Soviet Archives after 1991

Organisation, Access, and Declassification

== Theodore Karasik ==

National Defense Research Institute (RAND Corporation)

[Published 1993]


The post-Soviet archives examined in this monograph are organized into six separate groups:

  • (1) the Russian state archival system;
  • (2) the Russian foreign ministry archives;
  • (3) the Russian Presidential Archive;
  • (4) the Committee for State Security (KGB) archives;
  • (5) the Chief Intelligence Directorate (GRU) archive; and
  • (6) Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) military archives.


The Russian state archive is managed by the Russian government’s Committee on Archival Affairs (Roskomarkhiv). Rudolf Germanovich Pikhoia, a historian of pre-revolutionary Russia from Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s home base of Yekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk), is Roskomarkhiv’s chairman.

Pikhoia has been instrumental in allowing Western access to the unclassified portions of the archives under his jurisdiction, having negotiated a March 1992 contract signed between the Hoover Institution on War, Peace, and Revolution and the Russian Committee on Archival Affairs. However, this contract only accounts for about 25 percent of the total files. The remaining 75 percent are still classified; thus, most materials have not been released to researchers. Pikhoia has hedged on allowing declassification of the remaining files until legislation on state secrets is passed by the Russian parliament, which may occur in late 1992 or early 1993.

Roskomarkhiv manages three Communist Party archive holdings.

  • First, the CENTER FOR THE PRESERVATION OF CONTEMPORARY DOCUMENTS houses CPSU Central Committee materials dating from October 1952 through August 1991, as well as some earlier holdings transferred from the KGB because of their sensitivity or usefulness to party and state officials during the Soviet period. According to reports and interviews, the materials are divided into three archive holdings: the Archives of Leading Cadres, the Current Archives of the CPSU, and the Archives of Leading Organs. These records contain files on the internal workings of the CPSU and its ties to other communist parties throughout the world, papers of the Central Committee Secretariat, and documents from the Central Committee departments.
  • Second, the RUSSIAN CENTER FOR THE CONSERVATION AND STUDY OF THE RECORDS OF MODERN HISTORY includes three major holdings: the Social History of Europe Department, the Department of Documents of the Political History of Russia, and the Department of International Labor and Communist Organizations and Movements. Many materials, however, have references to special dossiers [Osobaia Papka] that indicate they were transferred to the post-1952 archives, apparently for security reasons.
  • Third, the KREMLIN ARCHIVE is the least known of the former Soviet archives containing CPSU holdings. Much information on this record group is second-hand, since access is restricted to a few individuals. Located at two different sites within and near the Kremlin, the Kremlin Archive is also known as the Presidential Archive. It was under the direct control of former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev until his retirement in December 1991. Three sections are known: the Special Files, records from the General Department under the Office of the USSR President, and Stalin’s personal papers.
  • Finally, Roskomarkhiv also supervises the recently formed RUSSIAN STATE ARCHIVES. Created in May 1992, this holding contains materials related to Russian governmental organs from the early 19th century to the present. Specific materials include documents of the Russian Federation, including the RSFSR  Supreme Soviet, RSFSR Council of Ministers, and possibly the KGB organs found in RSFSR oblasts (provinces), krais (an administrative division based on geography or ethnic group), and raions (counties). Files on the GULAG prison system might be stored here as well.




The Russian Presidential Archive, created in December 1991 following the abolishment of the Soviet Union, is stored in the Kremlin. This holding comprises the records of the Russian presidential apparatus in addition to files concerning Yeltsin’s career as a Communist Party official and as Russian president.

According to Russian archive officials, the Russian Presidential Archive was created to separate Yeltsin’s files from the rest of documents of the Russian Federation, including the RSFSR Supreme Soviet, RSFSR Council of Ministers, and possibly the KGB organs found in RSFSR oblasts (Regions), Krais (an administrative division based on geography or ethnic group), and raions (districts).

Files on the GULAG prison system might be stored here as well.


The archives of the KGB, which consist of three holdings—the [1] KGB Central Archive, the [2] First Chief Directorate [foreign intelligence] Archive, and [3] the Department 15 Archive—encompass a rather large network of all-union, republican, and regional files.

Pikhoia is attempting to place these files under Roskomarkhiv but has had limited success. The successors to the KGB—the Ministry of Security [FSK] and the Foreign Intelligence Service [SVR]—refuse to release materials. Russian President Boris Yeltsin is unable to force the intelligence agencies to open their archives because of intransigence among the archive directors. There appears to be no central state organ or legislation to supervise the KGB archives.

The KGB Central Archive, spanning from 1917 to the present, is organized chronologically by the former security organs of the Soviet state—VChkP (Cheka, 1917-1922), GPU (State Political Administration, 1922-1923), OGPU (Unified State Political Administration, 1923-1934), NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, 1934-1946), MGB (Ministry of State Security, 1946-1953), and the KGB (Committee for State Security, 1953-1991). These are subdivided by main directorates and departments.

Other KGB archives exist separately from the KGB Central Archive and lie outside of its control. The archives of the First Chief Directorate were always kept separate from the KGB Central Archives. The files of this directorate have been transferred to the Foreign Intelligence Agency, which is directed by Evgenii Primakov. It is not known exactly how they are organized.

Finally, the KGB’s Department 15 has a special set of archives. This holding encompasses materials related to KGB responsibility for state security and control in emergency situations, such as nuclear war. The location of this archive is unknown.


is similar in structure to the KGB Central Archives.

The GRU holdings consist of materials from six directorates responsible for various geographical areas. Each directorate kept notes on different aspects of intelligence-gathering operations, such as reconnaissance, electronic intelligence, information gathering, personnel records, correspondence, reporters, special operations, and money transfers.

These were kept in chronological order and are completely separate from the Russian Committee on Archival Affairs. The lack of subject indexes for these records presents a considerable research obstacle.




The post-Soviet archives present substantial problems for the Western scholar and analyst:

  • Declassification will remain a key obstacle to any quick access to records in the post-Soviet archives found under the supervision of the Russian Committee on Archival Affairs. Little movement can be expected on declassification from the defense and former KGB lobbies, since they seek to protect their interests. The Russian government has accommodated these groups by placing further limits on access to materials from the Soviet period.
  • Roskomarkhiv only supervises the archives under its jurisdiction—yet the Russian Foreign Ministry archives, the Russian State Archives, the KGB archives, the GRU archives, and the CIS military archives remain autonomous. Even Yeltsin himself cannot order the release of documents outside of Roskomarkhiv, which complicates how the Russian government will handle archival affairs in the future.
  • Throughout the former Soviet archival system, managers and archivists complain bitterly about the lack of funds and manpower needed to peel away years of secrecy. One manager stated that, based on current funding levels, it will take a decade before any materials can be released. Other managers claim that disaster is imminent in the archives, as documents decay or are used as political weapons to embarrass the Soviet regime.

To correct their fiscal troubles, many archives have turned to Western funding sources. Roskomarkhiv officials are prepared to consult and collaborate with Westerners. Opportunities for Western work in the post-Soviet archives are attractive for historians and policy analysts alike. But Westerners should be aware that the archives lack in-depth indexing systems.

U.S. archivists and other specialists could be of great assistance in preserving and broadening access to the post-Soviet archives. These professionals could recommend which holdings should have the highest priority for preservation and could develop reference tools to help locate files. Overall, an unprecedented opportunity awaits for archivists and analysts to help solve many of the mysteries surrounding Soviet decision-making since 1917.

See also the Status of the Bukovsky Archive