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"What Kind of Past Should the Future Have?" The Development of the Soviet Archival System, 1917-1931


This study investigates how the Bolsheviks built a usable past through the preservation, creation, and use of archival material. Soon after coming to power in the Russian Revolution of October 1917, the Bolsheviks created the most centralized and far reaching archival administration in the world. As the Bolsheviks turned increasingly to history as a source of legitimacy after the civil war, they used the evidence represented in archival documents to construct a narrative that would demonstrate this legitimacy. The Bolsheviks created this narrative using the documentary legacy they inherited from the Tsarist and Provisional Governments, and by founding new archival collections to be used to place the revolution into the preferred historical narrative. The party employed archivists in every aspect of this effort, and archival traditions of collecting, arranging, and describing were supplemented by new practices, such as creating exhibits, popular publications, and lectures, which emphasized an active public role for archivists.

The limitations of resources during the early Soviet period had wide implications for the development of the archival system and the Bolshevik historical narrative. The lack of an educated workforce led Bolsheviks to rely heavily on pre-revolutionary professionals to create and enact reforms, staff their archival institutions, and participate in the public aspects of archival work (publishing and exhibiting documents). Archivists suffered from a lack of financial resources, which impeded their ability to properly carry out archival work. As a result, archival institutions repeatedly produced historical narratives that disappointed Bolshevik leaders and the party rescinded the early concessions to resource scarcity in developing the archival system (i.e., employing specialists, relative autonomy for institutions in the provinces) and enforced greater centralization, classification, and control over archival materials. By 1931 the Bolsheviks placed more fear than hope in the development of a multi-voiced historical record and narrative. The result was a significantly decreased focus on, or access to, archival materials for historical scholarship, and the consolidation of stricter, more centralized management which came to characterize Soviet archival administration.

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