(Un)documenting Stalinism?

8 Dec

There isn’t much by way of new information about the raid on Memorial. Why the human rights organization was raided still remains a mystery. Work has renewed at the organization’s office but day to day activities remain disturbed. After all, the police did confiscate a laundry list of materials.  According to a statement issued by Memorial, those materials include several hard drives that contain “biographical information of tens of thousands of victims of Stalinist repression collected by Memorial over the last 20 years, a unique collection of photographs and copies of archival documents on Stalinist terror, the results of searches of camp cemeteries and firing ranges in the territory of the former USSR, and an archive of audio interviews with former GULAG prisoners.”

Memorial, of course, wants their stuff back unmolested and as soon as possible.  When Irina Flige, the director of Memorial St. Petersburg, presented this request to the investigative committee, they told her that an official response will take about a month.

The seizure of historical documents relating to terror unsurprisingly raises the specter of Stalinism and its place in Russian historical memory.  Stalin still remains a controversial figure.  He’s continues to be loved and hated, sometimes in the same breath.  Historians have provided no satisfactory unified narrative for this complex period of Russia’s history.  This failure is not for lack of documentation.  The problem is more than how one interprets those documents continues to have political resonance for the present.

Still, the Memorial raid does raise the issue about documents and whether, as Clifford Levy argued in a recent article in the NY Times, “many archives detailing killings, persecution and other such acts committed by the Soviet authorities have become increasingly off limits.”

The declassification of documents has ebbed and flowed in the last 15 years.  In the 1990s, the archives were simply opened without any process of declassification.  The process was formalized in the mid-1990s with the law “On the process of declassification and extending the period of classification of archival documents of the Soviet government.” Moreover, declassification committees are underfunded and understaffed. There is also little incentive. Now there seems to be a cultural atmosphere that suggests that Russians want to move on.  They’ve heard enough about the horrors of the Soviet system and seem to either not care anymore or would rather look to the future rather than the past.  There have been instances at the federal level to re-classify documents.  A partial list for 2005 and 2006 can be found here. But these seem to have little do with Stalinist terror.

The amount of available materials on the Soviet period are enormous.  According to Sergei Mironenko, the director of the State Archive of the Russian Federation, said the following in response to a question about materials on Stalinism in a press conference yesterday:

“I cannot say for certain, but I presume that three-fourths of such documents  have  been  declassified.  A  quarter remains classified,” he said. “According   to   our  laws,  any  document must  be  declassified automatically after 30 years. Unfortunately, this law is not fulfilled,” he said. “Russia  has  a very awkward and costly declassification system. It takes 27  resolutions  of experts to declassify any document,” Mironenko noted. It is difficult to get access to declassified documents, as well, he remarked.

One should emphasize that the 30 years does not pertain to documents relating to individuals.  There is a 75 year wait for those unless you get special permission from any surviving family members.  Also, getting access to declassified documents depends on what you’re working on.  It’s has always been a dance with archivists to get materials if you are interested in seeing blood.  I’ve gotten the “You’re requesting a lot of negative material” talk from archivists and I don’t do any research on terror.  Part of the reason for this is that most archivists were trained in the Soviet system, so their first impulse is to protect information and not dole it out.  The other reasons is that they are particularly sensitive about foreigners sniffing around their archives looking to, in their view, defame their national heritage. Given the legacy of English language historiography on Russia, I can’t say I blame them.

It is important to remember that not all declassifications pertain to Stalinism. For example, one of the holdings declassified this year was the Commission on Paper under the Council of People’s Commissars SSSR, 1928-1929. Anyone interested in what has been declassified in the last few years are encouraged to take a look at Rosarkhiv’s yearly bulletins on declassification. This of course doesn’t include regional archives where access can be hit or miss and depend more on the temperament of local archivists.

Basically, while the Memorial documents are important and must be returned, they are but a drop in a vast ocean of available documentation.

Still, the issue is about historical memory, and in particular the memory of Stalinism.  Many are often aghast that Stalin retains a positive image among many Russians.  Again and again you hear people ask why Russians have yet to contend with Stalinism. Yet, I wonder whether those who repeatedly ask this question are really asking for Russians to contend with Stalin the way they want them to. They want Russians to see Stalinism as a singular death machine where one man, Stalin, stood at the apex. History is far more complicated and contingent and unfortunately, Stalinism cannot be reduced to this no matter how many victimologies you construct, no matter how many mass graves you dig up, or even however many documents you declassify. if it was our job would be all too easy.

This is why I agree with Slavoj Zizek’s statement that “We should . . .admit that we still lack a satisfactory theory of Stalinism.” Namely, Stalinism was a historical phenonmena, and frankly, to locate its horrors only in the personage of Stalin is whitewashing the millions of people who actively participated in those horrors. In my view, really contending with Stalinism would mean understanding it as a phenonmena where the line between perpretrator and victim was blurred.  It would mean coming to terms with the perverse carnivalesque at its core.  It would require Russians to look into the mirror and peer deeply into themselves, not to locate victims or even perpretrators, but to ask how a society could cannabalize itself.