Joint Task Force on Former Soviet and East European Archives Issues Final Report

AHA Staff, September 1995

With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the international scholarly community welcomed the prospect that archives and libraries in Russia and the other newly independent states of the region would be fully open for research. Professional archivists began declassifying materials and making previously closed collections available to domestic and foreign scholars. Within a relatively short time, researchers gained access to sources they could only dream about a few years earlier. As a result of the availability of new archival materials, the nature of scholarship on the countries of the region has already undergone dramatic changes.

However, three distinct but interrelated sets of developments have occurred in the meantime to jeopardize this process. First, the suspension or reconfiguration of state funding has led to deterioration in the physical plants of many archives and libraries, substantial reductions in salaries and staff, and in some cases, extended closings. Second, many archives and libraries have felt it necessary to embrace principles of "privatization" or "commercialization" in ways that have imposed, or threatened to impose, formal or informal restrictions on users. Third, enterprising commercial firms, scholarly consortiums, and individual groups of scholars have resorted to "private arrangements" to assure their needs are met without adequately informing the field about the scope and scale of their projects. Whether these developments relate to the publication of documents, the preparation of finding aids, or basic assistance in research, the lack of information has led to confusion, possible duplication of efforts, and in some cases, restricted access to materials reserved for special projects.

By 1992 these developments were sufficiently serious to greatly concern members of the American Historical Association, and in December 1992, the AHA Council passed a "resolution of concern," describing the situation as "urgent." Subsequently, more than 50 scholars petitioned the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS) "in light of the resolution adopted by the AHA" and "in view of the dire conditions obtaining in the archives and libraries of the former Soviet Union" to address these problems and formulate policy "with a view to implementing long-term preservation strategies and assuring equitable international access to all such facilities worldwide." In response to their members' concern, the AHA and the AAASS formed a joint task force with the support of the International Research and Exchange Board (IREX) to investigate and report on the state of the archives in the former Soviet Union and East Europe. Task force members included David Ransel (Indiana Univ.), Gregory Freeze (Brandeis Univ.), Kathryn Weathersby (Florida State Univ.), Donald Raleigh (Univ. of North Carolina), William Taubman (Amherst Coll.), Norman Naimark (Stanford Univ.), and William Rosenberg (Univ. of Michigan). On April 1, 1995, the task force issued its report.

When the task force took up its work in the late summer of 1994 under the aegis of the AHA Research Division, it was formally charged with four general tasks:

  1. To assess the situation of archives and archival research, primarily in Russia, but also as practicable in the other successor states of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
  2. To consider formulating a general statement of policies on matters relating to the appropriate use of and access to archives.
  3. To explore ways in which the AAASS and the AHA might be of help to the maintenance and development of archives in the region.
  4. To consider ways of ensuring coordination between the various and sometimes overlapping projects currently underway with regard to archival preservation and restoration, assistance, the publication of documents, and the preparation of finding aids, among others.

The task force attempted to address these issues after reviewing materials and reports from scholars (especially graduate students reporting on their personal experiences), as well as various reports and communications from the International Council of Archives (ICA) and the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center. Members met both individually and as a group with archivists from the region. Because of limited time and resources, the task force focused on the archives of the Russian Federation, although its general review covers the region as a whole.

After discussing general issues concerning access to archives, common problems and common complaints, declassification, ethics, problems of archival maintenance and support, and continuing difficulties of access, especially to special collections, the task force formulated recommendations and a general conclusion, which are described below. A preliminary draft was also reviewed by the Society of American Archivists (SAA).


Because the problems currently afflicting archives and libraries of former Soviet bloc countries are closely linked to the difficult transition period the region as a whole is experiencing, the task force believes these problems are not amenable to any comprehensive "solutions." The recommendations that follow address particular "access" issues, most of which will take time to resolve. General resolutions such as the one adopted in December 1992 by the American Historical Association Council are admirable statements of principle. The task force sees some value in their reiteration by the AAASS but believes that far more important than the development of any comprehensive "general statement" is the translation of general principles into specific projects and policies.

In offering the following recommendations, the task force recognizes that some efforts may already be underway that partly address its concerns. While the task force applauds these efforts, its members wish to emphasize that each of the following issues remains a matter of continuing importance and urgency.

  1. General Policy Statement. The AAASS AHA Joint Task Force on Archives endorses the resolution adopted by the Council of the American Historical Association on December 30, 1992. Because of its concern that general proclamations can themselves cause unwelcome misunderstandings and disappointments, the task force recommends that the AAASS Board of Directors formally endorse this (or any other) resolution only if the board also takes steps toward implementing some or all of the recommendations that follow.
  2. Archival Assistance as a Cooperative Effort. To further develop mutually constructive efforts to improve access to archives, accelerate declassification procedures, share information, and help reduce impediments to research, regular liaison should be established among Russian, Eurasian, and East European societies of scholars and archivists and their counterparts elsewhere. The task force agrees fully with the SAA that historians and archivists alike will be more successful in supporting the development of archives in the former Soviet Union and East Europe if we share information and ideas fully and take advantage of existing channels of communication. The task force recommends that the AAASS and the AHA promote such contacts by means of notices and announcements in association newsletters, regular invitations to annual meetings, and the distribution of gift subscriptions, perhaps donated by association members, to the Slavic Review, the American Historical Review, and other association publications, including those of the SAA and the ICA. An officer or staff member of the AAASS and the AHA should also be specifically designated as "contact persons" for these liaisons and take steps to insure coordination with the Society of American Archivists and the International Council on Archives, among other associations and groups.
  3. A Grant Program to Provide Material Assistance. Recognizing the grave financial crisis affecting virtually all archives of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the ways in which deteriorating conditions affect not simply the maintenance of archives and archivists but present and future research opportunities for both domestic and foreign scholars, the task force recommends that the AAASS and the AHA work with IREX and the ICA to develop a program of grants through an archival assistance fund, to which archivists can apply for material assistance and other forms of support for their institutions or themselves. Such a program of grants should include, but not be restricted to, opportunities for the purchase of preservation and reproduction equipment and travel to support participation by archivists in professional meetings, training programs, and exchanges. The awarding of such grants should be the responsibility of an independent panel of archivists and scholars, modeled on the panels that currently allocate grants and other traditional forms of scholarly assistance.
  4. Tax Exemptions for Equipment Transfers and Grants. To promote the transfer of conservation materials, reproduction equipment, microfilm readers and processors, and other equipment needed by Russian, Eurasian, and East European archives and libraries, the tax exempt status of such transfers must be clarified, clearly articulated, and publicized by responsible archival and association representatives. The task force recommends that the AAASS, in consultation with appropriate archival and library bodies or representatives in Russia and elsewhere, prepare a specific document indicating current laws and regulations, which can be used by association members wishing to assist archives and libraries with transfers of needed equipment. The task force further recommends that a responsible official or officials be identified in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Prague, and other major research centers to assist in resolving any problem that might emerge in this regard in specific cases or projects.
  5. The Special Problems of Former Imperial Archives, Local (Provincial) Archives, Nongovernmental Archives, and Repositories Affected by Civil Strife. In Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union, central archives housing documents from the pre-1917 period, provincial archives, and nongovernmental archives often face disturbing problems in this transition period, as do repositories threatened by civil strife. Archives housing documents from the period before 1917 lack financial resources to meet users' needs. Although the situation among provincial archives varies greatly, many find themselves in conflict with local authorities who are hard pressed to fund the archives at appropriate levels. The situation appears to be particularly difficult for the oblast-level archives that structurally belong to the state archival system but are underfunded by both the main archival administrations and provincial authorities. The task force also calls attention to the need to identify the particular concerns of private archives and to publicize the nature of their holdings. All of these archives deserve special consideration from international programs of public and private assistance in view of the limited opportunities these archives have for earning hard currency through joint publication projects and other income generating services. To a large extent—and often for related reasons—similar consideration should be given to comparable repositories in Eastern Europe. The task force is especially concerned about archives and libraries in areas affected by civil strife, which threatens the maintenance and, in places such as Bosnia, the very existence of such institutions. It urges appropriate international agencies to consider plans for the emergency evacuation and temporary storing of valuable documentary materials that might be in jeopardy.
  6. Dissemination and Implementation of the Russian Archival Law of 1993. The task force recognizes the significant achievements of the Russian Archival Law of 1993, which formally established appropriate principles of equal access to all open collections and officially adopted standard practices regarding declassification and other matters of great concern to researchers. We urge its full implementation in Russia and the adoption of comparable legislation in countries that currently do not have similar legislative guides to archival management and access. In addition, the task force recommends that the AAASS and the AHA contact the Russian State Archives Commission (Rosarkhiv) for the purpose of making available to interested researchers copies of special directives, regulations, laws, and circulars that, in addition to the Russian Archival Law, determine procedures for archival access and usage.
  7. Accessing Special Collections. In view of the unique importance of special archives (such as the presidential, KGB, and military archives in Russia), the task force urges strong support for the efforts of domestic and foreign researchers to attain access to these archives and to use the materials therein in accordance with law. To facilitate this process, as well as to further enable access to archives everywhere, the task force recommends that the AAASS Committee on Bibliography and Documentation, in cooperation with IREX, designate or appoint an appropriate individual to prepare regular statements on the status of archives in each of the countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
  8. Disseminating Information about the Status of Particular Materials. These findings should appear regularly in an IREX or AAASS publication in the form of a column or on line in a comparable format. The column might include reports on newly declassified documents; legislation affecting archival access; temporary closings of archives and collections; and projects initiated by both individual scholars and organizations involving publication of archival documents, finding aids, and the like. The column might also facilitate discussion of problems individual users encounter in the archives and of projects undertaken by international organizations and by users and professional associations in other countries. Insofar as possible, colleagues in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the countries of the former Soviet Union should be encouraged to contribute to the column. If the resources cannot be found within current IREX or AAASS budgets, a special effort should be made to secure funding expressly for this effort. In addition, the AAASS Program Committee should take steps to assure that archival "field reports" are presented by informed scholars at each annual meeting, perhaps in the form of a regular roundtable discussion. As appropriate, the AAASS Bibliography and Documentation Committee should use the information presented at these annual roundtables to consider what additional steps need to be taken to facilitate access to the archives of the region.
  9. Access to Photocopies and Microfilms. Recognizing that an archive's or a library's need for revenue may conflict with a scholar's need for moderately priced microfilm and photocopies of documents and other materials, the task force recommends (a) that all fees for photoduplication be clearly posted within individual libraries and archives; (b) that fees be reasonable and uniform within each archive, reflect real costs of producing documents, and reflect a set cost per page; and (c) that fee schedules for materials intended for the sole use of the researcher (without right of publication, reproduction, or further distribution) be set lower than those intended for some commercial use.
    Given the severe material circumstances currently being experienced by virtually all archives and libraries of the region, the task force also accepts as a temporary necessity the establishment of differential fee schedules for photocopies and microfilms for domestic and foreign researchers and looks forward to the time when such differentials are no longer appropriate.
  10. User Input at Archives and Declassification. The task force recommends that each archive establish an advisory board of scholars and archivists to assist in the formulation of archival policy, to serve as a board of appeals for disputes between researchers and archival staff, and to offer consultation and guidance on joint publication projects. The task force also encourages the timely and thorough application of the principles for declassification adopted in the new Russian archival law and supports the principle that once documents are declassified they are automatically available for scholarly use by all researchers on an equal basis. The current practice of some archives to involve members of the scholarly community, with proper security clearances, in the task of reviewing materials for declassification should be extended to all archives of the former Soviet bloc, as well as those in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere that do not currently follow this practice.
  11. Joint Publication Projects. The task force strongly supports joint efforts to publish comprehensive documentary collections, archival registers, finding aids, and other materials that increase access to materials both within and outside the archives. It also recognizes the necessity of withdrawing documents from circulation for purposes of microfilming, copying, or preparing publications. At the same time, the task force urges archive administrations to publicize the schedules for the availability of such documents and to minimize the period of time documents remain inaccessible. It also urges that information about such projects be systematically collected and included in the column or other regular publication recommended above.
  12. Archival Guides. The task force recommends that the archives proceed with the preparation of complete, updated guides to archival repositories, that these be publicly available to all researchers (domestic and foreign), and that American foundations and funding agencies provide whatever material assistance they can in support of joint projects devoted to this effort. The task force further recommends that all archives take the following steps to ensure full and professional access to inventories and finding aids: (a) enforce the researcher's right to consult all available finding aids; (b) make available a full list of all finding aids, in particular an annotated inventory of the registers for each collection (to ensure that researchers know of all such registers and their provenance); and (c) grant researchers access to all registers covering classified materials if local law does not prohibit access to lists of classified documents, but only the documents themselves.

A Matter of Urgent Mutual Concern

The information contained in the archives of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is of vital importance to an understanding of regional and world history. The task force wishes to emphasize that preservation, cataloging, and appropriate access to these materials are matters of pressing international as well as local concern. Questions of access are inextricably linked to problems of material support for these archives. Without adequate financial and technical aid from their own governments and from abroad, many archivists of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union will lose the battle to maintain their collections, their staffs, and the integrity of the scholarly process. Such material support must be a matter of urgent international action.

Signatories to the report included faculty and graduate students from Ohio State University, University of Michigan, University of Chicago, University of Illinois, Indiana University, Western Michigan University, University of Toronto, Kent State University, Oberlin College, Michigan State University, Washington University, and Bowling Green State University. Those who would like to receive a copy of the report should contact American Historical Association, 400 A St., S.E., Washington, DC 20003. (202) 544 2422.