Archival Research in Russia: How to Make it Successful?

Olga E. Glagoleva, University of Toronto


NewsNet: News of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. Vol. 42, no. 5 (December 2002): 13-21.

Ever since the archives of the former Soviet Union opened their doors to Western researchers after perestroika, archival research has become common sense for those who endeavor to produce a good book, Ph.D. thesis, or even article in Slavic studies. If reluctantly and sometimes inconsistently, archives make their holdings more accessible to the public every year. Yet easier access to sources does not alone guarantee a better result of archival research. Some years ago a student shared with me her frustration after a month of hard work at one of Moscow's archives. Given the published guide to the archive's collections, she managed to identify the fond that might contain relevant material, and started looking up the opisi (unpublished finding aids, lists of files or dela) of that fond. After a week of rather boring work, she picked some dela with promising titles and ordered them but, to her disappointment, learned that the delivery would take five days. Upon receiving the files, she found she had trouble deciphering the handwritten documents, and after two weeks of reading a several-page delo realized it contained nothing valuable on her topic. Her time in Russia was up so she returned home almost empty-handed.

Unfortunately, this sad story is not unique. In more than twenty years of research in different archives in Russia, I have met many disoriented researchers, both Westerners and Russians, who did not know where to turn for help. The reasons behind their failures were mostly of one kind: they had not made necessary preparations before going to archives.

I teach an Introduction to Russian archives course to graduate students at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies (CREES), University of Toronto. The course is a brief, introductory orientation (only 12 hours) so, in order to expand on the information I provide to students, I wrote a supplementing book, Working with Russian Archival Documents: A Guide to Modern Handwriting, Document Forms, Language Patterns, and Other Related Topics (The Stalin-Era Research and Archives Project, Working paper No. 2, CREES, University of Toronto, 1998), and created a Web site, Introduction to Russian Archives at Without going into the details of my course (the syllabus is available on the Web along with selected bibliography, archival terminology, useful links, etc.), I intend to offer here some thoughts on what I consider essential to make the most of a researcher's time and work both prior to and during the trip to archives. In my view, two aspects determine the success of archival research: the ability to find the right sources and the ability to comprehend them fully and correctly. Both require a thorough advance preparation; therefore, they are my main focus in this article. My second goal is to show new opportunities in archival research in the era of new technologies.

Finding the right sources

Nowadays, the Internet has doubtless become the first choice of both a novice and expert scholar in the quest for archival sources. It offers a perfect opportunity to integrate the archival sources of Russia and the Newly Independent States into a wealth of digital media we can access from home. The supply of Web sites with digital images of historical photos, archival documents in electronic forms, on-line descriptions of archival collections, and other unique material related to archival research, is growing constantly. This raises hopes for easing the burden of archival work but also creates new frustrations and skepticism, as the number of Web sites is overwhelming and their value varies widely. The recent NewsNet publications (by James West and Daniel Waugh, Nathaniel Knight, James von Geldern, and Marshall Poe) have already outlined the most common promises and pitfalls of using the Internet in Slavic Studies. I will describe some Web sites I find useful for archival research, especially at the preliminary stage of preparations for it.

Two Web sites stand out as the best and most important for archival research on Russia and the former Soviet Union: ArcheoBiblioBase and Archives in Russia / Arkhivy Rossii. ArcheoBiblioBase at < >, maintained by Patricia K. Grimsted in collaboration with the Federal Archival Service of Russia (Rosarkhiv) and the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, contains information on archival repositories in the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and Belarus. It provides archives' postal and e-mail addresses, business hours, descriptions of holdings, and references to published finding aids. For Russia, in addition to Moscow and St. Petersburg, the site now includes data on all regional (republic, krai, and oblast') archives. It also contains an English translation of the Regulations for the Work of Users in Reading Rooms of State Archives of the Russian Federation (Rosarkhiv, 1998), which I strongly recommend that every researcher read carefully before setting out overseas. This document defines the set of papers required to apply for admission to an archive (valid ID, i.e., passport with visa and registration in Russia, and letter from supporting organization), regulates access to material (e.g., "All users have equal rights of access to documents in archives…", etc.), and spells out what researchers are entitled to (e.g., "To order or prepare themselves copies of archival documents on the subject of their research"; "Within technical possibilities, and with the special permission of the archival administration, to use ... personal computers"; "Use of technical equipment containing scanning devices ... is not permitted") and obliged to (e.g., "To furnish the required reference to the source for any archival information received that may be cited or published," etc.). Knowledge of these and other rules can prevent possible misunderstanding and conflicts with archival administration. ArcheoBiblioBase also provides official archival regulations for Ukraine and Belarus.

As the limits of this article preclude me from discussing at any length the vast published literature on archival research, it is worth mentioning here that the ArcheoBiblioBase Web site is based on the comprehensive English edition of Archives of Russia: A Directory and Bibliographic Guide to Holdings in Moscow and St Petersburg, edited by Patricia K. Grimsted, in 2 vols. (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000), which every researcher should also consult before traveling to Russia. It contains more diverse and elaborated information than the Web site, particularly on archives beyond the Rosarkhiv system: archival holdings in academies, libraries, museums, and independent organizations in Russia; bibliography on related historical disciplines, particular subjects and topics, etc. As the book's title suggests, however, it provides no data on regional archives in Russia; its coverage for Moscow and St. Petersburg is mostly limited to central repositories in the two cities. Yet even if intending to go to other places, researchers, especially those less experienced, should consult this and other Grimsted's works in order to familiarize themselves with the basics of archival research (terminology, structure of Russian archival system, arrangement of documentary materials and types of finding aids, etc.). Two more of her books, albeit less recent, may turn out very useful in this respect as well: A Handbook for Archival Research in the USSR (New York, 1989) and Research in Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the USSR: An Introductory Orientation (Cambridge, MA, 1987).

The second "must see" Web site, Archives in Russia / Arkhivy Rossii is the official site of the Rosarkhiv (in Russian), maintained in collaboration with The Open Society Institute (The Soros Foundations). Similarly to ArcheoBiblioBase, it hosts information on addresses, holdings, and published finding aids of archives in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and regional archives in Russia. The main difference between these two sites is that Archives in Russia / Arkhivy Rossii provides a huge variety of information on-line: URL addresses of many central and regional archives, archival guides, complete opisi of many collections, information on declassified files, and on-line publications of archival documents. Just searching the site may spare someone a whole trip to Russia, possibly as unpleasant as the one I described above. Here are a few examples of what we can now do in the comfort of our home: examine lists of documents on the activities of the Soviet military administration in Germany in 1945–1949 from the secret files of the Communist Party archives; study complete documents from the files on the Katyn Massacre from the Archive of the President of the Russian Federation (AP RF); or learn the details of general Kornilov's death from the files of the Russian State Military Archive (RGVA). Note that all three of these examples refer to material absolutely inaccessible to foreign researchers only several years ago. Those of us who are doing research on less "hot" topics, can browse the Russian diplomatic registers of the 15th–18th centuries from the collections of the Russian State Archive of Early Acts (RGADA) or read rare documents in Derzhavin's handwriting from the National Archive of the Republic of Karelia, to give just a couple of examples from the variety available on this excellent site.

The Archives in Russia /Arkhivy Rossii site is updated regularly and grows fast, so it is worth checking frequently. In addition to the pages for federal and regional archives, finding aids, and electronic data bases (essential pages for every researcher), I would recommend browsing the pages that present archival projects, recent publications, and agency news. From the last one I learned, for instance, that a new type of archives had emerged recently in some regions: besides the regional state archives and the regional centers of documentation on modern history (former archives of the Communist Party), there exist now archives for personnel records (e.g., Respublikanskii arkhiv dokumentov po lichnomu sostavu Respubliki Komi; Tsentr dokumentatsii po lichnomu sostavu Tul'skoi oblasti, etc.; do not confuse them with the ZAGS archives, i.e., local bureaus for birth, marriage and death registration, which function separately from the Rosarkhiv). The archives for personnel records have been established to preserve documentation on the personnel of organizations liquidated or privatized with the collapse of the Soviet Union and thereafter. Some of these archives have Web pages with on-line catalogues and collection descriptions. These sites sometimes contain rather unexpected data: for example, Kraevoi arkhiv dokumentov po lichnomu sostavu Krasnodarskogo kraia holds records for children transferred to the region during the WWII with the orphanages from Leningrad, Belarus, Ukraine, etc.

Most of the central and many regional archives in Russia and the former Soviet republics have established their own official Web sites. Their contents vary from just an archive's postal address and names of officials in charge to more elaborated data such as on-line descriptions of their collections, opisi, and even digital publications. Note, however, that the pages describing some archives at ArcheoBiblioBase or Archives in Russia / Arkhivy Rossii differ from those same archives' own Web sites. Compare, for instance, the page for the Center of the Documentation on Contemporary History of Krasnodar Krai at ArcheoBiblioBase with one at Archives in Russia / Arkhivy Rossii and with the archive's original Web site. Thus, to get the most complete information on a particular archive, its holdings, finding aids, and publications, it is best not to limit oneself to browsing its page available from ArcheoBiblioBase, but rather check all possible URL addresses for that archive by deploying different search engines. The URLs of archives under federal agencies other than the Rosarkhiv are, naturally, unavailable from the Archives in Russia / Arkhivy Rossii site, and ArcheoBiblioBase contains only a few; this does not mean, however, that such archives do not have their own sites. Thus, ArcheoBiblioBase provides no URL for the Central Archive of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (TsA FSB Rossii), but the archive does have its own site at which, surprisingly, offers contact information different from that on ArcheoBiblioBase.

Despite the wonderful innovations brought about by the virtual reality age, we still need to turn to printed guides and collection descriptions in order to obtain information on many local archives. Fortunately, new opportunities have offered themselves here too. Instead of traveling to the archive of our interest to study its published guide, we are able now to do it, in most cases, before the trip. The Rosarkhiv embarked in 2001 on one of its most ambitious projects—the publication of hundreds of new archival guides, document collections, and periodicals in paper, film, and electronic form (to be completed in 2005). Some effects of these activities are now available from many libraries in North America. The titles of new archival guides, finding aids, and document collections can be found at ArcheoBiblioBase, Archives in Russia / Arkhivy Rossii, or an archive's own Web site, as well as at the major bibliography sites such as American Bibliography of Slavic and East European Studies (ABSEES) at < >. If a problem occurs while searching for books, CD-ROMs, etc., Slavic Virtual Reference Desk at < > will be of help: the site provides on-line Q&A access to reference librarians from the Slavic Reference Service at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Jagiellonian Library at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, and the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Besides the sites designed specifically to represent archives in Russia and the former Soviet republics, there are other sites pertaining to archival research as well. The UNESCO Archives Portal site at < > is dedicated to archival studies in general and provides not only numerous links worldwide to archival sites, data bases of finding aids, and primary sources on-line, etc., but also information on archival associations, education and training, international projects, and so on. The World Wide Web Virtual Library History Index at < > also contains some helpful links, arranged by categories such as countries and regions, research methods and materials (finding aids for archives and libraries among them), historical topic, etc. The site could be used as the starting point for further search in many fields of Slavic studies, particularly in the studies on former Soviet republics other than Russia. Relevant links to interesting material are available on many history Web sites, such as Historical Text Archive by Don Mabry at < > and Documents in Russian History: An On-line Sourcebook by Nathaniel Knight at < >, to name a few; they are, however, mostly intended for the purposes of teaching and studying history and are, therefore, particularly good for previously published primary sources.

Among some pioneering efforts to bring order into the chaotic state of the Internet resources, the most notable was Marshall Poe's site Russian History on the Web where he guided us through many links in different categories such as indexes, bibliography, collaboration, primary and secondary sources, etc. Unfortunately, the site is no longer supported by the author, so its address has been taken over by outsiders for completely unrelated purposes. As known to many in the field, personal queries and "last minute" information on archival research in Slavic studies are the constant subject of discussions on two moderated discussion listservs, H-RUSSIA and RUSARCHIVE-L, where scholars share knowledge on the location of particular archival material, the current situation in archives, and their personal experiences there. H-RUSSIA maintains previous discussions stored in electronic archives at < > so it would be wise to check them for recent changes and other people's opinions and impressions. Personal experiences of a group of "users" from the UK have been summarized in a small book, Using the Russian Archives: An Informal Practical Guide for Beginners: Based on Users' Experiences, compiled by M.J. Berry and M.J. Ilic ([Birmingham], 1999). Along with traditional information on addresses, holdings, etc., the guide includes a lot of informal material and practical suggestions: from working conditions in archives observed from a Western researcher's point of view, to suggestions on ordering documents in different repositories, and comments on the nearest places for a snack. It even provides a series of role dialogues in Russian between a British student and an archive's staff (including a militsioner). I find the book very useful (and funny), especially for those who are planning their first trip.

Before undertaking a costly and time-consuming trip overseas, I would recommend exploring all archival sources closer to home. The Rosarkhiv's international collaborative projects have created a new type of archival repositories, held in the West and possessing large collections of documents from Russian archives in copies. Today the scholars of Slavic studies, political history of the Soviet Union in particular, should first consider studying documents in, say, the microfilm format in Washington, DC, Cambridge, MA, or Stanford, CA, before or even instead of going to Russia to work with original documents. Among the most impressive collections is the Archives of the Soviet Communist Party and the Soviet State: Microfilm Collection, housed at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University, and also available at Harvard University. The detailed description and the opisi of more than ten thousand microfilm reels of the KPSS archival documents held in RGANI (Russian State Archive of Contemporary History), RGASPI (Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History), and GA RF, are available on-line, although examining them is a little tricky. Thus, to see the description of the collection, one needs to go to the page of the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at <> and choose the "Russian Archives Project" line; to browse on-line the lists of fondy and dela, however, one needs to click on the "Finding Aids" line in the "Archives" category, as they are not accessible from the page of the "Russian Archives Project." This example shows that the on-line presentation of material may sometimes be confusing, yet it is worth one's effort to figure it out before the trip. Microprint collections of archival documents published by Chadwyck-Healey, Ltd., IDC Publishers, etc., made it possible to do a lot of archival research, at least at some stages, without going to archives.

Another important source the researcher should not miss are the Western repositories of archival documents that originated or were accumulated in the West. Collections such as The Boris I. Nicolaevsky Collection at Hoover, The Russian collection in the Museum of Russian Culture in San Francisco, or the Anarchism collection at the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, although mostly accidental and therefore incomplete both thematically and chronologically, still contain interesting pre-Revolutionary and Soviet documents along with émigré papers, rare periodicals, books, and photos valuable for research on many topics in Slavic studies.

Although the strategy of advance preparation for archival research in Slavic studies has become more complicated, it can yield better results due to the increased accessibility of primary sources beyond the actual work in archives. To summarize the ways of finding the right sources for research, I usually point out to students the most important steps:

Thus, via exploring all available sources before the trip, students clarify their understanding of the resources for their research. Also, they tend to arrive in archives, if need be, well prepared, with a list of titles of particular archival collections, fondy, and even files (both the number and the title are mandatory when ordering a delo), and start working productively from the very beginning.

Comprehending archival documents

After finding the primary sources, the second but no less important stage of the preparation consists in training oneself to comprehend documents correctly. Reading archival materials can be a burdensome undertaking even for seasoned scholars. A handwritten document's poor physical condition—faded ink or fragile paper—may not uncommonly double the trouble of deciphering someone's peculiar hand. Typewritten texts are not easy to work with either: they get almost "blind" with the time. Problems multiply when the document is on a microfilm so a rather low-quality reading machine must be used—a situation more and more researchers find themselves in, as Russian archives purport to preserve original documents. And again, to ease the task one needs to be well prepared.

In my book Working with Russian Archival Documents I discuss two helpful methods of reading archival materials: graphical and logical. In short, the graphical method requires some knowledge of typical handwriting of certain historical periods as well as the types of common peculiarities of individual hand of the time. Obviously, the 17th-century typical hand will differ from that of the 20th-century, as well as a semiliterate peasant's hand, in any given period, will be conspicuously dissimilar from that of a university professor. So, if handwritten documents are part of the research, it is beneficial to learn the common peculiarities of the penmanship of the period and train oneself to read handwritten documents produced by people of the social circle of interest. Finding in advance some handwritten samples (and their printed versions) by the protagonist of the research would be ideal. In many new and old books reproductions of original documents may be found along with the printed versions (the Soviet publications are particularly good for that, e.g., PSS of Lenin, Stalin, Russian and Soviet writers, books on paleography—for the hand of earlier periods, etc.). Roman Biske's book Russkie pocherki / Russian Handwriting (London, 1919; reprint: Newtonville, MA, 1987) contains a variety of samples of modern Russian handwriting along with printed versions useful for reading practice.

The logical method consists in drawing on additional information about the document—its type, time of creation, bureaucratic formalities of the period, etc., which may turn out really handy in deciphering. It is essential to figure out in advance what types of documents are most likely relevant to the research, e.g., statistical registers and official reports in economics, as opposed to personal letters and draft manuscripts in literary history. Most official documents are structured in a certain way and use some common phrases and words. Thus, examining the interrogation reports in the recently published collections will help decipher an archival document of the same type by illegible hand. Personal papers follow no obligatory standards but still bear some common elements in structure and language dictated by tradition, author's educational background, and so on. For example, greetings and endings are largely the same in letters of the 18th-century nobility but differ drastically from those in letters by Soviet citizens; careful examination of those patterns will help to recognize similar expressions in handwritten documents.

Digital collections of documentary images could provide some help too. The Library of Congress Soviet Archives Exhibit site contains over 30 images of documents with English translations. They are good for practice in reading because the translation will help guess the illegible Russian words. Vladimir Bukovsky's Soviet Archives site contains a large collection of images of governmental documents from the Soviet archives but, unfortunately, offers no translations or printed versions of the texts. In order to provide material for those interested in practice of reading handwritten archival documents, I have put some images, texts, and commentaries on my Web site. Also, I present over 80 samples of documents in my book, along with their printed versions and useful tips for analysis.

The last thing worthy of mentioning here are the new services provided by many archives. In addition to traditional ones such as genealogical research, search for documents by request, compilation of bibliography on a topic, as well as the most popular service—xerox and photo copies of documents (provided for commercial fees, often rather high), many archives now offer computer copies (scanned images or text files). I tried the latter at RGADA and was quite happy with the results: on my last day at the archive I ordered the copies (about $2 a page) of a bunch of documents, not available for xeroxing because of their condition, and in two months received by e-mail professionally typed text files.

To conclude, I should repeat that serious advance preparation is strongly recommended, so as to reduce the obstacles of time and expense, normally connected with research in archives, and to minimize possible frustration. Thanks to the new technologies, not only is it possible but can be very exciting, too.

Olga E. Glagoleva is Resident Fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at University of Toronto. She is the author of four books: Russkaia knizhnaia starina: Ocherki kul'turnoi zhizni XVIII—pervoi poloviny XIX vv. (Tula: Izd-vo TGPI im. L.N. Tolstogo, 1992); Russkaia provintsial'naia starina: Ocherki kul'tury i byta Tul'skoi gubernii XVIII—pervoi poloviny XIX vv. (Tula: IRI RITM, 1993); Working with Russian Archival Documents: A Guide to Modern Handwriting, Document Forms, Language Patterns, and Other Related Topics (The Stalin-Era Research and Archives Project, Working paper No. 2, CREES, University of Toronto, 1998); and Dream and Reality of Russian Provincial Young Ladies, 1700-1850 (The Carl Beck Papers in Russian & East European Studies. No. 1405. University of Pittsburgh, 2000), along with many articles on Russian provincial history, gender and legal studies.

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