Imprisoned History: the KGB archives
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Russian State Humanities University, Moscow
The problem of the KGB and the manipulation of historical memory first appeared on the horizon of our collective consciousness with the publication in 1973 of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago Based upon diaries, memoirs, letters, and oral histories of former prisoners, The Gulag Archipelago played an important role in the development of Soviet society’s awareness of the past. Accustomed to the mediation of history by the state and to the processing of all oral history into the artificially structure form of Marxist-Leninist historiography, the appearance of a text that preserved the immediate sense of an oral retelling of experience was astonishing. Usually, in a totalitarian society, where the word always emerges on the level of the state, that it, printed and “sealed” by the state, oral means unofficial and perhaps even forbidden. The orality captured in the Archipelago, by appearing outside the framework of the state, had remarkable power. By seeing in print what had previously only circulated in the protected sphere of the home, those who read Solzhenitsyn’s book received confirmation that another kind of history did in fact exist. The book had overcome the state restriction on historical truth about the Soviet era and about the common pasts of the millions of Soviet citizens. It also became a symbol of the Soviet inaccessibility of the archives where the truth about the past was held.
In the introduction to the book, Solzhenitsyn, in a couple of bitter phrases, mentioned that he wasn’t able to read the documents he asked for, and then posed the more than rhetorical question whether anyone would ever have access to them And as to those who don’t want to remember, (i.e. those in the party and state who have something to hide), he emphasizes: “they had and will have more than enough time to destroy the documents completely.”
A couple of months after the book came out in Paris, and the very day of Solzhenitsyn’s exile from the Soviet Union—February 13, 1974—the famous “Moscow appeal” appeared, signed by Sakharov, Marchenko, Bogoraz and seven other human rights activists. In it they demanded that not only the Archipelago be published in the USSR, but also that they be given access to the archives so as to obtain a complete picture of all police activities. This last demand—to open the KGB archives and expose all the crimes of the state—has up to this day remained vitally important in Russian society.
A new situation emerged during the first stage of perestroika. Between 1987 and 1989 the main conflict was between the communist party, which was struggling to maintain its power and privilege, and new social forces eager for drastic change.
The struggle between these forces focused less on the future (the fate of the USSR, Russia, etc.) than on the past, on history. Two basic questions were posed: 1) which period of the Soviet era was the period of mass repression, and 2) who was guilty for the political terror?
People expected to receive answers from the KGB archives, as it bore witness to the crimes of the Communist regime. Thus the slogan, “to open the KGB archives” was the only permanent demand among all the political demonstrations and manifestations in the 1980s. The appearance of the social movement “Memorial”, the publication of an alternative law on archives drafted by scholars at the Moscow Historical Archive Institute, and the founding of the “People’s Archive”, by the latter institute, were all moments in the political fight between society and the state over the historical record.
During the first few years of perestroika we experienced a certain revolution in our understanding of history, from the belief promoted by Khrushchev that Stalin and his henchmen were responsible for periods of repression that occurred intermittently up to 1937, to the view very popular today that the entire party was responsible for the catastrophe of Bolshevik rule and that periods of repression were evident during the entire Soviet period. In spite of the process of rehabilitation that began in the late 80s, the state was helpless in the face of this thirst for historical self-knowledge.
The situation resembled a tug-of-war in all senses: the government and KGB were unwilling to reveal the complete truth to the people, but occasionally tossed out some piecemeal facts like bones to hungry dogs. They sacrificed Stalin and kept Lenin inviolate. They didn’t dare consider the victims of the first years of Soviet rule, nor the political prisoners of the post-Stalin era. And of course this “bone” couldn’t satisfy those who had suffered from many years of enforced ignorance about camps, nor did it resolve the problem of access to sealed archives.
It is very interesting that by the beginning of 1990 the unresolved problem of access simply disappeared. People tired of playing the tug-of-war and began to look for answers through other channels, so they could arrive at their own truth. The so-called “bolshevik historical myth” was replaced by the opposite myth of the flourishing land destroyed by the October revolution.
Everything changed in August 1991, when three days after the putsch Yeltsin issued decrees ordering the transfer of both the KGB and Communist Party archives to the repositories of the Russian Federation. This meant that control of the KGB archives was to be taken from the KGB itself and given to the state archival service. The Commission on the Transfer of the Communist Party and KGB archives to State Use was set up by the Russian parliament in October 1991. (This was the second such commission; the first was created at the end of August 1991, and included only KGB employees and a few bureaucrats from the Russian State Archival Directory).
Ironically, the most we know about the KGB archives is the history of its own destruction. It sounds surprising, but throughout its history, the security services did all they could to preserve their own archives. The first decree about Soviet archives was signed by Lenin, who understood very well the political importance of archives, and prohibited all agencies of Soviet government from keeping their own documents. From the very beginning all documents were to be transferred to the state repositories. This was in keeping with the practice of tsarist days, when no secret police agency was allowed to keep their own material, but had to transfer them to the National Repositories. Despite Lenin’s decree, all the various incarnations of the Soviet security apparatuses (the VChK, OGPU, NKVD, KGB and its two post-coup successors, the Agency of Federal Security, and the Ministry of Counterintelligence) never transferred their archives and in this way never subordinated themselves to State rules and services. And of course none of these police agencies ever considered the material in their archives as historical material with cultural value for the entire population. For them the archives had operational and functional significance. They destroyed their own files, documents, collections, and even whole archives with a regularity and efficiency that other institutions of Soviet society could only envy. This “cleansing” of the archives was everyday, routine work, without any malicious plans or intents behind them.
There were four general exceptions to this kind of regular, bureaucratic pruning of the archives. The first one was in 1940 when the new NKVD Chairman L.P. Beria signed a decree ordering the purging of documents of so-called “unregistered” files and documents. This referred to the great number of documents concerning the brutal purges of the 20s and 30s.
The second case was that of the war itself, when documents were destroyed so that they would not fall into enemy hands. They were also destroyed in the process of evacuation; most of the Moscow Directory of the NKVD was lost in t his way.
The third case was in the 1954-1955 period of the massive return of political prisoners from Stalin’s camps when the KGB received a decree from above to destroy many of their own files. They were told to destroy all material “slandering the upright Soviet people [narod].” During this period tons of documents and files such as agent networks, dossiers, and materials of commissions of inquiry, were destroyed. This attempt at creating a cleaner archival image of the KGB was stopped two years later by another special decree.
The fourth and last exception was in 1989. The KGB Archives received an order to remove from repositories and to dispose of material, documents, personal files, and case records of persons accused under Article 70 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” At the insistence of human rights activists this article was struck out of the criminal code, but then later the law was reworded and placed deep inside the text of another article. The KGB used this change in the law as a pretext to begin erasing evidence of its repressive methods. In this way many dossiers about political dissidents have been lost. A year later, in September 1990, the KGB Chairman Vladimir Kruichkov ordered the purging and destruction of the personal files of agents. Kruichkov gave them until July 1, 1991. All the Directories of KGB tried to do their best, diligently destroying the working files of the agency. The loss for researchers was catastrophic. There is no doubt that the real reason for the destruction was fear of the pace of democratic reform and its impact on their future.
This is why one of the first decrees of the new (after the putsch attempt of August 1991) chairman of the KGB, Vadim Bakatin, was an order prohibiting further destruction of archival material. But half a year later it became known that the purging, liquidation, destruction, and “cremation of history” continued despite Bakatin’s decree. So we have here again a tug-of-war situation—between the old and the “new” structures of power, between Soviet ideology and the ideology of the leaders of the Soviet Union’s former center, Russia.
The central question for researchers remains the issue of access to the archives. The Law on Rehabilitation was issued on October 18, 1991, and according to Article 11, access to files was given only to family members of the repressed person. But at the same time, this restriction was not consistently applied. Some historians and journalists were allowed to examine the materials and work with files. In the context of the declaration of full democracy, this unequal access angered and irritated the public much more than the previous situation when the archives were completely sealed.
Thus the public has been divided into two parts: on the one hand, those who supported the idea of opening all files and collections to researchers and in this was to reconstruct the norms and standard of glasnost; on the other hand—and it must be said this side has many more supporters—there were those who wanted to maintain the same level of access, namely the level defined in the Rehabilitation Law.
These files contain copies of denunciations and other information which could be used for revenge or blackmail The motto of this group might be “Why should the blood of the 30s and 40s spill the blood of the 90s?”
So it was necessary to find a compromise and to create rules and norms that would satisfy both the wills of repressed individuals and their families and the desire of scholars for opportunities to conduct their research. The decision was made to divide the archival material into two parts. The first consists of protocols of interrogations of accused persons and their witnesses; personal letters of the accused person; their declarations; and other materials that might reflect on their memory. Access of scholars to this part of the files is prohibited for 75 years from the date of judgement, but access can be obtained with the permission of the former prisoner or their relatives. The second part of the archives are accessible without any restrictions. It includes the arrest warrant and order; the questions asked of the arrested person—without the answers; the protocols of search; the judgement, and also certain data about the result of the case—execution, exile, prison, etc. Following international norms, the Commission also proposed a special article that would define the moral responsibilities of researchers to protect the reputation of the repressed person. But for complex reasons, involving among other things the condition of legal consciousness in Russia, this article was not adopted.
Another problem involved the material in the archives about KGB agents themselves. The position of the KGB in this case was very simple. Bakatin as the new Chairman of the KGB of the USSR officially announced: I won’t give you [the files of] agents!” But unlike the situation in the Czech Republic and the former East Germany, very few people have asked for the files of former KGB agents. There was no political or social force that demanded their files, or even publication of the agents’ names.
Why are the KGB archives such a sensitive issue and serious problem for our society? At the foundation of any modern political authority lies an archive that contains vital traces of the historical record. The KGB archives contain a very dangerous power, cultivated and accumulated over the course of decades. It would be very easy for someone using its materials to manipulate not only individuals but also entire structures of state power. So the question becomes, how reasonable is it to keep these materials under the supervision of this organization? With the uncertain political situation in Russia today, this question hangs without an answer in sight.