Cracking the Kremlin Files

Saturday, October 30, 1999

It’s a typically cold, gray afternoon in Moscow—February 25, 1992—two months to the day after Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev signaled the formal end of the Soviet Union by stepping down. Now, shortly before 3 p.m., some four hundred reporters and TV cameramen are assembling in the ornate, columned meeting room of the former Soviet Communist Party headquarters. They wait under the gaze of imposing portraits of Marx and Lenin that still preside over the hall.

Today’s press conference will answer an important question about the new regime of Russian president Boris Yeltsin. To what extent, if at all, will his government open access to the tightly guarded and highly restricted archives of the Soviet state and Communist Party? Will seventy-five years’ worth of secret records be laid bare for public inspection for the first time?

Onto the stage strides Rudolph G. Pikhoia, a husky, blunt-spoken forty-six-year-old historian who has recently been appointed chairman of the State Archival Service of Russia (now Rosarkhiv). Pikhoia, who is from Yeltsin’s hometown of Sverdlovsk in the Urals, is one of the trusted lieutenants Yeltsin has brought to prominence as he looks to expand his power base in Moscow.

Stepping briskly to the microphone, Pikhoia promptly announces that the hall in which they are gathered will henceforth be open to any Russian or foreign citizen. The same policy, he says, will apply to state and party archives across the country. Even more stunning, Pikhoia hints that the top-secret Politburo records and the personal papers of Soviet leaders from Lenin to Gorbachev might soon be made available.

Sitting at the back of the room this afternoon, largely unnoticed, is Charles G. Palm, deputy director of the Hoover Institution. Since it began collecting Soviet material in 1921, the institution has amassed the world’s most extensive collection of documents outside of Russia on the Bolshevik revolution and its seventy-four-year aftermath.

The bookish and sandy-haired Palm has come to Moscow to nail down nothing short of the documentary deal of the century: a contract with Russian authorities to bring home microfilms of some 25 million pages from the formerly top-secret Soviet archives. Palm’s story offers a window on both the Hoover Institution and the roller-coaster ride of Russian politics in the 1990s. To launch the project in 1992, Palm soothed bureaucrats, outmaneuvered rival libraries, and battled Rus-sian critics who felt the deal was a sellout of their painful history to the highest bidder. Last year the cooperative agreement got a new boost when the deal was restructured, adding millions of documents that tell the story of the infamous Gulags.

For Charles Palm, the idea of microfilming Soviet history began in the spring of 1991, nine months before that Moscow press conference. In May, he had learned that Pikhoia, recently appointed by Yeltsin to head the archives of the Russian Republic, was visiting the East Coast. “Yeltsin symbolized democratic reform,” Palm says. “When I heard he had a new archivist, I became interested.”

Palm invited Pikhoia to make a side trip to Palo Alto, where the two archivists struck up a good personal relationship. Just three months later, after Yeltsin had leapt atop a tank and helped foil the attempted coup against Gorbachev, Yeltsin put Pikhoia in charge of the entire Soviet archives. The timing was perfect, and Palm was ready to move. In September, he sent Hoover deputy curator Joe Dwyer to Moscow, and in November he made the trip himself. During that visit, Pikhoia gave Palm a tour of his staggering collection of secret party documents. After walking past security guards and a maze of concrete walls, the two men entered huge vaults revealing row upon row of steel safes holding carefully bound manuscripts. “After years of collecting material at the margins of Soviet authority,” says Palm, “this was a moment to savor. I was really in the bowels of the beast.”


Palm went to Moscow to nail down nothing short of the documentary deal of the century—a contract with Russian authorities to bring home microfilms of some 25 million pages from the formerly top-secret Soviet archives.


Swallowing hard, Palm proposed to Pikhoia that they attempt something truly historic. Why not allow Hoover to microfilm large parts of your collections? he suggested, and we’ll give copies back to you. He sweetened the deal with the promise of royalties, cash that would be generated by selling copies of the microfilm to select libraries around the world.

Pikhoia was listening. He and Yeltsin had a political interest in disseminating material potentially damaging to the old Communist Party. But Pikhoia had pressing practical needs, too. With few resources to draw on, his archives were groaning under the burden of huge new collections being transferred from defunct government ministries. Key documents were deteriorating and in need of microfilm preservation. As the Guardian of London observed, Rosarkhiv “can’t simply turn off the light, close the door and let their archives be eaten by Moscow’s burgeoning rat population. . . . But they cannot pay to keep the light on either.”

Pikhoia was also worried that the juiciest parts of his collection might be sold off piecemeal to a school of potentially interested sharks already circling Moscow. Palm was offering a lifeboat that promised to rescue the entire archive. Better, Pikhoia thought, to do one or two comprehensive deals with reputable, if formerly adversarial, institutions such as Hoover.

Rudolph G. Pikhoia and Charles G. Palm.
(Photo: Glenn Matsumura.)

Palm followed up his November visit by inviting Pikhoia to the next meeting of the Hoover Board of Overseers, planned for Jan-uary 1992 in Washington, D.C. The proposal Pikhoia and Palm put forward at the Madison Hotel that January weekend was sweeping. The $2.5 million effort would amount to one of the largest foreign microfilming projects ever undertaken by an American research institution. Some 25,000 reels of microfilm would be used to record roughly 25 million pages of documents housed in three major archives—the former Russian and Soviet government repository (called GARF) and two Communist Party archives. Excluded, at least at the outset, would be huge and potentially damning collections not then under Pikhoia’s direct control, such as those of the secret police (KGB), the party’s international department (Comintern), and the ministries of defense and foreign relations—plus the highly sensitive Politburo records and personal papers of party leaders, which were still housed in the Kremlin.

At $28 per reel, Hoover would pay all the expenses of the Russians doing the filming and would send $250,000 worth of equipment and supplies to be given to the Russians when the project was finished. The British publishing firm Chadwyck-Healey would process the microfilm and market selected series of reels to interested institutions outside Russia. Hoover would receive a 15 percent royalty, and the individual Russian archives, 27 percent on any such sales. The real end product, though, was to be two sets of microfilm to be housed in the United States (at Hoover and at the Library of Congress) and two full sets returned to the Russians.

The day before the Washington board meeting, Palm had one more deal to make. He cornered Hoover overseer Herbert “Pete” Hoover III and told him that there was a chance to do a major archival project in Russia—but that it would be expensive. “That really hit my hot button,” Hoover recalls now. “The foundation of the Hoover Institution is in its archives. Collecting significant new material must continue as a high priority.”

Pete Hoover’s appreciation for this archival legacy is understandable. His grandfather started the Hoover collection in 1921 when he was head of the American Relief Administration in Europe. Lenin admitted about 250 American relief workers to help the country recover in the aftermath of the bloody revolution. To this group, Herbert Hoover attached a small cadre of Stanford historians who brought back about 25,000 books and more than 60,000 pamphlets, newspapers, and journals to start the collection.

His interest piqued by Palm, Pete Hoover approached fellow overseer Richard Scaife. By the time that Palm and Pikhoia made their formal presentation to the overseers the next day, Hoover and Scaife had privately agreed to provide the $1 million needed to get the project going. “Our quick financial commitment really impressed the Russians,” Hoover says. “I think it gave us a leg up.”

At the time of the Moscow press conference in February, the deal still had not been nailed down. As Palm listened to Pikhoia take questions from reporters under the somber gaze of Marx and Lenin, he knew that Hoover had competition. A consortium led by the Library of Congress had made an offer, and Pikhoia also was talking to some European institutions.

But Palm had yet another card to play. After the press conference, he retired to Pikhoia’s office to continue the bargaining. He emphasized a part of the Hoover package that the competitors could not match: on a reel-for-reel basis, Hoover would make available to the Russians microfilms of Hoover’s own unique collection of documents from the late tsarist and early Soviet periods. Russian scholars had never seen most of this valuable material.

That clinched it. By early March, Pikhoia had made his decision and was ready to announce the agreement. Under the formal deal signed April 17, 1992, Pikhoia would chair a six-person editorial board that would make the difficult choices about which documents to film first. Priority would go to records of the highest policy-making bodies. To ensure objectivity, the blocks of files chosen were to be filmed in their entirety, with no attempt to select the most sensational or incriminating papers.

For Pikhoia, opening the archives and laying bare a previously secret past meant more than public relations, partisan advantage, or much-needed revenue—it would alter the nature of history itself. “We are unraveling the totalitarian attempt to abolish history,” he told the Washington Times not long after announcing the agreement with Hoover. “The great power of a totalitarian system is that it doesn’t just control armies and parties, it tries to control information and access to the past.”

But news of the Hoover deal with Rosarkhiv touched a raw nerve with many Russians. Although Palm had expected opposition from a few old-line Communists, he was not prepared for the degree of sensitivity in Moscow. “I thought of it as a very good deal for the Russians as well as ourselves,” he says. “The suspicion of foreigners was much stronger than I had anticipated.”

One Isvestia article accused Pikhoia of having been “seduced by the attention from famous historians who saw him as the chief liberator of the archival dungeons.” Another Russian critic called the deal a “sellout to the victorious Americans.” Even though Hoover planned to film only a small portion of the total Soviet archives, prominent prodemocracy academic Ivrii Afanasiev projected that the deal would “move the center for the study of Russian history to the U.S.A.” Afanasiev coined the phrase “archival beriozka,” a term that conjures up the old foreign-currency stores where only the elite could buy luxury goods. “If we’re going to sell off our heritage to the highest bidder,” he charged, “let’s do it at Sotheby’s or Christie’s and get some real money!”

But the outcry over the 1992 announcement eventually died down, and by November 1992, Rosarkhiv and Hoover were working well together. A joint exhibition documenting the early years of Russian-American economic relations (including some of Herbert Hoover’s mining ventures) opened in the main hall of the Russian Parliament Building. When that exhibition traveled to Stanford in 1993, Hoover distinguished fellow George Shultz and Hoover director John Raisian used the occasion to make good on what was, for the Russians, a critical part of the deal—Stanford transferring the first 4,800 reels of Hoover microfilms to Rosarkhiv. Even one of Isvestia’s harshest critics of the microfilming project had to admit that “the information sent to us by Hoover fits right into the empty spaces in many categories of our history.”

Despite the sweeping acquisition of millions of previously secret Soviet documents, Hoover did not expect a treasure trove of papers proving murder and abuse. Instead, the files would be the kind of plodding, bureaucratic paperwork that, when studied in depth, would yield subtle insights about the workings of a totalitarian state. But shortly after filming began in 1993, Pikhoia decided to add what is probably the most revealing—and damning—collection of Soviet documents to have emerged since the collapse of the USSR: the infamous “Fond 89.” After the August 1991 coup attempt, Yeltsin suspended the Communist Party of the old USSR and seized its assets and archives. A year later, he went a step further and attempted to outlaw the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, declaring it a criminal entity—just as postwar Germany had done to the Nazi Party. The Communists challenged this decision in Russia’s Constitutional Court.

To support Yeltsin’s case, his minions scoured the top-secret Kremlin archives, as well as those under Pikhoia’s control, to find the most incriminating documentation of Soviet atrocities—a collection that ultimately amounted to some 20,000 pages. Yeltsin needed to show that the Communist Party was not a political party but, rather, a statelike organization that had abused the nation’s power and financial resources. In the process, the argument ran, the Communists had committed massive human rights violations and diverted badly needed domestic funds to support the communist movement abroad.

But the resulting “Communist Party trials” of 1993 petered out when the Rus-sian courts ruled that the party could reconstitute itself if it followed rules laid out in the new, democratic constitution. Still, the accumulated collection in Fond 89 remains tempting to those seeking to document the extent of Soviet atrocities.

Norman Naimark, Stanford’s McDonnell Professor of Eastern European Studies, has reviewed the Fond 89 microfilms extensively. “Sometimes,” he says, “there are single documents that tell whole stories: Stalin orders the execution of Soviet generals; Beria suggests the death sentence for thousands of captured Polish officers; the Soviet Politburo requests the transfer of ‘Western’—meaning American—weapons from Vietnam to Cuba. Even if one knows that such things happened, it is very impressive indeed to read the actual documents.” But the Fond 89 papers are seriously limited, Naimark says. Because they were harvested for their shock value, the collection amounts to a “hodgepodge—a fascinating hodgepodge to be sure—which cannot, on its own, do much to solve serious historical research problems.”

With all of Fond 89 in hand and about 7.5 million documents—30 percent of the total—microfilmed, the political winds in Moscow began to change drastically. By late 1995, Pikhoia’s aggressive style had begun to grate on underlings used to running their own archives. At the same time, Yeltsin’s reform policies were losing steam. In December 1995, the Communists won a plurality in the Duma (the lower house of Parliament) and proceeded to pass a law restricting declassification and international access to the remaining unfilmed archives. Yeltsin moved closer to moderate Communists to improve his prospects in the upcoming presidential election. In late December, a restive Rosarkhiv board used these developments to demand that Pikhoia terminate the agreement with Hoover. In January 1996, Pikhoia complied—and then resigned his post in protest.

Palm immediately flew to Moscow. He quickly saw that he should not contest the move on legal grounds. He would instead be cooperative and understanding, preserving as many positive personal relationships as possible. “As much as we felt the project to be in their interests, they had to agree if we were to make it work,” he says. “I was convinced that we could salvage something from the current situation and set the stage for renewed cooperation when the climate changed again.”

Palm’s conciliatory approach kept alive the contacts that have resulted in the current revived and restructured arrangement with individual archives. First, filming continued under the old contract for another six months while talks on the status of the deal continued. By July 1996, about 6,400 reels had been produced at a cost of $1.8 million. About half of the reels focused on activities of the Central Control Commission—responsible for membership, discipline and expulsions within the Communist Party—and the all-powerful NKVD, the secret police organization that preceded the KGB.

After the formal cancellation, Palm’s first move was to conclude a quiet letter of agreement with the state archives, which had been the most cooperative partner during the initial project. This allowed the filming of some 2.5 million additional NKVD documents over the next two years. “Contrary to some of my colleagues,” state archives director Sergei Mironenko said in an interview last winter, “I was always a supporter of the Hoover project and saw no reason I couldn’t continue with them on an independent basis.” The real payoff, though, came last spring when Palm signed new agreements with three Russian entities, the biggest of which is with Mironenko’s State Archives. Under this agreement, about 1.5 million pages related to the infamous Gulags—the forced labor camps to which the Soviets consigned millions of “enemies of the state” from the 1930s through the 1960s—have been microfilmed.

Russian scholars have lined up to praise the new arrangement, which is about to yield tangible results. An editorial board of Russian and American scholars will produce—in Russian only—an annotated six-volume publication of selected Gulag documents elucidating the nature of the punitive system, the mass repressions extending into the 1950s, the economics of the forced labor camps, everyday life in the camps, and attempts at insurrection. With Afanasiev, the Russian critic who originally coined the phrase “archival beriozka,” now sitting on the editorial board overseeing the new project, it seems likely that the relationship established by Charles Palm in 1991 is destined for a long and productive life.