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Old 29th April 2005, 16:13
John Beaman John Beaman is offline
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Russian (Soviet) archives question

I DO NOT want to start a flame war, so please don't. However, over the past years I have seen conflicting postings on the state of Russian archives on the VVS operations. I am curious if anyone can objectively comment of what condition they are in? By this I mean are they located in places one can enter and do research, are they organized with card or fiche indexes, etc.? And, how difficult is it to get into them? Assuming you can get in are they in a reasonably organized state?

I have done work on the US NARA archives, NASM at Silver Hill and Ultra decripts. While none is just laying around for one to discover, they are reasonably well organized and not too difficult to get access to. So, I am curious as to the true state of Russian archives?

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Old 29th April 2005, 21:03
edwest edwest is offline
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Re: Russian (Soviet) archives question

Hello John,

I do not wish to cause you any frustration, but I hope you will find something at this site:

and additional information here:


Last edited by edwest; 29th April 2005 at 21:08.
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Old 1st May 2005, 12:59
Kjetil Aakra Kjetil Aakra is offline
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Re: Russian (Soviet) archives question

John, I asked Erik Pilawskii about this as he is one of the most informed people I know of on the subject. Here's what he wrote:

Typically, one sees a political agenda in asking such a question, but perhaps in the case of this chap that
is not so. The basic matter is very simple, really: the idea that Soviet and Russian archives have been closed--
at any time--is a product of Cold War propaganda, and nonsense attributable to that hysteria. I also have
seen, alas, that this lie has been used as a very convenient excuse to conceal poor research on the part of
authors, unscholarly behaviour, and even outright fabrication. It is the default 'get out' clause for poltroons of
every stripe writing on the subject of Russia or the USSR.

Essentially, the vast, vast majority of all Soviet archival holdings were open to proper researchers from
any country. I know of no time when this was not true, at least after 1960. However, allow me to underline
"proper"; it could be difficult in some cases for persons to convince Soviet authorities that they were indeed
bona fide historians and/or academics. Without some form of credentials or experience recognisable to the
Soviet bureaucracy, one would often find their request ignored, and permissions thus not granted. On the
other hand, once one was seen to be a genuine researcher, the treatment from the Government tended to
be quite courteous and professional, albeit highly bureaucratic.

One should also mention that a certain familiarity with the Soviet bureaucracy was important to get
proper access to the collections. Submitting a certain request through one Ministry might be more successful
than another, for example, and different archives came under the jurisdiction of different authorities. Also, the
paperwork itself took quite a while; one year was usually required to prepare for a lengthy research trip (in my
own case). I, personally, was never denied access to any collection for which I obtained the correct papers,
stamps and signatures. Even rather sensitive collections, mind you, such as primary economic data, and the
like. However, I was routinely denied access to any collection, no matter how humble, for failing to obtain the
necessary forms and stamps. This was typical of the obsessive Soviet bureaucratic mentality, but it cannot be
politicised as having a sinister motive-- there was no attempt at concealment, only a sort-of cult worship of
bureaucratic proceduralism.

The collections themselves were pretty well maintained during Soviet times. The problem for any would-
be researcher was the sheer size of the various collections. The USSR was the bureaucracy par excellence,
and the number of papers even in a minor holding could easily run into the billions (that is no exaggeration). A
typical reference for a finding reveals the enormity of the problem, such as "19188/462/233", which means
'collection 19188, folder 462, page 233'! This type of indexing was thoroughly common, and yes, the
collections were indeed numbered sequentially. The index might list, for example, "military causalties of the 2nd
Guards Tank Army" and the following list of folders could span 3-4 pages... where to start? To locate the
material one wished to see within such a vast holding was a challenge, but in Soviet times one was greatly
assisted by the outstanding and helpful staffs at the various archives.

In modern Russia the archival holdings have undergone a tremendous change. Most archival collections
have now been centralised under the gigantic RGVA. It is no longer clear, in this process, what has happened
to the original file indexing of the donating collection. There are cases in which this has survived, unmodified,
and other cases in which the parent collection's numeration was discarded entirely. Some collections seem to
have disappeared in this centralising work, though again I suspect no ulterior motive other than having been
lost in such a monumental undertaking on strictly limited resources. I presume that these will later materialise
buried amongst other papers. It is also known that some material has been discarded during this centralisation
at RGVA; alas, I am aware of no one who is quite familiar with the scope nor methodology of this 'weeding
out' process.

The modern RGVA can be accessed by anyone physically arriving in Moscow who has an appointment,
who pays the fee, and who can specify the folder (usually one per day is now the limit) in which they are
interested. Indexes of the RGVA collection are in book form, and there are many of them. Many indexes are
lists of special interest topics, such as "captured German documents", or "military casualties", or what have
you. These books must be purchased by the would-be researcher, or examined in a public library (such copies
are rare).

However, one should keep in mind that the mandate of the modern RGVA is rather different than those
of the preceding individual archives. The RGVA is a gate-keeper body, controlling access to the collections and
also spending a lot of effort to catalogue these in a more modern way. Certainly, finding records within this
enormous holding will be greatly influenced by this work. On the other hand, gone are the days when a friendly
professional staff will assist the researcher with their personal expertise in the various collections. It remains to
be seen if the new RGVA formula will be an improvement in the end over the old system. Currently, it is
certainly inferior; access to the material is extremely limited now due to the policy of 'one folder per day', and
also the need to specify in advance what said folder will be. A mistake here costs the researcher their fee, and
the entire day wasted. For a visiting foreign researcher, the old system was by far preferable, and I for one
am sad to see it gone....
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Old 1st May 2005, 18:21
John Beaman John Beaman is offline
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Re: Russian (Soviet) archives question

Thanks Ed and especially Kjetil and please thank Erik Pilawskii for that very informative answer. Interestingly, the "bureaucraticness" does not sound too different than some I've encountered in other countries! Must be a generic disease!
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Old 1st May 2005, 18:43
Kari Lumppio Kari Lumppio is offline
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Re: Russian (Soviet) archives question

What constitutes an open archive?

Estonian National archive - Riigiarhiiv - as it is today is a Soviet product. The archive holds also all the Soviet era material, including some military, for example 22. Territorial Corps documents (though likely not all). Material is organized in the true and tried Soviet way: fond-nimistu-säilik (IIRC in Russian the same is Fond-opis-list?).

My first trip to Riigiarhiiv was few years ago when Estonia was not yet EU member, so I had status of "foreigner". I walked in morning at the minute the archive was opened. Walked to the administration lady, introduced myself and said I wanted to register. Provided the ID (passport), filled some blanket (IIRC research interest area was asked, but AFAIK was not compulsory). It took less than fifteen minutes to get the "reader's card". Walked to the 2nd floor, put my jacket and baggage away and walked to the desk. I had the necessary Fond number (I would have found them quickly using the archive cataloques too) and was given the appropriate nimistus (cataloque). Quite soon I had found the interesting säiliks (folder) and ordered them. IIRC one could order dozen or so folders of which five could be on your desk at one time. Within half an hour I had the folders. It didn't take long to sort out the interesting and uninteresting. Returned the uninteresting ones and could order more folders if necessary. One can easily go through four-five of such ordering cycles during a workday. One also could order photocopies of the material and copies were provided during the same day!

After such experience of an essentially Soviet-type archive and then reading here words: "paperwork itself took quite a while; one year was usually required to prepare for a lengthy research trip", "to obtain the necessary forms and stamps", "one folder per day" and "fee" makes me really wonder if the idea of open archive is similar in all places.

Of the material in Soviet archives. Couple of Finnish books of Northern Luftwaffe (of all things!) do use work of Juri Rybin at TsAMo etc. to give picture of the other side, 7 VA and VVS SF. It seems loss list, unit histories, accident investigation reports etc. etc. are readily available as they should. Complete picture of Soviet VVS can be created unlike Luftwaffe. The problem with Russian archives seems to get one's foot between the door, so to say.


Last edited by Kari Lumppio; 1st May 2005 at 18:48.
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Old 1st May 2005, 21:51
Carl-Fredrik Geust Carl-Fredrik Geust is offline
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Re: Russian (Soviet) archives question

I would really like to know when Erik Pilawski visited a Russian archive most recently - I was in RGVA (Russian State Military Archive) in Moscow one month ago, and did really not see much of what he tells about...

True, they have now a very good-looking web-page, with a ready-made email reply form to fill in with your request for files etc. However, when I arrived at RGVA it turned out that no one in the reading room was aware of my request (I was informed that all correspondence, including emails and faxes goes to an office in another building, where no one apparently checks incoming correspondence...).

Thus I lost two full working days; however the first day I had anyway to spend in order to get the necessary permission to use my portable computer in the reading room (my emailled request had likewise gone unnoticedly...).

For uninformed readers: use of a portable computer in a Russian archive is granted only by the Archive director after written application. After the application (must be written in Russian) was granted by the RGVA director I had to pay the corrsponding fee for the permission (about 150 roubles, or 5 dollars) - however no payments can not be made at the archive (!), but must be made in a Saving´s bank, nearest office some 1 km away.

A positive thing was after all that since my last visit some three years ago several hundreds of files relating to the Winter war 1939-1940 had be declassified (there is however still classified files from this period).

Only five files per day (against earlier ten!) can be ordered, and no immediate xerox copying is available. Scanning of documents can be ordered, but to ridiculous prices for foriegners. There are still no computerised finding aids, only the type-written (and worn-out) "opisis", all of which are not necessarily available when needed!

It should be observed that RGVA and its Naval sister archive in St.Peterburg RGVMF are both subordinated to the State Archive Administration, and thus relatively "open" to bona fide reseachers, but still keep documents UP TO 1941 ONLY.

ALL post-1941 documents are thus still keept in TsAMO (Central Archive of Ministry of Defence) in Podolsk (some 70 km south of Moscow) and correspondingly for the navy in TsAVMF in Gatchina (south-west of St.Peterburg, with a side-branch in Tushino, Moscow). As both TsAMO and TsAVMF are subordinated to the Ministry of Defence (ia. NOT the above mentioned State Archive Administration) there are very serious implications for researchers:

- the archives are located on military territory, which can be visited by forigners only after explicite permission by the Russian General Staff

- NO finding aids whatsoever are available to foreigners, but files are delivered only at the consideration of the archive staff, based on the researcher´s original application and the subsequent decision of the General Staff.

Thus I think we are still very far from speaking of "free access" to documents of say the 1941-1945 period (not to speak about later periods, like the Korean war, Cold war etc). I am however aware that certain documents and series of files have been available to foreign researchers in some Cold war-projects, and would be very interested to get more information about possible experiences.

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Old 2nd May 2005, 08:48
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Re: Russian (Soviet) archives question

I only can add to Carl's words that not all but many problems easy can be avoided with helping of little green papers ...
All the Best!
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Old 4th May 2005, 06:47
Carl-Fredrik Geust Carl-Fredrik Geust is offline
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Re: Russian (Soviet) archives question

I am fully aware of the "green paper" solution of some archive problems as referred to by MB. This - very unethical - solution can however never be applied by any individual researcher - as I mentioned not even rather small fees for use of portable computers can be paid to the RGVA office, how then and to whom to pay bigger amounts of money....

The methods applied are usually some sort of bilateral agreements between various (often governmental) organizations, archives, universities etc, with compensation paid officially on a high level. The level and amount of archival services are correspondingly fixed beforehand on paper. Some sort of direct services to the archive can also be applied (like printing of publications, delivery of fax machines, copying machines and paper etc).

For an individual, enthusiast researcher such compensation schemes are hardly useful, if his research topic is not explicetely mentioned in the respective protocols and agreements (this is very seldom, if at all the case concerning research and comparision of air victories and claims...).
To illustrate my point I can mention that I worked some yours ago in an intergovernmental Finnish-Russian historical research project (unfortunately not at all related to aviation history...), in which I had the opportunity of being probably the first foreign reserarcher visiting a certain archive in NW Russia. As I had in my pocket the general agreement entitling me to order up to 2.000 xerox copies (from documents selected by me) for a price of 1 USD/page I got really outstanding service (although the archive was formally closed because of construction works!), the staff had apparently got explicite orders to do anything in order to enable me to order the full amount of agreed copies!!

Thus I got immediately (really within minutes!) all files requested by me (which could be identified as related to the specified research subejct...). In two visits of three days each to this archive I probably checked several hundred (if not thousand files) - or certainly more files than I would be able to see in RGVA or TsAMO during the rest of my lifetime!
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Old 4th May 2005, 09:11
Carl-Fredrik Geust Carl-Fredrik Geust is offline
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Re: Russian (Soviet) archives question, addition to my previous post

I can add to the post above that the real door-opener to the archive referred to was an agreement that the Finnish partner organisation undertook to print and publish certain publications (including a Ph.D. dissertation) of the Russian parent organisation in question. Needless to say, I had to also buy (for my own money) some boxes of copying paper, as the archive "unfortunately" just had run out of paper before my arival...
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