Recap: SAA 2017’s “Archives in Revolutionary Russia and Post-Soviet Ukraine” panel

Society of American Archivists, Archival History Section Meeting, Portland, Oregon, July 26, 2017

Ascendant political leaders and new political institutions gain power and develop legitimacy by controlling the archival record, as this year’s Archival History Section Meeting in Portland has demonstrated. In one of the largest section gatherings of recent memory, over 50 attendees in the room (and one over Skype) heard two presentations by current Chair, Dr. Kelly A. Kolar of Middle Tennessee State University, and Dr. Volodymyr Chumachenko of Kansas State University, with copious questions from moderator Dr. Leah Goldman of Reed College. Their subjects were the history of Russian and Ukrainian archives and the relationship of archives to national politics and partisan memory in those countries.

In a presentation entitled “Red Archives: Documents in Service to the Bolshevik Revolution,” Dr. Kolar argued that Bolsheviks in Russia during the late 1910s and early 1920s actively sought “to re-shape archival collections to illuminate the documentarily underrepresented parts of society, namely Bolsheviks and their supporters.”  Creating two notable institutions with archival goals by 1920 – the Istpart (Commission for the History of the October Revolution and the Russian Communist Party) and the Institute of Marx and Engels (IME) – Bolsheviks sought to document their revolution on behalf of the working class and to place the Russian revolution squarely within international history. The collection of archives and memoirs was essential to tell the story of “everyone who was in Russia…, or had the opportunity to observe or even participate in the events” between 1917 and 1920.  By 1928, however, the idea that good history writing depended on the use or curation of archival records was no longer shared by most Soviet historians in Russia (p. 8).

Adopting the perspective of a first-time researcher to Ukrainian archives at the beginning of a talk entitled “Opening the Vault: How Archives Started Serving the Nation, The Case of Ukraine,” Dr. Chumachenko described the variations in the ways that Ukrainians have described their records (such as the fascinating term “archaeography”), and the types of “central” or state archives within Ukraine. He then suggested that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian archivists began to declassify many of their holdings with a desire to legitimate the Ukrainian nation and liberate it from Soviet narratives. Dr. Chumachenko argues that access to records – even those from the Security Service or Ministry of Interior – would “benefit the society and the state by making the national discussion about the most recent past more concrete and productive” (p. 6).

While both of the presentations addressed two different time periods with radically divergent ideological and cultural currents, these fine archival histories dovetailed extremely well together. They pointed out the connection of archives to state policy: both revolutionary Russians and post-Soviet Ukrainians – no matter how different ideologically and culturally – understood the role of state archival institutions, particularly those associated with the central government, as instrumental to state power. Moreover, the writing styles of the presentations were understandable for even those listeners unfamiliar with the key moments in Russian and Ukrainian archival history. Both papers could have benefited from greater exploration into the biographies of specific individuals: perhaps Dr. Kolar could have said more about the life and experiences of Bolshevik-era historians, like Vladimir Ivanovich Picheta, while Dr. Chumachenko might have enlightened the audience to a few of the important Ukrainian archivists who have endeavored to declassify documents in search of rectifying previous historical injustices. How have the professional lives of Ukrainian and Russian archivists changed since George Bolotenko wrote in 2003 about the dislocation wrought by the 1990s? Notwithstanding these quibbles, the panel served a valuable function as an introduction to archival developments in a part of the world fraught with tensions between the center and periphery, the rulers and the people.

— Eric C. Stoykovich, co-editor Archival History News


[1] I refrain from citing these two unpublished works. Please contact Dr. Kolar or Dr. Chumachenko directly for information about their ongoing works.

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