChK-OGPU Chairman” is planned for publication. Also planned, and a bit more bizarre, is a collection of his love letters called “I Love You.” The collection features love letters Dzerzhinskii wrote to Margarita Fedorovna Nikolaeva between 1898-1899. Apparently these letters have been known about since Nikolaeva died at a ripe 84 in 1957. Then they were packed in a box and sent to IMEL (the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute , now the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History, RGASPI). Despite his ruthlessness as head of the Cheka, Dzerzhinskii was known for having a soft spot. He wrote poetry and headed the Soviet agency for child homelessness while hunting down bandits, saboteurs and counter-revolutionaries.

I suspect that the folks over at Yale University Press will quickly sign deals for new additions for their Annals of Communism series.

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