AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXIII , No. 1, Spring 2001


Russian Archives Still Unexplored after a `Gold Rush' Decade
by Alexei Kojevnikov

Researchers whose topics have some connection with Soviet history have labeled the last decade "the era of archives." Political upheavals in the USSR and its successor states, and the subsequent opening of archival collections that had been strictly guarded, were so sudden and massive that they irreversibly changed the criteria and practices of historical research. In many cases where former generations of historians had relied on rumors, propaganda or theoretical schemes, the new cohorts dug deep into archival dust, especially that left from Stalin's times. Some finds had particular importance for the history of physics: Anatoly Sonin and others found documents from the 1949 ideological discussion that attempted to reproduce in physics what the infamous 1948 meeting in agricultural sciences did to Soviet genetics, a discussion that luckily was cancelled at the last moment [1]. Vladimir Vizgin published and commented on a selection of documents leaked from the foreign intelligence service, which revealed to some degree what Soviet spies had learned about the Manhattan project [2].

This "gold rush" decade delivered scores of other precious archival nuggets, but it may be the right time now to warn of some inadequacies. The sheer volume of newly accessible documents has often exceeded the ability of historians, including the current author, to digest and carefully rethink their historical meanings. This has led, for example, to many books or journal articles that consist mainly of a fully printed text of an archival document with only skimpy commentaries. As a result, serious analysis has given way to journalistic superficialities. The archival digging itself was largely guided by a narrow drive for sensational revelations and the desire to uncover secrets. While many lies of Soviet propaganda have been successfully unmasked, the lies of anti-Soviet propaganda were mostly repeated uncritically, even when they were in contradiction with archival evidence. Now that the initial shock has passed, a more serious and thoughtful historicism is in order to overcome the narrowness of politically-driven sensationalism and Cold-War prejudices.

The new historicism will require, inter alia, a more thorough and systematic work with archival sources. In this regard, Russian archives can still be considered virtually unutilized, with many first-rate collections still waiting for historians. Let me point to several examples of primary importance to the history of physics. The Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences has been a major source for researchers even before the openings of the last decade. Lately it has been adding and cataloging (in part with the help of grants from the AIP Center for History of Physics) a number of new personal collections. Perhaps the most interesting of the recent acquisitions are the papers of Ya.B. Zel'dovich, one of most important physicists of the last century in several fields (chemical physics and chain reactions, physics of explosions, nuclear and elementary particle physics, cosmology and astrophysics), the papers of admiral A.I. Berg, the chief Soviet expert on cybernetics and electronics, and the papers of V.V. Shuleikin, one of the founders of Soviet geophysics and oceanography.

By comparison with the Academy's archives, the archives of the Universities have been used by historians of science much less intensively and remain a largely uncharted territory.

Outside academic collections per se, one of the major sources of recent archival discoveries and a dramatic example of the transition from secretiveness to openness is what used to be the Archive of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. If not for the annoying habit of frequently changing its official new name, which disorganizes citations to its documents, it could be the most researcher-friendly archive in Russia. Historians have primarily studied its collections of political documents from the Stalin era [3]. Very little has been understood so far about the relationship between science and politics in later periods of Soviet history and the role of scientists as experts in decision-making processes. For this, one should also consult documents from another archive, formerly known as the Archive of the Party's Central Committee, which extend chronologically into the 1980s.

The grand task of understanding Soviet industrialization and modernization, and the exceptionally prominent role scientists played in these movements, still humbles historians. Quantities of materials pertaining to the relationship between Soviet science and industry—from the earliest case of the State Optical Institute in Petrograd/Leningrad through the experience of World War II into the space era—are kept in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, its branches, and many other locations as well. The crucial military aspect of this relationship is harder to investigate since secrecy levels have been maintained rather strictly even for documents from the first half of the 20th century. Yet even here there are more opportunities available than have been utilized. The "official" project on the history of the extremely secretive Soviet atomic project has recently produced its first two volumes of archival documents [4], and the on-going process of declassification should make the materials more accessible to "unofficial" historians as well. Last fall, I worked in the Archive of Military History, which contains an enormously rich—and open—collection of the Imperial Army's files on rocketry, aviation, electrical and radio-communications, etc. The finding aid for the collection of the War Chemical Committee of 1915-1919, which documents the work of chemists, physicists and engineers on chemical warfare and gas masks, lists several thousand titles and is ready for someone to write a major dissertation or book. Opportunities of such caliber should not remain unused.

[1] A.S.Sonin. "Fizicheskii idealism": Istoriia odnoi ideologicheskoi kampanii (Moscow 1994).

[2] V.P.Vizgin, ed. "U istokov sovetskogo atomnogo proekta: rol' razvedki, 1941-1946 (po materialam arkhiva vneshnei razvedki Rossii)," Voprosy istorii estestvoznaniia i tekhniki, No. 3 (1992), 97-134.

[3] V.D.Esakov, ed. Akademiia Nauk v resheniiakh Politburo TsK RKP(b)-VKP(b), 1922-1952 (Moscow 2000).

[4] L.D.Riabev, ed. Atmonyi proekt SSSR. I: 1938-1945; II: 1945-1954. (Moscow-Sarov, 1998-1999).

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