Dissecting Kirov’s Murder

Two weeks ago, I did a post on 75 years since the Kirov law.  I was happy to find that the New Times published an interview with Matthew Lenoe whose forthcoming book, Kirov’s Murder and Soviet History, is a hefty reexamination of the famous assassination.  Below is a translation I did of the interview.

From the Komsomol Archive

Today, I began research on Komsomol participation in collectivization and found this little tidbit in the archive.

Memorial’s “Winchesters” Returned

kihot1It appears that some of Medvedev’s liberal posturing is producing concrete results. Or at least someone is getting the signals.  Finally, fi-nal-ly Memorial has gotten its materials back from the St. Petersburg prosecutor.  Twelve computer hard disks, or “Winchesters” as one report calls them, about 1000 business cards belonging to A. D. Margolis (the general director of St. Petersburg Rescue Fund and editor of the St. Petersburg Encyclopedia, and heаd of several Memorial projects), and seven CDs and DVDs were returned to the human rights organization on Thursday.

The return of Memorial’s property followed another ruling in its favor by the Dzerzhinsky court that deemed the December raid by the police as unlawful. The case’s lead investigator Mikhail Kalganov decided to not press the issue further. “Yes, this is our victory,” Memorial’s lawyer Ivan Pavlov told Kommersant. “And we think that in this case the Russian legal system managed itself [well]. The court has shown that it is on the right side.”  It also didn’t hurt, the advocate said, that Russia’s representative to the OSCE spoke out on Memorial’s behalf.  So the question is did the legal system work or did Memorial have an influential patron?  Or better yet, is this another, albeit small, sign of a Medvedevian “thaw” in the forecast?

A thorough inspection of the “Winchesters” will be done on May 13 to make sure the authorities didn’t erase anything or damage any of the files.

Thus ends an almost six month ordeal.  It’s nice to see a happy ending to an incident that generated cries about the return of Stalinism.  As I said in my last post on the Memorial Saga, I expect this victory to get as much press as the initial raid.

Still, despite the positive outcome, Memorial still had to jump through several hoops for a victory that they never should have been forced to fight for in the first place. Which leaves one crucial question unanswered.  Why was Memorial raided exactly?  I guess we’ll never really know.  I don’t expect Chief Investigator Kalganov to shed any light on this any time soon.  For the time being, he’s got some wounds to lick.

Memorial Back to Court

It turns out that Memorial’s court victory was short lived.  According to, the St. Petersburg prosecutor appealed the Dzerzhinskii court’s February 24 ruling that went in Memorial’s favor.

My hope, even jubilation, that this circus was finally over was premature.  The case will now go to court for the third time.

Irina Flige, the head of Memorial, told Ezhednevnyi zhurnal that the prosecutor’s office promised to begin returning the hard disks though there was no agreement on the procedure.  “We must make sure that [the materials] are complete and that all the information is there, and that they are in working condition,” she said. She then added this interesting assessment of the situation,

It is not stated in the law how many times the prosecutor can appeal a court’s decision.  The meaning is altogether obvious: The fact that the district and city court simply dealt out the pot [i.e. as in poker]. And as long as we can’t jump out of this circle, we can’t appeal the decision to a higher authority. As long as they play his game of “district court good, city court bad”, we can’t take any other steps.  The first time this wasn’t clear, but now it has become clear.  That is to say, even if the district court makes a bad ruling the second time, we will have the possibility of moving further because would would have some kind of decision.  Our decisions do not go into legal force and we have nothing to appeal.

Does Flige mean that Memorial is stuck in a legal dance with the prosecutor, and as long as the courts rule in their favor, they are stuck at the district and city level?  Maybe someone who knows Russian legal process can explain this.

In the meantime, Memorial is back at square one.  No exact court date set for the next trial.  This will be announced after April 10.

A third time’s a charm, I guess . . .

Memorial Vindicated, Again

When the St. Petersburg office of Memorial was raided in December last year, the international media was aghast.  Article after article saw the confiscation of Memorial’s database of archival materials and interviews of life under Stalin as proof that Stalinism was back in full force.  Why else would police bother to raid the human rights organization, they reasoned, if not to silence their voices of anti-Stalinism?

The exact reasons why Memorial was put through this ordeal remain murky.  The official explanation is that the organization was somehow affiliated with Novyi Peterburg, which was under investigation for extremism.  Others opined that the raid was connected to Memorial’s screening of Rebellion: the Livinenko Case. Still others maintain that the raid was part of a larger battle over Russia’s past, in particular the memory of the Stalin period.

While much ink was spilled on speculating why Memorial was raided, and its implications in regard to the memory of Stalinism, the English language press has been virtually silent in pointing out that the human rights organization won two cases in court that rebuffed investigators” search. The fist ruling came in January, when the Dzerzhinsky court ruled that investigators’ raid was illegal because they didn’t allow Memorial’s lawyer to be present.  The police, however, appealed and the case went back to court.

But then last week, the Dzerzhinsky court again ruled in Memorial’s favor. As for the return of the hard disks and archival materials, the organization received a letter from St. Petersburg’s human rights ombudsman saying that their materials have already been removed from the investigators office and will soon be returned.

One would think that this victory would be a perfect David and Goliath story.  A tale where the good guys won against the evil Stalinists, who despite their enormous powers and nefarious plots were defeated in the court of law.  One might even point out that in this case, the courts worked.  They upheld Memorial’s right to have a lawyer present during a search and seizure.  One would also think that given Memorial’s stature in the West as a defender of human rights, their victory would have been hoisted up as a great triumph.  But apparently, this good news is not fit enough for the English media to print.

Ukraine Throws KGB Archive Doors Open

Here’s something that should wet the palates of scholars and induce wet dreams among the necrophiliacs of Soviet history.  Ukraine announced that it plans declassify the entire KGB archive dating 1917-1991.  The number of documents stamped “secret” and “top secret” is estimated at 800,000. The announcement comes after the law “On the declassification, promulgation, and study of archival documents connected with the Ukrainian Liberation Movement, political repression, and famine in Ukraine” was signed by Viktor Yushchenko on 23 January.

Among the documents are “Cheka instructions, execution lists, deportation maps, albums with photographs of fighters of rebel armies, reports of the KGB to the Central Committee on the development of the Ukrainian dissident movement.” Interestingly, this declassification is so sweeping that it will even go against normal archival practice in protecting living individuals. “Not a single agential file or report that possibly contains information about current politicians will stop the process of declassification,” says Valentin Nalivaichenko, the current head of the Ukrainian Security Service.  And what about those who aren’t politicians? Do they or their families have rights to privacy?

The documents will certainly prove to be a treasure trove for historians as Ukrainian police and Party communications to and from Moscow will give some roundabout access to classified documents in Moscow’s FSB archive.  But while such a move is welcomed from a scholarly standpoint (though I won’t be rushing to Ukraine since I think there is more to history than being a bloodhound), this shouldn’t justify turning a blind eye to its political dimension.  History is about the politics of the present and archives are armories of ammunition.  There is no doubt in my mind that this declassification is not about some sudden realization on the part of the Ukraine’s government to reckon with the past.  These materials will certainly be employed in the further crafting of Ukraine’s “imagined community” of victimization by, rather than a participant in, the Soviet regime.  Sadly, using these documents for this purpose has little to do with scholarly inquiry, history, or even historical reconciliation.  It has to do with nationalism.

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.

Archive Fever

Archives are often the first casualties of revolutions. When Tsarist Russia imploded in 1917, revolutionaries quickly raided the Okhrana’s archives. Police documents revealed that one of Lenin’s close confidants, Roman Malinovski was unmasked as an Okhrana spy. He was quickly taken out and shot.

War, Revolution, and Civil War reduced Russian central and local archival holdings to utter shambles. As A. S. Nikolaev, the director of the Soviet’s Head Administration for Archival Affairs, explained in the archival journal Istoricheskii arkhiv in 1919:


“Much calamity was caused to documents in October, November, December 1917 and January, February and March 1918, and the holdings are covered in wounds in office and archival depositories. Many institutions began to function as new institutions with new people. These people brought the belief with them that inane and useless work was made there and that the saboteurs that left their work only left useless paper trash. . . [This] useless trash began to be thrown out from cabinets on to the floor, kicking it around from room to the corridor, and from the corridor to the garret, and as trash it was taken to the buyer, the second hand book seller, and to the paper factory . . . Much of it perished, and perished beyond retrieve.”

The poor archival conditions continued well into the 1920s. A survey of local archives in 1927 noted that documents were still be sold to paper mills, used for wrapping fish at local markets, stored on open shelves in offices or in boxes, and secret documents kept in Party members’ apartments for the lack fire proof safes. Often documents were simply thrown in the trash, stuffed in apparatchik’s pockets, reused for other documents, or used to roll cigarettes. Still many young Party and Komsomol members considered archival documents Many young members saw the preservation of documents as “dirty and useless work and considered all this historical material as insignificant to be deposited in archives, useless bureaucratic paper, and excessive red tape.” Given these conditions, I’m surprised we have anything from the 1920s

Soviet archives experienced another catastrophe during the Second World War when Moscow archives were evacuated to protect them from falling into German hands. Many of the holdings in the Komsomol archive were destroyed including records for the journal Molodaia gvardiia, Komsomolskaya pravda, and entire sections of the League’s agitprop and cadres department.

The biggest archival prize of the war, though, was the Nazi seizure of the Smolensk Archive during their retreat in 1943. The Soviets retrieved part of the archive in Poland, but a small part was taken to Bavaria where it fell into American hands in 1947. Subsequently microfilmed, though virtually ignored by researchers (Merle Fainsod and J. Arch Getty being the only two scholars to use the records extensively), the Smolensk Archive proved to be a treasure trove of how the Communist Party managed or really mismanaged local government. It was returned to the Russian government in December 2002.

Ransacking Soviet archives became an issue once again in 1991. I was told the following by archivists. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, anti-communists fell upon the Central Communist Party Archive in Moscow looking for materials to denounce communists. The anti-communists, however, did not know their archives. The Central Party Archive only had documents up to the early 1950s. The archive that held documents after 1950s was the Current Archive of the Communist Party which was located down the street. Unable to convince the invaders of this, the archive directors, K. Anderson and O. Naumov, barricaded the doors and slept at the archive for two weeks to prevent their ransacking. It was only after repeated convincing and a personal tour of the depository were the intruders convinced and eventually left. It is unknown whether they took their archival pogrom down the street.

In another incident told to me by G. M. Tokareva, the reading room head at the Komsomol archive, something similar occurred there but this time the “democrats”, as she calls them, succeeded. Apparently, the “democrats” broke into the archive, which was then housed at the Molodaia gvardiia offices on Leningradskii prospekt, and ransacked the depository. Large sections of the Komsomol’s film and photo document collection were destroyed. When I asked Naumov to confirm this story, he said he did not know anything of it.

The 1990s were also full of stories of foreign researchers buying or spiriting away archival documents.

All of this brings us to today. The Moscow Times reports that the United States formerly turned over 80 Tsarist and Soviet documents to the Russian government. The documents were discovered at US antiquities dealers in Las Vegas and Connecticut. No arrests have been made.


The documents range from a declaration signed by Empress Catherine the Great in 1792 to orders signed by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev; none appears to reveal any secrets, but some give a glimpse into the lives and styles of the country’s leaders.

Among the latter is a terse note written by Lenin to an apparatchik: “Your request has been considered and I have recommended you.”

Also included is a note scrawled by Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, in which she imitates the format of an official document, including a five-pointed star seal, reading, “I order you to take [me] to the theater.”

The tsarist documents have been appraised at around $5000 apiece. It is estimated that around 4000 archival documents were stolen in the 1990s. About 3500 have been returned since. Only 500 to go. That is a pretty good rate of retrieval.

WWII Soviet Archives Declassified

Here is an important announcement for researchers. Kommersant reports:

Russia’s Defense Ministry has declassified archive documents of Red Army and Navy for 1941 to 1945, RIA Novosti reported referring to Colonel Sergey Ilienkov, who heads the Archive Service at Defense Ministry.

The secrecy labels were removed from documents stored in Defense Ministry’s Central Archive in Podolsk, where over four million dossiers of the WW2 time, 250 pages each, were kept closed for public at large. The Central Naval Archive in Gatchina and Military Medical Archive in St. Petersburg, containing hundreds of thousand documents, were opened as well.

The work is underway to process archive documents and create an electronic database, the so-called Electronic Archive, by late February or early March. Once emerged, the Electronic Archive will make more precise the WW2 casualties of the Soviet Union, Ilienkov said.

According to the current data, the overall death toll of the Soviet Union in WW2 stands at 26.600 million, including 8.660 million as military casualties.

Electronic Archive! Oh how I dream of the day when Russian archives could be accessed on the net. The only archive I know of that is currently available in digital form is the Comintern. And who really cares about that?

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