Jonathan Brent's Inside the Stalin Archives.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 8 2008 6:33 AM

Russia's Usable Past

A strange journey into the historical archives.

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Although he discusses some of the academic issues that lay at the heart of the Yale project, the point of Inside the Stalin Archives is somewhat different: Brent is less interested in what his series meant for Western academics and more interested in explaining the strange atmosphere of post-Soviet Moscow, and in particular the ways in which Russia's twisted past continued to shape its present. *

Elsewhere—in East Germany, for example—the collapse of communism meant that the archive doors swung wide open, and researchers of all kinds flooded inside. But in Moscow, each archive (state, party, military) made its own decisions about which documents to release and to whom to release them. Some, among them the Russian state archive, where gulag documents are kept, were relatively open, though more out of negligence than any commitment to historical truth. I worked there in the 1990s and had the impression that nobody much cared if a bunch of foreigners were reading some old crumbling documents, let alone wasting their time writing books about them. By contrast, the military and ex-KGB archives were always kept under tight control. The image of the Red Army, the identities of informers—all of these things continued to matter to the Soviet authorities and still do.

In the past couple of years, this control has even expanded, with reclassification of documents and heavier restriction on foreign researchers. And in place of the official disregard of the past, there is now a new, state-promulgated version of history. The crimes of Stalinism are acknowledged but downplayed: "Mistakes were made." By contrast, the Second World War, and in particular the moment of Stalinist military triumph in 1945, is ever more loudly celebrated in books, films, and public anniversaries.

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This change of attitude has a political purpose, of course. Ex-President and de facto Russian leader Vladimir Putin is well aware that the more people take pride the Soviet past, the less likely they are to want a system that is more genuinely democratic and genuinely capitalist. The more nostalgia there is for Soviet-era symbols, the more secure he and the ex-KGB clique around him are going to be. Putin has in effect made a promise to the Russians that goes something like this: Support me, and Russia will once again be stable; Russians will get rich; the media will sing in harmony with the politicians; the country will have an international presence, just like it was when you or your parents were young. And nobody will talk about how bad we used to be.

What Brent's book provides is some sense of that strange moment of transition, the few years between the crumbling Soviet Union of Gorbachev and glasnost and the resurgent Russian nationalism of the present. He evokes the odd smell of Moscow streets, some combination of poor plumbing, boiled cabbage, and exhaust fumes; the conversations with Russians who constantly wanted to know what things cost in America and were taken aback to realize that we were far richer than they were; the furtive assignations with ex-KGB officers, always eager, even excited, to speak; the cheap plumbing fixtures; the tasteless cookies and too-strong black tea; the odd vacuum where everything—ideology, politics, nation—used to be. That anarchic, open, exciting, and frightening atmosphere is gone now: Moscow is a more rigid, more subdued, and more hierarchical place. The past is on its way to being reburied, or at least reassessed. If Brent arrived in Moscow with Winston cigarettes today, I'm afraid that nobody would pay any attention to him at all.

Correction, Dec. 8, 2008: This article originally referred to Jonathan Brent's new book as Inside the Soviet Archives. The correct title is Inside the Stalin Archives. (Return to the corrected sentence.)