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The Final Years of the USSR: Research Opportunities and Obstacles in the Moscow Archives

Mark Kramer

Despite the continued slowness and unevenness of declassification in Moscow archives, progress over the past decade has given researchers a wealth of crucial materials they can now consult about the final years of the Soviet Union.

In late March 2020, the COVID-19 crisis in Russia led to the temporary closure of central archives that hold records from the Soviet period.  Although the Russian government has not yet announced when the archives will reopen, the good news for researchers is that the archival situation in Russia has improved a great deal over the past several years despite Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian clampdown. 

Extremely important collections of Soviet documents became available for the first time in Moscow in 2014, and even larger collections (amounting to many millions of pages of sensitive materials) were opened in August 2015, giving researchers a huge number of new research avenues to pursue.  Other crucial collections became available in Moscow in December 2018 when the Russian State Archive of Recent History (RGANI), which had been closed for two-and-a-half years during a move to a new location, reopened with much better working conditions than previously. 

Despite the dismal political situation in Russia under Putin, opportunities to explore the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union based on documents from the Russian archives (as well as other countries’ archives) are now better than at any time in the past.

Moreover, the Russian archives are supplemented by crucial repositories in other former Soviet republics, especially Ukraine, where the records of the Ukrainian Communist Party have been available since the mid-1990s and where the former Ukrainian KGB archive, which contains many copies of Soviet KGB documents, opened four years ago with excellent working conditions for researchers.  In Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all party and KGB materials from the 1985-1991 period are accessible, and much the same is true in Georgia and, to a lesser extent, Moldova.  In  other former Soviet republics, access to relevant archival records is considerably more restrictive.

In Moscow, several crucial archives — the Presidential Archive of the Russian Federation (APRF), the former KGB central archive, and the Foreign Intelligence Service archive — never opened their doors to scholars.  The Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense, in Podol’sk on the outskirts of Moscow, has given access to its records for the Second World War and selective access to materials from the 1950s and 1960s, but it has not opened its collections pertaining to the period from March 1985 to December 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev was the leader of the Soviet Union.

Nevertheless, at several important archives in Moscow, researchers can find large quantities of declassified documents concerning the Gorbachev era. 

The Gorbachev Foundation

One such archive is based at the Gorbachev Foundation, a private non-profit organization that was set up right after the Soviet Union collapsed.  The foundation gradually organized an archive consisting of notes and other documents that ended up with Gorbachev and some of his chief aides who later took posts at the Gorbachev Foundation:  Georgii Shakhnazarov, Anatolii Chernyaev, Vadim Medvedev, and Vadim Zagladin.  The records at the archive, connected with Gorbachev’s dual posts as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) from March 1985 to August 1991 and as President of the USSR from March 1990 to December 1991, include notes and memoranda he received from advisers and notes of conversations he had with aides, colleagues, and foreign leaders.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s the foundation began allowing researchers to use some of the archive’s document collections in digitized form.  Over the next decade, the range of what was accessible on the digital platform expanded a good deal, and the system and search engine became more user-friendly.  Chernyaev, who was especially active in forming and organizing the archive, planned to publish many thick volumes of collected documents under the rubric Kak delalas’ politika perestroiki (How the Policy of Perestroika Was Formulated), but Gorbachev — for reasons that are not entirely clear — initially decided instead to allow the publication in 2006 of only one volume, V Politbyuro TsK KPSS, which mostly contains excerpts from notes taken at Politburo meetings.  

However, Gorbachev subsequently permitted more of the archive’s collections of documents to be published in such volumes as Mikhail Gorbachev i germanskii vopros (Mikhail Gorbachev and the German Question), Otvechaya na vyzov vremeni (Responding to the Call of Time), and some 28 volumes of Sobranie sochinenii M. S. Gorbacheva (Gorbachev's collected works, broadly construed).  A small percentage of the records that Chernyaev originally intended to put out have still not been published, but most have appeared by now, albeit not always in full.  Most (though not all) of the as-yet unpublished items are accessible on the digital platform.

The Presidential Archive and the Archive of Recent History

The Gorbachev Foundation documents are extremely valuable for researchers but are relatively limited in scope and quantity.  The foundation never had possession of the full stenographic transcripts of CPSU Politburo meetings, the full transcripts of CPSU Secretariat meetings, the full texts of CPSU Politburo and Secretariat resolutions, the full transcripts of CPSU Central Committee plenums, and vast numbers of other important documents from the 1985-1991 period that were kept in the Politburo Archive (which in 1990 became the Soviet Presidential Archive and in late 1991 became the Archive of the President of the Russian Federation, or APRF). 

In late 1992 and 1993, copies of some of the APRF documents ended up in Fond 89 at what was then called the Storage Center for Contemporary Documentation (TsKhSD), which was renamed RGANI in July 1999.  In the latter half of the 1990s the records from all the CPSU Central Committee plenums held in 1985-1990 were transferred from the APRF to Fond 2 of TsKhSD/RGANI.  (The plenums from 1990 and 1991 were televised and published in real time, and thus the lack of plenum records for 1991 in Fond 2 is not important.)   

Major collections of other documents from the Gorbachev era were later transferred from the APRF to RGANI, and they gradually were declassified and made available starting around 2010.  Other items have become available at RGANI since then in numerous fondy (fonds, or record groups), and in combination the sets of documents offer rich, voluminous material for scholars studying the final years of the USSR. 

Also at RGANI, a lichnyi fond (papers amassed by an individual) was set up for Gorbachev in early 2019, joining other lichnye fondy at RGANI for CPSU leaders from Nikita Khrushchev through Konstantin Chernenko.  So far, the Gorbachev lichnyi fond, Fond 84, consists of 660 files from the APRF, though the ones that are currently accessible are of limited interest.  (Many items that were transferred from the APRF for the lichnyi fond have not yet been declassified, and other materials have not yet been transferred.) 

RGANI also recently set up a separate Fond 121, covering “The President of the USSR (1990-1991),” which consists of seven opisi (sub-fond groups) with 394 files of documents from the APRF, though in this case, too, the materials that are accessible as of now are of limited importance.  Fond 121 consists of official records from Gorbachev’s presidency and from his presidential staff and advisers, and there is some overlap with Fond 84 for 1990-1991 (though not for earlier years).  Only three of the seven opisi of Fond 121 are currently accessible, and even those three are only partly declassified.  One hopes that more files in both Fond 121 and Fond 84 will be declassified and that additional sets of records will be added to the collections (presumably through transfers from the APRF) in the near future.

The most important gap at RGANI is the lack of full transcripts of CPSU Politburo meetings from the Gorbachev period (or earlier years).  Fond 89 at RGANI contains excerpts (mostly very brief ones) from some transcripts of CPSU Politburo meetings from the Gorbachev era, but all of the full transcripts of Politburo meetings are still at the APRF, which has not yet given any indication of when it might transfer them to RGANI, much less when the documents will be available for research. 

In 2008, the Presidential Archive declassified five full transcripts of Politburo meetings from 1988 and 1989 (four from 1988 and one from 1989), but the transcripts were never transferred to RGANI and thus are still inaccessible even though they are nominally declassified.  The many dozens of other full transcripts of Politburo meetings from the Gorbachev period have been neither transferred nor declassified. 

Even though the notes in V Polibyuro TsK KPSS partly make up for the lack of full transcripts, they are not an adequate substitute.  The notes transcribed in the book were taken by hand by Shakhnazarov, Chernyaev, and Medvedev at Politburo meetings and are much briefer than the full transcripts.  (Their original notes are stored at the Gorbachev Foundation archive.)  Archival notations for the five full transcripts of Politburo sessions that were “declassified” by the APRF in 2008 but never made available indicate that full transcripts are very lengthy, at times more than 200 pages, with an average well over 100. The lack of access to them leaves a crucial gap in the historical record.  The passages omitted by the Gorbachev Foundation from V Polityuro TsK KPSS and other volumes are regrettable but are of minor importance compared to the inability of researchers to view full transcripts of Politburo meetings.

Other Repositories of Note

In addition to the records at the Gorbachev Foundation archive and RGANI, three other repositories in Moscow that are useful for studying the 1985-1991 period are the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), the Russian State Archive of the Economy (RGAE), and the  Russian Foreign Ministry archive, known as the Foreign Policy Archive of the Russian Federation (AVP RF). 

At GARF, numerous fondy contain files that pertain to important issues and events under Gorbachev.  Until the late 1980s, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR was merely a figurehead parliament subordinate to the CPSU and was of minimal importance.  Under Gorbachev, however, the Supreme Soviet took on much greater importance, and its files at GARF (F. R7523) contain interesting documents on a wide range of domestic and foreign policy topics from the late 1980s.

After the March 1989 parliamentary elections in the USSR, the Supreme Soviet was subsumed within a larger USSR Congress of People’s Deputies, and the Congress’s files at GARF (Fond R9654) contain even more files of interest to scholars studying the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union.  The Russian republic’s Supreme Soviet, which increasingly emerged as a rival government base in 1990-1991, has its own files stored at GARF (F. R10026), and these contain a large quantity of valuable documents.  Among other things, Russian Supreme Soviet committees often obtained copies of important documents from the Soviet Foreign and Defense Ministries.

GARF has fondy for many other Soviet state agencies and ministries that are of interest to scholars studying the final years of the USSR.  Among these are Glavlit (F. R9425), the agency that oversaw censorship in the media; Gosteleradio (F. R6903), the broadcasting agency; the Soviet press agency TASS  (F. R4459); the Religious Affairs Council (F. R6991), which sought to obstruct religious practice; the State Committee on Labor and Social Issues (F. R9553); the USSR Ministry of Health (F. 8009), which played a significant role in the short-lived anti-alcohol campaign as well as many other matters; and the State Committee on International Lenin Prizes (F. R9522), which continued to function through the end of the Soviet era.  Documents pertaining to crime and corruption during the Gorbachev era, such as the high-profile Uzbekistan cotton case, can be found in great abundance in various fonds for judicial bodies, including the USSR Procuracy (F. R8131), the USSR Supreme Court (F. R9474), and the USSR Ministry of Justice (R9492).

RGAE, located in the same building as GARF, contains files for numerous Soviet state agencies that played crucial roles in the shaping and implementation of the economic program Gorbachev adopted — a program that ended up making the economic situation much worse rather than better.  Among the agencies covered are Gosplan (the State Planning Committee), Gosbank (the central state bank), the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Foreign Trade, and the Central Statistical Administration.  Working conditions at RGAE, as at GARF, are very good, although researchers hoping to use materials pertaining to defense spending will find very little available so far.

At the AVP RF, the working conditions are nowhere near as good as at RGANI and GARF, but researchers who are persistent can often obtain valuable materials from the 1985-1991 period.  The large collections pertaining to individual countries (each country was assigned a “referentura”) are only slowly being declassified — with the emphasis on slowly — but the archive over the past several years has gradually released important materials about such countries as the United States (F. 129), East Germany (F. 742), West Germany (F. 757), Poland (F. 122), Hungary (F. 77), Czechoslovakia (F. 138a), Bulgaria (F. 74), Romania (F. 125), China (F. 100), and Japan (F. 146), among others.  The AVP RF assigns a separate fond to the Soviet embassy in each country, and scattered materials from some embassy fonds also have been released, albeit gradually.

Despite the continued slowness and unevenness of declassification in Moscow archives, progress over the past decade has given researchers a wealth of crucial materials they can now consult about the final years of the Soviet Union.  After the COVID-19 crisis and the temporary closure of the Russian archives are over, Russian and foreign scholars will have a great deal to explore.

About the Author

Mark Kramer

Mark Kramer

Director, Cold War Studies, Harvard University

Mark Kramer is Director of Cold War Studies at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

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