Foreign Affairs

Cold War International History Conference: Paper by Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Access Matters: Four Documents

by Trudy Huskamp Peterson
Cold War History Conference
September 25, 1998

Copyright 1998 by Trudy Huskamp Peterson

"We never display documents," the Archivist of the Russian Foreign Ministry told me.

"Why not?" I asked.
"Well," he said, "when we put a copy of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact on display an old man came in to see it. He looked at it for a long time, and then he announced, I heard about this, but I never believed it,' fainted on top of the display case and shattered the glass onto the document. Can you imagine if it had been the original?"

Now: most documents do not have the power to make people faint dead away. But in context, and in the aggregate, documents are powerful pieces of evidence. And access to them, in context and in full series--not isolated pieces pulled out and declassified or placed in glass cases on exhibit--is essential for understanding them.

Access and context are both serious problems for records of the Cold War period. Today I want to talk about four international documents--three agreements and one study--that have an impact on access to and understanding of records of the Cold War period. They are:

  1. The agreement among the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States on the disposition of the records of the USSR;
  2. The agreement of the European Summit on Archives to create a central access Website for the automated descriptions of the archives of Europe;
  3. The Council of Europe's "Draft Recommendation for a Standard European Policy on Access to Archives", and
  4. The UNESCO report with recommendations on handling the archives of the security services of former repressive regimes.

1. The CIS Agreement

When states break up, someone must decide what to do with the central archives of the former state. This is true of the USSR, of Yugoslavia, of Czechoslovakia. Various conventions and proposals have been developed to handle the problem of the disposition of archives, none of them completely successful. In 1997, a United Nations convention on state succession in respect of State property, archives, and debts was proposed, but has never come into force. Note 1

The countries forming the Commonwealth of Independent States, then, determined in 1993 to make an agreement with respect to the state archives. Note 2 In the main, it holds that records remain in the geographic area where they were created. For example, All-Union records created and maintained in Moscow but relating to Armenia should remain in Moscow, records created in Kazakstan regarding the management of the Virgin Lands program would remain in Kazakstan. The parties did "reserve the right of restitution of those fonds [in U.S., record groups] which were created on their territory, but later happened to be outside their territory." All parties are to provide archival access to other parties to this convention for bodies of records that cannot be divided among two (or more) member states, to exchange copies of records important to two or more parties, and "to provide the most favorable working conditions" to each other. Note 3

Assuming this agreement holds, it gives the researcher a key to understanding where records are and who controls them.

There seem to be problems with this agreement, however. Vladimir A. Tiuneev, a senior official of the Russian State Archives, describing the agreement at the European Archives Summit in May 1998, acknowledged "serious difficulty" in implementing the legal succession of contracting parties. He said the agreement has not been ratified by Parliament but claimed that it does not have to be. "From a legalistic point of view, the lawful succession is in hand," he argued, and with respect to access to the archives, "Laws going back to 1993 guarantee access to natural and legal persons and to foreigners." The "real question," he said, is financial: "The cross-border archives question isn't the most important for the CIS--the most important is simply to keep archives alive."

Archivists in other neighboring states, particularly the Baltics, do not agree completely with this assessment of the "real question." They report three broad problems: the scope of the records covered by the agreement, the immediate pre-independence removals of records from regions into the Russian heartland; and the difficulty in gaining access to information.

The reach of the State Archives in the Russian tradition is circumscribed. During the USSR period, the Main Archives Administration guarded all the documentary heritage of the State (in the sense of controlling the State Archival Fond), but the Archives itself did not hold major portions of the All-Union level records. The Defense and Foreign Ministries had and have their own archives, the space administration theirs, the security services theirs, and so forth. The Communist Party had its own archives, but those are now under the control of the Federal Archival Service of Russia, as is true in most--but not all--of the other countries formed from the old USSR. The point is that because the Agreement provides no definition of the term "State Archives," it is unclear precisely what archives it is intended to cover.

This is particularly an issue with regard to the records of the KGB. The non-Russian states argue that the KGB both destroyed and removed records from approximately 1987-88 to the time of the dissolution of the USSR. They, therefore, believe that where the records currently reside is less important than where they were created. Ainars Bambals, a senior archivist in the Latvian National Archives, told me that on January 11, 1991, an order went from the KGB in Moscow to their offices in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to ship records to Russia more quickly and, for those that could not be shipped, to destroy them. He says that from January to August 1991 major files were shipped to three KGB locations in Russia; for example, the file on the last president of independent Latvia was once in the KGB offices in Riga but is there no longer. Now the files on the Latvian statesmen and political leaders are in the KGB archives and are considered "national property" of Russia, says Bambals. Romuald J. Misiunas, who wrote a study of the KGB records in Lithuania, agrees: he reports that KGB records were both sent to Moscow and burned in Vilnius." the stoves were absolutely clogged with ashes." Note 4

The Archives of Lithuania reports that 14,000 KGB files were destroyed and 5000 files were transferred to Russia. And the problem is not limited to the Baltics; in Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, and Mongolia, to name just three, there are also persistent reports of destruction and removals, both official and unofficial. Until the Russian Government acknowledges the removals and provides information about the current location of the records, the issue will continue to simmer.

Nor is it easy for official researchers to gain access to records relating to their own country or people. For example, according to the head of the National Archives of Latvia, during the past seven years "we have sent 400 inquiries [on human rights and fates] to Russia without a single answer."

The archivists of the Russian Federation are aware of the problems. Tiuneev, in the same speech, noted that there is a great need for a code of ethics in archives because of the "shelf lacunae"--an elegant euphemism for missing documents. But because virtually all the CIS State Archives lack money to pay for making copies of documents for each other (a special burden for the Russian State Archives) and because the Russian State Archives has little if any influence over the separate archives in the "power ministries," it is unlikely that the State Archives alone can solve the problems with the current agreement.

2. Agreement on the European Archival Network

At the European Summit in May, the countries present agreed to create a central point for access to all archives in Europe. Hosted by the Swiss government, the European Archives Network will be a Website map of Europe. Note 5 By clicking on the icon of a country, the user will be sent to the homepage of the national archives or, for countries in which the archives are decentralized, a list of archives on which the researcher can click . Each national Archives will include on its homepage a link back to the European Archival Network and will offer, in English, basic information about the institution.

The European archives made a further agreement, and this is perhaps the most important to the future researcher of the Cold War period. All the archives agreed that the description of the archives would comply with the International Standard for Archival Description (General), which describes both the records and the bureaucratic hierarchy that created the records, thereby placing them in context. The archives further agreed that in each institution the first description to be placed on the Internet will be the systematic guide, then the inventories of the record groups, and finally series of documents from the archives.

The promise is that one day the researcher can click to the European Archival Network, and with no further knowledge or addresses get to every European archives and search the descriptions of their archives. The researcher would not have to know each nation's peculiar style of archival description because they would all encompass the same basic information. And the researcher would be able to have an overview of the holdings, not a peephole into one small part. Because most archives in Central and Eastern Europe have not yet automated the description of their holdings, this agreement means that they will from the beginning work to make their descriptions compliant with the international standards. With agreement on ISAD(G), we should eliminate the individual document or the individual file suddenly appearing without any sense of the organization that created it, under what authority, and for what purpose.

3. Agreement on Access to Archives

In 1997 the Council of Europe convened a small group of archivists to develop a standard European policy on access to archives. Although many discussions on access had occurred throughout the Cold War, none of these led to concrete action. Now, in the post-Cold War atmosphere, the working group swiftly developed a remarkable document, "Outline of a Standard European Policy on Access to Archives." This Outline has subsequently been endorsed as policy by the International Conference of the Round Table on Archives (1997) and by the European Summit on Archives (1998). Note 6 It is now on the agenda for discussion and possible adoption in the spring of 1999 by the Council of Europe. In November 1998 a conference will be held for all the nations of South-eastern Europe, in which the policy will be discussed with lawyers, historians, archivists, and persons representing the national foreign policy establishments of each of the dozen countries, to try to ensure that each nation understands the policy before being asked to vote on it in the Council of Europe.

In twelve major recommendations, the Standard European Policy first outlines definitions (Recommendation 1), then endorses setting up standard laws and regulations on access (Recommendations 2-4), establishes arrangements for access to official archives (Recommendations 5-11), and recommends policy on access to private archives (Recommendation 12).

For the researcher of the Cold War period, four recommendations are especially important:
  1. ....similar rights should be accorded to nationals and to foreigners, to university researchers and to general readers. The law must not make any distinction between them.
  2. Access to records and to finding aids in public Archives should be free of charge.
  3. Finding aids should cover the whole of the records which they describe, and make reference to those which may have been withheld.
  4. The law should allow for the possibility of seeking from the competent authority special permission for access to documents that are not freely available. Special permissions for access should be granted on the same conditions to all readers who request them.

If the Council of Europe adopts this policy, what is its likely impact? In the most positive sense, the policy provides leverage for researchers and archivists to open archives, for archivists to insist to their governments that research by foreign researchers is to be granted on equal terms, and for governments to abandon the system of bilateral agreements that have resulted in blatantly unequal treatment of users. (For example, in the current access regime prevalent in Eastern Europe, if Bulgaria and Croatia have a bilateral agreement, then researchers from each country--often from the archives themselves--get exactly the same types of files in both countries and not a file more. The Council of Europe policy says that the Bulgarian user in the Croatian archives will get whatever a Croatian user gets in the Croatian archives.) However, the policy is one without enforcement strategies: a nation that wants to bar researchers can still do it, and if it cannot be shamed into adhering to the policy, there is not much a user can do. Yet it could be a very major step forward.

4. UNESCO study and recommendations on archives of security services

At the International Conference of the Round Table on Archives in Mexico City in 1993, the world archival community resolved to "identify the various aspects of the management of security and intelligence archives and to report the status of their examination" to the archival community. Note 7 As a result, the International Council on Archives received a contract from UNESCO to develop recommendations on the handling of the records of the security services of former repressive regimes. Led by Antonio Gonzalez Quintana of Spain and including representatives of both Russia and the United States, the working group's recommendations were published in January 1998. Note 8 Among the recommendations are

  • that records of security services should be retained in their entirety,
  • that the integrity of the records must be respected,
  • that the victims of security service actions be permitted to review the files on themselves,
  • that "personal files of victims of repression should be closed to public access for a legally established period, except with the Special permission of the individuals concerned or their heirs,"
  • and that historical research be permitted so long as it takes "into account the need to protect the victims of repression" and third parties mentioned in the documents.

These recommendations are significant for future researchers of the Cold War . Because the security services of both the USSR and the United States played key roles in the war, the recommendation that the records be preserved in toto would mean the retention of huge quantities of both relevant and trivial records. Personally, I believe that this recommendation is too sweeping, because I believe that any agency of government creates records that are totally trivial--from receipts for buying coffee for the office to documents saying that the Red Cross blood drive is occurring next Tuesday. Nevertheless, as a human rights activist from Estonia remarked, in transition countries "we would not like to play God" [that is, destroy records] because what seems junk today may not be junk tomorrow.

The UNESCO report has nearly the same positives and negatives as the Council of Europe access recommendations: both are nonbinding recommendations, both are the products of very fine, world-class minds looking at specific problems. All countries would be well-advised to review the recommendations carefully, and the International Conference of the Round Table on Archives recommended that the International Council on Archives "assist countries where implementation of the recommendations of this report encounter difficulties, and more specifically those related to access to information." Note 9

Would the UNESCO report hamper historical research into the Cold War? Not necessarily. What it would do is to bring the case files on individuals under the control of those persons; if the persons wanted them opened (and I know persons in Germany and Hungary and Russia who want their files open for review) they would be available. Administrative records of the security services would be retained, not destroyed, and the country would be required to at least acknowledge the existence of the materials. All of this is an advance on the current situation with regard to access.


Research in primary sources on the Cold War is only beginning. All of those involved--archivists, researchers, publishers, readers--need to be aware of the problems of partial access and documents out of context. We all need to work toward universally available descriptions of existing records, equal access policies for all researchers, and records opened in context and in understandable series.

This may not mean that Cold War researchers will find the document that drives old men to faint into exhibit cases, but it does mean that we will have intelligible documents, placed in context, for all to assess. That is all an archives, anywhere, can do.

End Notes:

  1. See the Council of Europe's Reference Dossier on Archival Claims, Strasbourg, January 1997, reprinted in Proceedings, Thirty-First International Conference of the Round Table on Archives, pp. 208-268. [Back]

  2. The states of the former Yugoslavia, despite years of intermittent negotiations, have never agreed on the disposition of the archives. [Back]

  3. "Agreement on Successors Rights and Responsibilities regarding the State Archives of the former Soviet Union," translated by Natasha Zanegina, 1998, Because the three Baltic states are not members of the Commonwealth of Independent States they are not signatories; bilateral agreements have been signed between Latvia and Russia and Lithuania and Russia, but they have not been made public. [Back]

  4. Romuald J. Misiunas, "The Archives of the Lithuanian KGB," Bundesinstituts fur ostwissenshaftliche and internationale Studien, 1994. [Back]

  5. The Website is [Back]

  6. "Draft Recommendation for a Standard European Policy on Access to Archives," Council of Europe, Strasbourg, May 1997; Resolutions of the Thirty-Second International Conference of the Round Table on Archives. ICA Bulletin. No. 48 (1998-1). p.15. [Back]

  7. Proceedings of the Twenty-Ninth International Conference of the Round Table on Archives, p. 48. The question of access to the records of the security services has bedevilled every country of Central and Eastern Europe since 1989. [Back]

  8. "Archives of the Security Services of Former Repressive Regimes: Report Prepared for UNESCO," http// [Back]

  9. Resolutions of the Thirty-Second International Conference of the Round Table on Archives, ICA Bulletin, No. 48 (1998-1), p.16. [Back]