Piecing Together a Fragmented Soviet Past

Author: Erik R. Scott

October, 2018


In many ways, the collapse of the Soviet Union has been a boon for researchers. The Soviet state’s demise opened archives that would have otherwise remained sealed, created unprecedented opportunities for collaboration among foreign researchers and scholars from the former Soviet Union, and empowered post-Soviet societies to reckon with the past in their own terms. Yet the USSR’s breakup has also produced a fragmented research landscape in which policies and procedures vary dramatically country to country, archival access is highly uneven, and discussions about the Soviet past often occur in isolation from one another, divided by the international borders that have arisen since 1991.

For the past ten years, I have conducted research on Soviet-era processes of migration within and across the USSR’s external borders. The theme of my research has required a multi-country approach, and I have worked most extensively in Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia, often focusing on the security ministries at the heart of the Soviet state: the Committee for State Security (KGB) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, as well as the Soviet Procurator’s Office. Continued restrictions on access to KGB and Ministry of Internal Affairs files in Russia has also required a creative approach that draws on declassified Russian documents from the Procurator’s Office, which initiated court cases against unauthorized migrants, along with the local records of former Soviet republics where KGB files have been declassified, including the Baltic states, Ukraine, and Georgia. These countries formed the western flank of the Soviet Union and their local KGB offices were tasked with enforcement along the portion of the Soviet border most commonly crossed by Soviet citizens seeking to emigrate.

My impressions of the research conditions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia in many ways align with the results of the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information’s survey. In Georgia, an introductory email and a brief conversation with the director quickly granted me access to the Ministry of Internal Affairs Archive, where I was readily assisted by archive staff. The archive’s criminal case files are a particularly valuable resource, consisting of multi-volume investigations that are rich with detail. For the historian, these files do more than provide insight into the criminal case itself; they also shed light on everyday life in the Soviet Union, since investigators often recorded fascinating minutiae, including observations on the clothes suspects wore, the music they listened to, and the television programs they watched. I had a similar experience working in the State Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine. There, I was able to access criminal case files as well as the documents of the western division of the Soviet Union’s border troops. Furthermore, in Kyiv I benefitted from a policy that allowed me to photograph documents without charge, a welcome innovation given the significant amount of time and money required to travel there from the United States.

My experience in Russia was rather different: instead of seeking access to the archives of the security services, which are generally closed to scholarly researchers, I was forced to employ a number of workarounds, such as combing the files of the Soviet Procurator’s Office for relevant information. In the end, I actually found a good deal of material, as cases of unauthorized emigration compiled for prosecution often included documents submitted by the KGB’s main office in Moscow. Gaining access to the State Archive of the Russian Federation, which houses the files of the Soviet Procurator’s Office, was fairly straightforward, requiring only a signed letter from my department chair. The system for copying documents in Russia would rank somewhere in between that of Georgia and Ukraine. While the charge per page was less than the rate of 1 Euro charged by Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs Archive, the system for submitting copy requests was more complicated and entailed a lengthy wait. On the other hand, researchers at the State Archive of the Russian Federation can now take unlimited photographs without charge of microfilm documents, and the use of cameras to take pictures of paper documents can be negotiated, albeit on a more limited basis and at a per-page cost. While post-Soviet archives face financial limitations and sometimes look to researchers for revenue, replacing the per-page costs in Georgia and Russia with an affordable flat fee for unlimited camera use seems like it would be a step in the right direction.

Beyond the practical matters of access, there are other issues that impede scholars. While Georgia and Ukraine have made progress in opening security archives, researchers are often forced to search for documents blindly or to rely heavily on archival staff to locate files that they deem to be of relevance. To my knowledge, there is no comprehensive guide (путеводитель, as it is called in Russian) to Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs Archive. There is an electronic catalog of files that can be searched in Georgian, but this does not serve the same purpose. Historians do not go to archives only to find facts, but also to interpret the meaning of past events. While the search for a particular case in an electronic catalog might help us discover the details of a specific incident, the case’s broader meaning is difficult to grasp without an understanding of why the documents at hand were produced and archived and how they fit into the organizational logic of the agency that produced them, the KGB.

The need for such context is particularly acute in Georgia, since a significant portion of the Georgian KGB’s files were destroyed during the civil war in the early 1990s. While these files may be lost forever, archivists and scholars could work together to create a guide that would map out the overall structure of the original archive and contextualize the files that remain. This issue is also present in Ukraine, though to a lesser extent. While there is a published guide to the State Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, it lacks detail and has not kept up with the archive’s rapid process of declassification. Moreover, at the time of my last research there in summer 2016, many of the fond-specific finding aids (описи) had not yet been cleared for release. As a result, I had to ask the archivists in Kyiv to search these finding aids for me, which placed additional demands on their time and sometimes made it hard to grasp the breadth of the materials available.

Researchers in all three countries would benefit from the publication of more volumes like 58-10, Надзорные производства Прокуратуры СССР по делам об антисоветской агитации и пропаганде (Moscow, 1999), an annotated list of some of the files of the Soviet Procurator’s Office available at the State Archive of the Russian Federation. This publication has allowed researchers in Russia to investigate the state’s prosecution of anti-Soviet activity even as the central KGB archive remains closed. Annotated lists detailing the criminal cases available in Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs Archive and the State Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine would be particularly useful, as these files are currently only searchable by last name. And in the longer term, an even more ambitious publication (or series of publications) might bring together, catalog, and annotate the files available in the KGB’s various republic-level branches, now divided among the independent countries of the former Soviet Union.


About author:

Erik R. Scott is associate professor of history, University of Kansas. Professor Scott (Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley) explores migration and diaspora within and beyond the imperial borders of Russia and Eurasia. His book, Familiar Strangers: The Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of Soviet Empire, looks at the USSR not simply as a Russian empire, but as an “empire of diasporas,” where politics, culture, and economics were defined by the mixing of a diverse array of mobile nationalities. 

He has held research fellowships at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies. He has been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Philosophical Society, and Fulbright-Hays, among others.

In addition to his historical research, Professor Scott is the author of several publications on contemporary Russia and Eurasia and an op-ed in the Washington Post discussing the historical context of the current refugee crisis.