The only way to fight a real battle against the falsification of history — something that President Dmitry Medvedev has made a priority after creating a special commission to handle this issue — is to keep government archives as open as possible for historians. Unfortunately, the government is doing the exact opposite, depriving historians access to the most sensitive and important historical documents. Among other things, this is a violation of the Constitution.
Medvedev’s commission “for counteracting attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia’s interests” is headed by presidential chief of staff Sergei Naryshkin, who will control which documents remain classified and which ones are opened to the public. There are many reasons to be concerned that the documents most essential to an open and honest study and discussion of Russian and Soviet history will remain locked up.
Former President Boris Yeltsin had a much more liberal policy toward releasing government archives. On July 7, 1993, he signed a law governing Russia’s archives that remained in force until 2004. The law stipulated that documents containing state secrets should be declassified and made available to the public in no more than 30 years. Documents containing sensitive information of a personal nature had to be released in 75 years or less.
But under Vladimir Putin’s presidency, a new law was passed in 2004 that imposed far greater restrictions on access to state archives. The 30-year limit disappeared completely. Although Article 25 of the new law states that all documents should be made available to the public, the final decision as to which documents contain state secrets and are held under restricted access is made by the very same commission on state secrets headed by Naryshkin. This means that citizens’ constitutional right to have access to archival documents will be rendered meaningless. What’s more, since Article 25 contains no time limits for declassifying documents, the government can keep “inconvenient” or incriminating documents that it considers to be “to the detriment of Russia’s interests” classified forever.
Strangely enough, Russia’s so-called “state secrets” are most vigorously guarded when they relate to Stalin-era documents, which remain the most highly classified. For example, historian Mark Solonin of Samara was recently denied access to the Foreign Ministry’s archives following a request to study documents connected with Soviet-Czechoslovakian relations on the eve of the Munich Agreement in 1938, even though more than 70 years have passed since those events took place.
Most of the documents connected with the 1940 execution of more than 20,000 Polish officers at Katyn, which was carried out by the NKVD under direct orders from Stalin, also remain locked away. After Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Yeltsin officially acknowledged the massacre and released many related documents from government archives, then-President Putin decided to do an about-face. The chief military prosecutor recently closed the investigation into the tragedy, and even the decision to halt criminal proceedings was deemed classified. The Kremlin’s decision to sweep the matter under the carpet raises the question whether Russia really wants to break with Stalin’s bloody past or whether it has a sick attachment to it.
Also classified — or simply lost or destroyed — are documents from Stalin’s Politburo of 1939 related to the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the partitioning of Poland, the annexation of the Baltic states and the Soviet invasion of Finland.
Documents pertaining to political killings abroad carried out by Soviet secret service agents are still classified, even if decades have passed since the killings took place.
The government continues to deny access to materials documenting the behavior of Soviet forces in Europe in 1945. This automatically provokes speculation that the scale of the looting, violence and rape carried out by Soviet soldiers and officers was greater than we have been led to believe.
Also off-limits are documents connected with the mass deportation of Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian citizens on the eve of the outbreak of World War II in 1941 and the expropriation of their property.
Still classified are huge stacks of documents on the Soviet gulags and NKVD crimes. Yeltsin’s decree of June 23, 1992, calling for the full declassification of materials documenting the violation of human rights — and particularly those involving political repression — remains unfulfilled.
It is absurd that documents regarding the famine deaths of millions of people in 1932 and 1933 in southern Russia and Ukraine are still classified. Interestingly enough, Russia never tires of accusing Ukraine of falsifying history when Kiev claims that the Holodomor, or famine, was an act of Soviet (read: Russian) genocide against the Ukrainian people. Moscow maintains that Stalin’s policy of seizing food supplies was directed against all the agricultural regions of the Soviet Union — mainly Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan — regardless of ethnicity. If that is the case, why doesn’t the Kremlin immediately declassify those documents and expose Stalin’s decisions? In this way, the Kremlin warriors for historical truth could pull the rug out from under Ukraine’s allegedly “brazen attempt to falsify history.”
As a result of all the crimes committed by the Soviet government, tens of millions of innocent citizens were killed or falsely imprisoned. Historians estimate that the number of victims in the Stalin era alone approaches 60 million people; the exact figure is difficult to pin down, and restricting archives will make it even harder to get to the truth. Most shocking is that Stalin came in third place in the “Name of Russia” nationwide television contest held in November for the most notable personalities in Russian history. Moreover, new history textbooks, scheduled to be released in the fall semester, contain a description of Stalin as being an “effective manager.” The creeping rehabilitation of Stalin has been under way for the past eight years, and restricting archives will help keep this process going strong.
The Soviet regime went to great lengths to conceal its heinous crimes from the public. Why would today’s Russia, which boasts a democratic Constitution and which has officially condemned the mass killings and imprisonment during the Soviet period, guard the secrets of the failed, bankrupt totalitarian state so diligently? Perhaps because Russia’s ruling elite view the Soviet model as being worthy of imitation? If so, we may soon see the mustachioed, grinning face of Stalin hanging in bureaucrats’ offices all across the country — side by side with Putin’s portrait.